Besides being a boon to the greeting card and florist industries, Valentine’s Day reminds many Americans of the importance and great joy of their romantic relationships, especially courting and marriage.
Dr. James Carson and his wife Kimberly think about such things just about every day. That’s not just because they share such a strong bond themselves, but because, as psychology researchers, part of their professional lives involves improving marriages and other loving, committed relationships.
And in news that’s just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Carsons have -- for what they believe is the first time -- extended to couples a form of meditation that has stood the test of time by lasting more than 2,500 years. A study they conducted together at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with feedback from participants, shows they appear to be on to something good.
"We got this idea since Kimberly and I had been practicing what’s called mindfulness meditation for several years before we met," Carson said. "After we were together, both of us found that the meditation practice evolved into a rich part of our relationship that contributed a lot to our togetherness. That’s why we decided that it might make a difference for other couples."
A report on their work, which began when both were graduate students at UNC, appeared recently in the journal Behavior Therapy and a book chapter about it will be published in the next few months. Co-authors were their UNC mentors Karen M. Gil and Donald H. Baucom, both psychology professors in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Both Carsons now work at Duke University, Jim as a postdoctoral fellow and clinical associate in psychiatry and Kimberly as a clinical research coordinator and yoga teacher.
By comparing couples who underwent training and practiced the technique with other couples who did not do so until later, the two found spouses could cut interpersonal stress and related problems on average by about 50 percent. They also could boost their satisfaction with one another by about 50 percent.
"In our work, we started with couples who already were doing fairly well in their relationships and were not distressed," Jim Carson said. "Since it was the first time mindfulness meditation had been employed and studied this way, we wanted to make sure it had a positive effect on regular couples before considering using it with those who might be distressed."
The eight weekly training sessions involved teaching couples how to do exercises together to become more aware of the present moment -- "right here and now" -- and to accept and learn from everything that happens to them -- "good, bad or ugly," he said. They also were taught how to direct positive feelings toward their loved ones.
One of the pleasant surprises was that the effects on couples did not disappear even months after the training, Carson said. Also, improvements were large even among mostly contented couples.
"Because that’s not easy to do -- improve on already-good relationships, we are very pleased," he said. "The next step will be to extend the efforts to those whose marriages are in distress."
When asked about their experience with mindfulness training, most couples studied were very positive, he said.
"We’ve shifted out of the ‘automatic mode’ we were stuck in," said one couple of 20 years. "We’re kinder, more accepting and understanding of one another now, more at ease even when we’re at our worst. And on good days, we relate much better than we ever did before."
Another twosome reported being more aware of how valuable each moment was and found that it was not worth ruining the present by dwelling on past difficulties. They said they got more out of the time they spent together and had more fun.
"Partner yoga was surprising because it was so intimate, and we didn’t know we could have such intimacy beyond what we already had," a third couple said. "It even opened up possibilities in our sex life that we didn’t know were there!"
"I’m handling stress differently now," a wife admitted. "We had a stressful family function last week. Before we would’ve wound up getting really irritated with one another, but we didn’t. I found myself focusing on my breathing, calming myself and being more open toward my husband and willing to listen to what he had to say."
Another woman said she and her husband have a lot more togetherness now instead of being more like roommates who shared the same house.
"We get household chores done more smoothly also," she said. "I’m learning to back away from ‘He’s not doing it right’, and I’m less critical than I used to be."
"Mindfulness helped me so much during the delivery process, especially paying attention to my breathing," a young mother said. "It enabled me to accept and be present for the experience, even though it was still very painful. And since then, with the baby there has been a lot more stress in our relationship, but mindfulness has helped both of us to stay grounded and handle it better."
After her husband accidentally spilled a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries she had made special, another woman reported being furious at first and thoughts like ‘He intentionally did this, he always does this kind of thing!’ rushed through her head.
"But I was surprised to find that at the same time, I was very clearly noticing exactly what I was going through," she said. "I noticed the tension in my stomach and face, the heat in my body, the change in my breathing, the feelings of hurt and irritation and exactly what thoughts I was having.
"I saw that I had a strong urge to strike out at him in some way, to say something mean and cutting, but that’s not what I did. I recognized in that moment that I had a choice to not react automatically. As I stood there, I noticed the apprehension on my husband’s face, and my thoughts changed to ‘It was an accident, we all make accidents. I can be gentle if I want.’
"I walked over and gave him a big hug. He was very surprised, and so was I! He apologized, and I asked him to please be more careful, more mindful. After this, I felt elated and a sense of freedom. And instead of spending several hours punishing him, I was able to enjoy being with him. I said to myself, ‘Mindfulness is really working!’"
There appears to be no reason why the technique, if adapted appropriately, couldn’t help couples whose relationships are troubled but who want to stay together, Carson said.