Mindfulness is a state and an attitude to living that helps you be more open, compassionate, and self-aware. It involves deliberately directing your attention away from autopilot and negative, judgmental thoughts, allowing you to be more present and connected to whatever is happening in the moment.
It’s not a big stretch to imagine that more mindful people might make better relationship partners. And now there is clear research support for this relationship. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension last year found that higher levels of mindfulness predict happier, more satisfying relationships.
Does mindfulness actually cause relationship improvements?
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that of the 10 studies that were included, only two contained a mindfulness intervention. The others just measured mindfulness and relationship satisfaction and found a positive relationship between them (correlational studies).
This raises the chicken and egg issue. Do happier relationships make us feel more present and open, rather than the other way around? Although we don’t know for sure that mindfulness produces relationship improvement, at least two studies show that it does. Why? The answer may lie in how mindfulness affects the brain.
Below are five brain-based ways in which practicing mindfulness may help you have happier relationships:
1. Mindfulness helps us be more present and attentive.
Most of us know how frustrating it can be to try to talk to a partner who is constantly checking e-mail or texts or whose attention is always on work worries. Mindfulness changes areas of the brain associated with directing attention and focus. Therefore, mindfulness can help us notice when we are on autopilot and redirect attention to whatever our partner is saying or to what they may be feeling and needing. This can help us be more loving and present in our relationships, which builds intimacy and makes our relationships happier and more connected.
2. Mindfulness lowers negative emotional reactivity.
Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to 10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our well-being or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds. Mindfulness shrinks the volume of the amygdala, meaning that it has less power to hijack us into "threat" mode. This can help couples get out of negative cycles of destructive arguing or emotional distancing.
3. Mindfulness improves emotion regulation.
Studies show that mindfulness practice strengthens the prefrontal cortex and improves the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s executive center and it can send a message to the amygdala telling it that things are ok and it can chill and stop the “fight, flight, freeze” response. So even when we do start to lose it or walk away from our partners when they are in the middle of talking, we are able to say “Stop! This is not helpful!” and thereby stop ourselves from going down a relationship rabbit hole.
4. Mindfulness enhances self-awareness.
Mindfulness also leads to changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with our sense of self and emotion regulation. Therefore mindfulness may help us observe when we are acting out in unhealthy ways and redirect attention back to how we’d like to act and what our core values are. This can help us restrain the impulse to act destructively or manipulatively. It may help you get up and do something else when you’re tempted to break into your partner’s computer or stalk them online.
5. Mindfulness makes us more empathic.
Mindfulness also changes the insula, a part of the brain associated with empathy and compassion. This can help us be more understanding of our partner's perspectives and emotions and feel more compassion for them. When we approach our partners compassionately, rather than with anger and desire to control them, this can take the conversation in a positive direction. Compassion also helps us express love and warmth to our partner, which builds intimacy. Mindfulness creates an approach, rather than an avoidance mindset.
We all want happier relationships, but few of us know the keys to relationship satisfaction. Rather than focusing energy on complaining or trying to change your partner, take up a mindfulness practice. Even better, take a mindfulness course together or practice meditation using a mindfulness app. This will help you be more present, loving, and emotionally mature. And who can resist that!
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity.