The couples who have come to my classes together usually do so because they want to learn some skills in stress reduction. They view MBSR class as a way to learn a skill, like tennis classes can be a way to learn a skill. If the tennis analogy worked, then both partners could learn the skill at the same time and that would be a nice addition to their relationship. In my experience, this is not a good way to view MBSR training.
A better analogy for MBSR class is a kayak trip. It is a journey where you might learn some good skills, but it’s not really book-style-learning. In a kayak journey, each kayaker is faced with all kinds of water terrain, and needs to figure out a way to handle it. For some types of water, it’s best to be in an individual kayak so you can make personal choices and be in control of your own boat.
If a couple chooses to paddle down a river in a double kayak instead of taking two individual kayaks, both people might have a bumpier ride. When each partner takes their own individual kayak, they can choose to cover different terrain. One might choose white water, the other might choose calm water. This would be impossible in a double kayak. Also, if the case arises where one person hits a rough patch, or even capsizes, then in individual kayaks the other partner is in a better position to stay afloat, and perhaps even be of assistance.
I’ve seen a number of “double kayak” couples who have taken my class with the expectation that their relationship will not affect the individual experiences they have in class. But, what I observed was that the two people present in the room were carrying along a third invisible personality: the personality of the relationship between the two of them. In 2002, “Bennifer” was a very different media sensation than either Jennifer Lopez or Ben Afflick could have been on their own. And I’ve seen a less sensationalized version of “who we are together is different than who we are on our own” happen for most couples I know, including myself with my own partner.
Merging together to face life in partnership and with synergy can be one of the most healing things we humans do. I think it’s a great thing. And yet, within the context of MBSR class, I do prefer my students to engage in more individualistic trajectories. The third personality can significantly change any journey, including the journey of MBSR class. Sure, it is possible to strap two (or three!) kayaks together and go down river rapids. But it will take more energy to keep the whole thing afloat.
In my MBSR classes that have included a couple, it was harder for me to teach. In a class of 20, I was leading 18 people in individual “kayaks” and 2 people who were in a bigger more complicated “kayak.” It took extra energy on my part to keep the whole class afloat. So, I have made the decision to not accept couples in my future MBSR classes.
When I encounter a couple who wants to take MBSR together, I recommend a number of options.
- The first option is for one person to take MBSR this semester, and the other person to take my next semester of classes.
- Another good option is for one person to take my class, and the other person to take class with a different local MBSR teacher at the same time. I know of teachers in Arlington, Stoneham, and Hingham. Also, the Center for Mindfulness in Worcester can be an excellent option if the commute works.
- If the couple really, really, wants to take the class together there is an MBSR teacher in Concord who offers private lessons.
I have a number of students who have followed my advice and taken separate MBSR classes. Using the journey of MBSR to strengthen themselves as individual people has strengthened their ability to build deeper relationships.