“Mindfulness” is a buzzword in psychology these days. Based on Buddhist practices, mindfulness is about being fully aware in the moment and letting go of any thoughts that aren’t relevant to the current experience. Research shows some evidence that mindfulness training can help people suffering from depression or anxiety to overcome their negative thoughts and unpleasant feelings. It may also help couples in high-conflict relationships to negotiate more productive ways of interacting with each other.
But can mindfulness also improve your sex life? This is the question that University of Tennessee psychologists Alexander Khaddouma and his colleagues explored.
Going into the study, the researchers predicted that mindfulness would be correlated with both sexual and relationship satisfaction. In other words, the hypothesis was that participants who reported high levels of trait mindfulness would also report high levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction.
Furthermore, the researchers noted that mindfulness is a complex concept that includes a wide range of behaviors, not all of which may be relevant or conducive to sexual or relationship satisfaction. Previous studies have shown that the mindfulness concept can be broken down into five factors, or clusters of behaviors:
- Observing of Experience. One aspect of mindfulness is paying attention to feelings as they arise within us as well as to our sensations of the external world, such as sights, sounds, and smells. For example, you’re acting mindfully when you take the time to enjoy the beauty of a breathtaking vista as opposed to trying to capture the moment in a selfie with the scenery behind you.
- Describing with Words. Feelings and sensations occur without any language attached, and in fact it can be quite difficult to express our emotions in words. But the act of describing forces us to be in the moment and attentive to details. In fact, sometimes we don’t really even know how we feel until we try putting them into words. Attempts to describe feelings, either to ourselves or to others, can also help us achieve a deeper level of self-knowledge.
- Acting with Awareness. Oftentimes we act out of habit, without thinking at all. Although cultivating good habits can lead to a healthy lifestyle, all too often bad habits get in the way of living a satisfying and meaningful life. Part of being mindful entails thinking purposefully about our behavior. In particular, this means considering the consequences and acting accordingly.
- Non-judging of Inner Experience. We all experience thoughts and feelings that make us feel uncomfortable. After a setback, you may think “I’m no good” or “I don’t like myself.” But rather than responding by thinking “I shouldn’t feel that way,” being mindful means acknowledging those thoughts as existing. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to accept them as true indicators of self-worth. Instead, a mindful approach would be something like: “I’m not happy with myself right now, but I know I can overcome these bad feelings.”
- Non-reactivity to Inner Experience. Many times our behaviors are driven by our emotions—we do things for no other reason than because we feel like it. While part of mindfulness is paying attention to our emotions, it’s also mindful to think intentionally about what we’re doing. In other words, we shouldn’t ignore our emotions, but we shouldn’t be a slave to them either.
For this study, the researchers recruited more than 300 college undergraduates in committed relationships to respond to three questionnaires. The first measured what’s called trait mindfulness, or the tendency to engage in behaviors that are generally considered to be mindful. Specific questions targeted each of the five traits of mindfulness. The second questionnaire measured sexual satisfaction, and the third measured relationship satisfaction.
It seems reasonable to assume that being mindful in your interactions with your partner would lead to better relationship outcomes. For example, if you’re aware of a growing feeling of annoyance within yourself, and if you can be careful not to let loose a snarky comment, you might actually be able to resolve the current awkward moment with your significant other. But this isn’t what the researchers found with this group of participants. In fact, none of the mindfulness components predicted relationship satisfaction.
It also seems reasonable to think that too much mindfulness could be detrimental to an enjoyable sex life. After all, sex is all about giving in to sensual pleasure—feeling, rather than thinking. In fact, the data showed that some aspects of mindfulness are not related to sexual satisfaction. However, two of them were. Can you guess which ones?
These are the results:
- Observing of Experience. This aspect of mindfulness did predict sexual satisfaction. After all, if your mind is on problems at work, there’s no way you can enjoy the experience. The sexual act demands your full attention to the task at hand.
- Describing with Words. This mindfulness trait did not predict sexual satisfaction. Sex is about feelings, which are notoriously difficult to put into words. So the effort of finding words is likely to detract from the enjoyment of the moment.
- Acting with Awareness. In most cases, it’s best to think before you act. But when it comes to making love, it’s better to go with the flow.
- Non-judging of Inner Experience. Many people have hang-ups about specific sexual acts or feelings that occur during sex. The only rule in lovemaking is that anything goes as long as both parties want to do it. And you need to be non-judgmental of your own feelings as well. Sex isn’t always about love and desire, even in committed relationships. Sometimes couples also work out petty annoyances in the rough-and-tumble of sexual intercourse, and it’s nothing to feel guilty about.
- Non-reactivity to Inner Experience. Although the general rule is not to let yourself become a slave to your emotions, the conjugal bed is one place where that rule doesn’t apply.
In retrospect, these results make intuitive sense. Because sex is all about doing what feels right in the moment, we need to be aware of our feelings and sensations, and we need to remain non-judgmental of our own and our partner’s desires.
There are several weaknesses with the study, which the researchers admit. Most importantly, the participants were college students, so necessarily their committed relationships were of relatively short duration. Other research has also shown that sexual frequency and satisfaction are stronger predictors of relationship satisfaction, especially when the relationship is in the early stages. Later on, feelings of attachment and companionship tend to compensate for reduced sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships.
It may still be the case that mindfulness is important in mature relationships. After all, early on when the flames of passion are burning strong, couples can be motivated to work through (or overlook) their differences because of the intensity of their sexual union. But as the flames of passion fade, couples in successful long-term relationships may need more intentional methods for working out inevitable conflicts.
The take-home message seems to be that mindfulness behaviors can sometimes help us successfully negotiate our relationships, but at other times they just get in the way. In other words, we need to be mindful about when to be mindful, and when to give our passions free rein.