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AYESHA MATTU We met in Boston, we both were living just about a mile away from each other but had never actually come across each other. And then two weeks after 9/11, we bumped into each other and started talking, and made plans to meet up a few days later. We ended up talking all night again at a café until they closed, and just felt a sort of instant connection to each other. And about eleven months later we were actually married in Islamabad, Pakistan, where my family was based at that time, and came back to Boston, packed up and moved cross-country to San Francisco. And we’ve been here ever since, almost 18 years.
I entered it thinking it was one marriage for a lifetime. And I think I’ve come to realize it’s actually many marriages over the course of a lifetime. We went through sort of our courtship and dating phase and then our honeymoon phase and being in a city as a young married couple. And then we had our son and that completely ends the marriage as you knew it and begins a new one. Once our son hit around five years old, it also was very different. He was now beginning to be more independent and going to school, and now there was a feeling for me that I don’t even know my husband anymore after child-rearing so intensely with our only son for a number of years.
It’s very much a dance back and forward of drawing closer to your partner, drawing away from your partner. And that drawing away can invite them back and again hopefully into a cycle. But there’s also the possibility of breaking apart and holding that tension within a marriage. So I think for for me personally it became a place that did not include play or joy. And that caused a huge reckoning between us of, Do we truly want to stay together? If we do, what can we imagine that in being like, how do we create that?And so the last few years has really been about okay, we are now completely rebuilding something new together. And it’s been both exciting and a lot of work.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH I’m Allison Briscoe-Smith, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Wright Institute and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. I’m filling in this week for Dacher Keltner here on The Science of Happiness. How do you keep a partnership together, when it feels like you’re growing apart? That’s the question Ayesha Mattu and her husband have had to ask themselves. On each episode of our show, we have a guest try a research-backed practice to help them deal with challenges in their lives like stress, conflict, or disconnection. Ayesha joins us as our “happiness guinea pig” today.
She chose a practice to increase joy and connection in her marriage. Ayesha is a writer and the co-editor of two books, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, & Intimacy. First, Ayesha, can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to create those books?
AYESHA MATTU I love, love stories. I love romantic comedies, and I did not see myself or my amazing, brave, outspoken, fierce Muslim friends reflected in any of the stories that were being told about us by people outside of our community. And I just felt that it was time for us to tell our own stories for ourselves, by ourselves; and sharing that with each other to create community, because so many of us feel isolated in our lives until we read the stories of others and see ourselves reflected in that. And love seemed like such a universal doorway to making those connections within and outside of our community.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH As our happiness guinea pig you chose an exercise aimed at reconnecting, with your partner and yourself. We call it the ‘Exciting Activities for Couples’ practice. And you prepared yourself for it by journaling about the phases within your own relationship beforehand. Can you share what you wrote with us?
AYESHA MATTU Sure. I call it the ‘mapless middle,’ this long stretch of midlife and middle marriage with seemingly few signposts dotting the landscape stretched between falling in love and empty nest. But what of the rest of us—the most of us—want is to reconnect with the inner radiance of self and partner. That radiance and glow that lit the world when we first met, and sometimes seems a guttering flame under the unending needs of raising a child caring for parents and surviving San Francisco. In some ways, having an only child adds to the tension of finding time with one’s partner. Every time I turn towards one the other feels neglected.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Wow, you know, you really speak to something we all struggle with, the middle ground between. So can you walk us through the steps of the exciting activities for couples practice?
AYESHA MATTU Sure. It was meeting once a week for about ninety minutes and doing an activity that perhaps neither of us had done before. For at least four weeks. We each made a list of things that we would be interested in doing and we wanted them to be obviously realistic and manageable, and the practice was to take things like cost and time into consideration as well.
So we did a chocolate making workshop which was one of my favorite activities. We went out for dinner to new restaurants coinciding with my son having Dungeons and Dragons weekly meeting. We went to Hearst Castle which was amazing, so a road trip and a weekend getaway in Cambria. And we went for dancing lessons. We went for a tango, which we started out our relationship doing salsa together, and we had not danced in many, many years together.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH And you actually recorded your tango class for us! Let’s listen to a part of it now.
TEACHER Argentine Tango is gorgeous. It can be a very intimate dance. The focus of the dance is the connection between people more than any other dance.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Did what the dance instructor say ring true for you? Did tango make you feel more connected to your husband?
AYESHA MATTU It was probably the most magical of the exercises that we did because I was able to remember who I had been, and also bring everything that I am to the table, or to the dance floor.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH You also chose to write about your experience doing this practice, which is great because we know from research that journaling helps us to kind of reconnect with experiences, think about it, even process it in a different way. Let’s hear what you wrote about this dance lesson, because it kinda sounds like a magical moment.
