Relationship Satisfaction Happens One Moment At A Time

Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT

You come home from a long day of work looking forward to relaxing with your partner. Before that can happen, first you have to do the parenting, playing, homework, dinner, dishes, bath and stories thing. The littles are finally fast asleep and you get a minute to sit down on the couch with your partner. What comes next? Over and over again I hear the same thing from the couples I work with, "We sit down, turn on Netflix and we each turn to our phones." Hearing this so many times from so many different couples got me thinking about what this inattention might be doing to our relationships. 

Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to sign off of social media or delete your favorite game apps. As a chronic multi-tasker myself, I don't fully buy into the notion that smart phones are the main culprit in our distracted lives. I fully admit that I am as distracted by piles of laundry and old fashioned magazines as I am by my phone. I have wondered, however, how my tendency towards distraction impacts my own most valued relationships and how it might be impacting the relationships of those I work with.

Turns out I'm not the first Marriage and Family Therapist to be wondering about this. I recently read a pilot study in the journal Family Process that examined how mindfulness might impact relationship satisfaction (Gordon, Khaddoum & Strand, 2017). The study looked at the impact Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) might have on relationship satisfaction for both the partner participating in MBSR and the non-participating partner. 

As expected, both the partner who was trained in MBSR and the other partner reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after the training. What is interesting about the findings is what specific act of mindfulness was correlated most highly with increased relationship satisfaction in both partners. 

This study looked at five facets of mindfulness; Observing Experience, Describing with Words, Acting with Awareness, Non-judging of Inner Experience, and Non-Reactivity to Experience. Interestingly, Acting with Awareness correlated with the highest increase in report relationship satisfaction in both the MBSR participant and partner. So, what is Acting with Awareness and why might it be so important?  

Acting with Awareness is the ability to attend to activities in the current moment with purposeful attention (i.e. playing cards with your partner without simultaneously folding clothes, doing the laundry and checking Facebook). It involves concentrating on one activity at a time and bringing yourself intentionally back to the activity at hand when distractions arise. 

This is not a skill that comes naturally to me. I find myself jumping from one thing to the next and I whole heartedly enjoy the sense of completion I have when I am able to check everything off my list. However, what I have found in my quest to become a more content human is this; those things that I give my full attention too I remember more fondly and experience more pride when reflecting on them. 

Acting with Awareness generally results in more satisfaction with the activities we choose to do. This current study tells us that it also results in greater satisfaction in our relationships. Why? My theory is that when we give our full attention to activities we do with our partner, we enjoy them more and create memories that illicit feelings of joy that are connected to our relationship. So, then, if only one partner is acting with awareness, why would both partners benefit?

My thought is that it's really quite simple. When our partners are not distracted by multiple thoughts or activities (and therefore enjoying those activities more fully), it allows us to experience them more fully and more positively. Active Awareness creates an atmosphere of intention in our lives that impacts the people who spend the most time with us. Our partners feel more engaged with us when we are fully engaged in the activities we share with them.

Now that you know how Active Awareness can increase the quality of your relationship, how can you implement it into your life? If your like me and you find true joy in completing everything on your list before bedtime, DO NOT flagrantly attempt to mindfully play a game of cards with your spouse while the children trash the living room, the dishes are piled by the sink and the dog needs to be fed. This might result in dangerously high blood pressure and possible loud slam cleaning (not that I would know from personal experience). I recommend you start slowly. Try turning off the TV while you and your partner fold laundry. Or setting a timer for your social media browsing before starting your favorite show together. 

Creating positive emotional experiences that you associate with your relationship doesn't have to be a big deal. Actions can be simple, yet mindful. As always, my hope for you after reading this blog is that you'll share your thoughts on it with your partner and spark a conversation about your hopes for your relationship


Gordon, K, Khaddouma, A. & Strand, E. (2017). Mindful mates: a pilot study of relational effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on participants and their partners. Family Process, 56(3),  636-651. 

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