Self-Compassion for Couples

[This exercise spontaneously emerged in a couples therapy session last night.]

Elements:

  1. A 20-second full-body hug is enough to activate the release of oxytocin, according to Stan Tatkin at UCLA, helping both partners calm down their nervous systems and return to a state of calm, equanimity, and resilience.
  2. Self-compassion – “Ouch! This hurts” – evokes the soothing comfort of our internally hardwired caregiving system, antidoting the revving up of the threat system, allowing our higher brain to stay online and wisely discern what would be useful to calm and comfort another in the moment as well.
  3. Thich Nhat Hanh’s exercise at the end of a meditation retreat: three breaths in a full-body hug. At the end of the first exhale, each person says, “I am going to die.” At the end of the second exhale, each person says, “You are going to die.” At the end of the third exhale, each person says, “We have these precious moments.”

Exercise:

  1. Hug your partner in a full-body (not A-frame) hug. Breathe slowly, deeply, fully for three to five breaths. Come into an awareness of a sense of presence, simply being here, with your partner, in this moment. Synchronize your breathing together to come into a shared awareness of presence. Say “hello” when you’re ready to begin.
  2. Looking your partner in the eye if that’s comfortable, closing your eyes if that’s more comfortable:
    1. on the first exhale, say softly, “I’m in pain.”
    2. on the second exhale, say softly, “You’re in pain.”
    3. on the third exhale, say softly, “I care.”
    4. on the fourth exhale, say softly, “You care.”
    5. on the fifth exhale, say softly, “We care.”
  3. Breathe together in silence a few more breaths, noticing any shifts in your body as you take in the compassion between the two of you.
  4. If you wish, you can share your reflections of the experience with each other. Take in the tenderness offered in the sharing.

Self-compassion, acknowledging the “ouch” of the moment, naturally leads to compassion for another in the experience of our common humanity. We are able to pause, breathe, take a step back, and discern what comfort and caring might be the most useful in the moment, and going forward.

Linda Graham, MFT, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and New World Library.