A Powerful Way to Enhance a Romantic Relationship
Small moments, many times.
Posted February 12, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
If you are in a relationship, and care about sustaining it, this post is for you.
While many people think of mindfulness as sitting alone, silently, it is enormously helpful in relationships. In the practice of mindfulness meditation, we are taught to get curious about our experiences and to gently “turn toward” them. This is done on a micro-level in meditation, usually starting with something small, such as an itch or a pain, and then progressing to something larger, such as an upsetting memory, a charged emotion, or even heartbreak.
When I heard that John and Julie Gottman, dubbed the “Einsteins of Love,” were using the language and techniques of mindfulness to help couples enhance their relationships, I got curious. The Gottmans, two of the nation’s leading experts on relationships, have four decades of data and have studied thousands of marriages, meticulously identifying which behaviors create happiness and which ones destroy connection. In my clinical practice, I’ve found that these ideas can be applied to all relationships—with friends, children, and family members, not just romantic ones.
I’ve distilled their major relationship “hacks” to help you not just on this holiday, but every day.
Try Turning Toward
When one person tries to connect with another, there are basically three responses that we can have:
- Turning toward is a positive response when we engage with the attempt to connect.
- Turning away is giving no response, either ignoring or not noticing the effort to connect.
- Turning against is an angry or irritable reaction that shuts down an attempt to connect.
In the Gottmans’ research, turning toward is the biggest predictor of happiness in relationships. Couples who stayed together turned toward their partner’s effort to connect 86 percent of the time. Those who later divorced only turned toward the bids 33 percent of the time. These moments of turning toward the other accumulate over time, creating goodwill and helping mediate future conflict. Think of it as making a deposit in an emotional bank account.
Like meditation, it involves practice. Turning toward another is not a one-shot deal, but a daily exercise in actively paying attention. Small, daily acts can determine the quality of a relationship. Tibetan meditation masters have a saying that is used to cultivate awareness: “small moments, many times.” It turns out that this technique supports happiness in other relationships as well. Think of it as “microdosing” with mindfulness. If we train our minds to attend to the needs of another, just as we train to return to the breath, sounds, or the sensations of the body, we can increase the chances for a fulfilling relationship.
Gratitude Makes a Difference
Gratitude is a game-changer. Nearly all the meditation teachers I have studied with suggest noting what you are grateful for during your day. Research shows it can help us focus on what is positive in life. However, in an intimate relationship, writing things down in a private journal isn’t enough; you need to actively express thanks. This may seem like a no-brainer that you learned in nursery school, but our psyches are complicated. Because the brain is often on autopilot (or stuck in past hurts) we don’t see clearly. Often, we don’t see it when others are kind to us. Really. The research shows that couples who were unhappy missed 50 percent of the positive things the other partner did. It wasn’t that the happy folks were doing more nice things, they were better at seeing them.
It’s important to have some self-compassion here. Don’t beat yourself up for not seeing. We all have what psychologist Rick Hanson calls a “negativity bias” where the missed connections stand out like a flashing neon sign. We cling to them as our brains are hard-wired to protect us. When you are looking for problems, this is what you see. However, we can change our default setting. Neuroscientist Richie Davidson tells us that the habit of negativity can be changed permanently. Positive interactions dilute negativity. We can change on a cellular level, which is good for our brains, our health, and our relationships.
These small shifts are worth the effort. But think about it this way. Positive relationships are worth it. They lift your mood, decrease your stress, and strengthen your immune system. They also decrease loneliness, depression, and illness.
What is freeing is that there is no one way to turn toward another. Think of this when a relationship feels stuck. If you hate playing board games with your kid, try something new. I recently took my daughter outside to find the first green buds of spring. A gardener friend told me that you can see daffodil sprouts coming up on Valentine’s Day. It felt like a small sign of hope. If talking to your aging mother about the weather drives you crazy or if you can’t bear to hear your friend complain about her boss, shift the conversation. What do you want to talk about? Find your own way to sweeten things up. The Gottmans take inspiration from the blues singer Nina Simone: “I want a little sugar in my bowl. I want honey deep in my soul.” Meditate on what is it that sweetens life for you and see what happens.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J.S. (2022). The LOVE Prescription. NY: Penguin