How to Strengthen Loving Relationships with Mindfulness

Our guide to reflecting on the relationships in your life and opening yourself up to the opportunity for love to grow.

You don’t have to wait for Valentine’s day to pause and reflect on the relationships you value in your life. Whether it be with colleagues, friends, lovers, or a spouse, you can always benefit from taking a step back, appreciating the love you have in your life and making the time to show others you care about them.

When you are mindful of the love in your life you open yourself up to the opportunity for love to grow. And not just romantic love, but self-love, and loving friendships as well.

The Benefits of Healthy Relationships

Plenty of exercise. Healthy food. Positive attitude. Plain old good luck. There’s lots of advice out there about how to keep body and brain in optimal shape as the years roll by.

But Louis Cozolino, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, is deeply engaged with another idea. In Cozolino’s book, Timeless: Nature’s Formula for Health and Longevity, he emphasizes the positive impact of human relationships.

“Of all the experiences we need to survive and thrive, it is the experience of relating to others that is the most meaningful and important,” he writes.

His thinking grows out of the relatively new field of interpersonal neurobiology, based on the recognition that humans are best understood not in isolation, but in the context of their connections with others. Our brains, Cozolino writes, are social organs, and that means that we are wired to connect with each other and to interact in groups. A life that maximizes social interaction and human-to-human contact is good for the brain at every stage, particularly for the aging brain.

Since the publication of Cozolino’s earlier book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, the field of social neuroscience has expanded tremendously. We now know that people who have more social support tend to have better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance. The well-known, long-running Harvard Medical School Nurses’ Health Study was one of the early studies to reveal how being socially integrated can lead to greater health, life satisfaction, and longevity over time.

“How we bond and stay attached to others is at the core of our resilience, self-esteem, and physical health,” Cozolino writes. “We build the brains of our children through our interaction with them, and we keep our own brains growing and changing throughout life by staying connected to others.”

6 Ways Relationships Help You Thrive

When we think about personal growth, we often envision a solo quest, like Don Quixote on a journey of self-improvement. We are advised to increase our self-control, get grittier, and develop a sense of purpose. So we hunker down, turn inward, and start the solitary task of reshaping our habits and behaviors.

And yet people who are thriving are usually doing so with the help of others. Peak athletes have coaches. Top executives have mentors. Great parents have parenting blogs and other great parents to bounce ideas off of.

Research backs this up, suggesting that positive relationships can help us succeed, grow, and become better people. Romantic partners often encourage and support one another toward shared goals. When parents are highly involved in school, their children tend to do well academically. And positive support from friends, especially during adolescence and early adulthood, can encourage us to be more empathic and helpful toward others.

Across all spheres of our lives, our relationships can not only help us feel good, but they can also help us be good. If you want to tap into these benefits, here are six simple ways to draw on your relationships to fuel your growth.

1. Spend time with the right people

We generally become more and more like the people with whom we spend our time. The more we see someone model a behavior and see that behavior being reinforced in positive ways, the more likely we are to try it out ourselves—whether it’s a friend having success with a new exercise routine or a partner staying calm during disagreements by tuning into their breath.

One of the most fundamental ways to make sure your relationships are helping you grow is to surround yourself with the right people. Some relationships frustrate us, some make us happy, and some challenge us (and some relationships do all three!). While it isn’t always easy to stop and start relationships, of course, we can aim to spend more time with the people who challenge us.

2. Create goals with others

Who says that goal setting should be a solitary venture?

When we share our goals with others, we immediately have someone to keep us accountable. It is difficult to stay on track with a goal all the time, but it’s easier if we have someone to help us work through an obstacle or pick us up when we fall.

The social support that we receive from others is incredibly powerful, particularly during those tough times. When the pressure is high, those who have greater levels of social support tend to experience less stress.

We may also be more motivated when we are working toward a goal with someone else. Think about being pushed by a running mate to jog a little faster than you would otherwise. Or giving up your Saturday for a service project because a friend is doing the same thing. Sometimes we need someone else to inspire us to be our best.

3. Ask for feedback

It’s usually up to us to decide on the areas where we could use some self-improvement. And while this process of self-reflection is important, we can sometimes be bad judges of our own abilities; we usually assume we know much more than we actually do. So why not look to our relationships as a source of feedback about where we can improve?

Feedback is crucial for our development. Research has shown that when we seek feedback and use it as an opportunity for growth, we are more likely to improve over time. How much faster would that process be if we went and asked for feedback instead of waiting for it to come? Imagine your partner’s reaction if you were to ask for feedback on what you could have done differently after a big fight, or how blown away your teenager would be if you asked how you could be a better parent this school year.

Our positive relationships represent a safe space for us to work on ourselves with support from people who care about us. But sometimes we have to make the first move and ask for that support.

4. Use your broader network

Just like financial capital, social capital is a valuable resource that we can invest in for our own good. The more meaningful relationships we have, the more social resources become available. We often find work or beloved hobbies through our relationships, even at three or four degrees of separation—like your brother’s wife’s friend, who heard about that great new job opening.

In addition to exposing us to new ideas, activities, and opportunities, social capital also frees us up to do more of the things we are good at when we find others to help with the things we aren’t as good at. This has benefits at home and at work: For example, employees are more engaged when they get to spend more time using their strengths. And teenagers are happier and less stressed when their parents focus on building their strengths.

5. Be grateful

Gratitude has long been promoted as a way of increasing our happiness, but it also motivates us toward self-improvement. If you want a simple boost from your relationships, you can start by just practicing gratitude for them. The act of being thankful can increase our confidence and encourage us to move forward with our goals, perhaps because it tends to make us feel more connected to people and creates feelings of elevation—a strong positive emotion that comes when we see others do good deeds.

So think about someone who has helped you a great deal in the past, and reach out to thank them. Not only will that exchange feel good for both of you, but it might also reignite a relationship that can spark your further growth.

6. Invest in others

As you’re tapping into your relationships for social capital, you can contribute to the growth of others, as well—which is another way to show gratitude.

