Listen to this story
In the United States, about 30 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Even among those that don’t, very few married couples would classify themselves as “fully satisfied” with their relationship.
So, if you are married, or thinking of marrying, know that the odds are against you. Some people would say, “Then don’t get married.” A healthier reaction is: Put in the work that will help you succeed.
In my experience, meditation has the potential to be a useful tool for this work if you practice with that goal in mind and learn how to take your meditation skills beyond the meditation cushion.
The reasons marriages crumble seem to be many, yet communication problems and the buildup of negative emotions are often at the root of the issue. Here is where the qualities of mind—such as positive emotions, clarity, and pausing—that are developed by a regular meditation practice can make a big difference.
Let’s explore what these skills are, how they are developed, and their practical applications.
1. Less Reactivity
What It Is
Less reactivity is about building up a default pause between the time something happens and your response to it.
Pause is power, because it opens an opportunity for you to respond thoughtfully to the situation. Without this pause, we react with the first thought, word, or emotion that comes up — and the result is often unfortunate.
How Meditation Helps
Any type of meditation where you are repeatedly attempting to focus your mind on the same object will help you to develop this skill.
While you are trying to focus, all sort of “mental waves” — thoughts, memories, emotions, sensations, desires — will arise, and the instruction is to simply notice them as they are, without reacting and without following them. You then bring the attention back to your object of focus: your breath, your mantra, whatever it is. This practice of notice-pause-redirect is performed hundreds of times during each meditation session. Over time, it becomes second nature to how you interact with the world.
The applications in your relationship are plenty. The most obvious one is gaining the wonderfully magical but often underestimated ability of thinking before responding. This prevents you from saying things that may feel right and “technically true” in the moment but have long-lasting, bitter consequences.
A shortcut to increasing your nonreactivity is to develop the habit of taking one deep breath before responding. Forget about 10 breaths or counting from 20 to one. A single deep breath is often all you need for your prefrontal cortex to get that needed extra supply of blood so it can do its thing.
So, especially in heated circumstances, remember to take one deep breath before answering. It may feel artificial in the beginning, but you will see how it can do wonders. It also shows the other person that you are present, taking it in, and thoughtful. Even in situations where you need to be assertive and strong, act accordingly, but only after that breath.
A second benefit of being less reactive is that you will be less affected by your partner’s emotional outbursts (which may be just a temporary thing anyway). Often what your partner is complaining about is not really a problem, not a recurring pattern, but their mood in that moment, which is influenced by a thousand things. If we just let it pass, it is soon finished, but reacting in the moment creates new problems.
So, by pausing instead of reacting, you will have less need to be defensive and try to “set things right” during every small disagreement (a recipe for frustration). Sweet moments are enjoyed as sweet moments, and shitty moments are observed as shitty moments — without fuss. In meditation parlance, this is called equanimity.
Nonreactivity can be further trained by agreeing on a trigger word with your partner. It could be something like “observe,” “be aware,” “breathe,” or “pause.” Ask your partner to use that word whenever he or she sees you responding in reactive mode. You then take that one valuable breath.
2. Mental Clarity
What It Is
Seeing things as they are, without being overwhelmed or blinded by a particular thought or emotion.
How Meditation Helps
While meditating, you are constantly observing your mind and what it is doing. As a result, you develop a greater clarity about your thoughts and emotions and what lies beneath them. Your self-knowledge is enhanced, and thoughts are not as overwhelming as they used to be.
With greater self-knowledge comes more clear, honest, and open communication. We become a bit more aware of our own biases, which results in being better able to “own our stuff.”
We save ourselves many headaches as we become more aware of our own patterns (why you do what you do). There will be fewer times when your partner needs to sweat their shirt during a two-hour argument trying to show you something you are blind to.
Of course, we are human and will always have our blind spots. But a serious meditation practice, together with the practice of contemplation and self-reflection, helps diminish that liability quite a bit.
You may also notice that constantly studying yourself in meditation enhances your ability to understand others and their patterns of thought and emotions.
3. Letting Go
What It Is
The ability to allow things to be as they are and to pass away when their time is up—not holding onto the past.
How Meditation Helps
Built into the very core of meditation is the training of letting go. While practicing, we are constantly letting go of thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations as soon as we notice that we have been caught up in them.
Our partner will often do or say things that upset us. Sometimes there is a change in their behavior and it is no longer a problem — yet we are often unable to let go. It still bothers us and will be brought back into focus during the next argument, however unrelated. This means we haven’t moved on; we are still in the past.
