Mindfulness consists of awareness of your experience in the present moment along a kind, gentle, accepting, and open attitude towards whatever thoughts and feelings arise. Research reviews suggest that mindfulness can make us healthier and happier, more successful at work, and less stressed. But can mindfulness actually improve our romantic relationships? A new meta-analysis published in the February, 2016 Issue of Journal of Human Sciences and Extension finds that mindfulness is indeed linked with more satisfying relationships.
This meta-analysis statistically aggregated results from 12 studies, including 2 that were mindfulness interventions. Overall, mindfulness was shown to have a reliable effect on relationship satisfaction.
Eight weeks of mindfulness training have been shown to change the brain in many positive ways. Mindfulness makes us more compassionate and better able to stop destructive impulsive behavior. It can help us resolve conflict, rather than exacerbating it and be less reactive to relationship and life stressors.
Mindfulness creates specific changes the brain in ways that are likely to make us better relationship partners.
Mindfulness makes the amygdala (the brain’s threat detection and alarm center) less powerful and increases the connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex —the brain’s executive center. This helps us to calm down anger and fear so we don’t get stuck in escalating cycles of negativity. We may be less likely to see our partners' behavior as threats to our wellbeing. This can help us move from defensive self-protection to protecting the relationship. With a less anxious brain, we are also less likely to let stresses from other areas of life (like work, parenting, or finances) infect our attitudes and behavior towards our partner. and create downward spirals.
Mindfulness strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain associated with self-perception, regulation of attention, emotions and impulses. The ACC is also involved in cognitive flexibility or the ability to see problems from a different perspective. The ACC helps you adapt and change rather than getting stuck in fixed views of yourself and your partner. Many couples get stuck in negative cycles that result from childhood attachment insecurities and past traumas. Romantic relationships are especially likely to trigger our insecurities and distrust. Mindfulness can help us calm down and stop automatic negative behaviors like trying to control our partner or avoiding intimacy. It can make us more able to adapt and change ourselves and our relationships as we are faced with new life and personal challenges.
Mindfulness also creates positive changes in the insula, an area associated with emotional awareness and empathy. With a more functional insula, we are more able to be aware of our own and our partner’s feelings. This can lead to greater compassion for both ourselves and our partners. Mindfulness promotes an open, accepting attitude towards our partners. If we find ourselves ruminating about their flaws, we can change tracks and focus on their positive attributes. When we understand our partners’ behavior in the context of their life circumstances (current and past), we are more likely to understand and forgive negative behaviors and expressions. Greater awareness of our own emotions also makes it less likely that irritability or stress will “leak out” and affect the way we interact with our partners.
So if you want to build more secure attachment or be more successful in love, try learning mindfulness along with your partner!
Mindfully in Love: A Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Mindfulness and Relationship Satisfaction by Julianne McGill, Francesca Adler-Baeder, and Priscilla Rodriguez (Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, February 2016)
Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness by Marsha Lucas (Hay House, 2013).
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a practicing psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and former Professor of Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology. She is an expert on relationships, stress, and mindfulness. Dr. Greenberg provides workshops, speaking engagements and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet. She is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger, 2017).