As a therapist, I often hear this sentiment:

I feel like I am trying hard working on myself and becoming more aware, but the people around me aren’t doing that. If I work on my own mindfulness, will it improve my relationships, even if others aren’t learning those skills?

A new pilot study in the journal Family Process on mindfulness and romantic relationships suggests the answer is yes. Doing mindfulness can enhance relationship satisfaction, even if only one person in the relationship is learning mindfulness.

Growing research suggest mindfulness can heal both the body and the mind. Mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, and depression as well as improves physical health. Mindfulness is defined as a way to bring attention and awareness to the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner. The practice has Eastern philosophy roots and can be taught via many different practices: yoga, meditation or more formal structured lessons like mindfulness cognitive behavioral therapy or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Studies have also shown that mindfulness improves responses to relationship stress, increases empathy and acceptance of one’s partner, and promotes attachment. Many of the studies have focused on the mental and physical health benefits to partners who are both learning mindfulness. This study is one of the few studies exploring the relationship effects of one partner learning mindfulness.

The new study suggests that teaching mindfulness to one partner can enhance the relationship for both partners, even when one is not working on being more mindful. Relationship satisfaction grew for both partners who attended an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program as well as partners who weren't taking the course.

Researchers examined these major elements of mindfulness and their effects on relationship satisfaction:

  1. Observing experience – Noticing internal and external experiences.
  2. Describing with words – Articulating experiences with words.
  3. Acting with awareness – Doing things with intention and attention.
  4. Nonjudging of inner experience - Not labeling things as good or bad.
  5. Nonreactivity to inner experience – Letting feelings and thoughts come and go.

The main factor that contributed to a better relationship was the acting with awareness factor. Nonreactivity, on the other hand, helped increase the partner’s relationship satisfaction, but not necessarily the participant’s satisfaction.

So you don’t need to wait for your partner to work on mindfulness to see results on your relationship. Your own personal work towards becoming a more mindful and aware partner has a positive impact for both of you. Being able to be full attentive promotes a healthier and happier relationship.

While this study focused only on romantic partners, the practice of mindfulness has the potential to help many other types of relationships. Mindfulness can help you learn how to be more aware and nonreactive in your relationship with your boss, coworker, children, or friends.

You will probably also discover that when you choose to work on your own mindfulness, you will inspire people around you, including your loved ones, to do the same for themselves.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2016

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