“The group that meditates together stays together.” This oft-repeated adage among proponents of mindfulness and meditation applies to groups of any size–including couples. Meditation-based activities act as an invisible glue for relationships, helping to foster bonds by increasing capacities for empathy, acceptance, and emotion regulation–for starters. These activities can also provide couples with actionable tools they can use to navigate conflict more calmly and gracefully. Mindfulness can be your secret weapon against conflict escalation. Sound like a bunch of hippy nonsense? Not so fast. Allow us to present our case.
What are Mindfulness and Meditation?
Simply put, mindfulness involves “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1995, p. 4). Meditation is the formal practice of sitting down and practicing paying attention to a particular meditation object in the way described by Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be practiced anytime and anywhere, as a part of daily life. One’s ability to bring mindfulness into everyday interactions is often underpinned by a regular meditation practice.
If you’ve ever tried to solve a conflict that comes up in your relationship when you’re in an anxious, depressed, scattered, or otherwise heavy emotional state, you probably know how hard it is to make meaningful progress. Guess what? Mindfulness can help to regulate mood and transcend those heavy emotional states.
Studies show that practicing mindfulness meditation helps people to regulate emotions through gaining distance from them. Brain scans of meditators showed that when presented with images designed to provoke feelings of sadness, areas of their brains associated with self-referencing didn’t light up as much as control group participants who were not trained to meditate. In plain English, that means that the participants trained in meditation still experienced sadness, but they didn’t relate this feeling as much to the concept of ‘self’. They didn’t identify with the feeling; they experienced it in a more detached way (nicabm, 2022). Therefore, practicing meditation can aid in creative distance between oneself and one’s emotions, which fosters clarity and regulates mood. Put simply, it can “tame” your emotions (Medical News Today, 2022). Try tackling your conflict after practicing meditation. We promise your attempts at conflict management will be easier and more successful than before.
Two Meditations for Emotion Regulation
You can do these activities alone or in a couple. If your partner is also game to do some meditation, great. If not, don’t let that hold you back. One well-regulated partner is better than none!
1. Breathing Meditation
-Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. (Yes, that’s right, you can lie down if you want to.)
-Bring your attention to the points where your body makes contact with the ground, your bed/chair, other parts of your body, or anything else. Notice the sensations.
-After a moment, bring your attention to your breathing. Notice the rise and fall of your belly, or the air as it enters and departs your nostrils.
-If you notice some thoughts, feelings, or sensations coming up in your mind or your body, just notice them without judging them or identifying with them. Notice that “there is a sensation of pain” or “anger is arising”. Allow them. None of them are good or bad, they’re just experiences that pop up on the canvas of the mind. Don’t hold onto them; just let them pass like clouds, bringing your attention back to your breath after you’ve noted them.
-Continue like this for 5-10 minutes. If you sometimes notice that you’ve gotten caught in the storyline associated with one of your thoughts or feelings, don’t worry, it’s normal. Just notice that your mind wandered and gently bring it back to your breathing as soon as you notice.
2. Monkey Mind Meditation
-Begin the same way you began the meditation above–spend the first couple of minutes getting comfy, noticing points of contact, and breathing.
-This time, the breath is not the primary meditation object: the movements of the mind itself are. Turn your attention to your mind itself. What’s it cooking up?
-Notice whatever it’s thinking or experiencing. Then let it go, watching it pass like a cloud. Except instead of turning your attention to your breathing as the thought dissipates, just keep your attention on the mind. What else is it cooking up?
-The objective is neither to follow the mind’s storylines nor to manufacture them, but to notice them if and when they arise.
-If nothing arises from the mind, just notice what the ‘no-thing’ feels like.
This may sound like an unconventional way to meditate, but it actually sometimes helps to calm an active mind. By turning your attention to the mind itself, sometimes the mind freezes or slows down. If you try this type of meditation and you notice that in the absence of thoughts you’re again focusing on your breathing, that’s ok too. The main thing is to notice what’s going on at that moment.