We as humans are motivated by reciprocity. When we receive a favor, we often want to pay it back (or pay it forward). So offer to help a neighbor with a home improvement project just like another neighbor helped you. Or reach out to someone you have helped in the past, and check in to see how they are doing.

While supporting others is meaningful in and of itself, it doesn’t hurt that it tends to be a mutually beneficial experience. We help someone else, and we usually feel pretty good—and might even learn something in the process. That is one reason mentoring has become so common in the workplace. It is an exchange that benefits both parties, as the mentee gains valuable wisdom while the mentor gets to brush up on skills and take in new perspectives.

Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness

In this TEDx talk, Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Center for Psychodynamic Therapy and Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, shares three important lessons learned from a 75-year study as well as some practical wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life filled with true happiness and satisfaction.

Watch the Full Video:

What Makes a Good Life?

1. Social connections are good for us, and loneliness kills. It turns out people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to the community are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less connected. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely, Dr. Waldinger explains.

2. Keeping your close relationships, closer. It’s not the number of close friends you have, or whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but the quality of your close relationships that matter. Living in the midst of conflict is bad for your health. High-conflict marriages without much affection, according to Dr. Waldinger, are perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

3. Good relationships don’t just affect our bodies, they protect our brains. The same study also showed that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper and longer.

How to Strengthen Relationships with Mindfulness

Having strong relationships is one of the single greatest predictors of wellness, happiness, and longevity. And our connections flourish when we take time to get to know ourselves, and others, better.

Here are three simple ways to strengthen the relationships you have, and nourish the ones that might need some work.

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3 Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Relationships

1. Start with kindness

Kindness is like a magnet. People like to be around others who are kind because they feel cared about and safe with them. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you” still rings true today.

It’s also reciprocal. When we practice kindness, not only do we feel better, but we help others feel good, too. And this just increases opportunities for positive connections throughout our day, which, in turn, contributes to our own health and well-being.

2. Let go of toxic people

Take an inventory of your relationships to get a sense of who’s nourishing you and who’s depleting you. A strong relationship will make you feel comfortable, confident, and fully supported.

Once you know who is really there for you, try to spend a little less time with those who deplete you. This isn’t always possible, of course (ie: family members, coworkers, etc.), so in those cases, see if you can change your relationship a little bit by recognizing that those people may be dealing with some instability in their lives. Practice sending them some kind intentions using a loving-kindness meditation and see what comes up.

3. Focus on similarities, not differences

If you want to foster a greater sense of connection in your life, it’s helpful to think of what we share as human beings—even with the people you might not always see eye to eye on.

As you go through your day and encounter someone who you think is different from you, silently say, “Just like me,” and see what you notice. You may just experience the awareness that each of us wants the same things: to feel cared for and understood, and to experience a sense of belonging.

How Practicing Gratitude Helps Relationships

Imagine that you’ve embarked on a quest to be more grateful. You dutifully journal about the happy events in your day. You notice and begin to appreciate all the little things your partner does for you, from brewing your morning coffee to letting you pick what movie to watch. This can only be good for your relationship, right?

According to a recent study, it depends—on whether your partner is grateful, too.

While gratitude has been shown to be a boon for individuals—making you happier, healthier, and more successful—less is known about how gratitude works in relationships, where personalities and habits collide to create complex, dynamic interactions.

To go deeper into whether gratitude helps relationships, Florida State University psychologist James K. McNulty and his coauthor Alexander Dugas recruited 120 newlywed couples to fill out surveys. Initially, they reported how happy and satisfied they were with their marriage and their partner, and how much gratitude they felt and expressed for their partner and the nice things they did. They repeated the gratitude survey a year later and the marriage survey every four months for three years.

That gave researchers a snapshot of how each partner’s gratitude and marital satisfaction changed over time. And they found that spouses heavily influenced each other.

How a Lack of Gratitude Hurts Relationships

If your mate is low in gratitude, the results suggest, you seem to miss out on some of the benefits of being a grateful person yourself. More grateful people started out more satisfied with their marriages and were more satisfied three years in—but only if their partner was high in gratitude, too. Marital satisfaction naturally declined in couples over time, but it declined even more steeply for grateful people wedded to ungrateful ones.

In extreme cases, when their partner showed very little gratitude, being more grateful actually seemed to hurt their romantic happiness.

This worked the other way around, too. Grateful partners typically make our lives better, but we might not benefit as much if we’re not also grateful. People with more grateful partners tended to start out more satisfied with their marriages and still be more satisfied three years later—but only if they were high in gratitude. A grateful partner helped stave off the natural declines in people’s marital satisfaction over time—but, again, only for the highly grateful. When people were extremely ungrateful, their partner’s thankfulness seemed to backfire. 

Not only are ungrateful partners missing out on genuine moments of positivity and connection, but their other halves may be less willing to contribute to the couple if their efforts aren’t recognized.

Surprisingly, the study suggested that two less grateful partners might be happier together than partners with mismatched levels of gratitude. “I suspect that the mismatch is troubling for the same reasons other mismatches in personality can be troubling—the two partners just aren’t on the same page in terms of how to treat one another,” says McNulty.

Does that mean we should blame our partners for all our relationship woes, or coerce them into saying “thank you” more?

Not necessarily. This is a single study, and it measured gratitude in a specific way, points out relationship well-being researcher Amie Gordon: asking people about their own appreciation, not asking the other partner how appreciated they actually felt. Different ways of measuring gratitude may yield different results—including a situation where our own expressions of thanks can rub off on our partner, making them more grateful in turn. Plus, gratitude is only one piece of the relationship puzzle—and practicing gratitude has lots of other benefits to our lives. At the end of the day, for many of us, it probably helps to try to see the good in the person we love.

The One Question That Can Save Your Relationship

For a moment, think of seeing your partner or close friend as they walk in your front door. You jump up to greet them, exclaiming that their new jacket looks great on them, and you’ve been excited to see them all day. In the midst of your rush of enthusiasm, how are they reacting? Do you have a sense that they believe and trust what you’re saying, or do your compliments seem to isolate them? 

