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Relationship Heart Attacks

Published by Susan Gillis Chapman on

Mindful communication is all about relationship.  As a family systems therapist I regard communication patterns to be like the circulatory system of our body.  When there are blockages, our relationships are at risk for heart attacks.  Sometimes these attacks are fatal and the relationship never recovers.  Lovers turn into enemies, friends become suspicious strangers, family or community members are cut off.  Once that barrier goes up, the sense of disconnection can lead to heartlessness.

Unlike a physical heart attack, the pain of a relationship heart attack doesn’t take us out of commission.  Quite the opposite, heartlessness can wield power, especially if we win the support of others.  Heartless conversations build on stories that are energized by toxic emotions such as aggression, paranoia and self-importance.  Underneath all of this is the sadness and pain of the communication blockage, our tender, wounded heart.

People often ask “how does this apply to this painful divorce I’m going through, or the sense of betrayal that happens when you discover that a friend has deceived you?”  This is when the difference between barriers and boundaries needs to be clear. Imagine your social system like the rings of a target.  These are circles of trust.  Because our social system is a dynamic, constantly changing organism, we’re always receiving new information.  It is shocking to discover that someone we trust has betrayed us, or that our partner is having an affair.  The pain and shock is so great, it  feels like a heart attack when we discover that someone we mistakenly thought belonged in our inner circle in fact belongs out there on the perimeter.  It’s possible to feel this pain, see the boundaries of reality clearly, without turning heartless.

The crisis of a relationship heart attack can be a powerful time for change and transformation, but it isn’t the easiest time to begin training in mindful communication.   Like preventative medicine, mindful communication skills are best learned and practiced during our normal, everyday life.

Building self-acceptance and friendship within ourselves is an important first step in mindful communication.  This training takes courage because it’s about opening blockages and feeling the tender emotions of our own hearts as a way of reconnecting with the hearts of others.  Gradually, every small disappointment that arises in a conversation becomes an opportunity to adapt to new information.  Over time we learn that opening up the barriers is making friends with aspects of ourselves that we’ve rejected.

With a life-style change, we can manage our risk of a physical heart attack.  Likewise, the daily practice of mindful communication reduces the damage caused by heartbreak. Having a broken heart doesn’t mean we have to create the unnecessary suffering of  heartlessness.  By staying present with an open mind, feeling the sadness and aliveness of our heart and the wakefulness of our sense perceptions, we can draw from resources we didn’t know we had.  Our natural communication system is resilient when we stay connected, to each other, to our social network and to our own humanity.


Susan Gillis Chapman

teaches part time for Green Zone Institute and for Karuna Training. Susan is a retired Marital and Family therapist who has been practicing mindfulness meditation for over 35 years.  She is the author of the book The Five Keys To Mindful Communication and a contributor to The Mindful Revolution, edited by Barry Boyce. Her website is: http://www.susangillischapman.com. Read more about Susan here.