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Mindfulness in Love

written by Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009

Kirsten Cronlund, MAPP 2008, is committed to helping others navigate the rough waters of divorce with resiliency, drawing upon personal experience and the science of positive psychology. She is now serving as the director of Bryn Athyn Church School. Full bio.

Kirsten's articles are here.

Pros and Cons of Valentine’s Day

rose mindfulness loveI have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, having a holiday dedicated completely to the savoring of romantic relationships seems a likely way to enhance and cultivate positive emotion, express gratitude, and even feel gratitude. And I’m sure there are many who have lovely romantic Valentine’s Day celebrations.

On the other hand, even the most loving relationships go through ups and downs, and dedicating a holiday to highlighting romance and passion might cause stress for people because we can all fall victim to social comparison: it’s easy to assume that everyone else is feeling close to their spouse and that there must be something wrong with our relationship if we are not lovey-dovey.

I’m not a cynic. In fact, I have cultivated the practice of optimism to such a degree that some might say I’m Pollyanna-ish. So don’t take it the wrong way when I say that romance is overrated. There’s nothing wrong with you if your Valentine’s Day is not Hallmark-worthy, and there may not even be anything wrong with your relationship if you would rather spend Valentine’s Day by yourself, soaking in a tub and reading a good novel, than get dressed up and engage in stimulating conversation with your spouse. Maybe your idea of the expression of love is contained in the activities of daily life – the sharing of and active responding to good news, helping your spouse by unloading the dishwasher or picking the children up from soccer practice, or painting the kitchen together. There’s nothing wrong with this.

Be Wary of Maximizing

groom bride mindfulness loveBarry Schwartz has written in The Paradox of Choice that we make ourselves supremely unhappy when we maximize – that is, search and search for the “perfect” object or decision. We set ourselves up for disappointment because the amount of time and energy we invest in this process makes us subconsciously expect a level of happiness with our final decision that is highly unlikely. This is true when researching the best dishwasher, and it is also true in relationships. Barry states that we are most happy when we set for ourselves a limited set of criteria that we are looking for, and quit looking when we have satisfied those requirements. He tells us: don’t second guess your decision, and avoid comparisons to others as much as possible (except for downward comparisons, which can make us feel better about our circumstances).

Schwartz’s advice is perhaps relatively easy to follow when buying a vacuum, but it’s not so easy to remain as satisfied with one’s spouse. Conflict is inherent in all relationships, and the negotiation of the complexities of merging two outlooks and lifestyles incites people to periodically question whether or not they have made the right choice of spouse. It’s easier said than done to set criteria for that choice and then not look back. It is possible, however, to achieve a great deal of contentment and peace with your spouse if you practice mindfulness in your relationship.

Mindfulness in Relationships

What does this look like? In my last article, I stated that mindfulness is “attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli in the internal and external environments,” and it turns out that this is arguably the greatest pathway to satisfaction in relationships. Raising awareness nonjudgmentally about your irritations over your spouse’s spending habits, awareness of your spouse’s need for more support with household chores, your perceptions of the expectation of your mother-in-law about holiday traditions, and conflicting ideas about ideal parenting practices allow you to be a dispassionate observer of your inner and outer circumstances. “There’s that irritation again,” you might say to yourself, avoiding labeling it as “bad,” a practice which activates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight.

Calmness of a Lake

Calmness of a Lake

Instead, as the observer, you are in a position to practice the most effective optimistic practice, which is to scan the available options, determine the action that is most likely to yield positive results, and then take action. This mindful approach activates instead the parasympathetic nervous system, or the calming response. (See Wayne Jencke’s article here and the Thayer article listed below.) What is the goal of this nonjudgemental scanning? The goal is not to erase the irritation, but to work with it to continue moving forward. Going back to the stream analogy I mentioned in my last article, your irritation with your spouse is like the boulder in the path. Beating yourself against the boulder, either through angry expletives or efforts to “make” him or her do what you want, will not yield positive results. Instead, you’ll both continue to be stuck at that spot in the stream.


It might seem that this approach would lead to passivity in the relationship, but that is not what happens. James W. Carson and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that people who engage in a mindful approach accurately assess the best ways to express their emotions, and when to do so (pdf). Conflict is not avoided, but navigated more successfully. Also, a clearer assessment of behaviors and dynamics leads to a greater chance that you will take action in unhealthy situations (e.g., your spouse is spending the grocery money at the casino). (See Carson article listed below.) The mindful approach also does not preclude the expression of joy and passion, but leads instead to unconditional love. (See Leon article listed below.) But it does promote, most of all, contentment, a positive state that gets a bad rap in our culture. Contentment is a powerful emotion, and is associated with high levels of well-being. (See Gilbert article listed below.)

coffee mindfulness loveSo I’d like to propose a mindful approach to Valentine’s Day and love in general. Why not do what makes sense in your relationship? Maybe it’s a dozen roses and a night of passionate lovemaking, but maybe it’s an amiable chat or a few hours spent doing separate but meaningful activities. And, most of all, excuse yourself of any expectations of the way love is supposed to be expressed.

