Can Mindfulness Make Us Less Mean to Our Mates?

Mindfulness shows us not every breath is pleasant. Likewise, not every moment of our love life makes us swoon. Explore a simple technique to see the good in your mate when you need to curb some excessive judgyness.

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You sit on your new meditation cushion—the lovely purple one stuffed with organic buckwheat hulls—and nestle into your favorite shawl. You are looking forward to an uninterrupted mindfulness session. The room is blissfully quiet and you have no commitments this afternoon—not until your Valentine’s dinner with your sweetheart tonight.

You gather your attention, inviting it to focus on the breath. You notice the subtle sensations at the belly—rising, falling. You remember your meditation teacher instructing you to think of your mind like a puppy, so you invite your untrained mind to sit and stay, to let go of its busy sniffing and wagging and practice being still, just for this breath.

And then the puppy goes bananas.

Unbidden, your mind suddenly notices everything that’s “wrong.” Your shawl is scratchy, you are teetering on your purple cushion, not as comfortable as you thought it would be, and you can hear the drip, drip of a loose faucet. And oh yeah—you kind of hate meditating.

The mind is a powerful tool for love and happiness. Just don’t use it as a judge’s gavel.

If you’re not careful, the same thing can happen in your love relationships—Your mind will start seeing all the things that are wrong with your mate. You roll your eyes at the dirty frying pan in the sink instead of thanking your sweetie for the mushroom and truffle oil omelette. You comment on their wrinkled shirt instead of saying you appreciate them driving you to visit your grandmother. You may even find yourself complaining more than you compliment—and excess criticism is one of the predictors of divorce. Face it—sometimes your puppy runs away and pees on the rug of your love affair.

It’s as though your mind has a mind of its own—a judge that puts the world, and your mate, on trial, looking for anything that is unpleasant or not working. And from an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Our attention evolved to scan the environment, jumping from object to object, instantaneously evaluating what we need to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore. After all, our caveman ancestors stayed alive by being paranoid. They woke up, peeked out of the cave, and looked for things that were not just unpleasant, but dangerous. So don’t be too hard on that mind of yours when it looks for what is wrong—there are a million years of conditioning behind that unconscious habit. The great thing is that by practicing mindfulness, you can change it.

Don’t be too hard on that mind of yours when it looks for what is wrong—there are a million years of conditioning behind that unconscious habit.

The mind is a powerful tool for love and happiness. Just don’t use it as a judge’s gavel. If you look for evidence that your mate isn’t perfect, you will find it. The good news is that if you look for evidence that they are kind, funny, and take good care of you some of the time, you will find that too.

So how can you practice seeing what your mate is doing right? We can start by first building a habit of meeting our inner judgyness during meditation. Grab that purple cushion and explore this two-step practice:

Two-Step Practice To Curb Judgyness During Mindfulness Practice

1. Become curious of your inner critic

As you focus on the sensations of breathing in and out, become a curious observer of the puppy. When it races off to cause some trouble—focusing on the pain in your back and anxiously deciding you’d better call the doctor, for example—gently nudge it back to the breath. Ask it over and over to sit and stay. But use kindness, not punishment. Don’t kick the puppy—give it a loving scratch on the neck for dropping the stick of negativity and coming back.

2. Look for the “yay” moments

Then for the next step. Start looking for the pleasant moments in your meditation. Neuroscientist and meditation teacher John Yates, Ph.D., encourages practitioners to notice the peaceful or happy mind states that accompany some breaths. And he suggests you celebrate a little when you notice those pleasant moments. In this second layer of mindfulness practice, scan for the positive, and when you find it, say “yay.” That’s positive reinforcement—you are giving your puppy mind a dog biscuit for noticing the pleasant instead of focusing on the unpleasant.

Mindful Loving 101: See the Good in Your Mate

When I teach couples to bring mindfulness off the cushion and into their love relationship, I suggest a simple practice I call the “dog biscuit practice.” The idea is to curb the tendency toward negative rumination by giving “treats” to your mind.

First, practice noticing

Here’s the basic framework:

  1. Notice the negative thought—Don’t open your mouth and voice your observation.
  2. Pause
  3. Take a few, deep mindful breaths
  4. Redirect your focus to something positive, e.g. a pleasant thought
  5. Say “yay” to yourself, reinforcing the good moment.

Consider this scenario: Let’s say your beloved mate promised to walk the dog today, but they got busy and forgot. You feel frustrated and have negative thoughts about how they broke a promise to you. Now, pause. Take a few mindful breaths. Do you want to dwell on disappointment? Or would you rather seek a pleasant thought—maybe “I fell in love with a hard-working designer who gets lost in their creative projects.” Once you find that positive thought, say “yay” to yourself. Practice this again and again: Note the negative, pause, then seek and highlight the positive. Patiently train that puppy mind by rewarding loving thoughts.

Then, choose what you want to focus on

So first comes the noticing—am I indulging negative thoughts about my partner, or seeking positive thoughts? Next comes the action. You can act on the negative thought and harangue your cute designer for their dog-walk oversight. Or you can cultivate positive thoughts and act from love. Here you give treats to your mate: kind words, a sexy smile, your patience and consideration. Perhaps you say “Hey love, no problem. Let’s bundle up and take Sophie to the beach together.” Presto. You have a happy mind and a happy spouse. Dog biscuits are not just for Sophie anymore.

The beautiful thing that mindfulness teaches is just this: you can choose what to focus your attention on. And what you focus on expands.

The beautiful thing that mindfulness teaches is just this: you can choose what to focus your attention on. And what you focus on expands. There is pleasant and unpleasant in a breath, in life, and in your love relationship. So this Valentine’s, forget the flowers and bring on the compliments, the encouragement, and the positive observations: Thank you for making me tea, I really appreciate how hard you are working these days, damn you are sexy, come give me a kiss. Ultimately, love is a choice. And the choice is yours. When your partner steps out of the shower tonight, about to dress up for your big date, you can focus on their hairy back or their radiant smile. It’s up to you.

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