THE BLOG
02/01/2016 01:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mastering Love and Relationships - Part 2: Maintain a Beginner's Mind

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In Short:

"You've got 99 problems and 86 of them are completely made up scenarios in your head that you're stressing about for absolutely no logical reason."
Author Unknown

When you've been on a date or in a relationship, have you ever created a story in your mind - or made an assumption - that turned out to be entirely untrue? I would guess the the answer is yes - and the story you created was probably the worst case scenario. It's natural - it's the way our minds work - and we tend to do it all the time.

But this tendency has consequences. When we make an assumption about our partner's behavior, without verifying its truth, we often respond inappropriately and ineffectively. This, in turn, hinders and can even derail our relationships.

In Zen Buddhism, it's considered essential to maintain "a beginner's mind" - a mind that is free of preconceptions, expectations, and judgments. When you approach situations with a beginner's mind, you remain present while noticing your partner's action or behavior. Though curious about those actions, you don't create specific assumptions or stories about them.

When it comes to relationships, fixed conclusions can derail us, but curiosity and a beginner's mind can set us free.

Real World Example:

The Movie Date

In my second month of dating Liam, we went to the movies. During the film, his body language was closed off - arms crossed tightly and sitting as far away from me as possible. I can't tell you what happened in the movie (or even which movie we saw) because the entire time the following thoughts were racing through my mind - "he's clearly not interested anymore," "he's totally changed his mind," "he said he hadn't liked a girl this much in years, but that's obviously not true." You get the picture.

Rather than keep these assumptions to myself and continue to feel unsettled, I decided to be curious and simply ask (something we tend to avoid in dating and especially early in a relationship). I mentioned his body language and asked what was going on. His reply was that he'd been waiting to see this movie for months and was excited about it. At the same time, he was very attracted to me and knew that if he got too close, he wouldn't be able to focus on the movie. Definitely not the answer I was expecting.

Rather than revealing the worst possible explanation, Liam had confessed the best possible one. Of course, rather than being curious, I could have acted in response to the assumption I had made, pulling back to protect myself or responding in other similarly unhelpful ways.

Replace body language with a long text-response time, a reduced number of emojis, or the canceling of plans, and you're just getting started with the list of possible behaviors that can cause unlimited hours of resentment, frustration, and confusion. See comedian and Modern Romance author Aziz Ansari's comical demonstration of this all-too-common occurrence.

And these are just the feelings that exist internally. As displayed by Ansari, when external, these feelings can lead to withdrawal, passive aggressiveness, and more - none of which is helpful in a relationship or makes it very pleasant to be in.

Of course, what if Liam had responded in a different way? He might have confessed that he was upset about something or not interested in continuing the relationship. But at least we would have opened the door to the conversation. Whatever was causing the behavior existed, whether we talked about it or not, and at least this opening gave us the opportunity for resolution.

The Mindful Approach:

If you want to improve the health and quality of your relationships,
stay curious and ask questions.

In the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki declares: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

When you approach relationships with a beginner's mind (i.e., free of assumptions) and remain open to many possible explanations for your partner's behavior, you're more likely to achieve relationship success - and to prevent unhealthy responses to made-up stories.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain: "I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." Perception becomes reality whether it's accurate or not. Instead, the beginner's mind teaches us to be curious - so that when a partner catches us off guard (inevitable in any relationship), we simply share what we noticed - without judgment or complaint - and ask about it.

In doing so, we:

Clear assumptions. By asking questions, we give our partner the opportunity to clear up or discuss any assumptions we might have made. Sometimes cultural differences or childhood upbringing can impact relationships, including norms around gender roles or appropriate topics for discussion. By being curious, we pave the way for either person to say "this is my default, but totally happy to adjust" or "actually, this is really important to me" - all good things to know in a relationship.

The alternative is to make assumptions that a partner is insensitive, selfish, not fun, not interested, high maintenance...the list goes on. Actions are not intentions, and people might act a certain way based on a habit from childhood, learned behavior from a past relationship, or another reason that has yet to be shared. But unless we ask, we don't know. And if we don't know, we can't respond effectively.

Work with a more accurate picture. Opening up discussion might unearth an issue that your partner hasn't mentioned, but that is impacting the relationship, nonetheless. For example, maybe a recent heartbreak has been causing your partner to hold back more than he or she otherwise would. Maybe recent work demands have been weighing heavily on your partner. But without this context, it's hard for you to correctly interpret behavior or to design the relationship so that it feels comfortable for both parties.

Optimize our relationship. Asking questions can optimize (and even save) a relationship. My friend Adam began a long distance relationship with Maya. In the beginning he was crazy about her, and even contemplated asking her to move to San Francisco. But then Maya began wanting to talk on the phone every night, sometimes for hours, and Adam began to feel overwhelmed given his work schedule and the way he preferred to spend his time in the evenings.

He said his lack of desire for all the phone time had nothing to do with his level of feelings for her - he really liked her a lot. But over time, the phone calls began to feel burdensome. Eventually, that burden began to impact his feelings about the relationship.

He also assumed that Maya would always need more connection in the relationship than he felt comfortable giving, which made him question their long-term compatibility. Adam eventually ended the relationship, but admits he hasn't met anyone since Maya that he's liked as much.

I can't say for certain, but I wonder whether Adam and Maya could have saved their relationship if they had asked more questions. Rather than focusing on their differences, they might have started a more productive conversation by asking what they both had in common, such as their mutual attraction and their desire for the relationship to work.

Next, they might have asked each other questions in an attempt to understand the other's perspective. In this way, Maya would have had the opportunity to learn why Adam wasn't comfortable with the lengthy phone calls, and Adam would have had the chance to know why the calls felt so important to Maya. From this shared place of understanding, the two might have aligned on a plan going forward that felt good for both of them, adjusting as needed. Having recently sat with Adam while he complained about dating in San Francisco, my guess is that he would have ended up a lot happier having had this conversation.

The Takeaway:

Unless you learn to have a beginner's mind and be curious without judgment - you can never be fully present with who your partner actually is - only with who you've made them up to be. And you can't respond appropriately if you're responding to a made-up story rather than what's actually true.

With a more accurate picture, how can you then be more present in your relationships and enjoy them more? We'll explore in the remaining two posts:

- Part 3: Stay in the Present
- Part 4: Choose...And Keep Choosing Mindfully