How can something so simple be so hard?
The other day, a friend introduced me by saying I know a lot about relationships.
I laughed, because after being divorced, weathering an abusive relationship, and recently experiencing a painful breakup, I’m currently trying to make peace with the fact that I may end up being alone forever. I don’t, in fact, feel like I know a lot about relationships.
However, it’s true that although I haven’t been successful in making a relationship work, long-term, I have written literally hundreds of articles about relationships, and in the process, interviewed plenty of therapists and dating experts, along with reading piles of research about how to make love last. So maybe I do know a thing or two about relationships, after all.
But in all the years I’ve been writing about relationships, and actually having them, there’s really just one thing that everything boils down to. In order to have a successful relationship, you really only have to do this one thing. If you can do it – or I guess, if you have the personality that lends itself to doing it – then I don’t think it matters what zodiac sign you are, or whether there’s a big age gap between you and your partner, or what stage of life you’re in, or anything else.
So, what is this magical quality?
The art of kindness
Renowned psychologists John and Julie Gottman, a married couple who’ve done decades of research on relationships, gave a long interview about kindness in The Atlantic in 2014. I go back to that article again and again, when I’m writing, and when I’m trying to sort out my own complicated relationships. In it, the Gottmans talk about what makes happy couples happy, and what tears unhappy couples apart.
John Gottman calls the happy couples he’s worked with “masters” and the unhappy ones “disasters” – perhaps a little unkind, that wording, speaking of kindness. But I suppose my love life really is a disaster, so – if the label fits…
In any case, the “masters” of marriage, said Gottman, had a habit that served their relationships well. “They are scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.” Disasters, on the other hand, were doing the opposite. They were “scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
In other words, the happy couples had a habit of being kind to each other, while the unhappy ones were being mean. If that sounds like an oversimplification, then I ask you: what else would you call it, when you’re looking for anything your partner has done wrong, so you can call them on it and jump down their throat? It’s just plain mean. There’s no other word for it.
Kindness doesn’t come easy
It took me a long time to realize that some people are not naturally kind. It might sound silly, but I was raised to believe that kindness was the most important thing. I was the empathetic child who reached out to the new kid at school who people were making fun of, and who couldn’t understand why bullies were mean. I still struggle to understand the short-sighted, selfish, and cowardly behavior that seems to drive so many people to be unkind. But I’ve slowly come to understand that kindness, though it sounds simple, does not come easily to everyone.
Going back to the Gottmans, Julie Gottman explained that kindness isn’t just about what her husband termed “scanning the environment” for things to appreciate or criticize. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”
People who do this – constantly look for things their partner is doing wrong – are not only killing their relationships, they’re missing all the things their partner does right. The Gottmans say these mean people invent negativity when it’s not present in the first place, and don’t notice fully half of the positive things their partners do. They make their partners feel small, unworthy of love, not valued – invisible.
Can you learn kindness?
If the idea of kindness being the root of a good relationship is hard for you to understand, it just may be that you’re one of those people for whom kindness is not inborn. We’ve probably all met mean children, who turn into mean adults. Why people are mean is still a mystery to me. But regardless of why, the question is, can kindness be learned?
Maybe. The Gottmans explain that rather than thinking about kindness as a personality trait that you either have or don’t have, you can think about it as a muscle. Your kindness muscles might be out of shape, but if you exercise them, they’ll get stronger. The masters, according to the Gottmans, are willing to do that exercise.
So how do you work out your kindness muscles? Julie Gottman says the best time to do it is when you’re “tired, stressed or distracted.” That’s when you might be tempted to ignore your partner’s needs and harp on their shortcomings. But turning away from your partner in that moment will eat away at your connection, creating distance between you and breeding resentment in the neglected partner. “The generous spirit comes in,” explains Gottman, when your partner expresses a need in that moment when you’re not at your best, and “you still turn toward your partner.”
What about when you’re really truly furious with your partner? Is it possible to exercise those kindness muscles, even during a fight? “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman told The Atlantic. “Kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
They say opposites attract. Is that why I’ve chosen, over and over, to be with men who were incapable of kindness? I don’t know. But I do know, now, that anyone can learn to be kind. I guess I’ll keep exercising my own kindness muscles, just in case someone kind actually comes along.
Images via shutterstock, tumblr, giphy.
Comment: Is it easy for you to be kind to your partner? Or do you struggle with kindness? Is your partner kind to you?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.