Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can You Do Mindfulness?

Creating mindfully intimate encounters.

If a friend has ever been frustrated with you for not being “tuned in” to a discussion that was important to them, you have experienced a relational consequence of not being mindfully focused on a partner, friend, or family member. Communicating mindfully is important, but often challenging. Below, we’ll discuss characteristics of mindfulness across different relationship contexts, ending with practical suggestions for cultivating mindful intimate relationships.

Communication researcher Doug Kelley of Arizona State University West and I wrote this post together featuring Doug’s research on communication, intimacy, and mindful relationships (Kelley & Nichols, 2023) as detailed in his book, Intimate Spaces: A Conversation About Discovery and Connection (2021).

Characteristics of Mindfulness

Being mindful includes making intentional choices to observe, describe, act with awareness, withhold judgment, and practice nonreactivity.

Observing involves paying attention to the environment coming from our five senses. Describing represents the ability to understand and put into words our own inner experience, thoughts, and feelings, including emotions. Acting with awareness involves staying focused and attentive to what is happening in the present and not being distracted or running on “autopilot.” Withholding judgment references not negatively questioning or evaluating one’s own inner experience. Practicing nonreactivity involves noting how we are experiencing the world and letting things pass, avoiding not being “taken over” by thoughts and worries that block being present.

Communication scholar Valerie Manusov (2015) explains the connection of mindfulness to positive relationship outcomes. She states, “If we become more mindful (in the sense that we encourage awareness, being present, and not judging), we can be more fully with another person and ourselves just as we are."

Doug’s research team studied the nature of mindfulness and intentional steps to be fully present in family, friend, and romantic relationships within different communication contexts. Doug recalls that the entire team wanted to buy a motorcycle after a female respondent described riding on the back of her partner’s loud motorcycle, and how he frequently reached back to gently touch her leg. This example shows how people communicate in mindful ways that are present, aware, and safe (feeling accepted and nonjudged) with one another.

Mindfulness, Expressing Emotions, and Relationship Quality

Researchers help us understand the relationship between mindfulness, emotional expressiveness, and relationship quality. They highlight the importance of accepting the other person(s) and ourselves, responsiveness, and emotion regulation. In light of these findings, Doug explains the “nature of mindfulness as a safe space for the discovery, emotional closeness, and vulnerability of intimacy: I am present with you, aware of you, not judged by you.”

Relational Mindfulness Themes in 6 Contexts

How does mindfulness play out in everyday experiences? Doug and colleagues studied mindfulness within six different contexts.

First, during intimate talk, people stressed mindfulness themes related to feeling safe to “open up” with the other person and present through feeling understood. An interviewee expressed: "With my current boyfriend…I talked to him about my past. I told him how I had a miscarriage in my previous relationship and how my ex-boyfriend cheated on me…Talking about my fears made us closer. He understood me more."

Second, during intimate sex, people emphasized awareness of their partner’s needs, desires, vulnerability and safety, for example, by looking into each other’s eyes.

Third, during play, reactivity facilitated a sense of presence through emotional expression. One interviewee explained: "Play is that feeling of dropping your guard and becoming the absolute version of you. There were many times when I would stop putting on a persona of being a manly man and just be me…I was able to express how I felt, and I could just be silly around someone."

Fourth, when experiencing grief, emotional reactivity brought a sense of closeness and presence if one felt accepted rather than judged (Kappen et al., 2019): "When I had to put down my dog...I was a mess. My boyfriend was my rock and never judged me just because it was a dog…it takes a lot of trust to be able to open up to someone like that, and to let them see you completely fall apart." Of note, during both play and grief, nonregulated emotion was associated with mindfulness as relational partners experienced presence, awareness, and nonjudgment with one another.

Fifth, conflict was associated with physical and emotional immediacy (presence), and a nonreactivity that facilitated understanding one’s relational partner. For instance, talking through conflict with a friend, rather than reacting, can facilitate understanding one another on a deeper level and generate relationship growth.

Sixth, forgiveness both facilitated and reflected mindfulness when focused on understanding one’s partner and even oneself. In this sense, forgiveness involves presence, vulnerability, and acceptance.

Practical Suggestions for Cultivating Mindful Intimate Relationships

Communication is central to our ability to create and express mindfulness and intimacy in family, friendship, and romantic partnerships. We suggest:

  • Be present with important others through physical immediacy and emotional expression. Plan ahead and minimize distractions. Demonstrate that you understand your partner (you “get” them), as opposed to understanding something about them.
  • Cultivate a safe (nonjudgmental) space for intimate interaction that is characterized by acceptance, vulnerability, and nonreactivity.
  • Be aware of your partner by observing and being attentive to their behavior. Work at being able to describe what you see in your partner and communicate that sense of understanding.
  • Don’t miss out on mindfully intimate experiences in all your close relationships during every day and during special experiences—for example, over morning coffee or celebrating a birthday. Seek out and watch for intimacy opportunities during talk, sex, play, grief, conflict, and forgiveness.


Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment.

Kappen, G., Karremans, J. C., & Burk, W. J. (2019). Effects of a short online mindfulness intervention on relationship satisfaction and partner acceptance: The moderating role of trait mindfulness. Mindfulness.

Kelley, D. L. (2021). Intimate spaces: A conversation about discovery and connection. Cognella.

Kelley, D. L., & Nichols, H. M. (2023). Relational mindfulness themes in descriptions of intimate encounters across six interpersonal contexts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Manusov, V. (2015). Mindfulness as morality: Awareness, nonjudgment, and nonreactivity in couples’ communication. In V. Waldron, & D. Kelley (Eds.), Moral talk across the lifespan: Creating good relationships. Peter Lang.

More from Dawn O. Braithwaite, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Dawn O. Braithwaite, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today