Although love is the quality we tend to glorify the most in romantic relationships, trust is equally indispensable. It’s the sustaining, slow-burning element of love. If you want to actively cultivate a deeper trust with your partner, research has found it could be as simple as asking them one important question.

Low Self-Esteem Interferes with Trust

Researchers from the University of Waterloo conducted five studies with people in romantic relationships who suffer from a similar problem: One partner has a poor opinion of themselves. This insecurity makes that partner more likely to reject expressions of praise and esteem—even from the people closest to them—and thus to feel less satisfied in their relationship.

If your partner is already sure of themselves, the occasional shower of praise will have the desired effect of reaffirming to your sweetheart that they can trust you. This, of course, reinforces your relationship. But when a partner is insecure about themselves, being praised can spark an anxious reaction. Instead, praise becomes a trigger for doubting the sincerity of their partner because the compliment contradicts the negative emotions they have toward themselves.

How to Show You Care

To avoid having your communication backfire, the researchers found that trust is gained by asking simple, meaningful questions about their daily experience. Simply asking “How was your day?” and then mindfully listening to the answer conveys your genuine interest and attention in how they’re doing and feeling. Other, more specific versions of the question work as well, for example: “What were your classes like today?” or “Where did you go for lunch?”

For a person with insecurities, this form of curious, caring inquiry, paired with mindful listening, can fly under the radar of their “praise triggers,” building trust without activating self-judgment. In fact, the researchers found that being asked about their day increased a partner’s sense of satisfaction in the relationship, regardless of whether one or both of the partners was insecure.

Curiosity Creates the Space to Trust

One of the studies found that it wasn’t describing their day that made people feel better, but rather, feeling listened to and cared for in that moment. The surprising thing is that curiosity did not seem to give an extra boost in all relationships. Couples whose levels of self-regard and trust were already normal or above-average did not experience that jump in relationship satisfaction from the “How was your day?” check-in. 

On the other hand, paying attention to your partner’s experiences can’t hurt your relationship. As the study authors noted, “Showing attention and interest in someone, especially in a society as filled with distractions as ours, can be the most important signal of caring there is.”

How Love and Mindfulness Go Hand in Hand

Remember, “love” is a verb. Are you so busy that you forget to prioritize romance? Be honest. How strong is your current love connection on a scale from zero to 10? If it’s less than 10, read on. Here’s how you can slow down and show up for love, over and over again.

Tips for Mindful Loving

1. Remember why you love your partner

Take each sighting of cheap chocolates or drooping roses as a cue to take a mindful breath. Then connect with your heart. Recall special moments the two of you have shared—your first kiss, what they wore on your wedding day, the most outrageous place you’ve made love. Later, share those memories with your sweetie and celebrate some of the moments that led you along the path to now.

2. Commit to date your mate

Give the gift of interest and time, and book non-negotiable weekly dates. Try recreating your first date, but tell each other what you were privately thinking and feeling during that life-changing encounter. Plan occasional adventures—research shows that novelty and excitement heighten sexual attraction, so skip the movie and head for a climbing wall, an erotic massage class, or a spot for skinny dipping.

How a Mindful Marriage Can Reinvigorate Your Relationship

When you were first dating you naturally treated love like a hobby. In the throes of early infatuation everything seemed effortless. Thanks to hopping hormones your sex drive was high. Thanks to neurochemicals of love creating mindfulness that resembled obsessive compulsions, your beloved was always in your thoughts and you planned your life around them. The friendship was wonderful. So how do you get that back?

Bids for Closeness

Underneath that deep, seemingly effortless, early passion and intimacy was a hidden skill: the ability to make and accept bids for emotional closeness. According Gottman, successful couples are mindful of these bids for connection and pay attention to them. These bids might be a look, a question, an affectionate stroke of the cheek, anything that says, “Hey, I want to be connected to you.” Most bids happen in simple, mundane ways, and if we are mindless we miss the overture.

Gottman’s studies indicate that couples who eventually divorce ignore their spouse’s bids for connection 50-80% of the time, while those in happy marriages catch most of these emotional cues and respond kindly.

Make Time to Connect

Long-term great relationships are not an accident. They thrive by design. Great couples pay attention and create connection. These tiny and frequent connections weave an intimate fabric of closeness, creating a blanket of security that wraps us up in love. So give it a try. Make a hobby of your love life and hone happiness habits. Then no matter how life teeters or totters, the two of you can dance in the middle, holding hands, friends for life.

5 Research-Backed Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage

There’s something odd about the very idea of “the science of marriage.” Raising kids together, negotiating disputes, or having good sex—these aren’t “scientific” activities. It would be odd to use predictive analytics to improve your parenting. It would be even stranger to use data sets of your past trysts to spice up your sex life. 

Science can’t explain the mystery of marriage—the actual experience of being in love. And yet, over the last 30 years, a growing body of evidence has helped shed some light on what works and what doesn’t in marriage.

1. Focus on positive interactions

John Gottman, a preeminent marriage researcher, purports to be able to predict the likelihood of divorce with over 90% accuracy. How does he do it? It all comes down to what he calls the 5-to-1 ratio. Couples that interact with five positive interactions for every one negative interaction are likely to stay together. Couples that get caught in a cycle of negative interactions, on the other hand, seem destined for divorce.

2. Communicate

University of Utah sociologist Daniel Carlson’s research points to another foundational skill in marriage: communication. His studies show that communication leads to a more egalitarian division of labor, which in turn leads to greater relationship satisfaction as well as more and better sex.

3. Divide your labor

It’s great to interact positively and communicate well. But recent polling shows that an equal distribution of household labor ranks among the top three reasons people cite as keys to making marriage work. The Pew Research Center notes that over 60% of married people view sharing household tasks as essential to the success of marriage. In one woman’s words, “I like hugs. I like kisses. But what I really love is help with the dishes.”

4. Be friends with each other

Gottman’s research points to one other important insight: Couples with deep friendships report higher levels of marital satisfaction. The reason? Friendship is correlated to deeper levels of understanding, admiration, and mutual respect. 

