Zvi Bellin, PhD, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Rotating Header Image

Mindful Couples Counseling

This article was published in the Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling (2017).

Mindfulness and Couples

Mindfulness and couples is an application of mindfulness theory and practice as it relates to the interactional patterns of a couple. From its roots in Buddhism, and other religious/spiritual traditions, mindfulness has three main components: attention training, open awareness to the present moment, and cultivating compassion. Thus, mindfulness can be seen as an engagement with the world that is attuned to phenomena arising and passing in the present moment, with an attitude of acknowledgment and non-judgement. Brent Atkinson’s research has shown that mindfulness can aid individuals to become greater attuned to their own unconscious inner-experience. The intersection of mindfulness and couples suggests that by incorporating more mindfulness into a partnership, through formal and informal practice, couples can become better skilled at responding to each other in connective ways, especially during times of struggle. Mindfulness correlates with significant changes in the brain’s structure and function which may create the conditions for more satisfied relationships.

Attention Training for Couples

Mindfulness within the context of a couple can be practiced in a variety of ways, both formal and informal. Individual partners can practice on their own, or couples can practice in tandem, or share in exercises together. For the first component, attention training, a fundamental practice is to sit in stillness while focusing on a chosen anchor. For example, you might choose to focus your attention on the experience of breathing in your body. Attention training occurs when your focus veers away from the breath, and then you actively return your attention to the breath. This process occurs over and over in a sitting period. Practicing in this way can be shared, as a couple can create a set time for silent sitting together in their schedule. Alternatively, the couple might take a silent walk together, each individually focusing on the pressure of their footsteps on the ground. In a more interactive format, a couple might sit facing each other with their eyes open. The goal is to use the body cues of their partner to match the breathing pace of their partner, inhaling and exhaling together.

Attention training is beneficial for the couple as it can help a couple to be more thoughtful of how they attend to each other, especially in times of conflict. According to John and Julie Gottman, successful couples are able to attend to the positive qualities of the other in times of disagreement. Attention training can help individuals stay focused on the positive qualities of their partner, despite negative judgments of behaviors during a conflict.  Attention training can also help couples stay rooted in their goal to create a particular kind of partnership, despite disagreement. Sharpening attention to one’s own inner experience can provide clues to the inner-experience of one’s partner. Thus, knowing oneself provides greater insight into knowing the psychological needs of one’s partner.

Open Monitoring for Couples

    In the second component of mindfulness, open monitoring, the lens of concentration is widened, and the practitioner attends to whatever is the most prominent sensation from one moment to the next. A sensation is defined as any bodily feeling (the five senses), emotion, or thought that arises. The goal is to stay aware to the dynamic flow of experience while maintaining awareness that you are present and open. With open monitoring the practitioner learns that sensations arise and pass on their own time, as if they have a mind of their own. Similar to attention training, open monitoring can be practiced by a couple in tandem, setting aside time to sit, walk, or eat together with the intention of staying open to whatever arises from one moment to the next. A practice called noting, offers a way for couples to practice open monitoring in a shared experience. In noting, the couple sits together, and each person alternates sharing a one word label for their most prominent sensation. For example, couples practicing might alternate the words, “Hearing,” “Pressure,” “Happiness,” “Thinking,” “Sadness,” and so on.

When an individual is emotionally primed with negative emotions, one is more likely to perpetuate a negative cycle. Open monitoring has shown to improve a person’s ability to stay emotionally flexible in the face of conflict. Thus, a couple in conflict can learn to respond to unhelpful behaviors with understanding, rather than defensiveness and retaliation. Open monitoring also adds to the skills of knowing oneself in order to know the other, and increases one’s ability to choose what to attend to in any interaction.

Compassion Practices for Couples

With compassion practices, mindfulness becomes a practice that leads towards the goal of cultivating greater kindness and caring. Compassion may be cultivated within the other two components, as the practitioner is mindful to recommit to a chosen anchor without blame or malice for straying. For example, when you lose your breath, or get lost in a thought, a sense of failure and frustration can arise. This is the moment for compassion, as you can use your inner voice to comfort and console while guiding yourself back to the breath, or back to the next most prominent sensation. More formal compassion practices involve sitting silently with the intention of feeling love for select individuals in one’s life – including oneself and one’s partner. The feeling of love is generally facilitated through the use of repeated phrases and visualizations. Compassion practices can be experienced quietly together. Couples can also explore prolonged eye gazing and consensual touch as shared practices that may elicit feelings of compassion for each other.

Increasing compassion within a couple can help individuals attend to bids for affection that may usually go unnoticed. Compassion can also increase one’s ability to respond favorably to these bids, especially when emerging from disagreement. Compassion for one’s own shortcoming increases one’s ability to accept the perceived shortcomings of one’s partner.

 

To learn more, email: Z.BellinLPCC@gmail.com OR call 24/7: 510-292-4002 (Note this voicemail line is for non-emergencies. In case of an emergency, please call 911.) to schedule a free consultation. I support individuals and couples who experience social marginalization due to race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation. I assess for historical harms and multigenerational trauma, and address the suffering caused by social oppression head on.  Oppression is real and you do not have to remain silent. 


Further Reading on Couples and Mindfulness

Atkinson, B. J. (2013). Couple and family psychology: Mindfulness training and the cultivation of secure, satisfying couple relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2, p. 73 –94. doi:10.1037/cfp0000002

Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35, 471-494. doi:10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80028-5

Gehart, D. R. (2012). Mindfulness and acceptance in couple and family therapy. New York: Springer.

Gottman, J.M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. New York: Norton and Company, Inc.