Practicing either of the above types of meditation regularly over time, even for just a few minutes per day five times per week, will help you to build the habit of de-identifying with and regulating your emotions through mindfulness. If you do this practice regularly, you’ll also be better able to apply these skills to your life and better regulate your emotions in everyday situations.
Meditation is widely lauded as a way to cultivate greater empathy and compassion towards others, and it’s true–kind of. There are as many types of meditation as there are flavors of jelly bellys, and each type comes with its own unique benefits and effects on the mind and body. Practicing a simple breathing meditation might not make you more compassionate, but practicing metta meditation probably will. The word ‘metta’ (in Pali) translates to something like ‘loving kindness’. Metta meditation has been linked to increases in kindness, empathy, and compassion (Pope, 2019) so much that a simple google scholar search for “metta meditation and empathy” will yield dozens of relevant studies. Here’s a simple way to do a metta meditation which involves cultivating feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others. It takes less than 10 minutes.
-Sit or lie down comfortably and, as in the meditations described above, notice points of contact and your breathing.
-After a moment, bring your attention to yourself. Start out by cultivating feelings of loving kindness towards yourself. Read and inwardly repeat the following phrases, taking time to imagine and feel what each one would be like:
May I be healthy and happy
May I be safe
May I be joyous and free
May I overcome obstacles and realize my dreams
May I be peaceful and at ease
-Next, bring your attention to someone with whom you have a relatively simple, uncomplicated relationship and who you have strong positive feelings towards. Repeat and imagine the phrases above (may [person’s name] be healthy and happy, etc.) with them in mind.
-Next, call to mind a person towards whom you feel neutral. No strong positive or negative feelings. Perhaps you don’t know them very well. Repeat the phrases again as you imagine what they would look like for this person.
-Now try this with a person with whom you have a complicated or tense relationship, or someone with whom you are in a conflict.
-Next, use these phrases to send loving kindness to all of humanity. Some people even choose to branch out more from here, going as far as all sentient beings in existence.
When done regularly, metta meditation can change a state into a trait. Doing it once or twice induces empathy as a state of mind one is in at that moment. However, practiced consistently over time, empathy becomes a trait–a characteristic, a baseline, or a part of who one is as a person (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). It’s very easy to imagine how beneficial this can be to romantic partnerships. If a couple has the mental fortitude to step back from a conflict and practice metta meditation in that moment, they will likely succeed in de-escalating the conflict and approaching it with greater kindness, and whatever conflict resolution technique they choose to employ will therefore likely be more successful. If a couple practices metta meditation regularly, their baseline will be more compassionate, leading to a kinder relationship overall.
“Above all, mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness at each moment. It involves being kind and forgiving toward yourself.” –Harvard Help Guide
A major component of mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arises without trying to change it. We have to be a little bit careful with this one, because taken too far out of context it can lead to a complete lack of morality and lack of action in the face of wrongdoing. However, when applied skillfully, it can be used to help people make peace with aspects of themselves/their felt experience and others which may at first be difficult to accept. In the context of a romantic relationship, this means that mindfulness can help couples accept those oh-so-annoying parts of one another that they cannot change.
Below is our adaptation of meditation teacher Tara Branch’s famous RAIN meditation, tailored for couples. It can be used anytime, but is particularly relevant during tense moments. Imagine that your partner did that maddening thing you despise–again. Then try the following:
Recognize what’s going on inside of you in response to this difficult situation. Take a moment to step back, breathe, and check in with yourself: What are you feeling? What’s going on in your mind? (Palouse Mindfulness, N.D.)
Allow the experience to be as it is. Accept it. Let yourself be present with it, without trying to fix or change anything, and without turning away. Just notice (Palouse Mindfulness, N.D.).
Investigate with curiosity. Get curious about the details and nuances of the experience in a kind, gentle way, creating a backdrop of safety against which you can connect with the vulnerable parts of yourself (Palouse Mindfulness, N.D.). You might ask some questions, like: Wwhat does this experience feel like in my body?” “What needs do I have in this moment?” “What unmet needs triggered me?” or “What underlying beliefs of mine about my partner or my relationship have led to this particular felt experience?”
