Can "Relational Mindfulness" Help Couples Stop Fighting? A Therapist Explains

Marriage & Family Therapist By Shari Foos, M.A., MFT, M.S.
Marriage & Family Therapist
Shari Foos, MA, MFT, MS, NM, is a marriage and family therapist, adjunct professor at Antioch University, and the founder of The Narrative Method. Foos has a master's degree in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University and a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University.
This Practice Can Help Couples Finally Stop Fighting So Much

One reason fights between a couple can get out of hand is because the two people aren't actually listening to each other. In the heat of the argument, a person's focus can turn to defending themselves and proving they're right—rather than actually trying to understand their partner's feelings.

To avoid this type of unproductive argument, I recommend couples use a practice I call relational mindfulness.

What is relational mindfulness?

Relational mindfulness is a humanistic practice of compassionate communication. The goal is for partners to share vulnerably and listen empathetically to achieve a more meaningful connection through deeper understanding. In relational mindfulness, we do not focus on solutions because they take you out of your heart. Rather, the focus is on developing greater awareness and compassion for yourselves and each other. Love is not a deal; it is the result of feeling seen and heard without judgment.

Practicing relational mindfulness requires the courage to face the fears and negative beliefs that get in the way of your ability to express yourself genuinely. It also requires that you accept the fact that no two people can perceive things in the exact same way. The realization that your partner cannot read your mind compels you to increase your self-awareness and move your relationship beyond immature reactions that confuse, frustrate, and keep you distanced. If you want to be understood, you have to show your partner who you are, flaws and all, and clearly express your feelings and your needs.

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is not easy, even in a loving relationship. It can bring up old wounds and the fear of being hurt or rejected. But to achieve a truly intimate relationship, you must take the risk to let your partner in and express what you feel. The more you open up, the more you say things out loud, the less power the fear has over you. Thus, the more you grow as an individual, the better it is for your relationship.

At the core of relational mindfulness is also the concept of putting yourself aside, which means temporarily putting aside your needs, opinions, and beliefs so that you can be fully present for your partner and see things from their perspective. Putting yourself aside is one of the most challenging skills in communication. It means holding back the urge to defend and resort to reactions that must first be unwound before you get to the real problem. The more you practice this skill, knowing you will have your turn later, the greater satisfaction you will gain from providing this openness for each other.

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How to practice relational mindfulness:

Step 1: Commit to a weekly time and place without distraction.

It's essential that you are both fully present and available. Make sure you choose a location that is private and comfortable where you can sit facing each other without a table or anything else between you. Plan ahead to find a regular time when you will both be available to be there for each other. That said, if something pressing comes up, it's better to postpone than be distracted. 

Step 2: Connect to yourself.

Once you're comfortable and facing each other, the first priority is connecting to yourselves. Close your eyes for approximately two minutes or until you feel relaxed. Exhale and breathe rhythmically. Imagine yourself in a safe and loving place where you will listen to yourself and be present for your partner. Open your eyes.

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Step 3: Connect to each other.

In silence, look into each other's eyes and hold hands for approximately four minutes, focusing on mutual respect, loving-kindness, and the desire to truly understand. After the four minutes, say to each other, "I am here for you, myself, and our relationship." Then decide who will share first.

Step 4: Share and listen.

One partner can begin to share while the other listens. You'll switch roles later. (Each of you can pick one subject per session to discuss, or you can both discuss the same thing.)

Rather than laying out the entire situation at once, the sharing partner should present one idea at a time, for no longer than a minute, so their partner can remember what they've said and then accurately reflect it back to them.

Be conscious of the impact of your words and body language. Use "I" statements. No accusations or insults. Be respectful of your partner's feelings, and expect to be understood.

  • Don't say: "When you come home, you avoid me and go to your office."
  • Do say: "When you come home and go to your office, I feel like you want to avoid me."

While your partner is sharing, put yourself aside so that you can empathetically imagine how your partner feels and sees things. Remain silent and listen closely without judging or interrupting—just an open and loving heart. This is not a conversation. It's your partner's turn to express their feelings.

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Step 5: Reflect and clarify.

After the sharing partner has finished each point, the listening partner will try to reflect back to the best of their ability what was shared.

  • Don't say: "You insist on giving me a hard time when all I need is to be alone."
  • Do say: "What I heard you say is that when I get home and go to my office, it makes you feel like I want to avoid you."

Then the listening partner will ask, "Did I get it right?"

The sharing partner can then clarify any misunderstandings or omissions and then allow the listening partner to reflect the clarifications back to them, repeating the process until they're satisfied that they are understood. (Tip: Stay calm and don't take offense if your partner doesn't get it immediately.) Then the sharing partner will continue on to the next idea they want to express on the same subject.

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Step 6: Switch roles.

Allow one person to share for 15 minutes. Then switch roles for another 15 minutes. The second person may share their perspective on what the first partner has said—without defending themselves. Then move on to the second person's subject.

Step 7: Clarify further.

In the second half-hour, you can clarify further. If there's nothing further to clarify, take turns expressing your appreciation for your partner's focus, attention, and trying to understand. You may keep talking about the experience or sit in silence, but don't discuss anything mundane. Just be together.

Moving past the past.

Relational mindfulness is an ongoing commitment to yourself and your relationship. It can take time to build this depth of trust, particularly if your trust has been abused in the past. But you have the choice to bring the positive habit of expressing yourself openly and honestly—before problems get compounded.

As you work on yourself and your relationship, it will become easier to prevent the kinds of misunderstandings and misinterpretations that are caused by bringing the past into the present. It's important to appreciate that the defenses you built were unconsciously intended to protect you. But when you put them aside, you can achieve the greatest satisfaction in any relationship. And that is a deeper connection through mutual understanding.

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