A Psychologist Explains How 'Mindful Partnering' Can Help Revive Your Relationship
Dr. Tasha Seiter explains how you can become a more mindful partner and add new life to your relationship.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 10, 2022
A new study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy shows how being a mindful partner can improve the quality and meaningfulness of your relationship.
I recently spoke to psychologist Tasha Seiter to understand the five key aspects of 'mindful partnering.' Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to take up mindful partnering as the topic for your research?
We know from research that the quality of our relationships, and especially the quality of our intimate partnerships, are profoundly important for our mental health, physical health, and even our risk for early mortality.
This is one of the reasons I became a couples therapist and relationship researcher; our relationships are just so important for every aspect of our lives! So, I've become really interested in this question: what is the difference between good relationships and bad relationships, and more specifically, relationships that are good for our health and those that are bad for our health?
Previous research has uncovered some answers to this question. We know that those with greater mindfulness in general have better relationships, and that those who pay better attention to their partners have better relationships too. Kindness and generosity also come up again and again in the literature as predictors of better relationship satisfaction.
Reading all of this research, I noticed that the previous research on predictors of relationship satisfaction lacked a unifying concept to synthesize them, so that we could make sense of all of this and truly understand what makes for a good relationship that is good for health and longevity rather than harmful to it.
This is why my team and I decided to study interpersonal mindfulness, as something that could help others have better relationships and ultimately better health and lives.
How would you describe a relationship in which both (or more) partners are interpersonally mindful?
A relationship in which both partners are interpersonally mindful is a relationship where both partners are present with each other, are aware of and care how each other are feeling, take a pause before reacting in conflict, show compassion toward each other, and have self-compassion for themselves.
In short, these are great relationships in which each partner really shows up for the other. Both partners feel cared for, fully seen, and heard. This creates a positive cycle in the relationship in which receiving caring and presence creates the desire to give in the relationship, rather than take, leading to satisfying relationships.
Your study explores five distinct aspects of mindful partnering. Could you briefly walk us through each?
- The first aspect is mindful awareness in attention and action toward one's partner. When couples practice this, they attend with full awareness to each other, focusing deeply on each other in shared activities and in actions toward one another. When we are fully present in our relationships, our partners feel fully seen and heard. This creates fertile ground for emotional intimacy and trust that our partner will be emotionally accessible and dependable when we need them.
- Another aspect is nonreactivity in the partnership. This refers to the ability to take a mindful pause in conflict. When couples can take a mindful pause before reacting, it gives time to decide the most mindful and helpful way to react in a given situation, and therefore less harm is done to the relationship out of reactivity or carelessness. The way in which couples communicate during conflict is one of the most empirically supported predictors of longitudinal marital satisfaction and stability, and so nonreactivity in conflict has the potential to greatly impact relational quality and chances of divorce.
- Emotional awareness of one's partner, another aspect that we found was part of mindful partnering, involves the ability to understand the emotional state of one's partner, an ability that can be improved from mindfulness practice. Previous research finds this to be important for quality relationships.
- Mindful partnering also involves acceptance and compassion of one's partner, the ability to approach differences with kindness, understanding, and empathic concern. When we show such compassion and acceptance to our partners, a positive cycle of mutual support ensues that greatly enhances relationship satisfaction and has the potential to reduce conflict.
- Lastly, self compassion in the partnership involves forgiving yourself for mistakes that you make in the relationship, not being too hard on yourself when you aren't perfect, and striving to learn from mistakes. When individuals are able to give themselves compassion, they have a more full cup and are able to do the same for their partners, resulting in higher-quality partnerships.
What was the methodology of your study? What according to you was the most important finding?
My colleagues and I developed a battery of questionnaire items that we thought might measure mindful partnering, and tested whether they measured this concept well. We asked 335 undergraduate students and 264 married adults to complete the questions.
Then, to understand what mindful partnering really is, we ran analyses to understand the underlying components that make up mindful partnering.
If you had to suggest your 'top three' practices a couple can include in their relationship to improve their sense of mindfulness, what would they be?
My top 3 suggestions to increase interpersonal mindfulness in your relationship would be:
- Develop a mindful presence with your partner. Focus on tuning in to your partner and becoming completely present with them when you spend time with them. Ask them questions, and get curious about their responses. You will likely find yourself enjoying your time more with them, as they will with you.
- Practice emotional awareness of self and other. When you notice yourself feeling angry with your partner, take a moment to pause and notice mindfully the vulnerable emotion (for example, sadness or fear) that is triggered within you, and share this vulnerability with your partner. This move has the potential to connect you rather than drive you further apart when you are triggered.
- Move toward greater acceptance and compassion in your relationship. Every couple has differences: in personality, in preferences, in (annoying) habits. What distinguishes happy couples from unhappy ones is the ability to accept these differences (given that they are not 'deal breakers' or causing harm) and learn to talk about them in a healthy way marked by compassion and kindness.
Would you have any words of wisdom for someone who struggles to bring the vulnerability and presence in their relationship required to be a mindful partner?
It's common to struggle to slow down in our relationships, especially when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed or getting triggered and reactive.
If this is the case for you, it may be a good idea to seek out a professional therapist trained in mindfulness interventions and couples therapy who can be alongside you on your journey to becoming a more mindful partner.
Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on mindful partnering go in the future?
Now that we understand what mindful partnering really is, my colleagues and I are in the process of publishing further research on how mindful partnering is related to physical and mental health.
We're also developing a program to help couples increase their levels of mindful partnering in their relationships, so be on the lookout for that in the future.