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Mindfulness enhances romantic relationships through need fulfillment, study suggests

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Mindfulness enhances romantic relationships through need fulfillment, study suggests

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A recent study published in the journal Personal Relationships sheds light on how mindfulness, self-compassion, and other-compassion intersect with psychological need fulfillment to influence relationship and sexual satisfaction in midlife married couples.

The study was grounded in Self-Determination Theory, a broad framework for understanding human motivation and well-being. The theory posits that individuals have three fundamental psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the need to feel in control of one’s actions and decisions. Competence is the need to feel effective and capable in one’s activities. Relatedness involves feeling connected to others and having meaningful relationships.

Given that mindfulness and self-compassion have been shown to enhance individual well-being and relational outcomes, this study aimed to explore their roles within the context of Self-Determination Theory. The researchers sought to investigate how mindfulness and self-compassion contribute to fulfilling the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in relationships, and how these needs, in turn, influence relationship and sexual satisfaction.

For their study, the researchers recruited 640 married Canadians aged 40 to 59 through an online survey. Participants were predominantly white (83%), with smaller representations from Southeast Asian (7%) and Black (3%) communities. The sample was mostly heterosexual, with nearly equal numbers of men and women, and a few gender nonbinary individuals. Participants completed various questionnaires measuring mindfulness, self-compassion, other-compassion, need fulfillment, relationship satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction.

Mindfulness was assessed using the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, which evaluates observation, description, awareness, non-judging of inner experience, and non-reactivity. Self-compassion was measured using the Self-Compassion Scale, which includes items about being kind and understanding toward oneself. Compassion toward others was evaluated using the Compassion Scale, which assesses the tendency to comfort others in distress.

Need fulfillment in relationships was measured using the Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction in Relationships scale, which focuses on autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Relationship satisfaction was assessed with the Couple’s Satisfaction Index, and sexual satisfaction was measured using the Global Measure of Sexual Satisfaction.

The researchers found evidence suggesting that the fulfillment of basic psychological needs played a pivotal role in enhancing relationship and sexual satisfaction. These needs, when fulfilled within a relationship, formed a strong network of positive associations that contributed significantly to overall relational well-being.

Among the three needs, relatedness — the sense of being valued and cared for by one’s partner — emerged as the most central and impactful factor. The study showed that individuals who felt a strong sense of relatedness with their partners experienced higher levels of relationship satisfaction.

Competence, or the feeling of being effective and capable within the relationship, also showed significant influence. It acted as a bridge connecting mindfulness and self-compassion with the other needs, demonstrating that when individuals feel competent in their relationships, they are more likely to fulfill their needs for autonomy and relatedness as well.

Mindfulness and self-compassion were found to be indirectly associated with relationship and sexual satisfaction through their positive effects on need fulfillment. Higher levels of mindfulness and self-compassion were linked to greater competence need fulfillment, which subsequently influenced the fulfillment of autonomy and relatedness needs.

This suggests that mindfulness and self-compassion help individuals to better meet their needs in a relationship, thereby enhancing overall relationship and sexual satisfaction. The strong association between mindfulness and self-compassion also highlighted their complementary roles in promoting personal and relational well-being.

Interestingly, the study found that other-compassion (compassion toward others) had weaker associations with relationship and sexual satisfaction compared to self-compassion. While being compassionate towards others is generally beneficial, it was the fulfillment of one’s own needs and self-compassion that had stronger and more direct impacts on relationship outcomes. This finding suggests that self-compassion may be a more critical factor for personal and relational well-being in midlife marriages than compassion towards others.

The study utilized psychological network modeling to map out these complex interrelationships, showing how various factors are interconnected within a broader system. It was found that the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness were strongly interlinked, indicating that fulfilling one need is likely to positively influence the fulfillment of the others. The most significant pathways identified were those connecting need fulfillment with relationship satisfaction, underscoring the importance of these basic psychological needs in maintaining healthy and satisfying relationships.

“Romantic relationships are wonderfully complex and affected by a great many personal and interpersonal variables. We utilized an analytic approach that could model that complexity,” said corresponding author Christopher Quinn-Nilas of Memorial University. “Our results, although preliminary and exploratory, suggest that there may be positive relational benefits to being mindful and self-compassionate. But these positive benefits appear to occur indirectly (via associations with more proximal variables, like need fulfillment in the relationship), which is consistent with emerging theory in this area.”

While the study provides valuable insights, it has several limitations. The cross-sectional design prevents conclusions about causality or temporal precedence. The sample was limited to married Canadians in midlife, mostly heterosexual and cisgender, which may limit the generalizability of the findings. Future research should include more diverse samples and consider longitudinal designs to better understand the causal relationships between these variables.

Additionally, the study focused on individual-level data, which means that partner effects and dyadic interactions were not directly assessed. Future studies should explore these dynamics within couples to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how mindfulness and compassion influence relationship outcomes.

The study, “Mindfulness networks: Analyzing associations with self-compassion, other-compassion, need fulfillment, and satisfaction in midlife married Canadians,” was authored by Christopher Quinn-Nilas and Robin R. Milhausen.

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