THE BLOG
09/21/2015 04:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Meditation Can Improve Your Marriage

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Modern marriages face a lot of stress -- too little time and money, too much technology and temptation. In order to keep your love alive, it is essential to have rituals to reconnect you amidst the chaos of modern living. There is strong evidence that daily meditation can be one such marriage enhancing ritual.

"Mindfulness practices and meditation have recently become popular in therapeutic circles," according to Julia Colwell, Ph.D., psychologist and author of The Relationship Skills Workbook. "With the support of data from neuropsychology about how impactful mindfulness practices are on changing the brain, therapists are encouraging their clients to meditate and to use other somatically focused practices."

The foundation for mindfulness is learning to be fully present. As in any relationship, meditation practice requires both attendance and attention. It is not enough to show up half-heartedly or just when you feel like it. Both marriage and meditation necessitate a commitment to being fully there and fully available to whatever is happening in the moment.

"Because meditation generates a global mindfulness in all areas of life, it becomes a critical tool to maintain the health, wellbeing, and vitality of a relationship. When marriages fall apart, it is often due to negligence and carelessness. Anything that can amp up mindfulness, such as meditation, keeps a relationship healthy and responsive," says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology.

Mental and physical stress relief is a common benefit of meditation, and aids in the ability to overcome one's habitual reactive responses to thoughts and feelings. Colwell describes this as shifting from reactive brain to creative brain. She explains that reactive brain is the reason for blame, escalation, name-calling, and difficulty solving issues. By learning to notice sensations in the body and breathing through them, you can calm the body's natural fight or flight response and invite a more relaxed approach to your problems.

"Once you have used your attention and breath to completely move out of adrenalized physiological reactivity, your brain returns to normal and is now available to creatively solve an issue," Colwell adds."Mindfulness practice allows you to connect with your body, then complete the intimacy loop by describing what is truly going on to your partner."

Getting started

Learning to connect with your innermost self through the practice of meditation and offering this self-awareness to your partner creates the foundation for a deeply shared experience of life. It is a tool that will help you navigate the inevitable storms of living together and stand strong in times of challenge. By becoming more conscious and mindful, couples implement changes faster in therapy and at home.

The first step is simply to make time to meditate. Begin with just five minutes each day. Turn off cell phones and other distractions and sit down somewhere quiet together. Feel your breath moving in your belly and chest. Notice any thoughts, feelings or physical sensations, but do not engage with the story around them. Be patient and open-hearted as you learn to be present together in a new way.

Relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, Dr. Fran Walfish, helped a couple in therapy with her to establish a practice of meditation and mindfulness in the following way.

"Jack and Susan work full-time, high-pressured professional jobs. Coming home from work exhausted, they had no patience or energy to engage with each other, so they either argued about silly stuff or isolated themselves in their own corners," says Walfish. "I suggested that they commit to meditation in order to relax and relate. They began meditating for 30 minutes every evening before dinner. When they sat down to eat, they took turns listening to their partner without interrupting. Soon, both Jack and Susan began to report improved nighttime sleep and a closer feeling toward each other. They said it was as if they were getting to know each other all over again."

Focus on this moment

Once you have carved out time to meditate, watch out for the saboteur of the restless mind. Unfinished conversations, work projects, social commitments, family stressors, all manner of things will attempt to distract you. If you allow your mind to wander with every wave of thought or emotion, your meditation will not be fruitful. The challenge is to stay focused, like staying on topic in a discussion with your spouse, rather than dragging in baggage of past hurts and resentments.

Here is an example of a focusing strategy used by a couple in counseling with Jessica Heimark, LMFT and Director of Clinical Services at Pathways Therapeutic Services.

"Sarah and Brian came to me regarding general relationship dissatisfaction after having their second child," says Heimark. "Sarah felt as though she was doing everything for the family and that Brian was out of touch. Brian said he felt like a second-class citizen in his own home, and completely disconnected from what was happening with their children. Because they were highly vocal, volatile, and blaming, I asked them for a minute of silence. I had them hold eye contact and take slow, deep breaths during that minute. They said they felt a sense of connection and calmness when they did this, and decided to do it outside of session before having any type of conversation that might turn into a fight. Being able to create a mindful space before a discussion greatly decreased their negativity towards each other and grounded them in the present to stay focused on whatever topic was at hand."

Heimark recommends this form of daily meditation to all the couples she counsels, noting that it creates a sense of togetherness and balance in relationship. By looking into each other's eyes for a full minute in silence, couples increase connection and intimacy and decrease negative communication. She says that at first there may be anger, tension, or laughter, depending on the presenting problems for the couple, but adds, "I find it effective with all types of couples, those that refuse to talk to one another, those that yell and swear, those that have been hurt and betrayed, and those with very little sexual intimacy. It's a powerful tool."

Any meditation technique like eye gazing, mindful breathing, mantra repetition or visualization helps to quiet the mind by driving it toward a single point of attention. By utilizing concentration, you will be able to feel the waves of emotion flow in and out, but not be overcome by them. By observing your thoughts with more objectivity and less reactivity, you can remain in your peaceful center within. What a different platform on which to build a marriage!

