For those of you less familiar with mindfulness, I will share Jon Kabat-Zin’s definition – “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non- judgmentally”. So how is this helpful in our intimate relationships?
There are many research studies showing that regular mindfulness practice reduces stress, enhances empathy and compassion, increases concentration, and helps us to better manage both physical pain and emotional distress.
It is not difficult to see how these kinds of individual changes can make relationships more enjoyable. Research backs this up and also shows that couples who are more mindful have greater couple satisfaction and an ability to manage difficulties when they arise.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally
– Jon Kabat-Zin
One important aspect of mindfulness is “being in the present moment”. So often we find ourselves thinking about the past or planning for the future that we forget to be in the present.
To illustrate this, let’s consider a case study of a couple – Sharon and Joe. Sharon and Joe had been together for 10 years and felt they were drifting apart and that it was only the children keeping them together. They both had successful careers, but little time for each other. They always thought it would get better next year, or the year afterwards, but it never did. They tried “date nights” but these were usually spent responding to mobile phones, talking about the children, or planning house renovations.
Sharon and Joe were forever in what mindfulness practitioners call the “doing mode,” which is exhausting if it is not balanced by time in “being mode” – that is being relaxed, alert and in the present moment.
There are many things you can do to stay in the present moment. A common practice is to focus on your breath, the in breath and the out breath, and when your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to it. Sometimes this is described as "training your monkey mind."
Another practice is to do an everyday activity much more slowly than usual, for example – eating, having a shower, or cleaning your teeth. Use all your senses to explore the experience. Observe how it feels. Your mind will try to pull you away so you may have to keep bringing it back to the present.
Try this joint mindfulness exercise.
Here is an exercise to do with your partner, if they are happy to take part. This will take about five minutes, so find a place where you can sit together without interruption and a time when you are not too tired.
Set a timer for two minutes on your phone, and sit opposite each other and lightly hold hands. Without changing your position, use your senses to explore your partner’s face, their smell and feel of their skin, without talking. If your mind wanders, notice what is happening and bring your attention back to them.
When the timer goes off after two minutes, take it in turns to speak briefly about the experience and reflect on how it might be possible to have more times like this when you are fully present together.
Judith Lask is a Couple and Family Therapist and the former Head of Family Therapy Training at King’s College London.
She has presented at numerous psychotherapy workshops around the world and contributed to an easy-to-use measure of family functioning called SCORE. She is an Honorary Fellow of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).