5 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Relationship

Mindfulness is both a practice and an overall approach to living that is characterized by compassion, openness, and self-awareness. As a practice, it involves deliberately redirecting your attention and energy away from autopilot and negative, judging thoughts, allowing you to be more connected to present moment experience.  As an approach to living, it involves allowing people and things (including your own emotions) to be the way they are; accepting change and the ups and downs of life without trying to control everything. It’s not a big stretch to imagine that more mindful people might make better relationship partners. And now there is clear research support for this relationship! A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension last year found that higher levels of mindfulness predict happier, more satisfying relationships.

Does mindfulness actually cause relationship improvements?

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that of the 10 studies that were included, only two contained a mindfulness intervention. The others just measured how mindfulness and relationship satisfaction and found a positive relationship between them (correlational studies). Although we don’t know for sure that mindfulness produces relationship improvement, at least two studies show that it does.  But why? The answer may lie in how mindfulness affects the brain.

Below are five brain-based ways in which practicing mindfulness may help you have happier relationships:

1. Mindfulness helps you be more present and attentive

Most of us know how frustrating it can be to try to talk to a partner who is constantly checking e-mail or texts or whose attention is always on work worries or scheduling. Mindfulness changes areas of the brain associated with directing attention and focus. Therefore, mIndfulness can help you notice when you are on autopilot and redirect attention to whatever your partner is saying or to what they may be feeling and needing. This can help you be more loving and present in your relationship, which builds intimacy and makes the relationship happier and more connected.

2. Mindfulness lowers negative emotional reactivity

Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode. In this mode, there are a cascade of chemicals and hormones being released which can make you view our partner as threat to your wellbeing or autonomy. This can lead you to very quickly shut down emotionally, before defensive,  or start to attack your partner with angry words and deeds. Mindfulness shrinks the volume of the amygdala, meaning that it has less power to hijack you into ‘threat” mode. A less overreactive “fight, flight, freeze” response can help couples better manage negative cycles of destructive arguing or emotional distancing.

3. Mindfulness improves emotion regulation

Brain scan studies show that mindfulness practice strengthens the prefrontal cortex and improves the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.  The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s executive center, and it can send a message to the amygdala telling it that you are safe, and it can chill and stop the “fight, flight, freeze” response. So even when you start to lose it or walk away from your partner when they are in the middle of talking, you are able to say “Stop! This is not helpful” and thereby stop yourself from going down a relationship rabbit hole

4. Mindfulness enhances self-awareness

Mindfulness also leads to changes in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with your sense of self and emotion regulation. Therefore mindfulness may help you better observe when you are acting out in unhealthy ways and redirect attention back to how you would really like to act and your core values.  This can help you restrain the impulse to act destructively or manipulatively. It may help you get up and do something else when you’re tempted to break into your partner’s computer or stalk them online.

5. Mindfulness makes you more empathic

Mindfulness also changes the insula, a part of the brain associated with empathy and compassion. This can help you be more understanding of our partners’ viewpoint and emotional reactions and feel more compassion for them. When you approach your partner with compassion, rather than with anger and desire for control, this can take the conversation in a positive direction. Feeling compassion also helps you soften so you are more likely to express love and warmth to your partner, which builds intimacy. Mindfulness creates a mindset in which you are more likely to approach your partner, rather than avoid and run away from them

Summary

We all want happier relationships but few of us know the keys to relationship satisfaction. Rather than focusing energy on complaining or trying to change your partner, take up a mindfulness practice. Even better, take a mindfulness course together or practice meditation using a mindfulness app. Couples therapy that includes a mindfulness focus can help you learn and practice the skills of emotion regulation, compassion, and openness. This will help you be more present, loving, and emotionally mature. And who can resist that!

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karenwarfel/pixabay
Source: karenwarfel/pixabay

Mindfulness is an attitude to living that helps you be more open, compassionate, and self-aware.  It involves deliberately directing your attention away from autopilot and negative, judging thoughts, allowing you to be more present and connected to whatever is happening right now.  It’s not a big stretch to imagine that more mindful people might make better relationship partners. And now there is clear research support for this relationship. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension(link is external) last year found that higher levels of mindfulness predict happier, more satisfying relationships.

Does mindfulness actually cause relationship improvements?

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that of the 10 studies that were included, only two contained a mindfulness intervention. The others just measured mindfulness and relationship satisfaction and found a positive relationship between them (correlational studies). This raises the chicken and egg issue. Do happier relationships make us feel more present and open, rather than the other way around?  Although we don’t know for sure that mindfulness produces relationship improvement, at least two studies show that it does.  But why? The answer may lie in how mindfulness affects the brain.

Below are five brain-based ways in which practicing mindfulness may help you have happier relationships:

1. Mindfulness helps us be more present and attentive

Most of us know how frustrating it can be to try to talk to a partner who is constantly checking e-mail or texts or whose attention is always on work worries. Mindfulness changes areas of the brain associated with directing attention and focus. Therefore, mIndfulness can help us notice when we are on autopilot and redirect attention to whatever our partner is saying or to what they may be feeling and needing. This can help us be more loving and present in our relationships, which builds intimacy and makes our relationships happier and more connected.

2. Mindfulness lowers negative emotional reactivity

Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our wellbeing or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds. Mindfulness shrinks the volume of the amygdala, meaning that it has less power to hijack us into ‘threat” mode. This can help couples get out of negative cycles of destructive arguing or emotional distancing.

3. Mindfulness improves emotion regulation

Studies show that mindfulness practice strengthens the prefrontal cortex and improves the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.  The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s executive center and it can send a message to the amygdala telling it that things are ok and it can chill and stop the “fight, flight, freeze” response. So even when we do start to lose it or walk away from our partners when they are in the middle of talking, we are able to say “Stop! This is not helpful” and thereby stop ourselves from going down a relationship rabbit hole.

4. Mindfulness enhances self-awareness

Mindfulness also leads to changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with our sense of self and emotion regulation. Therefore mindfulness may help us observe when we are acting out in unhealthy ways and redirect attention back to how we’d like to act and what our core values are.  This can help us restrain the impulse to act destructively or manipulatively. It may help you get up and do something else when you’re tempted to break into your partner’s computer or stalk them online.

5. Mindfulness makes us more empathic

Mindfulness also changes the insula, a part of the brain associated with empathy and compassion. This can help us be more understanding of our partners’ perspectives and emotions and feel more compassion for them. When we approach our partners compassionately, rather than with angerand desire to control them, this can take the conversation in a positive direction. Compassion also helps us express love and warmth to our partner, which builds intimacy. Mindfulness creates an approach, rather than an avoidance mindset.

Summary

We all want happier relationships but few of us know the keys to relationship satisfaction. Rather than focusing energy on complaining or trying to change your partner, take up a mindfulness practice. Even better, take a mindfulness course together or practice meditation using a mindfulness app. This will help you be more present, loving, and emotionally mature. And who can resist that!

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