Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally (Kabat-Zinn, 2017). Another definition: awareness and attention to the unfolding experience (Harvey et al., 2018). You’ve likely read about how beneficial mindfulness can be for mental health and individual wellbeing, but new research is increasingly focusing on how and why mindfulness is good for romantic relationships (Karremans et al., 2017).
Mindfulness can be dispositional or learned. Dispositional mindfulness refers to the tendency of some people to naturally be more aware of the present moment than others. Learned mindfulness, on the other hand, is practiced, often through meditation. In meditation, people intentionally set aside time to clear their minds of their thoughts and pay attention to their experience in the present. People who experience either dispositional or learned mindfulness are better able to remember to be mindful in the moment in a wide variety of situations.
Research over the past decade and beyond has consistently shown that mindfulness is connected to higher relationship satisfaction in couples (Barnes et al., 2007; Kozlowski, 2013; Harvey et al., 2018). Researchers are now attempting to understand more about WHY mindfulness is linked to better intimate relationships. Dr. Kozlowski suggests it could be because mindfulness increases individual wellbeing, which then allows people to have better relationships with others. It might also be due to an increase in empathy, emotional skills, and healthier responses to stress, all of which may then allow people to have happier, longer lasting relationships.
Researchers have also linked mindfulness (both dispositional and learned) to better communication, lower emotional stress, and positive change in perceptions of relationship (Barnes et al., 2007). In a 2018 study focused on mindfulness and couple conflict, Dr. Harvey and her team found that people who reported higher mindfulness used more compromise during conflict. They also found that in mixed-sex couples, male mindfulness predicted the likelihood of compromising during conflict whereas female mindfulness predicted a lower likelihood of male partner dominance and reactivity during conflict. Compromise refers to mutual concern for one another’s goals during conflict and the couple’s efforts to collaboratively find solutions to their problems. Dominance, or attempts to win conflict no matter the other person’s goals/needs, and reactivity, or volatile communication, tend to be destructive for relationships.
Researchers from the Netherlands, Johan Karremans, Melanie Schellekens, and Gesa Kappen, proposed a model to help explain the connection between mindfulness and better relationships. Dr. Karreman and team’s model says that mindfulness works because it allows people to pay attention to things they don’t normally notice. Specifically, the researchers say that mindfulness prompts access to 4 otherwise implicit mechanisms:
- Automatic responses. People who are mindful have more awareness of and higher ability to monitor automatic responses to people and situations. For example, people may be irritated without really recognizing the irritation, but mindful people will notice the irritation and perhaps change it (see executive control below). Automatic reactions usually consist of immediate thoughts and feelings that are not carefully processed but are instead based on conditioned, or repetitive thinking based on our past and/or the culture we grew up in.
- Emotion regulation. People who are mindful are better able to regulate their emotions, including being able to accept and manage unwanted emotions like fear, sadness, grief, and anger. People who are mindful are more likely to recognize that emotions are fleeting and experiences (and our thoughts about them) come and go. Basically, people who practice mindfulness are less likely to get upset about being upset.
- Executive control. People who are mindful have more access to executive control including the ability to stop the otherwise automatic responses referred to above. Instead, they may be able to respond in more appropriate ways that advance their goals. Essentially, mindful people are better able to think before they respond, and respond carefully instead of reactively.
- Self-other connectedness. Lastly, mindful people better understand that humans are all connected. Mindfulness encourages feelings of connection and closeness with others. Mindful people are more empathetic and do more perspective-taking to understand how others feel and how their own actions affect others. Scientists explain the increased sense of connection between self and other that mindful people feel by pointing to the greater awareness mindful people have about their own emotions and reactions, which they can then apply to their understanding of how others think and why others act the way they do.
To sum up their model, Karremans and his colleagues say that “in the end, how partners respond to and behave toward each other defines a well-functioning and stable relationship” (p. 33). Awareness of the above mechanisms shape how relationship partners respond to one another, often leading to more appropriate and prosocial behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. Those responses then effect the relationship and how each person feels about it. Though Karremans’ model is focused on romantic relationships, these same processes are at play for any close relationship.
You don’t have to go on a retreat or pay a meditation teacher to experience the benefits of mindfulness in your relationships. There are many free mindfulness apps you can use: Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, to name a few, or just sit down for 10-15 minutes and notice your breath. When your thoughts start to creep in, let them pass through without attaching to them or resisting them. It isn’t easy, but it is that simple. The more you practice, the more mindfulness you can experience in your everyday life.
Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K., & Rogge, R. D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of marital and family therapy, 33(4), 482-500.
Harvey, J., Crowley, J., & Woszidlo, A. (2018). Mindfulness, Conflict Strategy Use, and Relational Satisfaction: a Dyadic Investigation. Mindfulness, 1-10.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2017). Defining mindfulness. Mindful. Retrieved from: https://ift.tt/2qBLItT
Karremans, J. C., Schellekens, M. P., & Kappen, G. (2017). Bridging the sciences of mindfulness and romantic relationships: a theoretical model and research agenda. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 29-49.
Kozlowski, A. (2013). Mindful mating: Exploring the connection between mindfulness and relationship satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 28(1-2), 92-104.