Mindfulness consists of deliberate awareness of your experience in the present moment along with a kind, gentle, accepting, and open attitude towards whatever thoughts and feelings arise. Research reviews suggest that mindfulness can make us healthier and happier, more successful at work, and less stressed. But can mindfulness actually improve our romantic relationships? A new meta-analysispublished in the February, 2016 Issue of Journal of Human Sciences and Extension finds that mindfulness is indeed linked with more satisfying relationships.
This meta-analysis statistically aggregated results from 12 studies, including 2 that were mindfulness interventions. Overall, mindfulness was shown to have a reliable effect on relationship satisfaction.
How Does Being More Mindful improve Our Relationships?
Eight weeks of mindfulness training have been shown to change the brain in many positive ways. Mindfulness makes us more compassionate and better able to stop destructive impulsive behavior. It can help us resolve conflict, rather than exacerbating it and be less reactive to relationship and life stressors.
Mindfulness creates specific changes the brain in ways that are likely to make us better relationship partners.
Mindfulness Calms Automatic Negative Reactivity
Mindfulness makes the amygdala (the brain’s threat detection and alarm center) less powerful and increases the connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex —the brain’s executive center. This helps us to calm down anger and fear so you don’t get stuck in escalating cycles of negativity. You may be less likely to see your partners' behavior as a threat to your wellbeing. This can help you move from a mindset of defensive self-protection to protecting the relationship. With a less anxious brain, you are also less likely to let stresses from other areas of life (like work, parenting, or finances) infect your attitudes and behavior towards your partner. and create downward spirals of hurt and anger.
Mindfulness Promotes Cognitive Flexibility and Secure Attachment
Mindfulness strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain associated with self-perception, regulation of attention, emotions and impulses. The ACC is also involved in cognitive flexibility or the ability to see problems from a different perspective. The ACC helps you adapt and change rather than getting stuck in fixed views of yourself and your partner. Many couples get stuck in negative cycles that result from childhood attachment insecurities and past traumas. Romantic relationships are especially likely to trigger your insecurities and distrust. Mindfulness can help you calm down and stop insecure attachment behaviors like trying to control your partner or avoiding intimacy. It can help you understand your needs and speak up for yourself in an honest, mature way. It can help your relationship negotiate new life and personal challenges.
Mindfulness Creates Empathy and Compassion
Mindfulness also creates positive changes in the insula, an area associated with emotional awareness and empathy. With a more functional insula, you are more able to be aware of your own and your partner’s feelings and needs. This can lead to greater compassion and understanding. Mindfulness promotes an open, accepting attitude towards your partner. If you find yourself ruminating about their flaws, you can change tracks and focus on appreciating their positive qualities. When you understand your partners’ behavior in the context of their life circumstances (current and past), you are more likely to understand negative behaviors and expressions. Greater awareness of your own emotions also makes it less likely that irritability or stress will “leak out” and affect the way you interact with your partner.
If you want to build more secure attachment or love that lasts, try bringing mindful self-awareness and compassion into your relationship. Therapy can show you how.
Mindfully in Love: A Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Mindfulness and Relationship Satisfaction by Julianne McGill, Francesca Adler-Baeder, and Priscilla Rodriguez (Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, February 2016)
Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness by Marsha Lucas (Hay House, 2013).