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Mindfulness

9 Signs Your Partner Needs Help Staying Focused

A new test suggests nine ways to give your partner new mindfulness skills.

Key points

  • Mindfulness is an inner state, but it's possible to notice it in other people with the right tools.
  • A new nine-item mindfulness measure provides a way to quantify someone else's ability to focus their thoughts and inner experiences.
  • Using the nine items as a guide can provide you with the tools you need to help your partner gain more mental focus.

Mindfulness is a state, but it can also be seen as an ability, one that’s important to promote health and well-being. Perhaps you’ve practiced your own mindfulness skills to help you take advantage of these benefits. You are pretty good now at being able to focus your attention on what you’re doing, are able to label your emotions, and can handle stressful situations without becoming panicky.

As good as your mindfulness might be, though, how does your partner measure up? Do you find that their attention seems to drift elsewhere while you’re having a conversation, that they seem unable to put their feelings into words, and often get lost in the middle of a task? How do these behaviors make you feel? It can be hurtful to have a partner who doesn’t seem “present” when you’re having an important conversation or just trying to enjoy a pleasant moment as a couple.

Is Mindfulness a Noticeable Quality?

Being mindful means that you are actually engaged in your interactions with another person, so when someone isn’t mindful, it can detract from the quality of those interactions. The question then becomes, can you accurately gauge just how focused your partner is at any given time?

According to a newly-published study headed by the University of Tasmania’s Larissa Barden and colleagues (2021), the answer is yes. The Australian authors note that mindfulness is a valuable tool in “cultivating both the will and skill to navigate social situations and relationships” and, as such, can be seen “as a noticeable quality that is instrumental in supporting prosocial behaviours” (p. 2).

There are several reasons, Barden et al. maintain, that mindfulness promotes good relationships, including “sacrifice, forgiveness, partner acceptance and limiting stress spill-over” (p. 2). You may be perfectly capable of adopting this mindset, but if your partner is not, this can create a potential chasm in your ability to feel close and connected to them.

Quantifying another person’s mindfulness is yet another matter. The available mindfulness instruments, according to the U. Tasmania research team, are based on a self-report of your own inner state. These self-report mindfulness measures do link up to observable behaviors that other people can rate about you, suggesting that mindfulness is noticeable, but they only indirectly provide evidence of the extent to which someone brings this mental state into their relationships.

There’s another problem with self-reports of mindfulness in that they are subject to the kind of bias that makes people want to be perceived positively by others. There’s also the matter of whether people actually can have the insight needed to provide accurate self-reports.

Awareness of similar problems with self-report in the realm of personality measures provided researchers with the impetus to develop so-called “other” ratings of traits that could be compared with “self.”

Based on the assumption that mindfulness can be noticed in others and that, furthermore, not everyone can accurately describe their own abilities in this quality, Bartlett and her team set about to convert existing self-report measures to one that could be used in the ratings of others. The key test of their measure’s success was whether it would relate in predictable ways to other qualities in the “nomological net” (i.e., related features) of mindfulness, including emotional intelligence, empathy, and “non-attachment,” or the tendency to avoid awareness of your own emotions (indicating lack of mindfulness).

The 9-Item Observed Mindfulness Measure (OMM)

Using three separate adult samples, Bartlett and her colleagues worked through the series of steps needed to establish whether their new measure reached appropriate levels of statistical acceptability. Having developed a tentative list of items from their first, community sample who provided self-ratings only, the authors then went on to compare participants with people who knew them well, feeding the scores into a statistical analysis intended to identify the best items from the initial pool. Participants in the third sample, also consisting of self-other dyads, completed the final version of the OMM to provide validation of the results from the second sample.

Key to understanding the OMM is its fundamental assumption that it taps not “the internal experiences of the subject being observed,” or inner state, but “the degree to which the subject noticeably acts or responds mindfully in social contexts” (p. 6). You can’t jump into someone’s head to find out how tuned in they are to a situation, but you can provide your own evaluation of whether the person behaves as if they are. In the case of your partner, you don’t literally know what they are thinking but you can infer from their behavior that they’re trying their best to be aware of the situation.

Starting with an initial pool of 30 potential items, the Australian authors then narrowed the list of those that met acceptable standards to the following nine. Rate your partner (or another person you’d like to apply these to) on a 1 (not at all) to 5 (all the time) scale:

  1. The person has difficulty staying focused on what is happening to/around them as it occurs (reverse-coded).
  2. The person seems to 'run on automatic' without much awareness of what he or she is doing (reverse-coded).
  3. The person doesn't pay attention to what he or she is doing, because of daydreaming, worrying or other distractions (reverse-coded).
  4. The person seems aware of how emotions affect his or her thoughts and behavior.
  5. When asked how he or she is feeling, the person can identify their emotions easily.
  6. The person seems aware of his or her own emotions when interacting with others.
  7. The person seems to recover well from unpleasant or stressful experiences.
  8. The person can pause before reacting to difficult situations.
  9. The person remains calm, even when things get hectic and stressful.

Simply thinking about your partner on the basis of these items may have been informative enough, as the statements themselves can lead you to new insights.

You might also find it helpful to divide these items into the three factors into which they statistically grouped: attentiveness (items 1-3), awareness (items 4-6) and acceptance (items 7-9). Unfortunately, the authors didn’t provide the mean scores on these scales, but you can use a rough guide of the mid-point of the 1-5 scale to indicate how tuned in you think your partner is to the three key components of mindfulness.

Using Your Partner’s Ratings to Help Your Partner

Pinpointing your partner’s mindfulness can provide you with the next step to helping your partner become more focused. Although training to promote other-based mindfulness isn’t yet available, you can use the actual items on the OMM as the basis for your own tailor-made approach with your partner.

Once you’ve identified the area or areas in which your partner seems least mindful, it’s important to consider non-judgmental ways to address them. The whole point of mindfulness training is to allow people to feel that they can accept their emotions rather than run from them. Finding a time to talk about mindfulness and mental health in general and then seeing how your partner reacts will keep them from getting their defenses mobilized.

It’s also important to know which areas of mindfulness did not make it to the final list of nine items on the OMM. Some of these might surprise you, such as “the person is good at finding the words to describe his or her feelings,” and “the person does other things while listening to someone.” These are subtle wording differences but nevertheless determined whether an item would be included in the OMM or not.

You can also look at the OMM from the standpoint of turning the ratings back onto yourself. Have your partner rate you on each of the nine items. Finding out where the two of you differ in your interpretations of yourselves and each other can be a valuable basis for dialogue as you both seek ways to improve your ability to tune into your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

To sum up, this newest way to look at mindfulness has important implications for your well-being and that of your partner. If mindfulness can indeed be noticeable, using what you see in your partner can help both of you turn your focus toward a more fulfilling inner state.

References

Bartlett, L., Martin, A. J., Bruno, R., Kilpatrick, M., Sanderson, K., & Neil, A. L. (2021). Is mindfulness a noticeable quality? Development and validation of the observed mindfulness measure. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.umb.edu/10.1007/s10862-021-09936-6

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