Having the power to let go allows us to say, “I can drop that ugly thing. I refuse to allow it to continue to upset me. It’s past, and I’m done with it now.”
With the power of letting go, we can learn to treat negative emotions like we treat distractions in meditation: We turn away from them and move back into the present. Or, if the emotion is too strong, we give it our full, nonjudgmental attention, learn what it has to say, and allow that energy to exhaust itself.
What It Is
Being here and now, aware of what is happening inside your body and mind and in your surroundings.
How Meditation Helps
This is the skill most often linked to meditation practice—and rightly so. Meditation requires a constant presence in the moment, watching what is happening with your mind: Is it with the breath or mantra, or is it somewhere else?
Many marriages suffer from a lack of quality couple time. Often, there is also a lack of presence when communicating, which results in half-hearted listening, empty dialogues, and misunderstandings.
We can say there are four types of communication problems for married couples:
- Not listening.
- Lack of empathy and connection when listening.
- Not communicating what needs to be communicated.
- Saying something inappropriate or in an inappropriate way.
All of these can be reduced by cultivating presence. Only by being present can we connect to our real needs and those of our partner. Presence means paying attention to what is happening with openness and care. This leads to knowing when to talk, when to listen, what to say, and how to listen—and to a better sex life.
Applying the skill of meditation to your married life means being there, 100 percent present, especially during conversations. This will emotionally nourish your partner and increase relationship satisfaction, bonding, and respect. Being more present also teaches us a lot about the real needs of our partner, many of which are not communicated verbally or are “lost in translation.” Finally, being more present leads to more fulfilling sex.
An interesting practice you can do to enhance your connection and nonjudgmental presence is eye-gazing. Sit comfortably across from each other with eyes closed, take a few calming breaths, and then open your eyes. Let your eyes meet your partner’s eyes. Look deep into their soul with curiosity, openness, and presence. Two to five minutes is enough for this practice.
5. Positive Emotions
What They Are
In the context of marriage, these are emotions like contentment, love, empathy, gratitude, care, connection, and encouragement.
How Meditation Helps
One of the best practices for increasing these positive emotions is loving-kindness meditation, where you deliberately kindle and cultivate feelings of love and empathy. Other meditation techniques also have the effect of improving your mood, but loving-kindness methods are the most specific tools for this job.
In her article “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation Today,” Emma Seppälä, PhD, reports that recent studies show increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe after seven weeks of loving-kindness meditation.
We can do similar practices to train our mind to cultivate any positive feeling. Whatever we give constant attention to will grow and become second nature. The process is the same as for loving-kindness meditation: Bring up the desired feeling or emotion by remembering it or imagining how it feels, and then continuously focus on it as the object of your meditation practice.
The more we feel happy, well, and at ease, the less likely we are to create negative experiences for ourselves or our significant other. Instead, we more easily create positive, nourishing experiences in our relationship — and that’s the stuff that keeps people together.
I strongly recommend doing loving-kindness meditation using your partner as a subject. This helps to clear negative feelings you might be holding onto and builds the ability to see life through your partner’s lens. Bonus points if you do this practice together as a weekly couple’s ritual. Your level of connection and bonding will skyrocket.
Modern marriages face a lot of challenges and stress: too little time and money, too much distraction and temptation. Having rituals for reconnecting amid the chaos is key to keeping your relationship alive. Meditation can be one of them.
Bringing It All Together
For many of us, cultivating a fulfilling relationship with our partner is one of the hardest tasks in life. Nobody knows our shadows and how to press our buttons better than our partner. That is why deep and long-term relationships are often the best personal-growth playgrounds you will find—if you look at them through these eyes.
Here is a summary of what I recommend in this article:
- Have a daily meditation practice. This will help you develop the skills of nonreactivity, clarity, letting go, presence, and positive emotions.
- Practice loving-kindness meditation together with your partner once a week. This will develop more positive interactions.
- Agree on a trigger word that your partner can use to bring you back to pausing and self-awareness.
- Try eye-gazing meditation together a few times for enhanced connection.
- Develop greater self-knowledge by continuously studying your own mind and emotions. Be aware of what’s going on in your body and mind.
Meditation can be the best non-talk therapy a couple can have. And it’s definitely cheaper than counseling, mediation, or divorce.
Two conditions will help you make the most of meditation:
- Develop a strong daily practice. Continue to deepen your own practice, explore different meditation techniques, learn about yourself, and gradually master your mind.
- Use every interaction as an opportunity to meditate — to be fully present, open, and mindful.
These conditions are not quick fixes—they are lifetime practices. If you follow through, however, you will find, like many others have found, that meditation can transform your marriage and your life.