Understanding Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement

Couple embracing on a bench.

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In This Article

Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement (MBRE) is a set of techniques used with couples who are already content with each other (i.e., not in distress) to help strengthen coping skills related to stress within the relationship.

All couples will face life challenges and stressors in their lifetime. As these difficult periods of life emerge, it is helpful for couples to have skills that promote working together and positive, adaptive coping strategies. That is where mindfulness-based relationship enhancement comes in.

MBRE has been shown to be effective for boosting stress coping skills, increasing personal well-being, improving relationship happiness, and increasing stress management skills. The ultimate goal of mindfulness-based relationship enhancement is to learn how to be present in the moment, accepting of whatever challenges you are facing individually and as a couple, and taking your time reacting and making decisions, to avoid the negative impact of hasty choices made in the heat of the moment.

What Is Mindfulness?

Before we start to understand mindfulness-based relationship enhancement, it is helpful to take a step back and learn a bit about the concept of mindfulness.

Mindfulness refers to being in a state of focused attention and awareness of your present experience. It also involves being curious, open, and accepting of that experience.

When you are acting mindfully, you don't immediately react to thoughts or emotions that pass through your mind. Instead, you act as a non-judging observer who explores and acknowledges feelings without immediately reacting. In this way, the roots of mindfulness lie in Buddhist or Zen meditation.

How does mindfulness help you? When you learn to practice mindfulness, you are learning how to cope in all of the different areas of your life. Rather than being a skill, mindfulness is a way of approaching life and the world.

Mindfulness makes all things in life more pleasant, it helps you to think more clearly, aids in being "in the moment" and increases your ability to cope with stressful events.

What Is Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement?

Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement is simply the extension of mindfulness techniques to the relationship realm. MBRE has the same purpose as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) founded by American professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, except that it is applied to couples.

Instead of allowing disagreements to escalate, which can happen when couples react in haste or out of anger or anxiety, MBRE teaches couples how to prevent and diffuse disagreements and conflict.

There are four main areas on which MBRE is based as follows:

Mindfulness: Learning to be non-judging of all experiences in the present moment (good and bad). This means experiencing present-moment awareness but not reacting to it.

Acceptance: Learning to accept experiences as they are, which leads to increased compassion and empathy for yourself and your partner.

Relaxation: Learning to generate the relaxation response, which helps to manage stress and improve feelings of well-being, clarity, and the ability to remain calm.

Self-broadening: Developing a greater sense of trust, connection, and love for everyone.

MBRE also involves gaining insight into your own patterns of interactions in your relationship, and feelings and thoughts. It could be that you and your spouse have each fallen into negative ways of thinking or interacting with each other that could be improved.

What's the advantage of mindfulness in a relationship? In general, being mindful as a couple means not getting caught up in both the little annoyances of life, as well as not being overwhelmed by the larger life challenges.

It means being flexible and non-judgemental, accepting differences, being less reactive, and being more objective. All of these qualities, both on a personal level and as a couple, will serve you well in facing the world together—as well as simply spending time with one another.

Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement Techniques

The following are mindfulness-based relationship enhancement techniques that may be used as part of this set of strategies.

Partner-focused loving-kindness meditation: Loving-kindness meditation is focused on care and concern for yourself and others. It involves learning to feel pure love and opening up your mind and heart to your partner. It also reflects selflessness and breaking down barriers.

Learning to be mindful of daily pleasant events: This technique involves becoming open to the present moment in a non-judging way. This allows us to notice the smaller things in life that we may not normally notice. It also promotes gratitude and being thankful for pleasant experiences.

Improving intimacy through mindful touching and eye-gazing: Mindful touching and eye gazing involve touching your partner or looking into your partner's eyes and noticing whatever you feel in the moment.

Established Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement

What are the established benefits of mindfulness-based relationship enhancement? There is robust and growing scientific evidence to support the positive effects of the use of mindfulness in improving relationships.

Some of the many benefits of MBRE are listed below:

  • Increased relationship satisfaction
  • Increased acceptance of one's partner
  • Improved individual well-being
  • Lowered relationship distress
  • Increased self-reported empathy
  • Increased ability to respond to relationship stress
  • Improved emotional stress responses
  • Improvements in perceptions of the relationship (before and after disagreements)
  • More adaptive communication styles
  • Improved relaxation response
  • Development of a buffer against chronic stress
  • Calming of emotional arousal

Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement can involve using strategies individually (such as practicing mindfulness on your own) or as a couple. These strategies allow you to become better in tune with yourself and your partner, to increase your empathy, and see problems that arise as challenges to be overcome rather than as threats to your relationship.

