Could you tolerate a bit more aliveness and creativity in your relationship? Try Flow. Try it together, actually.
So What is Flow?
Plain and simple, Flow is being right where you want to be, doing exactly what you want (or need) to be doing. Self-conscious awareness (eg. doubt, second-guessing, editing) is at a minimum, and in its place is a sense of being at-one with life.
The name for Flow state, and the research that set things in motion came from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s experience in post-WWII Europe, observing those who had lived through the war and who showed psychological resilience with a sense of fulfillment with life. Those who fared best, even in the worst of conditions, were those who regularly got into flow.
I recently listened to Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman - a primer on the psychology of Flow state in action & adventure sports. Aside from inspiring me even more in my reconnection with surfing, it’s had me wonder about the connection between flow states and couples work.
The overlap between conditions for flow state and healthy partner relationship just seems too juicy to pass up.
Why Go For Flow?
Here are three to get us started:
secure functioning relationship
In our modern lifestyles, most of us have so much competing for our attention that it can be hard to generate focus for what actually gives us such fulfillment. Inherent in Flow state is a sense of connection, even communion, with something larger than our individual consciousness. It is this experience of deep connection that gives our lives meaning. Set yourself up to experience it regularly, especially as a couple, and you can face life stresses with a happiness that is internally-generated rather than being dependent on external conditions.
In the PACT model of couples work (Link), working collaboratively to navigate stressors and create shared positive experiences is central to healthy partnership. So, developing a shared practice of Flow will strengthen your skills to learn, adapt to change, and navigate creatively both in your chosen flow activities AND in your other interactions as a couple.
As you’ll see in reading on, the characteristics of Flow are basically one and the same with good sex. In Flow, we experience connection to a force larger than the individual self, absorption in the moment, and creative spontaneity. These also happen to be the things highest on the most-wanted list for people’s sex lives. So, train your brain in Flow, especially together, and you build the neural pathways for its benefits to begin showing up in the bedroom (or tent, or backseat, or wherever you’re getting hot & heavy).
So How do We Get in Flow?
If you’ve ever done something where you felt completely immersed, at-peace, effortlessly focused, or timeless, you found Flow. The means for getting into Flow are widely varied - from quiet meditation to skydiving. Basically any activity where you can meet the Conditions for Flow (below), you can get into the state. As a couple, you’ll need to experiment with ways that allow you to maintain connection (eg. partner dance would be better than, say, big wave surfing). It’s also great to have a few that you can practice regularly and without going too far out of your way.
Conditions For Flow *
Challenge-Skill Sweet Spot
With practice, couples can develop a tendency to auto-navigate toward clear goals. Because we naturally see each other’s blind spots, we push each other toward clarity where we might otherwise struggle with vague or misaligned goals. It’s one of the incredibly valuable, pain-in-the-ass things partners do for each other. We question on another’s goals. If they’re not airtight, it shows.
Sharing goals as a couple also brings visibility and accountability, giving us motivation to push ourselves fruitfully.
Within couples, there’s also a curious polarization that occurs where one partner seems to become the expert in the micro-scale goals, and the other specializes in the big-picture, strategic goals. Linking these up creates the conditions for sustained flow - think climbers, where one partner is gifted at seeing routes up the rock face, and the other can always spot the next crucial hand-hold.
From clear goals, it is possible to hold attention on a narrowed field for a substantial period, creating the focus necessary for Flow. Here, couples can benefit from humans’ natural impulse toward cooperation, basically sharing focus. Some researchers have hypothesized that it is this cooperative instinct that is tied-in with our evolution of larger visible sclera (the white part of the eye) than other primates. Humans instinctually follow each other’s eye movement (which we can more easily detect with the contrast between the white sclera and darker iris) toward the object of focus.
Anyone who has ever been in relationship might rightly wonder about the opposite effect - “but what about when my partner distracts me from what I’m trying to focus on.” Good question. That’s where #1 - clear goals is key. If you both have strong commitment to your shared goals, you’ll naturally pull each other back into deep focus if one of you gets distracted. When we choose to focus on something together, the gravitational pull of our attention is greater.
Challenge-Skill Sweet Spot
Here is where partners who’ve really developed their ability to attune to each other have a real boon, as this is perhaps the most elusive component of Flow. In a nutshell, to enter Flow, we have to be engaged in an activity that is challenging (including a level of physical or social risk), and in which we’ve developed significant skill.
Because there are two parts here, it requires both care and deep honesty to find the sweet spot.
Too easy, and we’re not fully engaged. No pro kayaker ever got into Flow on the lazy river at the water park (to my knowledge). Too difficult, and we either get hurt or stomp home in a traumatized huff. So, over many iterations of dialing in the balance of support and challenge, partners can learn to push each other into the magical sweet spot where we’re out of our comfort zone, but not by too much.
An example is when my wife Maura got me back into climbing after we got together. She taught me lead climbing (clipping the rope into anchors bolted onto the wall as you climb), which I’d never done before. There were a few times where I got part way up a wall and froze, then asked her to let me down. Instead, she urged me to take a minute to rest and see if I could push up a little further. Almost every time, it was just the nudge I needed to stretch my skill and go further into Flow.
In his TED Talk on Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that it is in the state of Arousal (High Challenge & Moderate Skill, see Diagram above) where the most learning occurs. This is also a hard state to maintain, especially on our own. But, add a partner who is attuned to your level of skill and challenge, and they can help you stretch your skills.
Working this intersection of Challenge & Skill is where self-awareness comes in (we’re pushing our partner for their greatness, not our own insecurity), as well as the skillful communication and deep empathy. We must really get our partner’s experience of their skill and challenge to develop trust. The payoff is that the trust you build in Flow activities will show up more broadly in your life together. Also, working at your ability to tune into your partner’s Challenge/Skill Ratio translates to your ability to do so with others - a distinguishing trait of gifted leaders.
Side Effects? Yes Please!
The practice of finding Flow as a couple can be really simple - it’s not just for couples with a shared action & adventure sports interests. It’s a natural win-win: it feels good, and it strengthens your relationship. See how it shows up in your health, lovemaking, professional growth, parenting, community leadership, spiritual practice, and pretty much anything else demanding your presence, focus and learning. If the research is right, being in Flow on a regular basis increases our capacity at everything we’re working at. So if couples can share a practice of finding Flow, we have an added edge in the game.
What are your favorite couples Flow practices?
How has your ability to access Flow affected your relationship?
* Source: Csikszentmihályi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), "Flow", in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698