"Big Magic" in Relationships


Big Magic is the title of Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book.  Most of us recognize her as the author of Eat, Pray, Love, her sensational best-seller written in 2006 following a divorce and descent into depression.  In her new book, she explores the elements of living a creative life.  

As a therapist specializing in relationships, I tend to relate everything I read to whether it offers any new approach that I can use to help couples.  So I naturally wondered how couples could bring creativity into their relationships.  And I found the connection!

The premise of Big Magic is that creativity grows out of curiosity.  To create anything first requires that we become curious enough to learn about it.  And everyone, even those of us who claim not to have a creative bone in our body, is capable of curiosity.

This is where creativity comes alive in a relationship.  When couples attend their first therapy session, their primary complaint is usually their inability to communicate with each other.  Our first goal of treatment is to learn effective communications skills and how to manage conflict without escalation into big fights.  

Effective communication absolutely must be approached with a goal of understanding and empathy without becoming defensive.  To develop empathy for our partner or anyone else, we must approach the other person with a sense of curiosity.  We must carefully observe and listen, always moving toward a deeper level of understanding.  

Curiosity opens the door to Creativity.  

Curiosity also opens the door to Empathy.  

So how do you use curiosity to develop empathy for your partner when they are expressing an opinion or arguing a point that makes no sense to you at all?  Or when your partner comes at your with something totally off the wall and your inclination is to scream, "What are you talking about?!"  John Gottman, well-known relationship guru, offers us guidance with his conflict intervention based on the work of Anatol Rapaport and his research on conflict resolution.  

1.  First, slow the process down.  This is your opportunity to go from "furious" to "curious."

2.  Stay in "What's this?" mode instead of "What the hell is this?" mode.  Think of a toddler when she's in a happy mood after a nap and a snack.  You place a new toy on the table in front of her. She will approach it with a curious, "What's this?," attitude and proceed to explore the toy, turning it around and upside down to see what it does and what makes it work.  Now imagine that same toddler who is hungry or needs a nap.  If you place that same toy in front of her as a distraction while you prepare the snack, she will approach it with an angry, "What the hell is this?," attitude and swipe it to the floor with no exploration at all.

3.  Postpone your desire to defend yourself.  Instead, in a calm voice, start asking questions, open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a "yes" or "no," that encourage your partner to give a deeper explanation of their viewpoint.  Attend carefully to both your partner's words and the feelings behind them.  Continue asking questions until you believe you understand how your partner would think and feel the way they do.

4.  Validate your partner by telling them that it now makes sense to you how they might feel this way or have a particular need.  Notice that validation does not mean agreement.  It simply acknowledges that you get where they're coming from.

5.  Switch roles and ask your partner to understand your stance on the issue at hand.  Staying with this process enables partners to create a new and greater level of understanding and empathy for each other.  Big Magic!

Creating a new empathic relationship requires cooperation and honesty.  You must talk often and in depth to make it a reality.  And awareness of your creation leads to more attention to what you want to create rather than just complacently allowing your life to happen and letting time go by.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about being in a state of "flow."  Simply stated, "flow" is a state in which you become so engrossed in what you are doing that it becomes effortless and time flies by.  In relationships, when the two of you are experiencing "flow," you are fully attuned to what is happening with each of you separately and as a couple.  Instead of feeling exhausted by the demands of life, you feel exhilarated by the possibilities and life and love.  

Let's take a look at a few of the important qualities Elizabeth Gilbert thinks are essential for creativity and how they can apply to your relationship.

COURAGE.  Stretching into those uncomfortable places, the places that scare you.  As a couple, do you have the courage to confide in your partner about your dreams in life?  Can you ask for your needs to be met?  Are you willing to confide your fantasies?  Do you have the courage to allow your partner to genuinely know you?

TRUST.  It's pretty hard to be courageous if you doubt whether your partner will react with curiosity and empathy.  Can you trust that he or she will, and can you trust yourself to do the same for your partner?

ENCHANTMENT.  That child-like feeling of great pleasure and delight.  Can you view your partner through the eyes of enchantment, taking great pleasure and delight in their company?

DIVINE GRACE, of if you prefer, blind luck.  Thirty years ago, my husband wrote down a John Milton quote  used by Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.  He said, "Luck is the residue of design."  He wrote it in pencil on a scrap piece of paper.  But it always moved around with us and stood somewhere on his bookcase or desk.  It might appear to others that you're one of those lucky couples who have that bond that others envy, but you will know that you designed your luck by engaging in Curiosity, Empathy, Courage, Trust, and Enchantment. 

And that's Big Magic.  

The Magic of Lasting Love.