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.
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.
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
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