The answer to this question is very complicated, but there are practices that can loosen the tension between people even when those tensions have been incarnated for a long time. The best practice I have found is the practice of beginner’s mind.
To adapt this wonderful notion to my work with couples, I created an assignment. Many therapists will ask a couple to have a date night. My variation is to ask the couple to go on a date but when doing so, to pretend that they had never before met. I tell the couple to go all the way with this. They are directed to ask their date what he or she does for a living and whether or not he or she wants children. As the date continues, the couple explores one another’s personal goals and frustrations. They do all this as they were method actors. They enter the feeling forms of people on a first date as if they have no history at all. One further point is that since I am not looking to stimulate or reawaken romantic feelings in this exercise, I ask that the date take place in the morning or middle of the day. I am teaching the couple to increase their clarity about who they are.
You might glean the purpose of this exercise as you imagine doing it with your own significant other or close friend. If you do the exercise sincerely, your tensions and habits can be exchanged for playfulness almost immediately. Your sense of inquiry and openness return. You drop your usual attitudes and really feel like you are getting to know someone new. In this case, you already know that you will like them. You have a big adventure ahead of you.
Now let’s return to the original question. Why do we get so tied up with our loved ones that speaking with them can be like walking on egg shells? What happened to the joyful beginner’s mind of our new acquaintance over weeks, months and perhaps years of relation? The answer is that we brought a set of requirements to bear on the relationship. Those requirements weren’t active when we first met, but they are palpably active now. The history of both our disappointments and satisfactions underlie each conversation. We can barely remember what these requirements are. Perhaps we have never articulated them and know them only by our feelings of dissatisfaction. The exercise of beginner’s mind breathes air into the tight space of entrenched patterns.
I use this loosening to my advantage to ask my couple to catch hold of the requirements that they originally brought to their relationship. This exploration takes us back to the question of what we want from each another. What happened? We begin a sort of psychological archeology. Forgotten are the accusatory tones, the hurt and habit. These are replaced by the curious, fumbling investigations of a modern day Columbo. We become children getting to know other children, or foreigners visiting an exotic new land.
Describing the trajectory of our unconscious requirements of our mate through the years is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say it can be found. We can trace it backwards from our little dissatisfactions or moments of happiness. My exercise simply allows people to loosen themselves from the tight grasp of those demands long enough to notice and catalogue them.
When we have identified the requirements we have of one another we can look them over carefully. We have two minds. One is the mind that lives in service to those previously unarticulated requirements. One is the mind that simply notices those requirements. The second, born of beginner’s mind, is our friend in the difficult but playful journey of self-discovery.