Meditation versus mediation

A recent article in Forbes magazine entitled "7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain" quotes studies being done that show physiological changes in the brain matter as a result of meditation, such as a decrease in cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. Additionally, meditation research is finding links to emotional regulation due to changes that occur in the self-referential part of the brain, the area that houses "me-centered thoughts." These lend credence to practitioners' experience that meditation enables one to detach mentally from habitual thoughts and reactive emotional states.

The ability to be a witness to your inner experience, without having to do battle with it or defend it, is one of the greatest effects felt by long time meditators. By becoming conscious of patterns of reactivity, you enable yourself to change. You begin altering your thought-response correlation and gain the ability to choose how you respond rather than reacting based on emotional volatility. When it comes to conflict resolution in marriage, meditation is a lot less expensive than mediation.

"Meditation has strengthened my marriage in that I no longer look to my husband to make me feel better. I am less reactive in my marriage because of it, more trusting and able to let go of past hurts," says Sherianna Boyle, author of The Four Gifts of Anxiety, who has been married for 17 years. "Meditation helps me connect to something greater and feel that I am being guided."

Additionally, meditation increases positive emotions and decreases negative emotions, according to studies by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D, Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. In the article "18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation Today." she reports that recent studies show increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe as a result of 7 weeks of loving kindness meditation. These positive emotions translate into increased mindfulness and life satisfaction, and decreased illness and depressive symptoms.

It stands to reason that couples who are happier and experience positive emotions are more likely to form stronger, deeper relationships and less likely to experience marital discord. Additionally, two key factors for relationship longevity, love and respect, are also fostered through meditation, according to humanitarian leader and founder of The Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

"Meditation greatly enhances both of these, respect for oneself and for others, and love for oneself as well as others," says Shankar. "With meditation, one becomes a giver of respect and love rather than one who demands. Usually, it is demand which appears to be the bigger cause of break-ups."

Sex may sell but not in meditation or marriage

Like any long term relationship, meditation takes time and patience. There are no quick fixes in meditation, so no one night stands will do. Yes, it is challenging to establish a regular practice, but it is absolutely required in order to reap any deep and lasting benefits. Just like a total commitment in marriage is required to experience the fullest measure of love.

Because results are not always immediate, many people give up on meditation too soon. Consciousness does not move quickly from the external daily responsibilities of life to the internal stillness of meditation. So when you approach meditation leave any pressing goals or expectations behind. Trust the daily evolution of your practice, and your relationship, and release yourself from the suffering that comes from the attachment to specific outcomes.

This kind of commitment is forged with both discipline and devotion. Discipline is necessary to stay the course and be faithful, but devotion is what takes you to the deepest realm of love in both meditation and in marriage.

To cultivate devotion, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali recommend focusing on something that makes you feel love or awe. For some people this might be a religious teacher or symbol. For the non-religious, it could be a quality like peace or joy. The important point is that you train your attention to dwell on an energy or presence that is greater than yourself that stimulates devotion.

By becoming saturated with loving devotion, you will be able to stand the test of time in your practice and in your marriage. A relationship steeped in devotional love will simmer long and strong, and meditation founded on it will deliver the Yoga Sutra's promise of unity with Divine Consciousness.

Developing an unconditional love

With mindfulness, commitment and devotional focus, the practice of meditation leads to greater spiritual awareness. This is illustrated by Irene and David Tomkinson who have been Marriage Counselors at Pathways to Personal Growth for 30 years, and are about to celebrate 44 years of marriage.

"Over the years, so much of finding our meaning in life has been accomplished through meditation. It makes you be with yourself and makes you responsible for yourself. You stop pointing the finger at your partner and projecting and expecting them to fix it. Meditation teaches you how to go to a still point within," says Irene Tomkinson. "We believe that meditation was the doorway that helped us heal our childhood wounds, grow up and find meaning. Because we have done that together, it has enhanced our marriage. Meditation has been our North Star and has brought us to our higher selves."

Qualities of empathy, compassion, understanding, and integrity bloom as a result of dedicated practice. Meditation develops a consciousness that is no longer motivated solely by personal agenda or feeling, and our limited sense of self grows larger to include the universal oneness of creation. The ability to express unconditional love develops.

"When you have conscious contact with something greater than yourself, it is profound," says Tomkinson. "So many people don't have a church, but they want meaning and ritual that support a spiritual journey. When couples can meditate together, it is really powerful. For many, the experience of long term meditation together becomes more intimate than intercourse."

Whether the result you receive is a deep awakening of Divine Love or the simple awareness of more mindful partnering, meditation is sure to benefit you and your spouse and help your marriage become a haven of greater joy.

Photo credit Jennie Lee

For more information about Jennie Lee's writings and other offerings, please visit jennieleeyogatherapy.com or follow her on Facebook or Linked In