A RESEARCH-BASED APPROACH TO RELATIONSHIPS
Gillian Florence Sanger
February 17, 2020
No matter how versed you are in the art of awareness, your sincere efforts to explore the present moment go a long way in bringing you and your partner closer.
No matter how far you’ve come in your intimate relationship, cultivating love, intimacy, and union is an ongoing process. As mindfulness is the ever-unfolding compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of each and every moment, mindfulness practice and relationships go hand-in-hand. As your relationship evolves, so too does one’s mindfulness practice, both blossoming to enhance your sense of happiness, love, and equanimity.d
Every interaction between you and your partner is an opportunity for mutual appreciation and togetherness. However, when tensions are high and one or both partners are not mindful of their emotions, their words, and their energy, their interactions promote the opposite of togetherness, weakening the trust, connection, and deep intimacy you both yearn for.
To strengthen your relationships in meaningful and sustainable ways, a degree of mindfulness is required. The more mindful you are of yourself and your partner, the better. Yet still, no matter how versed or unversed you are in the art of present moment awareness, your sincere efforts to explore the present moment go a long way in bringing you and your partner closer.
There are numerous ways that mindfulness can enhance your relationships. From improving emotional regulation to enhancing gratitude, the skill of remaining open and receptive to the present moment has deep implications for your relationships. These are just some of the ways that mindfulness practice has this transformative effect.
Mindfulness can help you to better navigate emotions—both yours and theirs.
When you become more mindful of your emotional landscape, self-awareness increases and you experience an increase in your ability to moderate your responses. This does not mean that you negate or deny what you are feeling. It simply means you become a clearer witness of your emotions, better able to soften your responses where it is appropriate to do so.
One of the suggested mechanisms through which this occurs is through mindfulness’s ability to promote executive control. Mindfulness increases your sensitivity to your experience, which helps you to understand and respond in new ways.
But what does this have to do with relationships? As you can understand when you are the receiver of your partner’s emotions, the way an emotion is expressed impacts your ability to receive it with love. When someone lashes out, for instance, the body’s response is to defend or pull away, neither of which promotes togetherness or healing.
By becoming more attuned to your emotions, you start to express yourself in ways that embody both raw honesty and compassion. This sets the stage for how a difficult conversation with your partner will play out.
So, when emotions are running high and impacting your interactions with your partner, you can:
Turn towards the emotion.
Your instinct might be to turn away from challenging emotions as they arise (whether within yourself or your partner). However, Gottman’s principle of “turning towards instead of away” exemplifies a more mindful approach you might take when you or your partner is experiencing a strong emotion.
If you are experiencing a strong emotion, you can turn towards it by taking a few deep breaths, softening the mind, and paying attention to the sensations and stories that are moving through us. After a few moments, you might try to express yourself in a new way. It can be helpful to focus on your own needs, hopes, and desires, rather than expressing the other’s wrongdoings.
If your partner is the one experiencing a strong emotion, you can become mindful of your own instincts to defend, to turn away from, or to invalidate. Instead, you can take a few deep breaths through the heart and encourage a mutual, thoughtful exploration of what is present.
Create space between yourself and this wave of energy.
When an emotion is present, you can create a bit of distance between it and yourself. If you are the one feeling emotional, you can mindfully acknowledge the feelings that are present, removing the sense of ‘I’ from your observations. So, rather than noting ‘I am furious’, you would simply note ‘anger’, tuning into the physiological expressions of this emotion as well.
If your partner is the one experiencing the strong emotion, you can compassionately remind yourself that you do not have to swim in the same waters. You can be more like the steady rock beneath the waves that are moving, helping your partner to mindfully inquire about and express what is there.
Mindfulness practice helps to shift unconscious behaviors that impact your relationships.
Since many of your behaviors and responses in relationships are conditioned and habitual, shifting them in positive ways takes more than conscious effort. Mindfulness practice helps to make these shifts.
First, mindfulness increases your awareness of your habitual behaviors. You begin to recognize, through mindfulness exercises, that your thoughts and feelings do not truly belong to you. Instead, they are waves of energy that move through you in one way or another for a multitude of reasons.
Your conditioned beliefs and your personal history largely define how you respond in various circumstances. As you become more aware of this, you become empowered to shift your responses – or to at least catch them after they have risen.
Second, research shows that mindfulness training shifts neural circuits in both structural and functional ways. These shifts change your brain’s automatic responses to events. In other words, your brain literally rewires to adopt new ways of responding.
This adjustment in your automatic responses impacts your ability to pay attention, to regulate your emotion and physiology, and shifts your capacity for empathy. And, as Gottman notes, the ability to regulate your emotions (both during and after conflict) is largely connected with the stability and satisfaction you experience in your intimate relationships.
Countless mindfulness exercises will help you to gain these benefits on your brain’s subconscious behaviors. Some specific practices you might like to consider in the context of relationships include:
Meditations that address emotions
Mindfulness practice can increase your sense of appreciation and gratitude for your partner.
Mindfulness practice does not only enhance your sense of inner awareness. It also helps to increase your awareness of the beauty and blessings in your life. Exploring mindful gratitude practices can help to train your mind to see what’s right over what’s wrong – to see opportunity or challenge instead of signs of defeat.
Research supports this, showing that gratitude practiced in intimate relationships increases relationship connection and satisfaction the day after expressed – both for the giver and the receiver. So, gratitude is not a one-sided offering; it’s mutually beneficial.
There are a variety of ways to practice gratitude. Some can be directly linked to your intimate relationship though this is not the only way to enhance your capacity for gratitude. Some techniques worth exploring include:
Letter of Appreciation – Putting to words in the form of a heartfelt letter all that you love and appreciate about your partner.
Daily Expressions of Gratitude – Being mindful to share your thoughts of appreciation with your partner, such as thanking them for taking on an extra household chore or for preparing a lovely meal
Dinnertime Gratitude Practice – Taking a silent moment before dinner to mentally go through all that was wonderful about your day – partner included.
Mindfulness lowers the stress response, making you more open to your partner.
Last but certainly not least, the benefits of mindfulness on your relationships stems largely from its ability to lower stress levels. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and many other mindfulness practices are scientifically proven to help improve the way you respond to stress.
When you are interacting with your partner, your exchange is bound to be the most fruitful, the most meaningful, and the most intimate when your stress levels are low. If you are physiologically or psychologically in a state of stress, you are less present with what is in front of you. So, even in neutral interactions, low-stress levels will help you to be more in touch with your partner.
To practice easing the stress response, you can explore the simple belly breathing technique. This can be practiced either seated or lying down.
Finding a comfortable position, take a moment to ground yourself through slow, natural breaths for one to two minutes.
Once settled, place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. Now, as you breathe, see if you can let incoming air fill your stomach rather than creating a rise in the chest.
Notice which hands are moving on both inhalation and exhalation. The upper hand might shift slightly, but most ‘rise’ should be in the hand that is on your belly. It is easiest to observe this when lying down, so beginners might begin practicing that in that position.
Practice belly breathing for 5 minutes daily to help lower the body’s stress response.