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Get in the Flow of Your Relationship

Ever get so involved or absorbed in doing something that you completely lose track of time? Perhaps it happens to you when checking Facebook or Pinterest, or when reading your favorite vampire novel (sometimes our readers report this happening when they’re engrossed in reading ScienceOfRelationships.com.) Psychologists call this experience being “in the flow,” which is an intense feeling of concentration and being fully immersed in an activity.1 Most of the research on flow looks at how it impacts positive performance in activities like work or sports (think: being in the zone); however, a recent study finds that the “flow” experience is beneficial for intimate relationships as well. In a study of 50 young couples who engaged in a high conflict discussion, couples who experienced flow in a follow-up conversation about a positive experience they shared together had significant decreases in stress hormone levels and higher levels of reported relationship closeness.2

Given that flow is associated with such great outcomes, how can you enhance it in your relationship? Well, losing self-awareness is one important contributor to flow—your awareness and actions essentially merge together so you are just “doing.” The emotions-in-relationships model predicts that couples develop step-by-step actions that they do together to accomplish goals, such as making dinner or riding to work together. These actions become mindless over time, so that you just “do” them with your partner rather than think about them.3 When these actions are disrupted, this can lead to the experience of negative emotions. Also, simply coordinating physical movements with your partner can smooth out your social interactions4 and make this flow easier to slide into. For example, satisfied married couples coordinate, or mirror their body movements more during conflict discussions than dissatisfied couples.5 Another study found that when participants believed that they were interacting with someone from an out-group, they were more likely to synchronize their physical behaviors with them than an in-group member.4 If you are fighting with your partner and face the possibility of exclusion or rejection, you may unknowingly imitate him or her in order to feel closer to them.6

So when you are facing challenges in your relationship, try focusing on the positive, rewarding aspects of your relationship during your discussions rather than just the negatives, and start mirroring your partner’s body movements. It may very well help to alleviate tension and help you feel more connected, which will help you get into the flow and move things in a more positive direction.

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1Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

2Kansas State University (2012, February 9). Research finds ways that young couples experience less relationship stress, higher satisfaction. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 26, 2012.

3Berscheid, E. (1991). The Emotion-in-Relationships Model: Reflections and update. In W. Kessen, A. Ortony, & F. Craik (Eds.), Memories, thoughts, and emotions: Essays in honor of George Mandler (pp. 323-335). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

4Miles, L. K., Lumsden, J., Richardson, M. J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Do birds of a feather move together? Group membership and behavioral synchrony. Experimental Brain Research, 211, 495-503.

5Julien, D., Brault, M., Chartrand, É., & Bégin, J. (2000).  Immediacy behaviours and synchrony in satisfied and dissatisfied couples.  Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 32, 84-90.

6Lakin, J. L., Chartrand, T. L., & Arkin, R. M. (2008). I too am just like you: Non-conscious mimicry as an automatic behavioral response to social exclusion. Psychological Science, 19, 816-822.

Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.  Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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