5. Have sex at least once a week

Researchers have long known that sex is linked to relationship satisfaction. However, the research of psychologist Amy Muise shows that the link between sexual frequency and relationship well-being stops at having sex once per week. It’s what researchers call a “curvilinear” association. The more sex you have, the more your relationship satisfaction improves—that is, until you hit once a week. From there on out, relationship satisfaction stays the same, no matter how much mind-blowing sex you have.

Did you marry the wrong person? Here are three ways to find out:

1. Let Go of Fantasy

Do you sometimes have a sinking feeling that you did not marry “the one?” Perhaps you have married a person with whom the sex is not always frequent, passionate, and surprising. Perhaps your spouse’s blind adoration seems to be fading? Do the two of you sometimes feel contempt or defensiveness in the face of each other’s “helpful” feedback? If that sounds familiar, you have likely married the wrong person.

That’s okay. We all marry the wrong person. Or, rather, we marry people for reasons that don’t really pan out over the long haul.

According to the founder and chairman of The School of Life Alain de Botton, we mustn’t abandon our flawed spouses simply because our marriages aren’t living up to childhood daydreams. Instead, we need to jettison “the Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.”

We human beings have a wonderful capacity to create rich fantasies. But when we expect our reality to match a fantasy and life doesn’t deliver what we imagined it would, it’s hard to feel anything other than cheated.

The truth is not very appealing: There is no prince in shining armor coming to save us from loneliness and anxiety, to rescue us from feelings of inadequacy. It begs hard questions: Can I consistently feel grateful for what I do have, rather than disappointed in what I don’t? Can I let go of my attachment to a cultural idea that is, quite literally, a fairy tale?

2. Accept Imperfection

Ask yourself if you would marry your partner again. In your heart you may know it’s true: you would marry them again and again, even knowing that marriage is not necessarily easier or more pleasant than being alone, even accepting that marriage does not have any power to transport us back into a state of romantic bliss.

No actual human being can ever measure up to the romantic fantasy of a soulmate. Your partner might be imperfect (and imperfect-for-you), but we’re all highly imperfect and, as such, imperfect for our partners. It’s such a fair match.

3. Ask the Right Questions

It’s clear that all along we’ve been asking the wrong question. “Are you the right person for me?” leads only to stress and judgment and suffering.

Determining the rightness of a match between ourselves and another is a fundamentally flawed enterprise, because nothing outside of ourselves—nothing we can buy, achieve, and certainly no other person—can fix our brokenness, can bring us the lasting joy that we crave.

A more empowering—and more deeply romantic—question is: Am I the right person for you?

A more constructive (and potentially satisfying) proposition is to ask: Can I accommodate your imperfections with humor and grace?

Can I tolerate your inability to read my mind and make everything all-better?

Can I negotiate our disagreements with love and intelligence? Without losing myself to fear and emotion?

Am I willing to do the introspective work required of marriage? Can I muster the self-awareness needed to keep from driving you away?

Do I think I am brave enough to continue loving you, despite your flaws, and, more importantly, despite mine?

Tips for Meditating as a Couple

Critics of the modern mindfulness movement often note that those of us who promote the benefits of mindfulness have a way of getting evangelical in our attempts to raise awareness about the practice. “If it’s great for me,” we think, “it must be good for you, and you are missing out!”  

The culture of mindfulness often reinforces this attitude in subtle ways: books, articles, and podcasts present these practices as a kind of panacean remedy for all our ills, so we struggle to understand why others wouldn’t want to give it a try.   

Being excited about mindfulness may seem harmless, but when we get too pushy about it in our most intimate relationships—especially with our partners and spouses—it can become a source of relational friction, and even conflict.

4 Ways to Accept Your Practice Without Pushing It on Others

So what are the do’s and don’ts for being in a relationship with a partner who isn’t into mindfulness? Here are a few tips:

1. Recognize that you don’t need others to meditate in order to validate your own practice. Even if we’re not consciously attached to our partner practicing mindfulness, this desire can sneak out in subtle ways. It even arises in thoughts like, “If I let go of my attachment to my partner becoming interested in mindfulness, maybe they will get into it.” The best strategy here is to work toward a place of radical acceptance.

2. Drop the air of superiority. Here’s another subtle trap of mindfulness evangelism. It’s a belief buried somewhere deep down in the subconscious mind that “I am more aware, more awake, or more enlightened than you because I meditate and you don’t.” Of course, you would never say this to your partner. But it’s often communicated through comments like, “I had the most amazing meditation today!” or “I love meditating!” or “My mind is just so clear right now.” 

3. Accept your experience as yours alone. Jon Kabat-Zinn offers sage advice here. He advises us to resist the urge to talk about our practice. This is particularly true when it comes to our closest relationships.  When you feel the urge to say, “Meditating is so great. It’s changed my life,” pause before sharing and take a closer look at your motives. In fact, when you feel like you have something profound to say about your practice, use that as a sign that it’s a good time to go back to the cushion. Sit with this desire to share your experience and see what’s underneath it.

4. Let go of the idea that you are a “changed person” because of your practice. This subtle vice of mindfulness aficionados arises when we say things like, “I used to struggle with anxiety” or “I used to be so attached” or “I used to feel angry all the time, but I don’t anymore.” Such statements not only infuriate your partner and the entire community, but they are also generally based on the delusional idea that we’re now somehow beyond experiencing basic forms of human suffering, an idea that simply isn’t true.

In the end, the real key to practicing mindfulness with a partner who isn’t into it is all about letting go. Let go of the hope that he or she might one day share your love for the practice. Let go of your desire to boast about the amazing benefits of your practice. Let go of the feeling that you have achieved some sort of spiritual superiority through meditation. When you do, a new world of deeper connection and love awaits.

Couples Meditation: A 10-Minute Meditation on Love Connection

Clinical psychologist Tara Brach and her husband, meditation teacher Jonathan Foust, have developed a regular practice for keeping the lines of communication open and maintaining a deep, loving connection. They engage in the practice two mornings a week. Here’s how Tara suggests going about it.

