How to use mindfulness to strengthen your relationships
No matter how well you know the art of awareness, your sincere efforts to explore the present moment will go a long way in bringing you and your partner closer.
No matter how far you’ve come in your intimate relationship, nurturing love, intimacy, and union is an ongoing process. Since mindfulness is the ever-evolving compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of every single moment, mindfulness practice and relationships go hand in hand. As your relationship evolves, so does mindfulness practice. Both bloom to strengthen your sense of happiness, love, and equanimity.
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 unaware of their feelings, words, and energies, their interactions promote the opposite of togetherness and weaken the trust, connection, and deep intimacy that both of you crave.
In order to strengthen your relationships in a meaningful and sustainable way, a certain level of mindfulness is required. The more attentive you are to yourself and your partner, the better. Regardless of how well versed or unskilled you are in the art of present moment awareness, your sincere efforts to explore the present moment will go a long way in bringing you and your partner closer together.
There are numerous ways mindfulness can improve your relationships. From improving emotional regulation to increasing gratitude, the ability to remain open and receptive to the present moment has a profound effect on your relationships. These are just a few examples of how mindfulness practices have this transformative effect.
Mindfulness can help you better manage emotions – both yours and hers.
As you become more aware of your emotional landscape, your self-esteem increases and your ability to moderate your reactions increases. This does not mean that you are negating or denying what you are feeling. It simply means that you will become a clearer witness of your emotions and better at softening your reactions when appropriate.
One of the suggested mechanisms by which this occurs is through the ability of mindfulness to encourage executive control. Mindfulness increases your sensitivity to your experience, which will help you understand and respond to new ways.
But what does that have to do with relationships? As you can understand, when you are the recipient of your partner’s emotions, the way an emotion is expressed affects your ability to receive it with love. For example, when someone whips, the body’s response is to defend or withdraw, which does not promote togetherness or healing.
As you become more attuned to your feelings, you begin to express yourself in a way that embodies both raw honesty and compassion. This creates the conditions for how a difficult conversation with your partner will play out.
When emotions are high and affecting your interactions with your partner, you can:
Turn to the emotion.
Your instinct may be to turn away from challenging emotions as they arise (whether in yourself or in your partner). However, Gottman’s “instead of turning away” principle shows a more mindful approach you may take when you or your partner is experiencing a strong emotion.
When you experience a strong emotion, you can turn to it by taking a few deep breaths, softening the mind, and paying attention to the sensations and stories that move through us. After a few moments, you might try new ways of expressing yourself. It can be helpful to focus on your own needs, hopes, and desires rather than expressing the other’s misdeeds.
When your partner is experiencing a strong emotion, you can become aware of your own instincts to defend, turn away, or invalidate. Instead, you can take a few deep breaths through your heart and encourage a mutual, thoughtful exploration of what is there.
Create space between you and this energy wave.
When there is an emotion, you can create some distance between it and yourself. If you are the one who is feeling emotionally, you can mindfully acknowledge the feelings that exist and remove the feeling of “I” from your observations. So instead of noticing “I am angry,” you would simply notice “anger” and adjust to the physiological expressions of that emotion as well.
When your partner experiences the strong emotion, you can compassionately remind yourself that you don’t have to swim in the same water. They can be more like the steady rock beneath the waves moving, helping your partner mindfully ask and express what is there.
Mindfulness practice helps change unconscious behaviors that affect your relationships.
Since many of your behaviors and responses in relationships are conditioned and habitual, changing them in positive ways takes more than conscious effort. Mindfulness practice helps make these shifts.
First, mindfulness increases your awareness of your habitual behaviors. You begin to realize through mindfulness exercises that your thoughts and feelings are not really yours. Instead, they are waves of energy that move through you in one way or another for a variety of reasons. Your conditioned beliefs and personal history largely determine how you will react in various circumstances. As you become more aware of this, you can postpone your responses – or at least catch them after they go up.
Second, research shows that mindfulness training shifts neural circuits both structurally and functionally. These shifts change your brain’s automatic responses to events. In other words, your brain is literally being rewired to develop new ways of reacting.
This adaptation of your automatic responses will affect your ability to pay attention, regulate your emotions and physiology, and alter your ability to empathize. And, as Gottman notes, the ability to regulate your emotions (both during and after conflict) is largely related to the stability and satisfaction you experience in your intimate relationships.
Countless mindfulness exercises will help you harness these benefits for your brain’s unconscious behavior. Some specific practices that you might want to consider when it comes to relationships are:
Meditations that address emotions
Stress reduction meditations
Mindfulness practice can increase your sense of appreciation and gratitude for your partner.
Mindfulness practice not only strengthens your inner awareness. It also helps to increase your awareness of the beauty and blessings in your life. Exploring mindful gratitude practices can help train your mind to see what is right and what is not – to identify opportunities or challenges, rather than signs of failure.
Research supports this and shows that gratitude practiced in intimate relationships increases the relationship and satisfaction of the relationship the day after – for both the giver and the recipient. So gratitude is not a one-sided offer; it is mutually beneficial.
There are several ways to practice gratitude. Some can be directly linked to your intimate relationship, although this isn’t the only way to improve your ability to be grateful. Some techniques worth exploring are:
Letter of appreciation – In words in the form of a heartfelt letter, everything that you love and appreciate about your partner.
Daily Expressions of Thanks – Remember to share your thoughts of appreciation with your partner, such as For example, by thanking them for doing some extra household chores or preparing a nice meal
Dinner Gratitude Exercise – Before dinner, take a quiet moment to mentally go over everything that was wonderful about your day – partners included.
Mindfulness lowers the stress response and makes you more open to your partner.
Last but not least, the benefits of mindfulness for your relationships come mainly from the ability to relieve stress. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and many other mindfulness practices are scientifically proven to help improve the way you respond to stress.
When you interact with your partner, your exchanges are sure to be the most fruitful, meaningful, and intimate when your stress levels are low. When you are physiologically or psychologically stressed, you are less present with what is ahead of you. Even with neutral interactions, less stress will help you have more contact with your partner.
To practice how to alleviate the stress response, you can learn the simple abdominal breathing technique. This can be practiced either sitting or lying down.
Take a moment to ground yourself for a minute or two through slow, natural breaths.
Once you are settled, place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Now as you breathe, see if you can fill the incoming air into your stomach instead of causing a surge in your chest.
Notice which hands move when you inhale and exhale. The upper hand can shift slightly, but most of the climb should be in your hand, which is on your stomach. It is easiest to observe this lying down so that beginners can practice doing this in this position.
Practice abdominal breathing for 5 minutes a day to reduce the body’s stress response.
Whichever lens you look at this through, both science and experience show that mindfulness practice helps promote healthy and happy relationships. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to embody the wisdom, love, and patience inherent in these practices. As you mindfully explore your relationship, remember to use compassion on yourself and your partner as you learn to govern your union in new ways. Old habits may take some time to change, but when both hearts are open, even the transition period is seen as a beautiful and necessary part of the journey.