The Importance Of Loving Attention In Intimate Relationships
I like to take you along in a reflection on the function of attention and its influence on the quality of our partner relationships. As you read, you will see that theory and practice apply to all our relationships, social and work, but in particular to our intimate relationships. A while ago I wrote:
“The basic ingredient of any effective therapy, coaching, and spiritual practice is attention. Without attention, we can not separate ourselves from the intrusive identification with our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Without attention, we literally lack overview and insight.”
Certainly, in our relationships, attention, and more specifically the lack of it, plays an essential role in its sustainability and quality. Let’s start our research on why that is so with something we always do and what is relatively easy to observe: our behavior.
Attention for Behavior
We act every moment of the day, it is inevitable. The behavior here is all that we can perceive sensually from ourselves: thoughts, images, feelings, emotions, and actions such as movement, speaking, intonation, word choice, et cetera. The other person can also observe our behavior depending on how well their attention has been trained. The essence of attention for behavior is in this slogan:
“All behavior is functional, and a lot of behavior has become counter-productive.”
The first part means that in the past, we developed behavior to satisfy our needs in a specific interaction between ourselves and our environment. We developed the foundation of our behavior as a child in an exceptional dependency relationship with our environment. If, for example, we take receiving appreciation and recognition as the goal, then that is a functional goal. After all, we are trying to get something that we actually need. This is also the starting point for our behavior as adults: it is functional in the sense that it serves to achieve a goal.
However, with an attentive observation of ourselves, we see that our behavior is not unequivocal because of the desire to satisfy our needs. In that old dependency, we also developed the fear that this satisfaction would not come — which of course also occurred regularly! From these experiences in our past, the reflex to try to prevent criticism and misunderstanding is easily activated. Our behavior is then a mixture of need satisfaction and fear. While behavior is productive for the satisfaction of our authentic need, the reflex of avoiding the opposite pole (fear) is counterproductive.
The wish to prevent criticism and lack of appreciation arises from the negative self-image that has arisen in us in the past. We took the non-satisfaction of our needs in the past personally and began to see ourselves as the cause (magical thinking). In an earlier blog I wrote in an experiment with reactivity:
“Reactive behavior arises immediately when an old and deep sensitivity is touched in us. You can recognize it by its emotionality, and because your reaction is to a greater or lesser extent out of proportion with the immediate inducement.”
Especially in intimate relationships, where our dependency plays an essential role, emotional reactivity often occurs, hence the often recurring arguments and quarrels. This is because the other person here is a very important person, someone who ‘has to’ satisfy our deepest longing for love, safety, and security. Of course, an important person can also be someone in a hierarchical relationship from who we are dependent for our needs. Reactivity always has a reason, and the trigger in the words and behavior of our important other (who is not the cause of our reactivity) has much more impact than that of less important others.
A practical help is the greater our (experienced) dependency, the greater the chance of reactivity. I write ‘experienced’ because what we experience is often not the intention of the other person, but we do respond from that experience to that other person. The belief of that supposed intention by the other usually only strengthens our reaction (see the ‘relational vicious circle’). The content of our reactivity is determined by where our old injuries lie. If my negative self-image is that ‘I am not good enough’ then every experienced confirmation will be a trigger for my emotionally driven reaction. In this case, behavior with which I try to prevent or at least avoid this unwanted confirmation of my negative self-image, ‘I’m not good enough.’
This is how we get to the second part of the slogan: “and a lot of behavior has become counterproductive.” Reactive behavior is always counterproductive to a greater or lesser extent. In other words, it delivers exactly what we try to prevent: here the experienced confirmation that ‘I am not good enough’.
Reactivity is counterproductive because of reactive behavior:
- is more or less out of proportion in the current situation
- is emotionally motivated from the past
- has a strong narcissistic charge (sorry, even with non-narcissists)
- confirms our negative belief about ourselves
- in the interaction with others exactly produces what we try to prevent (!)
- evokes reactive behavior in the other(s) (nothing is as contagious as emotions)
- turns the individual vicious circle into a relational.
Quality of Intimate Relationships
The most important skill we have to break this repetition of steps or a vicious circle is attention. Through trained attention, we can notice our emotional reactivity, cut through it and transcend it. An important function of attention in intimate relationships is the prevention and transcendence of counterproductive behavior. The reduction of counterproductive behavior increases the quality of the relationship proportionally. The tendency to want to change the other as the cause of your own experience and behavior slowly dies out. Which, incidentally, is not to say that this relationship is what you need in your life and development indefinitely.
You can see that even clearer if you realize — and you probably know from your own experience — that reactivity of one is the trigger for reactivity of the other (point 6). So the individual vicious circle becomes quite easily a relational vicious circle (point 7). Since it includes the interaction of at least two individual circles, it is by definition quite tough and complex. Many relationships die in my opinion because both are not willing or able to do the necessary work themselves. If one of them can and does, the quality will certainly improve, but it will not be sufficient to bear the resulting asymmetry.
It is necessary to break this relational vicious circle are certainly the following two ingredients:
- Everyone must take responsibility for their own reactivity, and see the other as the trigger, but not as the cause (the guilty) of their own pain and reaction.
- You must notice, confront, heal and dissolve your old injuries, your negative self-image, and the resulting reactivity. Do not expect the relationship or the other person to do that for you (he or she can not), nor that the relationship is the right place for that (it is not).
An exercise in giving and taking, and developing Loving Attention in Intimate Relationships. Tibetan Buddhism has a powerful compassion technique called Tonglen*. She especially helps in transcending our narcissistic tendency to not see the suffering of the other, but to see them as the cause of our own suffering! If you do not feel comfortable with certain wordings or phrases in the visualization below, feel free to adjust them as long as the spirit of the exercise is preserved. You can also adapt this practice to use it for yourself (visualize an A and B itself) and for certain groups or all world inhabitants!
- Let your mind come to rest. Become as spacious and open as heaven.
- Now visualize your intimate partner, of whom you know that he or she experiences suffering in a certain way, and of whom you naturally wish that he or she does not suffer.
- Imagine suffering as completely as possible. With each time you breathe in, you visualize that you are receiving the suffering of that person in the form of black smoke
- Imagine that your own hurt ego, your neurotic focus on yourself, is like a black ball at your heart.
- When you inhale the suffering of the person you care so much for, in the form of hot black smoke, the smoke hits the hardball of ego at your heart.
- When the smoke hits the ball, the ball explodes into a sea of light, destroying your self-nurturing ego and reveals your heart as a dazzling, wish-fulfilling jewel. Your true nature becomes visible.
- From your heart, you exhale love, joy, peace, and happiness, that comes from your true nature. You radiate this to the other person in the form of cool white light, replacing his or her suffering with love, joy, and happiness.
- With compassion, you take all the mental and physical suffering of that person upon you. With love, you give all your happiness and well-being, everything that he or she could wish or need.
- You breathe in his or her suffering and give back love for it. As you do this, your true nature will be revealed to you.
- Imagine all the suffering of your loved one and say or pray: “May I receive all his or her suffering, may I give all my happiness to him or her.”
The practice of Tonglen includes all of the six perfections which is also the practice of a Bodhisattva: giving, right behavior, insight, patience, joyful effort, concentration, wisdom.
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