Mindfulness: A Gateway to Growth in Relationships
“He’s the one.”
“She met Prince Charming, and they lived happily ever after.”
“I’m waiting for my soulmate.”
If you are familiar with North American culture in any shape or form, you have no doubt been exposed to these ideas, which reflect the notion that we just need to find the right person — our one true love — in order to have the perfect relationship. In the 1989 Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, Ariel buys into the idea so strongly that she’s willing to switch from mermaid to human for her soulmate, Eric, despite Sebastian’s solid crustacean advice against doing so. Psychologists call this idea destiny belief, or the belief that happy, healthy relationships are simply a matter of compatibility, of finding the right partner.
Is there another way of thinking about what makes for a successful relationship? Is it all about meeting the right person? Many people think that a key ingredient to relationship success is effort. When it comes to resolving conflict, managing stress, or coping with natural changes in relationships, many people believe that relationships aren’t just about finding the right person but instead require considerable effort, cultivation, and work. Psychologists call this view growth belief, and many studies show that adopting a growth belief has benefits for people’s relationships. For example, people with greater growth belief have less stressful conflicts with their partners, hold their partners to less lofty standards, and are less likely to break-up with their partners at the first sign of trouble.
Despite the benefits of adopting growth belief in relationships, psychologists know little about why some people adopt a growth belief, while others do not. In a recent study, I tested the idea that mindfulness is an important contributor to the development of growth belief.
I’m guessing there’s a good chance that by now you’ve at least heard of mindfulness. It probably seems like everyone from the Dalai Lama to your hippie cousin Dave (who won’t stop talking about meditation) is into it. But what, exactly, is mindfulness? Many researchers define mindfulness as an awareness of the present moment (for example, of how your body feels, of sounds, of emotions) combined with not judging what’s going on in the present (for example, allowing your body to feel the way it does regardless of whether it’s negative, positive, or neutral).
A growing number of studies have examined the influence of mindfulness on mental and physical health. As it turns out, your hippie cousin was on to something. Research demonstrates that mindfulness is associated with a host of benefits, including reduced stress, improved attention and focus, and even better physical health. Researchers have also shown that mindfulness has benefits for relationships, including better responses to conflict and greater forgiveness.
Mindfulness is clearly beneficial, but how does mindfulness relate to growth belief? I had a hunch that mindful people would be more likely to adopt a growth belief, because mindful people tend to embrace whatever they are experiencing in the moment, even if it is challenging or difficult. Crucially, all relationships — even Ariel and Eric’s — inevitably involve changes, conflicts, and difficulties. What happens when, later in their marriage, Eric refuses to visit his in-laws 5,000 feet under the surface of the ocean?
Because of the way that mindful people accept even difficult present-moment experiences, I believed that they would be especially likely to embrace the idea that relationships involve challenge, effort, and work, and that this growth belief would promote healthier relationships.
I tested these ideas in two studies in which participants completed questionnaires that included measures that assessed their mindfulness, growth belief, and the quality of their current relationships. In both studies, people who were more mindful also tended to have greater growth belief, which was then related to greater satisfaction with their intimate relationships, as well as to greater overall social connectedness. So a growth mindset isn’t just good for your close, romantic relationship; it is also good for your relationships with other people, including your friends, coworkers, and maybe even your hippie cousin Dave.
These results clearly show that mindfulness and growth belief are related, but we can’t tell for certain whether mindfulness causes growth belief, greater growth belief causes more mindfulness, or if a third variable causes both mindfulness and growth belief. Despite this limitation, these results suggest that mindfulness may be one route by which you can increase your growth belief. By non-judgmentally embracing experiences, you, Ariel, Eric, and your hippie cousin Dave can reap numerous benefits in your relationships and beyond.
For Further Reading
Don, B. P. (2019). Mindfulness predicts growth belief and positive outcomes in social relationships. Self and Identity, Published online before print. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2019.1571526
Karremans, J. C., Schellekens, M. P., & Kappen, G. (2017). Bridging the sciences of mindfulness and romantic relationships: A theoretical model and research agenda. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 29-49.
Knee, C. R. (1998). Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation, coping, and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(2), 360.
Brian P. Don is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies the roots of healthy social relationships, including how mindfulness influences relationships.