Mindfulness and Relationships

Photo by Denise Johnson

Can practicing mindfulness improve our relationships? Scientific studies have been replicated showing greater trait or dispositional mindfulness predicts higher relationship satisfaction and marital adjustment. A few experiments have also examined the impact of mindfulness training on relationship functioning, showing that it results in increased interpersonal satisfaction. In one study of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) participants, even the non-participating romantic partner’s relationship satisfaction increased!

Given that relationships are one of our most powerful sources of happiness and resilience, this is hopeful news. According to psychosocial therapist Indra Adnan, “Personal and social disconnection is at the heart of the system destroying our planet” and she describes relationship as “the rebel act”. If mindfulness can help us cultivate stronger, more satisfying relationships, perhaps we can see it as a promising human potential, or even as “radical cultural technology” (Daniel Thorson), for reducing suffering in the world and increasing wellbeing. The correlation between mindfulness and quality of interpersonal relationships may be a function of a number of factors:

Enhanced Nonjudgmental Attention

In a previous blog post we explored the ways mindfulness practice can enhance attention, opening us to important information that might otherwise be missed and informing our choices for responding. It’s not difficult to extrapolate how this might serve our relationships. Several studies have demonstrated that trait mindfulness is associated with awareness of one’s own feelings, acting with greater awareness (rather than automatically or impulsively), and non-judgmental acceptance. Additional correlates include improved body satisfaction and increased ability and willingness to accept one’s partner’s imperfections. One study found that the mindful tendency to notice and non-judgmentally attend to internal and external stimuli “may contribute to greater relationship satisfaction specifically by increasing sexual satisfaction with one’s partner” (Khaddouma et. al. 2015). Non-judgmental attention may make us better informed and more open-minded relationship partners.

Decreased Reactivity

Most of us who practice mindfulness notice that we are less likely to succumb to knee-jerk reactions and aren’t as triggered by historically bothersome situations. As we’ve already established, the practice can make us more aware of our inner experiences and create space for informed choicefulness. A 2016 study by Uusberg, et. al. showed that mindfulness has a unique impact on emotional processes that are not under conscious control, enhancing emotional processing while decreasing emotional reactivity. Research on the impact of mindfulness on relationships shows it’s correlated with greater capacities to respond constructively to relationship stress as well as less vulnerability to distress contagion. In addition, the evidence indicates more mindful individuals tend to suffer less from social anxiety.

Mindful Communication

As a psychologist who works with couples, I see first hand how communication is a crucial determinant in relationship satisfaction – how skillfully partners are able to communicate can either make or break the bond. Research shows that greater trait mindfulness has been correlated with greater awareness of and ability to communicate feelings. Studies also indicate mindfulness is positively associated with willingness to express oneself in a variety social situations. There is evidence that our level of mindfulness plays an important role in mediating the cognitive and emotional aspects of communication, our ability to listen actively and to feel and express empathy.

Compassion & Empathy

We have discussed in previous posts the relationship between mindfulness and compassion. The depth of our caring for and kindness toward ourselves and others plays an important role in how we meet and treat one another. In the research, a greater tendency for mindful observation has been associated with more engagement in empathy, improved perspective taking, and willingness to forgive. Many studies of mental health and medical professionals have shown a correlation between mindfulness practice and increased empathy and compassion as well as reduced burnout. Finally, there is good evidence that people who are more mindful tend to also be more self-compassionate.

Although we can experience the benefits of mindfulness even with relatively small “doses”, the intention behind our practice, how consistent we are in practicing it, and the depth of our exploration determines the quality and degree of transformation we experience. The growing research on the impact of mindfulness on relationships provides further evidence of its transformative power beyond the individual to the benefit of all beings.

Each time we drop our masks and meet heart-to-heart, reassuring one another simply by the quality of our presence, we experience a profound bond which we intuitively understand is nourishing everyone. Each time we quiet our mind, our listening becomes sharp and clear, deep and perceptive; we realize that we know more than we thought we knew, and can reach out and hear, as if from inside, the heart of someone’s pain. Each time we are able to remain open to suffering, despite our fear and defensiveness, we sense a love in us which becomes increasingly unconditional. – Ram Dass

 

Resources

Adair, K. C., Boulton, A. J., & Algoe, S. B. (2017a). The effect of mindfulness on relationship satisfaction via perceived responsiveness: Findings from a dyadic study of heterosexual romantic partners. Mindfulness, 9(2), 597–609.

Adair, K. C., Fredrickson, B. L., Castro-Schilo, L., & Kim, S. (2017b). Present with you: Does cultivated mindfulness predict greater social connection through gains in decentering and reductions in negative emotions? Mindfulness, 9(3), 737–749.

Atkinson, B. J. (2013). Mindfulness training and the cultivation of secure, satisfying couple relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice 2(2), 73-94.

Barnes, S. et. al. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of marital and family therapy. 33. 482-500.

Burpee, L. C., & Langer, E. J. (2005). Mindfulness and marital satisfaction. Journal Of Adult Development, 12(1), 43-51

Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy; 35, 471–494.

Dekeyser, M. et. al. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences. 44. 1235-1245.

Dixon, H. C., & Overall, N. C. (2016). Regulating fears of rejection: Dispositional mindfulness attenuates the links between daily conflict, rejection fears, and destructive relationship behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(2), 159–179.

Iida, M., & Shapiro, A. F. (2017). The role of mindfulness in daily relationship process: Examining daily conflicts and relationship mood. Mindfulness, 8(6), 1559–1568.

Jones, K. C., Welton, S. R., Oliver, T. C., & Thoburn, J. W. (2011). Mindfulness, spousal attachment, and marital satisfaction: A mediated model. The Family Journal, 19(4), 357–361.

Kappen, G., Karremans, J.C. & Burk, W.J. (2019). Effects of a Short Online Mindfulness Intervention on Relationship Satisfaction and Partner Acceptance: the Moderating Role of Trait Mindfulness. Mindfulness; 10: 2186.

Kappen, G., Karremans, J.C., Burk, W.J. et al. (2018). On the Association Between Mindfulness and Romantic Relationship Satisfaction: the Role of Partner Acceptance. Mindfulness; 9: 1543.

Karremans, J. C., van Schie, H. T., van Dongen, I., Kappen, G., Mori, G., van As, S., ten Bokkel, I. M., & van der Wal, R. C. (2019). Is Mindfulness Associated With Interpersonal Forgiveness?. Emotion. Advance online publication.

Khaddouma, A., Gordon, K. C., & Bolden, J. (2015). Zen and the art of sex: examining associations among mindfulness, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction in dating relationships. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 30(2), 268–285.

Khaddouma, A., Coop Gordon, K., & Strand, E. B. (2017). Mindful mates: A pilot study of the relational effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on participants and their partners. Family Process, 56(3), 636–651.

Mcgill, J., Adler-Baeder, F., & Rodriguez, P. (2016). Mindfully in love: a meta-analysis of the association between mindfulness and relationship satisfactionJournal of Human Sciences and Extension, 4(1), 89–101.

Wachs, Karen & Cordova, James. (2007). Mindful Relating: Exploring Mindfulness and Emotion Repertoires in Intimate Relationships. Journal of marital and family therapy. 33. 464-81.

Uusberg, H., Uusberg, A., Talpsep, T., & Paaver, M. (2016). Mechanisms of mindfulness: The dynamics of affective adaptation during open monitoring. Biological Psychology.

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