Being Mindful Makes You Less Likely to Screw Up Your Relationship

Photo: Irina Munteanu/Getty Images/RooM RM

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Science of Us is spending this week talking about love — specifically, what happens when it goes wrong. If you ever wondered about the psychology of breakups, we’ve got you covered.

Mindfulness is so effective at helping preschoolers, high schoolers, survivors of breast cancer, parents of kids with autism, and just about everybody else that it has inspired a counter-take or two. Now there’s evidence that dispositional mindfulness — or a tendency to attend to what you’re doing and feeling — can help your relationships, especially when they get rocky.

In a study recently highlighted at PsyPost, University of Auckland researcher Holly Claire Dixon and a colleague recruited 72 people who were in romantic relationships averaging 30 months in length. The results amount to what the authors say is “the first evidence that greater present-centered awareness reduces rejection fears during daily conflict and attenuates destructive reactions when rejection concerns arise.” That’s big: It suggests that being more mindful can help stabilize you within the expected, inevitable, and, dare I say, healthy turbulence within relationships.

(It should be noted, again, that this is a study of dispositional mindfulness, or noticing your internal and external world, which is different, though related, to an actual mindfulness practice. For a book-length survey, read Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychologist who drove the field. Or watch a talk of hers.)

In this study, the participants — 89 percent female — took a bunch of questionnaires: on dispositional mindfulness (“I find myself doing things without paying attention”), self-esteem (“I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others”); relationship commitment (“I want our relationship to last forever”), and self-control (“I say inappropriate things”). Then, every day for ten days, they kept an online relationship diary rating levels of conflict with their partner, how much they feared rejection, and if they did anything destructive toward their partner.

As anyone who just got back from their first ten-day meditation retreat would be happy to tell you, the study found that people with higher dispositional mindfulness had less rejection fear on days of high conflict. And there’s a further, three-way interaction: For people with low self-esteem and low mindfulness, conflict drove lots of fear. But for those with low self-esteem and high mindfulness, conflict didn’t drive nearly as much. This suggests, the authors reason, that dispositional mindfulness enabled participants to be “aware of, and then cope constructively with, negative reactions to challenging relationship experiences.” This should not be over-interpreted, though: Ten days is not a ton of time, and experimental designs with practice-based interventions will help illustrate causality — studies like these work in associations.

Still, the tools offered up by dispositional mindfulness are powerful. The authors argue that awareness of thoughts, feelings, and behavioral tendencies should help the experiencer realize that those internal states are “transient” and thus less likely to make you lose your shit. Like a cross-cultural philosopher once told Science of Us, contemplative traditions oriented around mindfulness ask you to not invest so much truth in the moment-to-moment narrations supplied by your brain. It appears that doing so will help your love life, too.

Mindfulness Makes You Less Likely to Hurt Your Relationship