Whenever there’s a new book or advice on how to make your relationship better, I’m all for checking it out. I’m also fascinated by how ancient practices, when applied in today’s ever-evolving, fast-paced world, always seem to make more sense to me than today’s conventional path. When it comes to developing ourselves, Buddhist themes such as developing compassion, mindfulness, and self-awareness can help us evolve as individuals, teaching us to be happy with ourselves and with others. In Buddhism for Couples: A Calm Approach to Relationships, author Sarah Napthali shows us how to apply these same principles to our relationships.
My relationships always work better when I understand how I need to interact with my significant other and even myself. Practicing gratitude, patience, and forgiveness—even something as simple as smiling—can put your partner at ease. Buddhism for Couples is a perfect anecdote for couples looking to feel more connected and to regain their mutual appreciation for each other.
Enjoy this excerpt from Buddhism for Couples: A Calm Approach to Relationships, by Sarah Napthali. Now available in paperback.
SMILE, SMILE, SMILE
One way to be more loving toward our partner is to smile. Now, I realize that this might sound a little elementary, even a bit Sunday school (if you’re happy and you know it . . .), but some of us are slow learners. Let me give an example.
In my late twenties I resigned from a job as a corporate trainer and had to attend an exit interview with Andrew from the human resources department. One of his questions generated a memorable conversation for me.
“Who would you say are the two people you most admire in this company?” Andrew asked.
“Probably Elaine upstairs and maybe . . . um . . . you,” I replied.
“Really?” responded Andrew, looking confused. “I always got the sense you never liked me much.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. I loved Andrew. Everyone did. He was hilarious, mischievous, fun. How could he think I didn’t like him? I asked him to explain but he was noncommittal. “Dunno. Just got that impression.”
A few years later I had a similar conversation with someone else who confronted me for not liking him even though I definitely did. I remembered my conversation with Andrew, along with all those random middle-aged men over the years, in shops and other public places, who had felt the need to say to me: “Cheer up love, it can’t be all that bad.”
Eventually the unfortunate truth dawned on me. My face, at rest, does not exude friendliness. It’s fine if I smile—I’m a ravishing beauty of wide renown when I smile—but often I forget to. These days, it is more important than ever for me to smile during social interactions. Approaching the age of forty-seven, my face, at rest, is not looking much friendlier. In fact, it manages to look angry and sad and even tired, all at the same time. Some say that by middle age we have the face we deserve. I reject that.
Why am I telling you this? It is a sad fact of life that as we grow older, frown marks deepen, mouths turn down, eyes become hooded, and we generally look grumpier. From looking at our partner’s face, many of us will assume that our partner is angry with us, sulking, or displeased. This may not, necessarily, be the case. We can, of course, check whether this phenomenon is occurring in our relationship by sneaking a peak at our partners’ faces as they watch television. Are they looking more grumpy with the passage of time? If so, we can learn to take facial expressions less at face value (so to speak).
Some of us, such as myself, will need to smile at our partner more often as we age in order to avoid appearing glum. This is no great sacrifice, though, since smiling tends to make the smiler feel better. The smile-ee also benefits: if Tomek walks into the living room after work with a smile on his face, I instantly relax and feel open to his presence. Given my own grumpy face, I try to smile at Tomek as often as possible. He often smiles back.
Another reason to reflect on our smiling habits is that the smile is a component of our body language. While most of us assume that the words we say are the most powerful component of our message, the opposite is true. If someone perceives a mismatch between our words and our body language, then they are far more likely to rely on our body language. Body language speaks louder than words.
By our thirties and forties, most of us realize the importance of facial expressions and remember to smile frequently during social interactions. With our partner, in our own homes, however, we are more inclined to drop such niceties. Yet a smile takes so little effort and makes such a difference to the emotional climate. It is an act of generosity, or consideration, for others.
Granted, fake smiles—which might even look like grimaces or leers—can be off-putting and some people have less convincing fake smiles than others. The remedy, in such cases, is to remove any fakery by ensuring that our smile is genuine. This takes mindfulness: we consciously enjoy the act of smiling by focusing on the physical sensations, the release of tension, the intention to be loving, or the appreciation of our partner that comes with smiling.
A smiler feels better, too. In a favorite study of mine, one group of participants held a pen in their mouth horizontally, with their teeth, thus creating, in effect, a fake smile, while in another group participants held the pen with their lips, creating a pout. Both groups, unaware of the aim of the experiment, then watched cartoons. The group with the enforced smiles reported finding the cartoons significantly more amusing than the group whose smiles were disabled. The study supports the idea that our facial expression has an effect on how we feel and that even fake smiles might do us more good than their reputation suggests.
Excerpted from Buddhism for Couples: A Calm Approach to Relationships by Sarah Napthali. © 2014 by Sarah Napthali. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.