This Personality Trait May Improve Your Relationships

New research shows why you should put your mind to work in your relationship.

Posted Nov 23, 2019

When you’re feeling stressed, there’s no doubt that your relationship can suffer. Being distracted and irritable, pressured for time, and unable to devote mental bandwidth to your partner can erode your ability to enjoy your partner’s company and be a responsive and loving contributor to the relationship. Think about the last time you felt so overwrought by having to squeeze too much into too little time that you became angry at the very slightest request your partner made for your attention. Conversely, think about the occasions when you felt you could take a breather from life’s daily cares and just sit and enjoy a meal together with your partner. It felt good to be able to set everything else aside and focus on what really matters.

The quality of mindfulness, or the ability to enjoy the present moment, is one that the field of positive psychology recognizes as key to personal happiness. In a mindful state, you don’t even think about whether you’re “happy,” but instead focus your attention on sensory features of your experiences. By only allowing yourself to live in the moment, you can better deal with stress by not being overcome by worry about the future or regret about the past.

Until relatively recently, mindfulness was studied in the context of the individual’s own well-being as a stress-reducing psychological mechanism. Researchers now are coming to recognize that some people are better at being mindful, and that those who are have not only less stress but better relationships.  According to the theory behind a new study by Auburn University’s Julianne McGill and Francesca Adler-Baeder (2019), it may very well be this ability to focus on the present moment that leads you to set stress aside and be more loving with your partner.  Indeed, the authors make the observation that such “positive relationship behaviors are associated with higher relationship quality and in fact, may be one of the most potent predictors of relationship functioning determined by individual studies and meta-analytic procedures” (p. 1). 

The theory behind McGill and Adler-Baeder's study is family stress theory (FST), which proposes that relationship quality depends on the way that partners perceive and manage the “subjective sense of distress” that can arise from multiple sources, both chronic and acute.  You may feel stressed because you and your partner are chronically pinched for money, living from paycheck to paycheck. Stress may take a more acute form if one of you has an accident or you lose the job that provides that paycheck. In either case, being able to cope with the situation should serve to protect your relationship because that distress will not invade the way you and your partner interact with each other. The source of the stress may linger, but through adaptive coping, you’ll perceive it as less of a threat and more of a challenge. In the widely-accepted cognitive model of coping, it’s the perception that a situation is a threat that creates stress, not the situation itself. You may not be able to modify the situation, but you can modify your perception of it. Mindfulness, according to McGill and Adler, should provide you with the tools to flip that mental switch.

To test FST’s predictions that both mindfulness and stress reduction should improve relationship quality, the authors investigated previously-collected data from 281 men and women in heterosexual relationships recruited from the community. The participants averaged 36 years old (most were between 24 and 48), and all were either married or in a committed relationship. This was a relatively diverse sample, with approximately an equal number of males and females; 63% were white and the remainder were black, Asian American, or biracial. As the sample had originally been recruited for a relationship intervention study, a high proportion (67%) reported being in distress, and many (43%) were considering divorce or separation.  

The key measures used in the survey questionnaires administered to participants included mindfulness, the use of positive relationship behaviors, perception of stress, and relationship quality. The mindfulness questionnaire asked participants to rate themselves on such items as: “It seems I am ‘running on automatic,’ without much awareness of what I’m doing;” other items from the mindfulness scale include “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present,” and “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later.” Positive relationship behaviors included: “On average, how often in the past month did you say ‘I love you’ to your spouse/significant other?” Positive behaviors also included expressions of physical affection, such as touching. Participants rated their overall levels of stress on a 1 to 7 scale, and they rated their relationship quality similarly on a 7-point scale with items such as “We have a good marriage/relationship.”

In the final model testing FST's predictions that mindfulness would reduce stress which, in turn, would improve relationship quality, McGill and Adler found that, contrary to prediction, mindfulness became its own unique predictor of how participants felt about their relationship. Indeed, the trait of mindfulness was more strongly related to relationship outcomes than the perception of stress. Unrelated to either mindfulness or the perception of stress, the use of positive relationship behaviors proved to be the strongest predictor of perceived relationship quality. These findings supported what the authors call an “additive” model of relationship quality in which the personal resource of mindfulness plus low stress plus high positive behaviors combine to influence how happy couples are in their relationship. 

Because the authors defined mindfulness as a “trait,” you may think that it’s not an ability you can gain. However, there are studies showing mindfulness training cited by the authors that can help people become more mindful in general, as well as more mindful in the context of their romantic relationships. Some of these interventions encourage individuals to practice "loving-kindness" in which they are trained to become more accepting of their partners, foibles and all. If you can notice non-judgmentally what your partner does, you may be less likely to engage in behaviors that detract from relationship quality such as constantly being critical or seeking to change your partner. Instead, you will be able to accept the fact that your partner isn't perfect (and neither are you).

To sum up, developing the ability to live in the moment and accept your emotions, when combined with those so-called positive relationship behaviors of expressing your feelings through words and touch, can serve to get you through those stressful times that can test the quality of your relationship. Fulfillment in long-term relationships depends not only on how well you can express those positive feelings, but also on how well you can notice and accept them.

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McGill, J., & Adler, B. F. (2019). Exploring the link between mindfulness and relationship quality: Direct and indirect pathways. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12412