It’s Sunday afternoon and he’s on the phone for work.
You thought it was going to be a quiet day of downtime, a chance to reconnect after a busy week.
But then life happened and his work call — a very important deal he’s been on for months — got placed smack dab in the middle of your weekend afternoon.
And while there may be a veneer of civility and being grown up — after all, it’s work and it keeps food on the table — underneath that, you’re unhappy.
Maybe you get on your phone and on social media to troll for cat videos.
Maybe you decide you need a snack.
Maybe you think to yourself after one more precious occasion for uninterrupted together time was disturbed, “I can’t put up with this anymore. I need out.”
If it’s happened to you, you aren’t alone.
It has certainly happened to me, and I haven’t always dealt with it skillfully.
To put it mildly.
In fact, I have gone off the rails entirely, screaming and howling like a banshee as my amygdala got hijacked by the sheer awfulness of being ignored.
Week after week, as a teacher and mindfulness coach, I hear stories of women (most often) and also men who feel abandoned while their loved ones are on the phone. It’s painful and seems almost impossible not to take personally.
We are, after all, relational beings and deep, intimate connections with those we love aren’t just a nicety, they are a necessity for our well-being.
Neuroscience research conducted by Dr. Daniel Siegel and others and brain imaging shows how the brain, as well attendant experiences of well-being, are intimately correlated to the quality of our most intimate relationships.
Any mother who has looked into her newborn’s eyes knows the deep bonds that are formed with these types of powerful connections. Through the interaction, both the mother’s brain is changed and so is the infant’s.
The same thing happens with lovers gazing into each other’s eyes.
In other words, our social interactions and particularly our intimate relationships deeply affect our own experience of well-being at a biological level.
It’s not in your head, no matter what your partner might say: it’s actually a visceral experience you have at a cellular level which be seen in activity in ancient parts of the brain, like the amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain.
Dr. Gabor Mate, former director of the palliative care unit at Vancouver Hospital, author and expert on trauma, addiction and ADHD, who I heard at a conference at Wanderlust in Hollywood recently, puts it this way: You cannot separate the mind from the body. And you cannot separate the individual from the environment.
What this means for you in simple terms is that, at a biological level, not to mention emotional and social level, you are affected by what is happening to those closest to you.
Most people attempt to deal with this discomfort and the dissatisfaction it causes by trying to get the external environment to change.
Most notably, we try to change those around us.
And if you have ever resorted to this strategy you know that, at best, it is a temporary solution.
She or he might put the phone down or stop taking work calls on lazy Sunday afternoons, but underneath the civilized surface, resentment is likely stirring.
A much better strategy, however, is to recognize your own capacity to improve your tolerance for discomfort and self-regulation. This will change not only how you respond to your beloved’s behavior, but improve the quality of all of your relationships.
At home, at work and at play.
So how do we do it?
The first step is to begin to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is one of the best ways you can begin to decrease your emotional reactivity and make your home and relationship better.
If your honey has ever told you that you exaggerate or are making a big deal of nothing, take note.
By cultivating mindfulness through a dedicated meditation practice your ability to stay calm when triggered by annoying behavior will increase. Research with randomized clinical trials done through the University of Massachusetts Medical Center Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, for example, indicates that within eight weeks of regular, consistent mindfulness practice, there are actual structural changes in the frontal cortex of the brain that mean better outcomes for emotional regulation, reactivity and stress.
In other words, you become better able to absorb changes in the plan and not to become the shock-absorber of stress, something which (according to Dr. Mate in his book When The Body Says No) women and those in care-giving roles are particularly prone.
The next step to dealing with your honey’s phone habits is a bit harder: modeling the phone-skillful behavior you actually want in your life.
If you want to have a Sunday afternoon that is quiet and free from the phones, in other words, you need to model that. Just like with you do with your kids. Again, because we are social beings, unconscious behavior in one partner can almost naturally lead to it in the other.
The solution then is to consciously take the lead for yourself and create the intention of how you intend to use technology.
If you create an intention for yourself to have a weekly time-out or Sabbath from technology on Saturdays for example (something that is extremely beneficial for decreasing reactivity that makes you say snarky things you regret), then even if your partner deviates from the plan, it is up to you to stick to your intention. This is hard — and one area where my clients often benefit from external support either through a community of mindfulness practitioners, a class you regularly attend or a one-on-one coach, teacher or therapist.
Getting support is terribly difficult for most Americans who have been raised with the insane, unhelpful and evolutionarily impossible notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
But if you want to create significant change in the quality of your life and well-being — and that includes how you respond when your honey changes plans and takes calls during your downtime together — support is absolutely crucial.
More than 2,500 years ago, when the Buddha attained enlightenment and became liberated from the suffering of clinging, grasping and frustration that we experience daily, he very soon began to emphasise the importance of the supportive community of fellow practitioners, or sangha, to help us change and grow.
The same applies to our lives in L.A., London, Palm Springs and New York: we need other people to help us change.
Finally, with a dedicated and consistent mindfulness practice, plus support from others to stay on the path, you can begin to cultivate an attitude towards your partner that is quite revolutionary: you can begin to experience compassion for him.
Most people who cannot get off their phones at all hours of the day or night don’t do it because they are intentionally ignoring their friends and family, or intend to be neglectful.
More often than not, they are suffering from some mild-form of dopamine addiction. Every ping, tweet and text, creates a process in the brain that has the same reward response that people get with any other drug, be it caffeine, cocaine or chocolate. They are, in fact, chemically addicted to the reward response cycle that is created and no amount of wanting to change can help them until they reach a bottom and expereince negative consequences.
What you can do though is to develop compassion for the suffering of your loved one and stop taking it personally. Just as people have learned that alcoholism and other addictions are not a question of willpower, hopefully we will, someday soon, begin to understand that addiction to technology is not a personal affront but is rather worthy of our compassion and understanding.
This blogpost originally appeared in Medium.com.