Mindfulness Practice: Keep the Lines Open

1) Begin by sitting silently together for 10-20 minutes, as time allows.

2) Next, take turns telling each other what you’re grateful for, what’s enlivening your heart at present. “This is called gladdening the heart and serves as a good way to open the channel of communication,” Tara says.

3) Next, take turns naming any particular challenges you’re dealing with that are currently causing you stress. These are difficulties you’re facing apart from your relationship.

4) Then, deepen your inquiry by taking turns noting anything that might be restricting the sense of love and openness you feel toward your partner. First, you might ask yourself: “What is between me and feeling openhearted and intimate with my partner?” This is potentially the stickiest part of the practice, as well as the most rewarding.

“Naming difficult truths is the best way to bring more love and understanding into a relationship,” explains Tara. For example, she says, “There are times when I get busy and Jonathan takes on a larger portion of the household responsibilities and ends up feeling unappreciated, and I need to be reminded to express my appreciation. When we acknowledge what could cause resentment if left unsaid, it brings us closer together.” But, she cautions, for this step to be productive, it’s essential for both partners to practice speaking and listening from a place of vulnerability, without blaming the other person.

5) Next, expand your inquiry to see whether there’s anyone in your wider circle who also calls out for your attention—in your family, friend circle or society at large who’s important to you as an individual or as a couple. Take turns identifying them, and sense what might serve well-being in this larger domain of relationship.

6) Lastly, enjoy some moments of silent appreciation together, ideally in a long, tender hug.

Couples Meditation: A 5-Minute Love Letter Meditation

Authors of The 80/80 Marriage, Nate Klemp and Kaley Klemp, guide you through a visualization practice to bring a sense of gratitude to your relationship and reconnect with your partner.

A Radical Generosity Visualization Practice

For this visualization practice, imagine you and your partner are at the end of your lives. You’ve had a great run together. And now, it’s time to say “goodbye.” From this perspective, you will write a letter to them. But first, to help you go even deeper into this perspective, we encourage you to listen to the radical generosity love letter meditation. We’ve also included a few prompts below in case you need inspiration.

As you go through this practice, think about what you want your partner to know? How did you fall in love? What were some of your favourite moments together? What do you want to appreciate your partner for? What will you miss most about them?

A 5-Minute Love Letter Practice

  • 4:48

1. Find a comfortable seat, or if you prefer, you can even lie down on your back with something to support your head and neck.

2. Once you get settled, take just a few breaths. Feel the weight of your body supported by the earth, close your eyes, and let go of any effort to control your breath. Then, release any stress or tension you might be carrying.

3. Picture you and your partner many years from now at the end of your lives. You’re sitting together on comfortable chairs perched at the edge of a pristine lake, a lake that’s so still you can see the reflection of the horizon on its surface. Your skin is wrinkled, and your hair is gray. You’ve had an amazing run together. As you sit together, your partner reaches out to hold your hand; It’s the perfect day.

4. From this perspective, think back to the day the two of you first met, remember where you were, who you were with, and what happened. And just notice the feeling of gratitude for having met each other.

5. Now, think back to the day you were married, or if that’s not relevant, to some other meaningful day. Picture the scene. Remember who was there. Remember what you were wearing and what you were feeling at that moment. And just notice the feeling of gratitude.

6. Think back to a moment when you were struggling, and your partner showed up to support you. It might be a difficult year, a layoff, or some other big setback. Remember where you were, what you were feeling, and see if you can experience that feeling of support. And just notice again, that feeling of gratitude.

7. Remember a milestone moment you shared with your partner. It might be the birth of a child, the launch of a business, or some other major life accomplishment. Remember where you were, picture the two of you together, remember what it was like to celebrate and savor this moment. And just notice the feeling of gratitude.

8. Now return to those two chairs facing the lake and spend the next minute or so just savoring this experience of gratitude and appreciation for your partner.

9. When you’re ready, take a few final deep breaths, relax even more into this experience of gratitude.

10.  Then begin to open your eyes and come back to the present where you are right now.

And now, see if you can bring this heightened sense of gratitude and appreciation to the final task: writing your partner the radical generosity love letter.

Mindfulness Practice: Rekindling Passion In Your Relationship

Loving intentions guide your behavior in the present moment and help you create an intentional relationship.

Step 1: Pick a relationship goal. Goal: I want to have more kindness in our relationship.

Step 2: Choose three intentions that will guide you to act in ways that will move you toward that goal. For example: Intention 1: I intend to speak with a kind tone when I feel impatient. Intention 2: I intend to leave a meaningful and loving note for my spouse each morning. Intention 3: I intend to meditate for thirty minutes most days to continue to strengthen my mind and cultivate patience.

Step 3: Review your intentions daily. After you create your loving intentions list, commit to spending two minutes each morning reviewing that list and setting your intentions for the day.

At the end of each day, take time to review your progress. How did you do? Did you turn your intentions into actions? Some wins, some losses? Can you tweak your intentions to make them even more actionable tomorrow?

How to Improve Your Relationships with Mindful Communication

We all crave love, intimacy, and genuine connection, but our unconscious habits and reactions can get in the way of our most important relationship skill: mindful communication. When we  practice being fully present for the beautiful, dynamic, and messy realm of human relationships, we bring our mindfulness practice truly “off the cushion.” 

While every relationship we have begins with our relationship with ourselves, relational mindfulness gives us the tools we need to connect more deeply with others. Indeed it is the arena of meeting the day-to-day family, work, and social struggles that we can profoundly deepen our mindfulness practice. 

What Does Relational Mindfulness Look Like?

1. Set the intention to pay attention

Beginning with the intention to pay attention moment by moment enables you to recognize when you’re getting caught up in unconscious habits that get in the way of genuine connection. When you can pay attention to these moments you give yourself the opportunity to investigate what’s behind them: Are you seeking approval? Wanting to be right? Wanting to be liked? When you allow your deeper intention of staying present be your foundation you give yourself the choice of responding rather than reacting

2. Take a mindful pause during conversations

By pausing before, during, and after conversations, you can stay connected with your deeper self as you engage with others. Each time you take a pause, breathe, and turn your attention within, you invite yourself into presence. You can return from distractions (or inner stories that can cause you to disconnect). If, for instance, an inner story is creating anxiety or judgment, you can pause and consider if this is really what you want to give your energy to.

