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Improve Your Relationship, Lower Your Stress: An Interview with Alisa Bowman

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Alisa Bowman is the author of Project Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters

Your relationship with your main squeeze is a safe harbor from the big, bad world, a place you can let down your guard, a source of strength and renewal. Except when it isn't.

As anyone who's been in one can tell you, a bad relationship is more stressful than a tax audit. Bestselling author Alisa Bowman knows this firsthand—her new book, Project Happily Ever After chronicles how she went from fantasizing about her husband's untimely death to renewing her wedding vows.

Here, she answers my questions about the tools she used and the effects the process had on her stress levels.

Before you started working on it, how was the state of your marriage affecting your wellbeing -- mental, physical and otherwise?

When my marriage was at its lowest point, my health was at its lowest point, too. I had insomnia. I was getting frequent colds. I walked around with a case of antibiotic-resistant strep for weeks. I felt exhausted most of the time. I craved caffeine. I was weepy. After dropping our daughter off at preschool one morning, I locked myself in the stall of a public rest room, sat on the floor and wept. I didn’t even know why I was crying. It seemed as if every part of my life was falling apart at the same time.

How did working on your marriage affect your overall stress levels?

Part of working on my marriage involved asking for what I needed. I had gotten so physically and emotionally sick because I had put everyone else ahead of my own needs. One of the first things I did was start going to a meditation class. That improved my stress levels immensely, and once my stress decreased my energy increased. One day, just a couple weeks after starting the meditation class, I remember thinking, “Wow, so this is what it feels like to be awake!” Until then I’d been walking around in this stress-depleted stupor. The energy boost was just amazing.

Did you use any mind-body techniques while working on your marriage? How did it help?

Yes. As I mentioned, I took a meditation class mostly for myself. I found, however, that it helped my marriage, too. By focusing inward, I was able to become a lot more self-aware. Once I became more self-aware, it was easier for me to communicate my feelings and my needs.

I also practiced a lovingkindness meditation quite often, and I used it to help nudge myself into forgiveness. I was so angry at my husband about so many things. The forgiveness didn’t come all at once, but it did surface slowly over time. Now even though my marriage is good, I still meditate daily and I wish my husband (and several other people) happiness at the end of each meditation. It helps me to stay focused on the positive and not to dwell so much on the negative.

What's the first step for putting serious work into a relationship that needs it?

For me, it was owning the problem. I so wanted someone to waltz into my life and fix my husband for me. I truly believed that he was 100 percent to blame. It wasn’t until I took ownership of my happiness that I was able to take ownership of my marital problems, too. In the vast majority of cases, a bad marriage is caused by two people who don’t know how to be happily married. It’s usually not caused by one despicable human being that a poor saint happened to get suckered into marrying. I found that marriage improvement was a lot like a dance, with me in the lead. I would step in one direction and my husband would follow me.

You talk about becoming a leader in your relationship--something that can sound really intimidating. How do you gain the confidence to participate more meaningfully in their relationship?

It helps to break your problems down into very small battles. Rather than attempt to address everything that’s wrong with your marriage, start with something small, easy to talk about, and easy to change. Then, over time, work your way up to the big stuff—building your confidence and your communication skills as you go.

I have also found that it helps to visualize an encounter before I actually have it. I might meditate for a while, during which I remind myself of my goal: to compassionately solve a problem. During the meditation I will wish my husband happiness. This helps ensure I start the conversation with the right tone of voice.

I’ve also found it helpful to address issues with love. I might do this by resting my hand on his thigh, by smiling, or even by hugging him. I’ve found that anger is a lot less likely to surface and we’re a lot less likely to slide into the blame game if we are touching while we talk.

What are some of the more surprising benefits you've experienced from doing the work to save your marriage?

I’ve learned skills that have helped me everywhere in life. I’m more assertive. I’m a better listener. I get to the point more quickly when I’m asking someone to do something for me. Improving my marriage has given me the skills I need to improve every single relationship I have. I’m closer to my friends. I’m closer to my family, and I’m a better mother, too.

Kate Hanley is a regular contributor to Whole Living, a passionate yogi, and the author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide. She's also founder of msmindbody.com.

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