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Mindfulness can build stronger marriages. Here’s how to practice it.

Being present and intentional is vital to the appreciation, satisfaction and longevity of your relationship

Two people, heads touching, overlooking a sunset.
(Celia Jacobs for The Washington Post)

Mindfulness has been shown to help with work, stress, anxiety and depression. It also can benefit your marriage. Being present and intentional is vital to the appreciation, satisfaction and longevity of your relationship.

I am a psychologist who has facilitated marital retreats for several years. People come to these retreats to resolve problems, supplement marriage counseling or to prevent issues from becoming problems. When they ask for strategies to improve their relationship, I suggest mindfulness as a useful tool.

Mindfulness has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

MBSR is an eight-week evidence-based program that was originally taught to individuals with chronic medical conditions but has been found to be effective with the general population. With mindfulness, we can step back and not be immersed in the drama of mood fluctuations. Research shows it is also beneficial for couples.

A review of 16 studies focused on couples showed that mindfulness interventions increase self-compassion, well-being and quality of life. Mindfulness can relieve psychopathological symptoms such as anxiety and depression and psychobiological stress as measured through, for instance, salivary cortisol. Relationship quality, such as in intimacy, can be enhanced by mindfulness training.

Another study that looked at 2,117 newlywed couples who completed various questionnaires found that a person who is high in mindfulness as a trait also scored high on forgiveness and gratitude. If we are paying attention and are present in our relationships, we can observe the ways in which our partner may be showing their love toward us.

I worked with a couple who had been married for 12 years. When the husband got home from work, the wife was excited to see him and talk about her day. The husband was still wound up with excess stress from the office and responded with irritation. A vicious frustration cycle would erupt most evenings.

In counseling, he began to see that she simply wanted to connect. She could note that his irritability was not with her but was a remnant from work. Each took turns listening, without thinking of a comeback or proving how the other was wrong. They became more mindful of each other’s needs.

Their marriage improved; they had fewer arguments and more empathy for each other. They went on more dates each month and had an increased sense of enjoyment in their time spent together.

When we practice mindfulness, we can minimize distractions, discern what is going on in our bodies and emotions, and begin to be more present in our relationships. As this occurs, forgiveness and gratitude can increase.

Here are three ways to increase mindfulness in your relationship that have benefited my clients.

Hold hands for one minute

Set a timer for one minute and hold hands with your partner in silence. Keep your devices switched off and minimize distractions. Think about how your partner’s hand feels. Your mind will drift, but bring it back to the moment. Mindful hand-holding increases a sense of connectedness. It creates an experience of intimacy in the moment.

When I lead this one-minute hand-holding session in marital retreats, some find it exhausting, but others find it helpful. One participant began crying because she felt moved and connected to her partner. It has since become a ritual for many couples. If this is what mindfulness for one minute can do, imagine the results if people tried it for longer periods.

Try a new hobby together for the first time

New activities create a sense of wonder and inquiry. Our senses are heightened because we don’t know what to expect. Life momentarily is not monotonous. When we do new activities with our partner, both have an opportunity to experience and navigate the world with fresh eyes. Some hobbies tried by couples from the retreats I have led include yoga classes, escape rooms, virtual murder mystery events and quiz shows at pubs.

Sexual mindfulness

Sexual mindfulness has been found to improve sexual well-being in marriages. Mindfulness can lead to a greater sense of awareness and non-judgment during sex, but also an increase in sexual harmony, flourishing of the relationship, and consistency in orgasms, according to a 2021 report in Archives of Sexual Behavior.

In sexual mindfulness exercises, the idea is to play with our senses and be mindful of how we feel. For example, a couple can take turns for 10 minutes trying to entice their partner’s senses while their partner is blindfolded and observe what is pleasurable. You can use essential oils or the tip of a feather. When our eyes are covered, our other sensory gateways are awakened, and we can begin to take time to tune into the moment and our senses. In marital retreats I led, such exercises brought a sense of playfulness back into the relationship for many couples. Mindfulness includes observing the world with curiosity, and this exercise exemplifies this.

Many of us want our relationships to be healthy and long-lasting. Mindfulness helps us to continue to see our partner with a sense of curiosity, gratitude, acceptance and satisfaction, which can help the relationship be rich and fulfilling for a long time.

Tricia Wolanin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Malaga, Spain.

We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.

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