Although we humans like to believe that we make decisions consciously as we go through our day, in fact many of our waking hours are spent on autopilot. Driving a car is the perfect example. Do you remember how terrifying it was the first time behind the wheel, when you had to deliberately think about every action you performed? Now you drive on autopilot, able to sing along to the radio or chat with a passenger, with nary a conscious thought of how you’re navigating half a ton of steel and glass through a stream of other cars racing at breakneck speed.
Automatic processing makes our lives better, because we don’t have to devote valuable mental resources to completing mundane tasks. Even when it comes to our intimate relationships, we often navigate on autopilot, but the outcomes can be disastrous when we do. All too often, deeply ingrained patterns of behavior drive us towards actions that only make the situation worse when we encounter the inevitable conflict with our partners.
In recent years, many psychologists have been advocating for mindfulness training in couple’s therapy. Plenty of research has shown that when individuals adopt a mindful approach to their interactions with their partners, they also experience improvements in their relationship quality and sexual satisfaction. But how does the mindful approach of one partner affect the other partner’s satisfaction with their relationship and sex life? This is the question that Auburn University psychologist Julianne McGill and colleagues explored in a study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Mindfulness is a complex concept that includes a number of facets. Of particular interest in this study were two of these—non-reactivity to inner experience and acting with awareness.
By non-reactivity to inner experience, we mean accepting thoughts and feelings as they come to us, without trying to suppress or ignore them. While some forms of cognitive therapy encourage patients to actively suppress negative thoughts, the mindfulness approach teaches them to acknowledge that these have occurred without necessarily accepting the harmful messages they convey. The slogan: “Let it come, let it be, let it go.”
By acting with awareness, we mean that we turn off the autopilot and act intentionally instead. Especially at crucial moments in our relationship with our partner, whether that be having an argument or having sex, we need to act purposefully rather than being driven by our impulses, which so often lead us astray. When we act with awareness, we carefully choose our behaviors with a specific goal in mind.
For this study, the researchers recruited over 800 heterosexual couples who each individually agreed to take a survey intended to assess levels of mindfulness, including both non-reactivity to inner experience and acting with awareness. The participants also responded to questions about their current levels of stress, perceived relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction. The researchers then analyzed the data to see how mindfulness and stress are related to satisfaction with each partner’s relationship and sex life.
When it came to predicting relationship quality, the researchers found parallel patterns for both men and women. Regardless of gender, each partner’s non-reactivity to inner experience and level of stress predicted how well both they and their partner rated their relationship quality. However, acting with awareness did not seem to be important.
On further consideration, these results seem reasonable. It’s well known that stresses from outside bleed into the relationship and create issues between partners, so it’s no surprise that stress is negatively correlated with relationship quality.
However, non-reactivity to inner experience may be an effective antidote to stress. For instance, if you’re able to acknowledge the stress in your life without letting it dominate your interactions with your partner, the quality of your relationship will be less impacted. Likewise, if you can remain calm while your partner vents, you’ll contain the damage that stress leaking into the relationship can cause.
It’s rather curious that acting with awareness didn’t show up as a significant factor in relationship quality. Perhaps this suggests that accepting emotions without reacting to them is more important than any specific actions you make toward your partner. As always, more research is needed in this area.
When it came to sexual satisfaction, the results were more complicated. First of all, as expected, stress is quite a downer when it comes to good sex. While sex can be a real “stress buster” when it comes to everyday burdens, a major problem in your life that’s got you worrying is definitely going to impact your sex life in a bad way. However, it will help if you can be mindful of this fact and understand that your sex life should rebound once you’ve dealt with the stress.
Another interesting result was that, for the most part, each partner was responsible for his or her own sexual satisfaction. The man’s stress impacted his, but not her, sexual satisfaction, and likewise for the woman.
When it came to mindfulness, different aspects predicted men’s and women’s ratings of their sex life. For men, non-reactivity to inner experience was important. Perhaps what this means is that men enjoy sex more when they can mindfully accept the stresses in their life, their performance anxieties in bed, and so on, without reacting to them.
For women, acting with awareness was more important. This seems to suggest that women are more fulfilled in their sex life when they intentionally behave in ways that they know are likely to lead them to sexual satisfaction.
Only one aspect of mindfulness showed a cross-over effect, influencing the other partner’s sexual satisfaction. This was the man’s acting with awareness, which was positively correlated with the women’s happiness with her sex life. A general finding is that women tend to have more difficulty achieving orgasm through intercourse compared with men. This finding then could be suggesting that women rely on their partners to give them the attention they need to be fulfilled in bed.
Although they play different roles, the twin aspects of mindfulness—non-reactivity to inner experience and acting with awareness—are important components of relational and sexual satisfaction. As the findings from this study show, acting mindfully not only improves your own happiness, it can also influence your partner’s happiness as well.
Facebook image: Natalia Bostan/Shutterstock
McGill, J. M., Burke, L. K., & Adler-Baeder, F. (2020). The dyadic influences of mindfulness on relationship functioning. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advanced online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520944243