How Mindfulness Can Enhance Intimate Relationships
A brief overview of the research
Posted Apr 14, 2019
All major religions and spiritualities incorporate some version of mindfulness. Even though it has been in the Eastern world in Buddhist practice for over 2,500 years, it has only been empirically studied in the Western world in recent decades. Simply defined, mindfulness is paying attention nonjudgmentally to the present moment without automatically reacting. Even put simpler, it is not being distracted. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced mindfulness into mainstream medicine in the U.S. with his Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979. Today, mindfulness is one of the most discussed and researched treatment approaches in the mental health field.
In the U.S., mindfulness has been shown to promote not only self-regulation and anxiety management, but also couple and family, and relationship satisfaction. Many researchers have indicated that mindfulness practice promotes a more flexible central nervous system by acting directly on the brain’s neural structures themselves. Developing a more flexible nervous system, through mindfulness practice, promotes more effective self-guided and pro-attachment responses during stressful interpersonal situations.
I practice what I preach. Aside from my morning meditation routine I had begun years ago, in October of 2018, my wife and I started meditating together 10 minutes using the Waking Up app as part of our nightly routine. Fast-foward to today, we argue less, and when we do, it's less intense, and a shorter duration. We listen better to each and are more patient and compassionate overall. This isn't an accident.
In intimate relationships, the ability to tune into one’s own emotional experience (a skill mindfulness practice naturally sharpens) may be just as important as tuning into your partner(s)’ experience. Tracking both, your own, and theirs, shares the same neural circuitry. Perhaps the most significant neuroscientific development in the past decade comes from research that revealed how mindfulness-induced changes in the brain promote emotional and social intelligence and enhance relationships.
Researchers who conducted randomized trials found mindfulness practices to be helpful for couples. Mindfulness is positively associated with emotion regulation, compassion, empathy, acceptance, less avoidance of difficult emotions, and improved overall mental health. Obviously these qualities are good for your intimate relationship(s).
When you practice mindfulness individually, the skills you acquire have enormous potential to transfer into your intimate relationship(s). These skills include present moment awareness, suspending judgment, and cultivating empathy and compassion, which can facilitate more respectful and loving couple interactions, and minimize emotional reactivity associated with relational distress, without compromising emotional engagement.
Mindfulness researchers have posited that the increases in empathy resulting from mindfulness practice may be because of the decrease in personal stress. Individual well-being is thus closely linked to romantic relationship satisfaction. For instance, if you’re familiar with Gottman’s couples research, you’ll know that stonewalling and defensiveness, qualities lacking in mindfulness, were found as highly detrimental to relationships. These qualities were also found to be strongly linked to the individual physiological arousal seen in hostile behavior, unconducive to qualities linked to relationship satisfaction, such as humor, creativity, problem-solving and listening.
On the other hand, mindfulness practices, which strengthen attentional control, emotional regulation, and facilitate physiological calmness, were found to be closely linked to relationship satisfaction. Are those qualities you'd want your partner(s) to have? In a future blog, I'll cover specific mindfulness practices for couples.
* I added the (s) to "relationships" to include polyamorous and other non-monogamous relationships.
*This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
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Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35(3), 471-494.
Kozlowski, A. (2013). Mindful mating: exploring the connection between mindfulness and relationship satisfaction. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 28(1-2), 92-104.
Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. V. (2007). Mindful Relating: Exploring mindfulness and emotion repertoires in intimate relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy,33(4), 464-481.
Linder, J. N., Walsdorf, A. A., & Carlson, M. W. (2019). Mindfulness Interventions for Latinx Immigrant Couples: Contextual and Cultural Considerations. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 1-23.