3. Listen deeply

Listening to life, moment by moment, as it unfolds is the essence of mindfulness practice. Through practicing deep listening in relationship with others, possibilities for connection open up in ever widening circles. While most of us think of listening as something that requires effort, mindfulness teaches us how to listen from a place of less effort and more ease and relaxation.

4. Practice mindful inquiry

Learn to inquire into your present moment experience with care and curiosity. Ask questions such as, “Through what lens am I perceiving?” “Is the thought I’m having really true?” The more you become aware of the energy that you give to your inner stories, the more you can release those stories and see others clearly and compassionately. If, for instance, you notice yourself harshly judging someone, or comparing yourself to someone, instead of letting that story color your interaction, you can learn to question it and redirect your attention. 

5. Turn toward challenges, rather than away

Most people have been taught to turn away from the challenges they face. But being challenged is a natural and inevitable part of being human. Relational mindfulness invites you to turn towards discomfort so you can deepen your capacity for presence. When a difficult emotion, such as hurt or jealousy, arises during an interaction, you can gently acknowledge it and be with it. You can use your discomfort as an invitation to bring more compassion and healing to a part of you that you may not like or understand. 

6. Take responsibility when things get tough

It’s easy to get caught up placing blame on others, thinking something is “their fault” or “their issue, not mine.” Taking responsibility for your internal response to difficult situations allows you to let go of the desire to blame, judge, or place yourself above someone. This kind of “looking within” can deepen your practice immensely. Rather than placing blame, asking yourself: “What is this difficulty inviting me to investigate and bring compassion to?” is a useful starting point for learning how to take more responsibility.  

7. Bring curiosity to things you “take personally” 

Not only do we get caught up taking our own thoughts extremely personally (believing rather than questioning the stories we tell ourselves), we also take things that other people say personally. By practicing not taking life so personally, you can create the space needed to see the bigger picture and to see yourself within the bigger picture. Not taking things personally helps you to stay connected to others, to see that we’re all trying to do the best we can, rather than perpetuating a false sense of division, or holding onto judgments (about yourself or others). This is by no means an encouragement to bypass your personal feelings, but a means to bring skill and curiosity to your experiences.

8. Bravely speak your truth  

Learning to be vulnerable and honest, even when it is difficult, allows you to acknowledge the complexity and contradiction that’s naturally part of life. Even though it feels scary sometimes, skillful truth telling is a gift to everyone you engage with. It can take time to learn how to speak your truth, but here are three encouragements: 1) Take the risk! When you are honest and allow yourself to be seen as you are, you invite others to do the same. 2) Take off your mask. When you find yourself putting on a mask to avoid the truth, question if this is really serving you. For instance, if you put on a social or smiling mask when you are actually feeling sad, you miss opportunities for genuine connection. 3) Trust your true voice. If you take time to be still and quiet, and listen deeply enough, you will hear the true voice of your inner guide. 

9. Act with compassion

When you pause, listen deeply, and inquire into your experience, compassionate action can arise organically in the form of insight, intuition, and self-knowledge. Compassion is not a concept—not something to find through cognitive understanding. It exists inside of you, not outside of you. It can be accessed directly by listening to your own heart. Ask yourself: “What feels genuinely compassionate in this moment? What is best for all in this moment?” 

Relational mindfulness offers both a set of teachings, and tools for embodiment. It is not a set of standards to hold yourself to or to use against yourself or others, but a set of encouragements for healing. These principles can help you to bring more care and compassion to your families, love relationships, work life, social action and community organizing, and most importantly, your relationship with yourself.

How to Practice Mindful Listening

How often do you feel really listened to? How often do you really listen to others? (Be honest.)

We know we’re in the presence of a good listener when we get that sweet, affirming feeling of really being heard. But sadly it occurs all too rarely. We can’t force others to listen, but we can improve our own listening, and perhaps inspire others by doing so.

Good listening means mindful listening. Like mindfulness itself, listening takes a combination of intention and attention. The intention part is having a genuine interest in the other person—their experiences, views, feelings, and needs. The attention part is being able to stay present, open, and unbiased as we receive the other’s words—even when they don’t line up with our own ideas or desires.

Paradoxically, being good at listening to others requires the ability to listen to yourself. If you can’t recognize your own beliefs and opinions, needs and fears, you won’t have enough inner space to really hear anyone else. So the foundation for mindful listening is self-awareness.

Here are some tips to be a good listener to yourself so you can be a good listener for others.

How to Really Listen

1) Check inside: “How am I feeling just now? Is there anything getting in the way of being present for the other person?” If something is in the way, decide if it needs to be addressed first or can wait till later.

2) Feeling your own sense of presence, extend it to the other person with the intention to listen fully and openly, with interest, empathy, and mindfulness.

3) Silently note your own reactions as they arise—thoughts, feelings, judgments, memories. Then return your full attention to the speaker.

4) Reflect back what you are hearing, using the speaker’s own words when possible, paraphrasing or summarizing the main point. Help the other person feel heard.

5) Use friendly, open-ended questions to clarify your understanding and probe for more. Affirm before you differ. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view—acknowledging is not agreeing!—before introducing your own ideas, feelings, or requests.

How to Defuse an Argument with Your Partner

One of the unique quirks of the human brain is its propensity to mirror the states of others. When we see an eight-week-old baby smile, we can’t help but smile. It just sort of happens.

But the opposite is also true. When we experience our partner’s irritation and anger, we get pissed. We feel an instant surge of irritation and anger. It just sort of happens. 

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon. They call it “complementary behavior”: the natural human tendency to mirror the emotions of those around us. When we’re in the presence of someone else’s happiness, we feel happy. When we’re in the presence of fear, we feel afraid. It’s a fancy way of saying that, when your partner comes at you with anger or irritation, you’re wired to respond in kind. It’s a behavioral pattern that can lead to endless arguments and conflict.

