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Happiness and romance

Studying the impacts of mindfulness and self-compassion on relationships


By Kelly Foss

Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract?

Dr. Christopher Quinn-Nilas, the newest member of the Faculty of Science’s Department of Psychology, is hoping to answer that very question.

Age-old questions

“Although these axioms are engrained in our vocabulary about relationships, scientific answers to these questions and about what qualities foster happy romantic relationships have proven to be highly elusive,” he said. “My research tests these sayings and seeks to answer a wide range of age-old questions about happiness in romantic relationships.”

Romantic relationships are integral to health and well-being.

“With the advent of powerful computers and advances in statistical methodology, we’ve been able to explore a lot of new questions.” — Dr. Christopher Quinn-Nilas

However, in Canada approximately 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce, suggesting that many couples struggle with maintaining their relationship over time.

“Given that divorce and marital distress are associated with lower health and well-being, it is critically important to understand factors which may nurture positive and healthy long-term relationships,” said Dr. Quinn-Nilas. “One of the strongest predictors of long-term marital satisfaction is sexual satisfaction, thus, I primarily study how relationships and sexuality intersect.”

Mindfulness and self-compassion

Currently, he is interested in how mindfulness — the nonjudgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations — and self-compassion — a kind disposition toward oneself when confronted with failings — can enhance relationships and sexuality.

“You might understand intuitively how being present and aware of current experiences, or how being kind to myself if I don’t necessarily feel positive about my body, might apply to sexuality,” he said. “But they could also have implications for how one functions, not just sexually in a relationship, but in day-to-day communications with your partner.”

“This could be a simple solution that everyday folks can use … to enhance their relationships.” — Dr. Christopher Quinn-Nilas

Dr. Quinn-Nilas says a new wave of methodology looking at how people influence each other in a relationship is paving the way toward answering questions about couples’ similarity and differences.

“Now we can ask and answer questions related to how my traits of mindfulness and self-compassion affect my partner’s romantic relationship and sexual outcomes,” he said. “Likewise, how our similarities or differences relate to my outcomes, as well as my partner’s. In the last decade, with the advent of powerful computers and advances in statistical methodology, we’ve been able to explore a lot of new questions that we were simply unable to answer in the past.”

From virtual to real life

One of the cutting-edge areas Dr. Quinn-Nilas is interested in exploring is using virtual reality (VR) to induce mindfulness and change the nature of difficult conversations.

“I’d like to get couples to come in and take part in some VR mindfulness before engaging them in a discussion designed to prompt an intense conversation about a suitably intense topic,” he said. “I want to see if we can generate a measurable change in the emotional intensity of these conversations and see if there are differences between the mindful and non-mindful couples.”

This will also help Dr. Quinn-Nilas test whether being similarly mindful as your partner, or if having different levels of mindfulness, might have beneficial or negative relationship outcomes.

“The funny thing is we really don’t know for sure if birds of a feather flock together, or if opposites attract,” he said. “However, we’re now at the advent of exciting new methodologies for studying couples and relationships of all different configurations.”

Easy to learn

While the science on mindfulness is quite young, he says that evidence suggests mindfulness is easy to learn.

“If we identify that mindfulness has sweeping benefits on relationships and sexuality, it’s something that can perhaps be taught quickly,” said Dr. Quinn-Nilas. “Relationships are infinitely complex, but this could be a simple solution that everyday folks can use in a reasonably quick and effective manner to enhance their relationships.”

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