Could meditation help with relationship problems?

In the run up to the 2017 Varela Awards we highlight some of the work of our 2016 awardees. Gesa Kappen was one of the 6 young scientists that received a Varela Award. With her research she looks into how practicing meditation influences the way people handle everyday challenges in their romantic relationships. ‘I am intrigued by the idea that meditation may help people see that their partner’s behaviour may not always be the problem’. 

What do you hope to achieve with your research?
In relationships if something goes wrong, people often jump to the conclusion that their partner might not be ‘the right person’ for them. This sets in motion a whole succession of anxiety and perceptual biases towards the negative. I am intrigued by the idea that meditation may help people see that the partner’s behaviour may not always be the problem, but that the problem may be a result of their own cognitive patterns. In my PhD project, I therefore investigate if mindfulness and meditation help people accept the ‘shortcomings’ of their partners. I hope to gain a better understanding of the effects of meditation practice on both the meditators and their partners. More specifically, I investigate if meditation practice helps people accept everyday relationship hassles. With the Varela grant, I will conduct an intervention study to see whether short meditations for two weeks have a positive impact on the meditators and their partners. If I don’t find any effect that would also be very informative – we would then want to further explore why that is the case.

What should people know about your research?
Mindfulness based interventions and meditation in general have gained a lot of popularity. Everyone has access to meditation material on the internet. However, no person lives in a vacuum and the meditation practice of one person could influence the people they interact with. It is important to know what the effect is (what does it do and is it always beneficial?), for whom it works (do only certain people benefit?) and what is the best way to make contemplative practice accessible (is a smartphone app as effective as an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program?). Answering these questions will help us to apply contemplative practice most purposefully and efficiently in society.

I would like people to know that research on the effects of meditation in interpersonal relationships is in its infancy. My project provides an important, but small step. We are only starting to understand how meditation and mindfulness influence relationships and it is important to keep a critical mind. It seems to me that the popular media claim is that meditation is a universal fix for everything and I would like people to be cautious and patient. We are working on it.

‘I feel that meditation and mindfulness interventions deserve scientific attention, because they have great potential to increase the wellbeing of people.’

What made you choose this research topic?
The motivation to research this topic builds mainly on my own experience with meditation and my background in research in clinical psychology. I noticed how meditation helped me understand my own patterns better and therefore acquired a better feeling for what may drive others. At the same time, I was amazed at how relatively simple exercises (like focusing on your breathing and relating to distraction in an accepting way) could have quite an impact on perception. I therefore feel that meditation and mindfulness interventions deserve scientific attention, because they have great potential to increase the wellbeing of many people. Those who are closest to us (e.g. romantic partners) should be the first to be impacted by our levels of mindfulness. I have the general impression that relationships often fail due to relatively minor problems, which people could have worked out had they been more tolerant toward occasional downs in their relationship or even just toward small irritations.

Can you give an example of where you’ve seen meditation has made a difference?
I look at both natural dispositions of mindfulness as well as the effects of meditation or short mindfulness based exercises. It appears that one can measure mindfulness (called ‘trait mindfulness’) in both meditators and non-meditators. People differ in their natural ability to be aware of their experiences in an accepting manner: Some often know how they feel and are okay with these experiences, others often run on automatic pilot and suppress or try to change (especially negative) experiences.

In earlier studies, I have found that higher levels of trait mindfulness go together with a more accepting attitude towards a romantic partner and with higher relationship satisfaction. Data from my PhD project so far does not yet make clear what role meditation plays in the fostering of partner acceptance. This is where the Varela Award study will come in.

What research methods do you use?
I have used different approaches in the past: One approach was to give participants questionnaires that measure their levels of trait mindfulness together with different markers of relationship quality. Then, I could see which aspects of relationship quality mindfulness is associated with. I also gave participants short mindfulness exercises in the lab and afterwards measured their emotional reactions to some aspect of their partner that they found irritating. However, these studies only told me about the role of mindfulness for one person in a couple. For the Varela Award study, one group of people will meditate regularly for two weeks and a control group will not, I will assess the quality of their relationship before and after those two weeks, using self-report questionnaires. The nice thing about this study will be that I will also ask their partners to report how they perceive relationship quality. In that way, I can see whether meditation makes a difference for both partners.

‘Making people mindful in the lab is also challenging.’

What are the pros and cons of these methods?
Collecting scores of questionnaires can be done easily and cost effectively and it is very informative. However, using questionnaires to assess trait mindfulness is still debated: the conceptualization of mindfulness is difficult enough, so what do these questionnaires really measure? For example, some studies find that people with meditation experience understand the questionnaire differently than people without meditation experience. Also, this approach does not allow us to draw conclusions about causality – what came first, relationship satisfaction or mindfulness?

To look at causality, mindfulness manipulations in the lab are a very nice method. But then, making people mindful in the lab is also challenging: can meditation novices understand short mindfulness instructions? What do participants do when they are listening to the instructions? Is this comparable to ‘real’ meditation?

Ideally you want participants, who have no experience with meditation and don’t know what the study will be about, to meditate repeatedly over a longer period of time. The biggest challenge will be to keep participants motivated to do the exercises daily – studies longer than two weeks are therefore very hard to do.

‘Relationships are immensely complicated and fascinating and meditation encourages wonderment.’

Studying the topic of mindfulness and meditation in relationships has, of course, made me more aware of how I deal with my own relationships. My observations so far show that relationships are simply immensely complicated and fascinating and that meditation encourages wonderment.

What impact do the results of your project have for advancing contemplative science and for making change in society?
Popular media spread a lot of information on the putative effects of mindfulness- based meditation, especially in the domain of romantic relationships. As a result, the popularity of mindfulness-based interventions grows fast and people all over the world practice meditation by themselves, using online material that is freely accessible. Unfortunately, many of the claims on the beneficial effects of mindfulness lack empirical support. As a matter of fact, we know very little about the effects mindfulness has on people’s interpersonal relationships. Getting to know how, for whom and what type of changes can occur due to meditation practice will contribute to creating more scientifically based claims, and more informed and nuanced expectations of practicing mindfulness-based meditation.
How did the European Varela Awards help you in your career?
I started the project by meeting up with experts in the field. I am very happy that the European Varela Awards enabled me to develop these collaborations. Being in charge of a Varela Project has given me a new sense of responsibility, which has sparked the motivation for my work and benefitted my personal development. I think that Awards like the Varela Award really make a difference for people’s scientific careers.

A request from Gesa

Can you relate to my topic? 
If you feel like contributing to my research, please find the link to our latest, very short survey, in which my colleague Kim Lien van der Schans and I ask former ESRI participants about their personal experience with meditation in interpersonal relationships. We would be very grateful for your contribution. 

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