AYESHA MATTU Sure. In tango, each person is an individual. They co-create and co-lead the dance together. His face is so close and intense that it almost makes me want to close my eyes. When was the last time I gazed so intently into his eyes and held them? Perhaps we all look into our smartphones so intently because we are afraid of what we will see in each other’s eyes. This dance is a map one that unfurls as you step forward. And then again as he does. Every time one of us creates a space, the other steps into it. Perhaps that is a reflection of this partnership, too. It is a dance of closeness and distance, of knowing and rediscovery. When I slow down and make the time, the familiar exterior melts away to reveal something sweet and new.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH What compelled you take the extra step and write about your different Exciting Activities you did with your husband?
AYESHA MATTU It allowed me to take a step back and chronicle what had happened and what was happening, and start to see connections and themes, and then be able to take that learning into the next experience. And it felt like it deepened each experience as I was writing about it. You know, there’s resignation. There is infidelity, there’s breakups, and all of those things are real. And the fact that people continue to choose each other and joy and love and desire is also real. And yet it’s not highlighted. And so in some ways by writing, I’m creating that reality. I am creating the narrative that I want to see.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH How is this impacted your relationship?
AYESHA MATTU It has created a lot of laughter, renewed trust, reliance on each other. And sort of interdependence; a willingness to potentially try wild, new things. Because it’s so challenging sometimes to find that time, what are the barriers to that? So time, expense, very busy lifestyle. If I slowed down, my partner is actually super interesting and fun to hang out with and lovely, but when I’m on high speed and just going, going, going till 11:00 p.m. at night and then passing out, I’m missing all of that.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH I so appreciate your articulation of the problems that we all have with relationships. How do we make time for each other? You know you’re speaking to the universality of what many people experience, and I also appreciate that you’re framing this in the context of being a family of color, or being a family that is Muslim. So there’s this opportunity to really think about ourselves as universal in these pieces that we’re struggling and that maybe if we get a chance to play with each other in many different forms that that would help out.
AYESHA MATTU And you know our romantic fantasies in America are not around work in a relationship. Part of the structure that we actually put into it was, okay, we’re going to check-in in a deep way twice a week. And that was wonderful. And it gave us a framework of really knowing who we are now 15 to 18 years into a marriage. I feel like what this exercise did was really highlight for me the fact that we were not including play in that. We had the structure of the twice weekly meetings but they were all sort of very necessary and deep, but sometimes draining talking to each other about where you had emotionally what does this look like next and where do we want to go and all of the necessary work. But this introduced this light-heartedness and play and joy that I just felt laughter bubbling up inside of me constantly as we did these exercises. And it also introduced an element of slowing things down.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH How did you all choose your exercises?
AYESHA MATTU We made lists, both of us, and talked about them. There was some overlap like the chocolate-making workshop was a definite, “Yes, we want to try that. That sounds fantastic.”
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH I’d love you if you could to to read about that experience. Although it’s gonna make me hungry but.
AYESHA MATTU I cannot tell you how good it smelled. [laughter] I smell the chocolate and then take a nibble, letting it melt on my tongue. Slowing down the process of eating, it allows me to experience the taste in a way I haven’t noticed before. It’s bright as fruit under that sleek brown exterior. How did I not taste that before, I wonder. Writing down mango dark cherry on the paper in front of me a sidelong glance at my husband whose leg is touching mine. What else have I been missing? The chocolate machine stops. The silken mass inside is a ready to pour into the truffle molds. Randy is pouring so steadily and smoothly, his lifelong attention to detail and his fine strong self so ideally suited to truffle-making. He spends his days as a typing techie locked to a screen. His hands look beautiful in this tender yet concrete work of creating slow, tangible sweetness.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Wow. That’s beautiful. You both kind of describe and slow down chocolate, which you know everybody can like, but you also seem to be called to pay attention to to Randy and to kind of see him in a different light. Did you feel like through these exercises you saw him differently?
AYESHA MATTU Absolutely. It was an opportunity to just let him be who he was in the moment and to try and see that without imposing everything I know about him. And I did not know that as a techie he could make such fine silken truffles.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH What did it take to allow you to overcome the barriers that we often find? You know the logistics of child care and so on, how did you work through that as an opportunity for us to think about what could we do to move those out of the way?