Think of the last time you found yourself upset in your relationship. Chances are that instead of collaboration and understanding, one or both of you were upset and being confrontational. While stress can lead to conflict and negative emotions, when you practice mindfulness, you will experience compassion and acceptance in the moment, which will improve outcomes for your relationship.

Research Support for MBRE

A 2004 study in the journal Behavior Therapy investigated the use of mindfulness-based relationship enhancement to enhance the relationships of couples who were happy and not in distress. The study showed that there were positive outcomes of MBRE in the following areas. In addition, all of these benefits continued to show at a 3-month follow-up in the study.

Benefits for Couples:

  • Enhanced relationship satisfaction
  • Improved autonomy
  • Improved relatedness
  • Increased closeness
  • Increased acceptance of each other
  • Lower relationship distress

Benefits for Individuals:

  • Increased optimism
  • Enhanced spirituality
  • Improved relaxation
  • Reduced psychological distress

A 2015 phenomenological study published in the journal Marital and Family Therapy investigated the impact of a relationship enhancement program for couples expecting their first child.

This program was called the "4-Week Mindful Transition to Parenthood Program" and involved mindfulness practices and interpersonal activities with an aim of developing personal and interpersonal skills for being in tune with oneself and each other in a couple.

The study involved semi-structured interviews with 13 couples and identified four areas of improvement after the mindfulness program:

  • Positive change for individuals in terms of awareness and acceptance
  • Improvements in the couple relationship such as a deeper connection with each other
  • Feeling more prepared for the arrival of the baby and more confident as parents
  • More involvement and better identification on the part of fathers

These study findings highlight the benefits of MBRE in terms of positive enhancements for both individuals in the relationship as well as the couple as a whole unit.

Practicing Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement at Home

How can you practice mindfulness-based relationship enhancement on your own at home? One way to do this is to draw on the techniques of MBRE on your own.

Below is a list of quick mindfulness strategies that you can employ on your own as a couple to start adding mindfulness to your relationship.

Disconnect. Put away your phones when you are together. Be in the moment and talk to each other.

Listen. Listen actively to what your partner says rather than thinking about what you will say next. Ask questions and be curious.

Feel grateful. Notice the times when your partner makes you feel happy and feel gratitude for those moments.

Be silent. Enjoy a bit of silence together. You don't always need to be talking to connect.

Respond. Instead of reacting with anger or emotions, take a breath, and respond in a rational way to problems that come up or challenges that you face together.

Create a vision. Make a list of 10 to 20 ways that you want to interact with each other in the future, such as "We support each other's growth" or "We do something new or fun together once a month."

Engage in caring behaviors. Ask your partner what things make him or her feel good, and make a commitment to do those special things on a regular basis. Examples might include buying flowers or holding hands.

Daily appreciation. Make a habit of expressing appreciation for each other once a day. Take a moment free of distractions and describe to each other something that the other person did that made you feel good.

See through new eyes. Slow down for a moment and see your partner through new eyes. Really notice things about your loved one that you take for granted, and fall in love all over again.

Eye gazing. Take a few minutes and spend it gazing into each other's eyes. This type of extended eye gaze increases oxytocin, which is the hormone that increases bonding.

Embrace. When you first see each other at the end of the day, before you say anything, embrace without talking until the point that you feel both of you relaxing. This engages the vagus nerve, which helps induce the relaxation response.

Breathe together. Practice mindful breathing together, in which you slow down in the inhale and exhale. This practice will also induce a relaxation response.

Mindful conversation. When you talk to each other, practice being open-minded and non-judgmental. Whether you have a deep conversation or a good laugh, be present at the moment without reacting or judging.

Be compassionate. See your partner in a compassionate way. In what ways has he or she suffered? See your partner not as an enemy but as a person needing compassion.

One practice that a couple can do to grow closer, that is easy and wholesome, is mindfulness meditation.

Meditate together. Find a loving-kindness meditation or another type of meditation on Youtube and practice it together.

Mindful touching. Spend time touching each other in an intentional way, rather than mindlessly. Be aware of what you are doing and focus on the moment.

Think before speaking. Before talking to your partner, take a moment to think about what you want to say and make sure that you are clear on what you want them to know and what result you want from the conversation. Also, be aware of how you are feeling in the moment.

A Word From Verywell

Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement has a long history and proven benefits to help you build a stronger and more resilient foundation as a couple. If you are already in a happy and positive relationship, MBRE may be helpful to prepare you for the life challenges you will eventually face, such as having children, job loss, financial difficulties, illness, etc.

Whereas many couples may be thrown off by these events, through MBRE you will be better prepared to respond to each other in an adaptive way and be mindful of how your individual behavior affects your relationship and all areas of your life.

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