Mindfulness: What IS it and How Can it Improve My Relationship?

The word “mindfulness” and the phrase “being mindful” has been catching a lot of buzz and media attention lately. You may be seeing this word more often on your social media feed and more celebrities and public figures are talking more about practicing mindfulness. But, do you ever wonder to yourself, “what the hell are they talking about?!” If you’re wondering this, you’re absolutely not alone! Many of us aren’t really sure what mindfulness is, and we often think about Buddhist monks or people meditating, which let’s be real, is hard to connect to when you have so many things on your plate.

So, what is mindfulness and how can I practice it? There are four basic steps to keep in mind when practicing mindfulness, or what The Gottman Institute calls “RAIN”:  recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identification. The first step is to recognize what emotion you’re feeling and label it in your mind. The second is to then accept the experience you’re having, even if it’s uncomfortable. The third, investigate, is to be curious about this experience by asking yourself, “where do I feel this emotion in my body?” and “what kind of thoughts am I having?” Lastly, non-identification: see the emotion as a passing event rather than who you actually are. For example, adopt the attitude of, “anger is arising and will soon pass away” or “sadness is coming up in me, and at some point will dissolve”.

Therapists often use “mindfulness” as a technique to teach clients how to be more present-focused and ultimately learn to be more aware to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment. Studies tell us that practicing mindfulness can decrease the negative effects of stress, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and can improve sleep, mood, and overall mental and physical health. Practicing mindfulness can not only improve one’s overall well-being, but it can also improve intimate relationships. How cool is that?

Practicing mindfulness can improve your romantic relationships in two significant ways: by communicating more effectively and decreasing anxiety around physical intimacy. Practicing mindfulness can improve communication, especially with close relationships in your life, because it forces you to slow yourself down. Something that is said or done that triggers us can cause a reaction out of us in a matter of seconds, often times without realizing why we’ve been triggered or what it’s making us think and feel. By being more mindful, you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, and therefore can respond to a trigger rather than react to one.  Rather than immediately becoming defensive or shutting down, you can better respond to your partner by being a more active listener and explaining your own perspective. Practicing mindfulness also makes you more emotionally attuned to your own thoughts and feelings, which can therefore allow you to be better at communicating them.

Mindfulness is also a necessary and helpful tool in sex therapy or when someone is struggling with anxiety around physical touch or there’s a trauma history.  I often hear clients say in couples therapy that their mind wanders during sex to anything from a work email they forgot to send, what they’re going to make for dinner, to whether or not their body looks desirable from this angle or whether or not their sexual encounter may cause pain. When our minds wander or are filled with self-critical thoughts, we aren’t connecting with our partners and we aren’t enjoying ourselves as much. During physical contact, focus on physical sensations and feelings and ask yourself, “am I comfortable?”, “does this feel good?”, and if not, give your partner feedback and tell them what’s going on. If you need to stop or take a breather, let your partner know and you can discuss what would be best.

Practicing mindfulness can improve many aspects of your life and overall well-being.  You don’t have to practice meditation every day or convert to Buddhism to practice mindfulness.  Anyone can incorporate mindfulness practices into their every day life by doing small things, such as paying closer attention to your senses and surroundings, as well as connecting what emotions feel like in your body. Mindfulness is a practice, and we all have to start somewhere, so why not start now?

~ Rebecca Hirsch, LMFT