The question is, can we break the cycle of complementary behavior?

1. Admit when you’re wrong

Most fights involve a struggle for one thing: being right. The attachment to being right is so strong that it leads some people to end their relationships altogether. One problem with our attachment to being right is that it’s often impossible to judge who’s wrong and who’s right. The other problem is that being right comes at an outrageous cost: living in a state of continuous anger and resentment. 

So, just for fun, during your next argument, see what happens when you open up to the possibility that you are wrong. Or, perhaps you want to take this one step further: Admit that you’re wrong.

 2. Opt for non-complementary behavior

Now for the advanced practice. The opposite of “complementary behavior” is what psychologists call “non-complementary behavior.” It’s the radical practice of doing the exact opposite of your partner during a conflict. This is the Gandhi-style move of responding to your partner’s searing resentment with love. It’s extreme. It’s counter to our most deeply wired instincts. 

And yet this is the move that can dissolve an argument in 30 seconds or less. Because when you break the cycle of anger by responding with genuine love, kindness, and curiosity, you change the game. Your partner might initially wonder what the hell is going on. They might ask if you’re feeling OK. But, eventually, your non-complementary generosity and love will become contagious and the argument will dissolve.

Deepen Your Connections and Sense of Belonging

To connect more deeply with others, you must face the one person that you keep on the shortest leash: yourself. We often reject other people’s care or attention when we believe we don’t deserve it—but there’s nothing special you must do to deserve love. As Sharon Salzberg reminds us, it is simply because you exist.

Try this fifteen-minute guided meditation from Sharon Salzberg to learn how to open your heart to love and compassion:

A Practice for Opening Your Heart

A Meditation for Opening the Heart

  • 15:49

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg offers a brief meditation for cultivating compassion.

1) Imagine you’re encircled by people who love you. Sit with your eyes closed, breathing normally, imagining yourself in the center of a circle made up of the most loving beings you’ve ever met.

2) Receive the love of those who love you. Experience yourself as the recipient of the energy, attention, care, and regard of all of these beings in your circle of love. Send love to yourself by giving yourself this message: May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy. May I live with ease of heart.

3) Notice how you feel when you receive love.Whatever emotions may arise, you just let them wash through you. And repeat to yourself:  May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy. May I live with ease of heart.

4) Open yourself up to receiving love. Imagine that your skin is porous and this warm, loving energy is coming in. There’s nothing special that you need to do or be in order to deserve this kind of loving care. It’s simply because you exist.

5) Send loving care to the people in your circle. You can allow that quality of loving kindness and compassion and care you feel coming toward you to flow right back out to the circle and then toward all beings everywhere, so that what you receive, you transform into giving. May we all be safe, May we all be happy, May we all be healthy. May we all live with ease of heart.

Learn to Connect with Those You Love

By Elisha Goldstein and Stefanie Goldstein

In movies, people often gaze into the eyes of the person they love—but in reality, we spend more time gazing into the glowing screens of our smartphones. It’s a damaging habit that can distract us from in-person conversations and real-world experiences with people we care about. Here are 11 simple ways to build real relationships with the people you care about most:

11 Ways to Connect with Care

1. Really see each other

Making eye contact with someone activates what psychologist Stephen Porges calls our Social Nervous System, which can relieve stress and create a deeper sense of connection. It is hard not to feel intimate and vulnerable when looking into the eyes of another person—even a stranger. Try it! It may feel funny at first, but you will find a softening in your heart and a sensation of love flowing before you know it.

2. Listen with all of your senses

There’s a difference between hearing someone and actively listening to someone. The next time you’re having an in-person conversation, notice the posture and body language of the other person. Tune into the tone of their voice, and absorb the meaning of their words. See if it’s possible to put aside your own response while listening to them speak. When we feel listened to, we feel cared about and this increases a sense of mutual love and connection.

3. Reach out and touch someone

As mammals, physical contact is essential to our well-being. American psychologist Harry Harlow’s famous study on maternal deprivation with rhesus monkeys demonstrated that touch provides a crucial psychological and emotional resource in our development. Touch is also a primary way we communicate, feel safe, soothe our nervous systems, trust one another, and convey love and compassion. Take a day to experiment with actively reaching out to your loved ones with small touches (on the hand, shoulder, knee, or arm) and see what you notice—perhaps it’s a greater sense of connection, increased compassion, or an open heart.

4. Hug like you mean it

Very few things feel better than a good hug. Science shows that hugging can reduce blood pressure, alleviate fear, soothe anxiety, and release the “love” hormone oxytocin. Psychologist Stan Tatkin suggests that in order to align nervous systems, prevent arguments, and feel more connected people hug until both bodies feel relaxed. Who can you hug today?

5. Be interested

The late rabbi and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Life is routine, and routine is resistance to wonder.” One of the essential attitudes of mindfulness is curiosity, and we can bring this into our relationships to foster warmth and trust. Our minds often tell us that we “know” someone so well that we can predict their behaviors and responses. While this may be true some of the time, it also stops us from clearly seeing the person in front of us—instead we just see our “idea” of that person. See if you can be open, curious, and interested in those close to you as if you are getting to know them for the first time. You might be surprised what you find.

6. Make plans and keep them

Nothing breaks a bond like flaking on plans. And yet there are often reasons we don’t follow through on commitments. Sometimes we’re overextended, saying “yes” to plans or responsibilities when we mean “no.” Be honest with yourself, and only take on what you can handle. Identify the people in your life who bring you down, and those who nourish and energize you. And then figure out if, and how, you can work with your relationships to those people to foster mutual trust, respect, and appreciation. Our connections flourish when we take time to get to know ourselves, and others, better.

7. Communicate your needs and feelings

Most of us have been guilty at one time or another of not being clear about what we really need or want in the moment. This indirect form of communication rarely yields the outcome we want. In our program Connecting Adolescents to Learning Mindfulness (CALM), we emphasize the importance of Non-Violent Communication, which assumes that we all share the same basic needs and that our actions (knowingly or unknowingly) are attempts to get those satisfied. When we learn how to identify and express our own needs clearly, we naturally move toward greater understanding, compassion, and connection with the people in our lives.

