Abby Van Egdom, MA, LMFTA
How Mindfulness Can Help Your Marriage
Have you ever been upset or hurt by your partner after something they did or said - and you quickly responded – and the situation continued to escalate?
Maybe it was just that look they gave you (the one you are picturing right now) or a comment that led you to believe that they thought you were inadequate or unimportant. You felt attacked, which led to our survival modes – fight, flight, or freeze – to attempt to defend yourself from further hurt.
My husband and I recently moved to Houston and needless to say, driving somewhere new has gotten the best of us at times. We seem to be in the correct lane and then all of a sudden we need to be three lanes over. Well, of course we do not make it over in time, so as the lane exits, the navigation system thinks we are on a different road. We’re lost. My husband starts yelling at the phone, I anxiously yell for which lane to be in at the next light, he responds in a harsh tone, and I shut down. No longer are we focused on our mutual goal of getting to our destination but focused on our tone and comments.
It plays out in different ways and sometimes we manage to respond to these annoying side tours by noticing the stress level rising in the car and encouraging each other to take a breath. Or responding with a softer tone like, “We are both feeling stressed and attacked right now. Can we start over?” It just takes that pause between the distressing trigger and choosing our response to end the attack/defend cycle.
One way to add more pauses to allow for a thoughtful response versus a defensive reaction is through mindfulness training. You have probably seen the word, “mindfulness,” in Facebook posts and self-care book covers. Mindfulness training consists of daily practices of focusing your attention on several things such as your breath, sensory experiences, and the present moment. Mindfulness increases your awareness of the present moment without judgment and decreasing reactivity.
Mindfulness works by rewiring your brain to be more flexible and sensitive, even showing improvements in brain scans as short as 5-8 weeks. The brain scans have shown strengthening pathways in the brain (neuroplasticity), increased activity in areas that improve awareness (Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Hippocampus, Insula), and decrease activity in areas that make us immaturely reactive (Amygdala, Cortical Midline Structures).
According to Mark Williams and Danny Penman, the authors of Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, hundreds of research studies have found mindfulness training decreases:
- Rates of illness
But how can it help your relationship with your partner? The pause between the trigger and the response can save relationships. Mindfulness decreases jumping to conclusions, reacting by saying hurtful comments, or ruminating over an argument that you had with your partner that ends up ruining the rest of your day. Taking a step back can also increase affectionate curiosity with your partner to wonder what led them to react or feel the way they do. With mindfulness, you may have more awareness of the present moment or physical sensations that alert you that you are not in the right mindset to argue effectively. Some physical alerts could be a racing heart beat, tenseness in your shoulders, or stomach churning. (Atkinson, 2013).
So mindfulness decreases:
- Reactivity/Jumping to conclusions - decreases intensity of arguments
- Letting the argument carry over your entire day
- Empathy towards your partner - partner feeling heard and accepted
- Awareness of your own emotions/physical sensations
- Ability to remain calm in distressing interactions with your partner - less wounds and more resolutions
- Attention on the present moment - increases awareness of positive interactions in your relationship
A mindfulness practice takes work but there are dozens of scientific neurobiology research that show improvements in individual functioning as well as relationship satisfaction.
Atkinson, B. J. (2013). Mindfulness training and the cultivation of secure, satisfying couple relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2(2), 73. Retrieved from http://thecouplesclinic.com/pdf/Mindfulness_Training.pdf
Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Rodale.