According to a recent study published in Scientific Reports, mindfulness training has the potential to improve relationship well-being. The researchers also found that relaxation interventions without mindfulness offer comparable benefits.
Mindfulness — the practice of tuning one’s awareness to the present moment and acknowledging all thoughts and sensations without judgment — is a hot topic that has garnered much attention from media and researchers alike. The benefits of mindfulness practice have been extensively studied, with some studies suggesting psychological benefits ranging from stress-reduction and alleviation of depressive symptoms to improvements in cognitive functioning.
“Mindfulness is a hot topic, and in addition to benefits for the individual, many claims have been made that practicing mindfulness can promote the wellbeing of our social relationships,” said study author Johan Karremans, an associate professor at Radboud University.
“As a relationship researcher, I do think that there are indeed good theoretical reasons why mindfulness — attention and awareness — can have interpersonal benefits, including in our romantic relationships. For example, being better aware and attentive to impulses, emotions, and thoughts should allow for better communication about these experiences toward partners (and receive the support from the partner that is needed), and also should allow for better regulation of those experiences, not being driven by them automatically and unconsciously.”
“However, despite the claims, there is very little evidence that practicing mindfulness indeed may have a causal effect on improving romantic relationships,” Karremans explained.
For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of individuals who were currently in romantic relationships. The participants were between the ages of 21 and 89 and had been with their partners for an average of 23 years. The researchers split the participants into two groups — one group was assigned to a mindfulness intervention, and the other, a relaxation intervention. The relaxation group served as an active control condition, designed to mirror the conditions of the mindfulness group but without any mindfulness instruction.
The mindfulness intervention involved 2 weeks of daily, 10-minute mindfulness exercises guided by audio recordings, while the relaxation intervention involved 2 weeks of daily, 10-minute relaxation exercises also guided by audio. Both groups were encouraged to transfer what they learned from the exercises to their interactions with their romantic partners.
Participants completed questionnaires assessing a set of relationship outcomes at the start of the intervention, the week following the intervention, and one month after the intervention. To glean a more complete understanding of how the interventions were affecting relationships, the participants’ romantic partners were also recruited to complete these assessments.
After analyzing the results, Karremans and team found that the mindfulness intervention did appear to have a positive effect on relationships. After completing the mindfulness training, participants reported greater relationship satisfaction, greater connectedness, higher partner acceptance, and reduced relationship distress. These changes were also apparent at the one-month follow-up.
However, the relaxation group showed a similar pattern, demonstrating improved relationship satisfaction and improved partner acceptance the week after the relaxation training and at the one-month follow-up. They also showed lower distress and increased relationship excitement at the one-month mark (but not immediately following the intervention). For both the mindfulness and the relaxation groups, partners also reported greater relationship satisfaction and partner acceptance, and lower relationship distress after the intervention and one month later.
“Our study provides promising results that mindfulness practice could have a positive effect on relationships. Mindfulness exercises positively affect how you evaluate your romantic relationship, and also your partner may reap the benefits. But importantly, in our study we found that engaging in relaxation exercises gives very similar outcomes to your romantic relationship,” Karremans told PsyPost.
The researchers say there are several possibilities for the lack of substantial differences between the two groups. One explanation could be that any intervention would boost self-reports of relationship health, by encouraging participants to reflect on their relationships and, in doing so, triggering positive thoughts. It could also be that both interventions offered positive relationship benefits but through different mechanisms. “For example, daily relaxation might reduce overall psychological and physiological stress levels, which in turn might positively affect how people behave and respond to their partners,” the authors explain.
The researchers also propose that the relationship benefits of mindfulness practice might only emerge with a longer training period.
“The intervention was relatively short, two weeks, and that may be not be long enough for mindfulness practice to really ’sink in’ — the most common way to train mindfulness is through the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) and even then, participants often report that this is only the beginning of the development of and their journey into mindfulness. It is like an introduction or beginners training,” Karremans explained.
“Also, our findings were based entirely on self-reports of perceptions of their relationship. In future studies, we are examining the effects of mindfulness training on more objective measures, such as physiological recovery after conflict, and implicit measures of relationship satisfaction (not sure if that makes any sense to a reader though). Finally, although the mindfulness and relaxation interventions provided similar results, the results may have come about through very differences psychological processes — that is something we need to examine in more detail.
The researchers maintain that their study highlights the importance of considering an active control group when studying the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions, in order to get closer to understanding the specific effects of mindfulness practice.
“There are still so many interesting question that have been unanswered in this field — whether and how mindfulness affects romantic relationships is a young field of inquiry, and I’m am confident that in the next couple of years we will learn much more about it, and that’s exciting,” Karremans said.
The study, “Comparing the effects of a mindfulness versus relaxation intervention on romantic relationship wellbeing“, was authored by Johan C. Karremans, Gesa Kappen, Melanie Schellekens, and Dominik Schoebi.