AYESHA MATTU So we tried to do a mix of things that were free or a lower cost as well as things that were more expensive like the weekend away. You know, the time barrier, cost barrier are real, and we’re very lucky that we have my parents about an hour away. And they love to offer their babysitting services. Right now, my family is actually moving further away so we won’t have as easy access to that. So there’s a lot of thought about, well, how do we make this work in future? Would a parent babysitting co-op be something that we could do?
This exercise really really highlighted for me not only the joy and connection I want with my partner and my son and my family, but also with my community, and that I can’t have one without the other. That the health of one actually reflects the other.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH I think a lot of times we take this kind of pursuit of wellness as something I have to do by myself. But this is an opportunity, I can do this in a relationship. I can do this with my partner. But you’ve also highlighted in order for us to do this with our partners, we have to be in communities. So whether it’s your parents or a co-op or someone to watch the kids. It’s an invitation to kind of be intentional about what kind of community do we create that allows us to be well.
AYESHA MATTU And I think so many communities of color have such great wisdom and experience with that, and other communities have something to learn from that. I know that from many Muslim cultures, family and community are central. And that’s where everything begins. It’s the heartbeat.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Has your son noticed that you’ve been doing these things? What has the impact been on him?
AYESHA MATTU I think he feels more lightness in our parenting. And when I feel more connected to my center, and I feel more connected to my partner, we’re able to bring calm and playfulness to the family and our interactions with our son. Instead of coming from the stretched right place, where it’s just like we need to do this, and we need to do this, and you need to get to bed, and you know just that cycle of post-school trauma / drama and trying to get you know get him to bed but just OK. What if what if we just took a few minutes to play something or talk about something or dream together and I just feel more mellow with him. In terms of that in terms of saying it’s not a catastrophe it’s not a crisis if he doesn’t get to bed at exactly 7:30 p.m. And if he wants to play a board game for a while it’s OK.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Do you think you’ll continue to do these planned, intentional activities with your husband?
AYESHA MATTU Absolutely. I mean we still have our weekly sort of dinner that’s coinciding with my son’s activities. We’ve also restarted something that we used to do at the beginning of our time in San Francisco which was picking a road and following it to its end and just seeing what might come up along the way. And we recently did that and discovered this huge mural that’s a decade old that we’ve never seen. And you know it just made me curious about what are the things I haven’t seen in my partner yet. And it’s also I feel rippled out to other relationships because we’re in relationship to so many. And my parents are older. I see them often but tend to sort of take them for granted in some ways. And it’s made me wonder what would our relationship look like if we started doing something a little out of character together as well.
AYESHA MATTU I want to be able to say that this is the life I chose. This is the family I created. This is the marriage that I want and desire and created and we’re always in a state of choosing whether we do it unconsciously or consciously. So by a sort of creating the structure of, okay, every week we’re going to do an activity, or everyday I’m going to have my prayer and meditation time, allows, I think for that daily choosing and that daily welcome of the life that we’ve created.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH Well, Ayesha, thank you again for joining us on The Science of Happiness and sharing so much about your relationship.
AYESHA MATTU Thank you, it was such a pleasure speaking with you.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH I love how Ayesha added her own variation to Exciting Activities for Couples by journaling about her experiences with her husband. She was building on the work of relationships researcher Arthur Aron, a psychology Professor at Stony Brook University. Aron and his colleagues wanted to figure out: How can you sustain feelings of passion and connection and satisfaction with your partner, even after many years or decades together?
ARTHUR ARON Could it be that people who are happier or do more exciting activities? Or is it that exciting activities makes you happier? We brought couples into the lab, then they did an activity. Half of them did an activity where they were on a set of gym mats that went diagonally across the room. You’re tied together at the wrist and ankles with your partner, and there is this row of about, oh maybe it was about thirty feet long, of gym mats that you had to crawl across pushing a foam roller with your head across the mat and back. You weren’t allowed to use your hands or your teeth and you did this together and you had to beat a time limit. They had to take off their watches and stuff as we set them up so they didn’t know the time. We rigged it so that the first two times they almost made it in the third time they just made it. Half of the couples were randomly assigned to separately just crawl across the mat and crawl back and they thought that was kind of funny. It didn’t bother them. What we found is that after doing the exciting activity there was a considerable increase in their reported quality of their relationship. Also in the quality of their conversation with their partner.
ALLISON BRISCOE-SMITH One can do enjoyable things with your partner and that’s fine, but it doesn’t create any excitement and that sense of passionate love; that sense of even connection with someone.
When you do something different, exciting, and you associate that with the person the relationship then, it takes on that quality of excitement.
If you’d like to try the Exciting Activities for Couples practice, or other practices to help you feel more connected to the people in your life, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
I’m Allison Briscoe-Smith, filling in for Dacher this week. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.