January 6, 2020

The “Empty Bucket:” a Relationship-Saving, Intimacy-Building Practice.

I was having a relationship freak-out.

Suddenly the butterflies were gone and I could see his every nose hair. Every dumb thing that could irritate me about my partner was coming up to the surface and eating my relationship alive.

My heart was closing, and I was thinking about breaking up with the only person who’s ever known me this well. 

Time out.

This is where I’m so glad I’ve had a spiritual awakening and I’m able to put mindfulness and self-awareness into real-life, down-and-dirty, in-the-heat-of-the-moment, when-it-really-counts practice.

Because it’s no good reading Eckhart Tolle and doing yoga every day if you’re still going to let your old stories and patterns interfere in your life, right? Especially your love life.

In the past, I would have run away. I would have let the freak-out take over and drive a wedge between me and my partner (whom I adore).

Not anymore. Now I’m able to allow the freak-out to occur and to step back and watch myself in its throes. I can see myself self-sabotaging—unaccustomed to a steady, loving man instead of previously toxic, push-pull relationship dynamics.

Now, I can allow myself to feel anger toward him or disappointment or turn-off, and it doesn’t have to lead to the immediate action of pushing him away. I can feel the emotion, share with him what’s going on, pull him in even when it’s scary, and it eventually dissolves back into our love.

And then I realize the most important thing of all:

That when this freak-out happens, it’s usually just a sign of one thing: my bucket is getting full.

What is the bucket?

The “bucket” is where you store all the little tiny resentments and annoyances you have with your partner (or actually with any other human being—a friend, your mother, the neighbor) and where they build up. Tiny pebbles and small rocks getting chucked in the bucket every time your partner doesn’t call when he says he will, when he criticizes your work schedule, or when you feel rushed during an evening lovemaking.

These things get in the way of intimacy. And if you’re not aware that you even have a bucket, it will result in a giant, angry, resentful explosion once in a while that probably breaks or almost breaks your relationship—and causes a lot of pain for everyone.

Where is this all coming from? You might wonder when your partner explodes like that, or you find yourself fighting about something that you know isn’t the real reason you’re fighting.

What you can do instead is make a conscious practice of emptying the bucket. Name the fact that each of you have a bucket and that it’s normal and okay. What’s not okay is to let all those tiny resentments go unexpressed and unresolved until the bucket turns into a bomb.

How this works is that you go and explain to your partner that you read this nifty article from a life coach online and she was talking about an interesting tool for building intimacy in a relationship and you really want to give it a try.

You explain the concept of the bucket and then you decide on one day per week where you’ll have a romantic date together and empty the bucket.

Usually, I curl up in my partner’s lap and he holds me when we do this, so there’s a sense of “we’re doing this to bring each other closer and because we love each other,” and we can be extra present for the tears that may come.  

I’ve found the best way to empty the bucket is one person goes first and the other one is simply witnessing and allowing that person to be heard. They don’t respond back or defend themselves; they just have to listen to how the other person experienced that situation.

I didn’t say this was easy. (And you do this once a week for a reason.)

Then, when the first person feels like their bucket is empty, the other person can respond and share their experiences and you can problem-solve together so those items don’t wind up in the bucket again.

Then you switch and the other person gets to empty their bucket with the other witnessing and then working through each piece that came up until both of you feel better. 

Sometimes one of you just needs a good cry and that’s enough—no problem-solving required. 

My partner and I joke with each other all the time, “Empty bucket?” whenever we sense something might be going on with the other so we give the other one an opening to share and to express what might already be building up.

If you’re in a new relationship, you’re in luck. You can start the relationship with this practice, and, by doing it every week, you’ll tackle all the little things as they start coming up.

If you’ve been together for a while and the resentment has piled up, the first time might be hard. But if you decide to consciously and lovingly sort through it, you might even experience the kind of spark and magic you had at the beginning of your relationship.

I find if the “butterflies” have gone away for me, it usually means there’s something in my bucket that’s clouding my vision and making me see nose hairs instead of the sexy, beautiful, loving man I call my partner. 

This is my yoga off the mat. This is the mindfulness I can exercise that saves me from just freaking out, getting in my head, and running away because I don’t realize that there’s simply some stuff that I haven’t expressed yet to my partner, so there’s distance.

Where there’s distance, it’s hard to feel safe and be able to trust him in a way that lets my feminine heart surrender and open and soften.

At the end of the day, I know I am in charge of closing the gap from my side. I am responsible for emptying my bucket. I can choose to show up with more authenticity and willingness to grow together in our relationship.

Right now, he’s making the same choice, so we’re deepening and softening together. If that changes in the future, we may part ways, because I can’t force a man to want to empty his bucket with me. But if he does, it’s a damn good sign we’re in this together.

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