Editor’s note: This article is included in the Love and Be Loved chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.




Carson, J.W., Carson, K.M., Gil, K.M., & Baucom, D.H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35, 471-494.

Frewen, P.A., Evans, E.M., Maraj, N., Dozois, D.J.A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting go: mindfulness and negative automatic thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 758-774.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Mitra, R., Franks, L., Richter, A., & Rockliff, H. (2008). Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(3), 182-191.

Leon, I., Hernandez, J.A., Rodriguez, S., & Vila, J. (in press). When head is tempered by heart: heart rate variability modulates perception of other-blame reducing anger. Motivation and Emotion.

Lyke, J.A. (2009). Insight, but not self-reflection, is related to subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 66-70.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.

Thayer, J.F. & Lane, R.D. (2009). Claude Bernard and the heart-brain connection: further elaboration of a model of neurovisceral integration. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 33, 81-88.


By David Niblack: rose, relaxing coffee cup, groom bride.
Lake calmness courtesy of cincooldesigns

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Dan Bowling 16 February 2009 - 11:17 am

As usual, insightful and nuanced. I really like your writing!

Scott 16 February 2009 - 1:56 pm

Kirsten, blending your personal experience of relationships with your knowledge of mindfulness is masterful. Your insight into mindfulness as a discipline to enhance a relationship is spot on. After over 30 years of knowing and loving the same person eventually I learned to just be aware of what is happening. And whether Valentine’s Day is a quiet dinner after a day of work (last year), or a full weekend of celebration in New York (this year), both are wonderful in their own right. Perhaps mindfulness is the gift that allows couples or friends to sit in silence with one anothers.
You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thanks.

WJ 16 February 2009 - 2:31 pm


See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=359 for research that discusses using midfulness as a way to enhance relationships.

Louis Alloro 16 February 2009 - 4:24 pm

I agree with Scott and Dan – spot on. Thank you. I especially like how you weave in some of Dan Schwartz’s work. Personally, I find myself to be a maximizer in relationships. In NYC, it’s easy to continue looking around the next corner. However, lately I’ve been thinking that this maximizing may have something to do with a fear of intimacy. Any thoughts on that, Ms. Lemondade?


george vaillant 16 February 2009 - 7:28 pm

To all PPND readers. To the extent that there is any difference in Kirsten’s and my valentine messages, listen to Kirsten. I stammer,; she gets the words right

Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009 - 11:05 pm


Thanks so much for your support. I’m glad the article spoke to you.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009 - 11:15 pm


I really appreciate your comments. I love this: “Perhaps mindfulness is the gift that allows couples or friends to sit in silence with one another.” Yes! Have you ever seen a happily married old couple, just being together? Contentment emanates from them as they look knowingly at one another, and they don’t even need to say anything to each other. Passers-by respond instinctively to the beauty of the picture they create. That’s contentment and deep love.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009 - 11:16 pm

Thanks, Wayne, for the link to the mindfulness research. I hope to highlight some of those studies more specifically in my next article.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009 - 11:25 pm


Interesting possible link between maximizing in love and fear of intimacy. I can see that, since maximizing is about making the best choice based on the criteria of the chosen item (or person), rather than focusing on the relationship BETWEEN two people. Satisficing, on the other hand, is saying, “Good enough,” and then stepping into the relationship, warts and all. I know you’re not alone, Louis, in your tendency to maximize in love, and I don’t think Hollywood is doing us any favors in this regard. (Although I do LOVE a good chick flick…)

So how can you bring mindfulness more fully into your dating selection process, I wonder?

Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009 - 11:41 pm


Your comments are very generous. The beautiful thing about the topic of love is that there are so many nuances to explore. Your article brought out ideas I could never even begin to describe, and I’m so glad you wrote it for PPND. I guess, to me, the most important thing is that we remain ever curious and open to the conversation, sharing ideas and learning from one another.

Louis Alloro 17 February 2009 - 9:40 pm


I think mindfulness can play a role, for sure. I just read Marianne Williamson’ chapter on love. She suggests that closed hearts stem from the ego. She says, “the narcissistic personality is looking for perfection, which is a way fo making sure that love never has a chance to blossom. The initial high an be so heady, so tantalizing, that the real work of growth which needs to follow the initial attraction phase can seem too dull, too hard to commit to. As soon as the other person is seen to be a real human being, the ego is repelled and wants to find somewhere else to play” (Return to Love, 142-3).

What kind of mindfulness practices can help us eliminate the ego? Does this mean we need to expand your definition “attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli in the internal and external environments,” as it would seem to me that we would have to not attend to ‘all’, but to some — or one?

