Your relationship lives in an environment that you create. This includes the places where you interact with your partner. It includes the habits (good and bad) that you incorporate into your daily life. And it includes you and your partner’s emotional state of being.
Most of us do not realize the profound impact this environment has on our relationship. The relationship environment in constant motion. That is to say it is always either helping or hindering the relationship it houses. A positive relationship environment nourishes and energizes. A messy or negative environment does the opposite.
The invisible hand of the relationship environment shapes our interactions with our partners. If it happens out of our awareness then it can block connection, despite our best intentions. The good news is, your relationship environment is something that you can control. You can design it with intention and mindfulness to your advantage.
Take for example a two bedroom apartment. You live there with a roommate. You each have your private bedroom and a shared common space. There are many permutations of how clean and tidy or messy and cluttered this apartment could be. Everything could be messy and cluttered. You could keep your space clean but the roommate and common area are messy. You and your roommate could both have clean bedrooms but no one wants to do the dishes. And so on and so forth.
The parallel here is your long term, committed relationship. You each have a relationship to yourself and a common shared space with each other. In our example above ask yourself, how likely is it that a roommate who’s bedroom is messy will do their part to keep the common area clean? Sure, you could do all the work yourself, but that’s not very balanced and unlikely to last in the long run.
When I speak of a relationship environment this is exactly what I mean. You keep your own feelings and body “tidy” by keeping them in your awareness. You then work to keep the common experience between you and your partner connected. This is accomplished by clearing out the inevitable emotional debris.
Let’s be clear this is not the same as saying “be OK” or “be happy”. You can be sad, hurt, frustrated, angry, ashamed, anything. But you have to be aware of what you are carrying to be a connected and available partner. There has to be a shared space where it is safe to talk about what’s happening inside each of you. The alternative is to let things pile up and to allow that space between you to get messy.
So what does environment have to do with this? For an exercise, take a moment and write down all the places where you interact with your spouse. In each room of your home, in the car, from your work, over the phone, etc. After you’ve listed them all out you can check for what impact the environment is having.
For one, imagine each location separate from everything else. If you’re in your bedroom, how does your bedroom make you feel by itself? In other words, if you were alone in the room with nothing else going on, notice how you feel inside when you are in that room. Is it relaxing? Is it anxiety inducing? Is it distracting?
Do this for each location. Get a sense for what your baseline energy is in each different place. Understand when you are interacting with your partner your focus is on each other and not the environment. Yet your body will still be perceiving and responding to the stimulus of the location you’re in. Whether you want it to or you are aware of it, this energy affects your behavior. It is important to decide what conversations you want to have where.
For example the car is a stressful place to begin with. Driving in heavy traffic, or trying to get somewhere in a rush. This is an opportunity to be intentional. Do not hash something out if you get into a disagreement in the car. Wait until you are in a different location.
Next, for each location you’ve written down, think about all the activities you do in that space. It is hard to have deep connection in a place where several habits or behaviors occur. The cues for each activity compete for your brain’s attention.
Patterns emerge when noticing where you are when one of you wants to connect but the other is checked out. They’re staring at their device. Or they are on their computer doing work they bring home every night. Where do these activities happen? And when do they happen? Notice how they may be blocking your ability to be present with your partner.
When doing this exercise remember this is not about judging. This is about noticing the choices we make when we interact with our partners.
Once you’ve taken stock of your relationship environment it’s a good idea to talk it over with your partner. Talk about all the spaces you interact in and ask each other — do we have a dedicated “us” spot? A spot where you go to discuss your relationship or connecting as a couple. If the answer is “yes”, then check if there are any competing activities that share that space. If so, can you can move those to a separate location? If the answer is “no”, awesome. You have a great opportunity to try out being the architect of your own environment. Pick something simple, a couple of chairs in the corner of a room and make it your spot. When you go there, always make it about your relationship.
One example I’ll give is a simple 30-second gratitude practice. When you get to your spot, get comfortable. Take one deep breath. Think of something that you’re grateful for in your relationship. Once you’ve thought of it, tell your partner and have them tell you yours. If you’re not in the same space at the same time send them a text or write it down to share later.
This might be hard if you’re not in a good mood, or if you’re upset with them. If you are too hurt or upset to think of anything positive about your partner that is an important clue. You now know you have some important unmet needs blocking connection.
Your “relationship corner” is not a space for to-do lists. It’s not for logistics or conversations about the weather. This is a place where you ask each other “How are you, really?” or “What’s happening in your world?”.
This is a place where you truly see your partner, and let your partner see you. A behind the scenes access pass. You have each other’s full unfettered attention. No devices, no distractions, and direct eye contact.
At least 10 million of our body’s 11 million sensory receptors are dedicated to vision. A dedicated relationship space is a strong visual reminder of your connection. Direct eye contact with your partner is paramount for safety. Particularly when clearing out emotional debris.
Creating a physical place where you go to connect is a great way to prioritize your relationship. And when something is bothering you, this can become the place you go to clear out that emotional debris.
Don’t fret over these ideas. What you do isn’t as important as long as you reserve that space for your relationship. And if you hold yourselves to it you’ll find some amazing things waiting.
Take the guesswork out of it. Life is busy enough and there are so many competing demands. Set a time and a place where you slow down together and practice connection.
In conclusion, perfection is not the goal. Practice and repetition prioritizing being present with each other. Challenge yourself! Can you design a space for your relationship and practice for two weeks? I’d love to hear about the results!
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Last week we discussed the relationship information gap. Next week we examine the mindset required to do the hard work long term relationships require.