As you are reading this, you may be looking to improve your current relationship or perhaps you recently ended a relationship and are in the process of healing and recalibrating. Maybe you are single and looking for how to foster meaningful companionship or would simply like to learn how bring a state of mindfulness to your platonic relationships. Regardless of your current relationship status, research suggests that individuals may benefit from cultivating mindfulness within relationships.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a traditional Buddhist approach to consciousness and every day living (Sommers-Flanagan, 2015). However, it may be utilized by people of all philosophical backgrounds. Mindfulness is defined as a “state of heightened awareness of and attention to the present moment without taking an evaluative or judgmental approach to one’s experience” (Koslowski, 2013, p.92). A state of mindfulness is characterized by attitudes of non-judgment, openness, and compassion and acceptance of self and others (Koslowski, 2013). Recent research suggests that mindfulness may be operationalized as both a dispositional trait as well as a learned skill (Koslowski, 2013). Therefore, even if one has low dispositional mindfulness they can choose to learn to be more mindful through practice and interventions.
Benefits of Mindfulness in Relationships
The benefits of mindfulness appear as a variety of intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes. In particular, mindfulness is correlated with increased empathy, individual wellbeing, and emotional skillfulness (Koslowski, 2013). This means that partners with high levels of mindfulness are more likely to be aware of and compassionate toward their partner’s feelings, bring a higher level of positive affect to their relationship, and have increased self-awareness of their own emotions as well as ability to communicate them. Similarly, mindful partners have improved stress responses. A study by Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell, and Rogge found that people with higher levels of trait-based mindfulness experienced lower levels of anger, hostility, and anxiety following a relational conflict (Koslowski, 2013). As conflict is a natural and normal experience in relationships, it is helpful to note that people with higher levels of dispositional mindfulness may be able to navigate conflict in a way that is potentially not as upsetting to themselves and their relationships.
Conversely, a study by Khalifian & Barry (2016) found that partners with lower mindfulness were more reactive to distress that resulted from low trust. This may be an important finding for people that are struggling to overcome breaches of trust in their relationships. Mindfulness may offer a way for them to improve their interpersonal relations while they try to heal and regain trust or decide how to move forward.
More research is warranted regarding the mechanisms behind these outcomes. However, it appears that the awareness that results from mindfulness allows partners to focus on the present and suspend their judgment. Suspended judgment keeps one from reacting hastily or without thinking, as such reckless reactions would likely contribute to greater relational conflict.
Mindfulness is most commonly cultivated through meditative practice (Koslowski, 2013). However, you can practice being mindful during any moment. For those interested in how they can begin to incorporate mindfulness into their lives, below are the basics of mindfulness practice from the Foundation for a Mindful Society (2018). More information can be found at Mindful.org.
Set aside some time. You don’t need a meditation cushion or bench, or any sort of special equipment to access your mindfulness skills—but you do need to set aside some time and space.
Observe the present moment as it is. The aim of mindfulness is not ieting the mind, or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: we’re aiming to pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. Easier said than done, we know.
Let your judgments roll by. When we notice judgments arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.
Return to observing the present moment as it is. Our minds often get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
(Foundation for a mindful society, 2018)
Foundation for a Mindful Society (2018). Getting started with mindfulness. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
Khalifian, C. E., & Barry, R. A. (2016). Trust, Attachment, and Mindfulness Influence Intimacy and Disengagement During Newlyweds’ Discussions of Relationship Transgressions. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(5), 592–601. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000194
Kozlowski, A. (2013). Mindful mating: Exploring the connection between mindfulness and relationship satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 28(1–2), 92–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2012.748889
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2015). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.