Thanks for thinking this through with me-

Kirsten Cronlund 17 February 2009 - 10:31 pm

Wow, Louis –

This quote by Williamson is exactly in line with what I was talking about. Thanks for bringing it to the discussion.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say that it makes you think that we should narrow our focus from attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli or maybe one. I think you’ll have to explain that a little more to me.

What this quote shows me, instead, is that perhaps the only way to move from infatuation to real love is to be just that nonjudgmental observer. So let’s say I become infatuated with someone who seems to be just the person I’ve been looking for. I’m giddy, the world feels perfect, and Mr. Right can do no wrong. That is, until he does. And I start to see that, like everyone else, he possesses faults and, perhaps worst of all, I am not the center of his world, as I had previously thought. My narcissism would have me toss him aside (after many tears and perhaps some recrimination) and move on with my search.

What if, instead, I simply observed my feelings of disappointment? Observed the object of my infatuation as not an object, but as a human being? Allowed myself to mourn the loss of the natural high that is a part of the beginning stage of the relationship? And then stayed present, nonjudgmentally, to what would unfold next? I might notice restlessness in myself, or a strong desire to drag us both back to the infatuation stage, or boredom with the current state of things. To deny these feelings is to push them down where they will remain, only to surface at another time in another way. Staying present allows those feelings to come to the light and to be fully examined. Maybe I decide that there are real reasons why I don’t want to be with this man, but that decision would not be based on a kneejerk reaction to the removal of my infatuation high. And maybe, through the nonjudgmental observation of both my own internal life and the external circumstances (the dynamics of our relationship, who this man truly seems to be, etc.) I may decide that he is still someone I want to be with. But I would never make it that far if I were ruled by my “narcissistic personality,” as Williamson puts it.

Does this make sense, Louis?

Kirsten Cronlund 17 February 2009 - 10:48 pm

Oops. An amendment:

When I paraphrased your question I left out some words. Instead of saying, “I’m not sure what you mean when you say that it makes you think that we should narrow our focus from attending nonjudgmentally to all stimuli or maybe one,” what I should have said was,

I’m not sure what you mean when you say that it makes you think that we should narrow our focus from attending to all stimuli to focusing on only some or maybe one.

Sorry if this was confusing.

Dave Shearon 17 February 2009 - 11:03 pm

Kirsten, thank you for this article! Wonderful!

When you get a chance, I’d like your thoughts on the loving/kindness meditation that Dr. Fredrickson focuses on in Positivity based on her “Open Heart” research study. It seems to go beyond (or add to) the “nonjudgmental acceptance” with an emphasis on generating a particular emotion — loving/kindness.

Again, great job, and I’m looking forward to reading more!

Elona Hartjes 18 February 2009 - 5:53 pm

“Conflict is inherent in all relationships, …It is possible, however, to achieve a great deal of contentment and peace with your spouse if you practice mindfulness in your relationship.”

My husband and I have been married for 42 years and believe me we’ve have had lots of conflict and lots of contentment and peace over the years.

I attribute our contentment and peace to loving/kindness meditation for when you are asking that your spouse ” be filled with loving kindness. May you be happy. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be well” it’s not all about you. You really do get back what you send or reap what you so. It may sound corny, but it’s been true for us.

Kirsten Cronlund 18 February 2009 - 8:48 pm

Hi Elona,

It’s so nice to hear from someone who has been married as long as you have. Thank you for speaking to the necessity of extending loving kindness to one’s spouse as a way of maintaining contentment. And, as you point out, the irony of it beginning as “not about me” is that it really does return in ways that are beneficial to the originator. I don’t think it’s corny at all. I think it’s realistic and altruistic both.

Kirsten Cronlund 18 February 2009 - 8:50 pm


Did my latest comment to your recent article answer the question you posed here? There is a lot of overlap between the discussion that is occurring on your article and mine. It’s fun!

Louis Alloro 18 February 2009 - 10:20 pm

Totally makes sense. Thank you. My point was that given your definition of mindfulness, perhaps it’s necessary we reduce the amount of stimuli we take in if staying attuned to one person at a time is what’s challenging.

Instead of looking at the next corner for what’s next, what’s better, mindfulness in this sense would require slowing down and being present in the moment of getting to know “Mr. Right” or “Mr. Right Now”…however it plays out. Paying attention to all stimuli might disable a maximizer quite significantly.

Dave Shearon 19 February 2009 - 10:56 pm

Kirsten, your comment under my post does address the question I posed here. It is an interesting dialog. I think the suggestion that seems to appear in some of the literature that mindfulness as “nonjudgmental awareness” is the sole product of the discipline of meditation is not consistent with the broader literature on meditation. Fredrickson’s “Open Heart” study brings in the concept that some disciplines of meditionation produce emotions through willful attention and desire. In connection with her Broaden & Build Theory and Losada’s P/N ration contribution, it all is very interesting, interesting, interesting!


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