8. Be kind

Kindness is like a magnet. People like to be around others who are kind because they feel cared about and safe with them. The age-old Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you” still rings true today. It’s also reciprocal. When we practice kindness, not only do we feel better, but we help others feel good, too. And this just increases opportunities for positive connections throughout our day, which, in turn, contributes to our own health and well-being.

9. THINK before you speak

We’ve all been guilty of saying or doing something we wished we hadn’t. It happens. But we can certainly make more of an effort to be thoughtful with our words and actions. Try this experiment for a week: Before speaking to someone, consider the following: Is it True, is it Helpful, am I the best one to say it, is it Necessary, is it Kind? See how your interactions change.

We might even imagine what the world would be like if everyone practiced this a little more.

10. Practice “Just like me”

DNA research has revealed that regardless of gender, ethnicity, or race, humans are 99.9% the same. If you want to foster a greater sense of connection in your life, as you go through your day and encounter someone who you think is different from you, silently say, “Just like me,” and see what comes up. You may just experience the awareness that each of us wants the same things: to feel cared for and understood, and to experience a sense of belonging.

11. Experience joy for others

Be on the lookout for moments when you notice that others are taking care of themselves, experiencing a success or accomplishment, or even just having a good day, and see if you can be happy for them. Sometimes this joy for another’s happiness naturally arises, and other times it’s something we can intentionally foster. If you feel so bold, tell them, “Good job” or “I’m so happy for you.” Not only can this create or strengthen your connection, but it can amplify your own good feelings.

Build Connection Through Digital Zones

If eye contact, touch, and the way we use vocal tone (prosody) can help create connection, technology dilutes it. It pulls our gaze away and reduces human physical touch and can give us a sense of connection that often stays at the surface. Consider how you can create some tech-free zones throughout your day to increase your relational awareness and foster deeper connections in your daily life.

Notice These 3 Phases of Communication

A great metaphor for this is the changing traffic light: We imagine that when the channel of communication closes down, the light has turned red. When communication feels open again, we say the light has turned green. When communication feels in-between, or on the verge of closing down, we say the light has turned yellow. The changing traffic light imagery helps us to identify our various states of communication, and to recognize the consequences of each.

The Red Light: Defensive Reactions

When the red light is on we are defensive and closed down. When we react to fear by shutting down the channel of communication, we’ve put up a defensive barrier dividing us from the world. We justify our defensiveness by holding on to unexamined opinions about how right we are. We tell ourselves that relationships are not that important. We undervalue other people and put our self-interest first. In short, our values shift to “me-first.” Closed communication patterns are controlling and mistrustful. Others become static objects only important to us if they meet our needs.

To make matters worse, when we’re closed and defensive, we feel emotionally hungry. We look to others to rescue us from aloneness. We might try to manipulate and control them to get what we need. Because these strategies never really work, we inevitably become disappointed with people. We suffer, and we cause others to suffer.

When we close down and become defensive—for a few minutes, a few days, a few months, or even a lifetime—we’re cutting ourselves off not only from others, but also from our natural ability to communicate. Mindful communication trains us to notice when we’ve stopped using our innate communication wisdom—the red light.

Openness also has the magic ingredient that enables us to fall in love, to feel empathy and courage.

The Green Light: Openness

Paying attention to our communication patterns helps us realize the value of openness. Generally, we associate open people as trustworthy, as in touch with themselves and others. But openness also has the magic ingredient that enables us to fall in love, to feel empathy and courage. When we’re open, we let go of our opinions and enter a larger mind, which gives us the power to trust our instincts.

When we’re open, we don’t see our individual needs opposing the needs of others. We experience a “we-first” state of mind, because we appreciate that our personal survival depends on the well-being of our relationships. We express this connectedness to others through open communication patterns. Open communication tunes us in to whatever is going on in the present moment, whether comfortable or not. Openness is heartfelt, willing to share the joy and pain of others. Because we’re not blocked by our own opinions, our conversations with others explore new worlds of experience. We learn, change, and expand.

The Yellow Light: In-Between

In practicing mindful communication, eventually we ask ourselves: What exactly causes me to switch from open to closed and then open again? We begin to discover the state of mind that exists in-between open and closed—symbolized by the yellow light. In-between is a place we normally don’t want to enter. We find ourselves there when the ground falls out from beneath our feet, when we feel surprised, embarrassed, disappointed—on the verge of shutting down. We might feel a sudden loss of trust, an unexpected flash of self-consciousness. Learning to hold steady and be curious at this juncture is critical to the practice of mindful conversation.

Small acts of kindness that are either shared or withheld when the yellow light is flashing can make or break a relationship.

A yellow-light transition can appear at any time. We can switch from closed to open via the yellow light, if we’re willing to enter into curiosity, or accepting that we don’t know the answer. The in-between state of mind is a critical time for bringing peace into our homes and workplaces. Small acts of kindness that are either shared or withheld when the yellow light is flashing can make or break a relationship. Once we’re in the red zone, it’s too late to engage in acts of kindness—we’re too mistrustful. I’ve seen this over and again working with couples—they reach a critical point when they can save their relationship by switching from me-first to we-first thinking. They can think about their children, pets, or anything that brings a larger picture to mind. Acts of kindness at this point shift them into a temporary mood of gratitude. Feeling gratitude makes them more interested in moving forward.

The yellow light points to those miraculous moments when we can open up, wag our tails, and play. We break the spell of our own personal agendas and awaken to genuine relationship. Such abrupt shifts seem to come out of nowhere in the middle of our most ego-crunching experiences—such as admitting that we’ve made a mistake.

A successful relationship is the result of thousands of small flashes of the yellow light, where we were able to transform disappointments and arguments into opportunities for unmasking, intimacy, and joy.

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About the author

Mindful Staff

Mindful Staff editors work on behalf of Mindful magazine and Mindful.org to write, edit and curate the best insights, information, and inspiration to help us all live more mindfully.

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