Nourish with compassion.
There’s a strong possibility compassion will arise spontaneously as a result of the first three steps (above) (Palouse Mindfulness, N.D.). If not, don’t worry. Be forgiving with yourself, and try to cultivate feelings of compassion towards your experience. At the same time, try to cultivate feelings of compassion towards your partner’s experience in this situation, as well. Cultivating compassion towards someone you disagree with doesn’t mean that you agree with their conclusions or actions, but it does mean that you see and honor their perspective.
Where does acceptance come in? Sometimes (where appropriate) it may mean accepting some of the annoying habits that you cannot change about your partner. Other times, it means accepting your feelings about those habits. That doesn’t mean you have permission to take out negative emotions on your partner, it’s merely a suggestion that before emotions can dissipate, sometimes they have to be felt fully and accepted. And sometimes, it also means accepting yourself for your own flaws that cause friction with your partner. RAIN is just one of many techniques that can help you become more accepting.
Make it a habit to step back and quickly go through the RAIN process in your head during difficult interactions. It will help you to de-escalate conflict or prevent escalation, as well as to reconnect with your partner during high-stakes moments. Think stepping back from a triggering moment sounds like a superhuman feat? It is, if you haven’t practiced first. Practice it in as formal meditation practice and in lower-states situations first, and your RAIN muscles will soon become strong enough to run through the process quickly even as a difficult situation pops up.
Meditation Protip: Download the app “insight timer” and then click the “discover” section to navigate to the timer. You can set a gong to ring every minute so that in case your attention has wandered off, you can bring it back to your breathing.
Improvements in emotion regulation and increases in empathy and acceptance are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits meditation and mindfulness can have on relationships. Meditation and mindfulness practices can also help couples to be more fully present with one another, increase feelings of closeness, and more (Suttie, 2017). If you want to make your connection even stronger as well as manage conflict with more grace, experiment with a few different practices and make meditation and mindfulness a habitual part of your relationship.
Mindfulness/meditation and Prenups
Couples who practice meditation on the cushion and mindfulness in everyday life are also likely to experience the often-stressful process of writing a prenup with greater ease. There are a million reasons why you should consider a prenup, but we’re not going to pretend it’s necessarily going to be a cakewalk. Although HelloPrenup’s process has made it a lot less stressful than before, the process of negotiating a fair, successful prenup demands a high level of open communication, flexibility, empathy, and willingness to hear and understand your partner’s needs. The benefits for empathy, acceptance, and emotional regulation that can come when you make meditation and mindfulness a part of the culture of your relationship can make the prenup process a lot smoother.
Meditators will likely be more able and willing than others to step back from conflict if it arises during prenup discussions, as well as less prone to high-intensity conflict in the first place. They may also be able to accept one another’s needs more easily. Finally, they’ll also enjoy greater clarity of mind as a result of the emotion-regulating benefits of meditation. More mental clarity = more bandwidth with which to negotiate differences in creative ways that satisfy both partners.
Goleman, D. and Davidson, R. J. 2017. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Avery
Harvard Health. 2022. Benefits of Mindfulness. Retrieved from: https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm
Kabat-Zinn, J. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are. Paris: Hachette Books.
Medical News Today. 2022. Mindfulness Meditation Helps to Control Emotions, Says Study. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313216
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. 2022. How Mindfulness Works to Regulate Emotion in Your Brain. Retrieved from: https://www.nicabm.com/how-mindfulness-works-to-regulate-emotion-in-your-brain/
Palouse Mindfulness. N. D. The RAIN Process. Retrieved from: https://palousemindfulness.com/docs/RAIN.pdf
Pope, S. 2019. Between Empathy and Kindness–Metta Meditation. Retrieved from: https://growinspiritmagazine.com/article/Empathy-kindness
Suttie, J. 2017. Can Meditating Together Improve Your Relationships? Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_meditating_together_improve_your_relationships
Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected]