A number of studies of couples concluded that showing genuine, active interest in a partner’s joys was a good predictor of a lasting relationship. It might even be more important than responses to the negative.
An article last fall in Business Insider entitled “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down to 2 Basic Traits” highlighted the four decades of study by psychologist John Gottman on factors that help relationships last. The article summarizes these as “kindness and generosity as opposed to contempt, criticism, and hostility.”
Though those two words might make us think of certain actions that partners can perform, what’s behind the idea is actually what Gottman calls “a habit of mind.” Those who master their relationships are, he explains, habitually scanning the social environment as well as their partner for things they can appreciate and say thank you for.
Close partnerships depend upon whether the partners are looking for the good, expecting the good, and appreciating the good in their partner’s expressions even when at first glance something could be taken negatively. They are ready to compliment, point out the positive, and say “thank you.”
On the other hand, when two people get to the place where one or both partners is looking for things to criticize, or to prove a one-upsmanship so that they’re really acting out of their own insecurities and feelings of inferiority in comparison to their partner, the relationship is in trouble. And one person’s insecurity expressed in this way leads to further insecurity.
The “kind” partner starts by assuming the best in everything the partner does. In fact, they look for it.
The “kind” partner expects that what the partner says is well-intended. In fact, he or she assumes that even what appears at first to be negative has a good reason behind it.
And, probably even more importantly, the “kind” partner is fully there when things are going right. She or he responds positively to the good news the partner shares with more than a “that’s nice” or a passive half-interest.
A number of studies of young couples concluded that showing genuine, active interest in a partner’s joys was a good predictor of a lasting relationship. It might even be more important than responses to the negative.
The “kind” partner hears the partner say something and, even when they’re not in the mood, turns toward that partner to hear her or him with a response that takes that something or that expressed need as important to the partner.
The “kind” partner recognizes that when one’s partner points out even the insignificant, such as “Look at that beautiful bird,” what they’re actually doing is affirming the relationship. The text of the comment is less important than its context.
Beyond partners, even in my relationship with my mother, I learned that when she gave me the same information or warnings especially now that I was adult, often repeatedly, it wasn’t helpful for me to answer: “You’ve told me that many times before” or “Do you think I’m a child.” I realized that her doing so was not centered upon the information involved, but was a means for her to affirm our mother/son relationship.
She was saying that the relationship matters, and her comments were meant to affirm it. As soon as I realized that, I relaxed and appreciated our adult relationship more.
This doesn’t mean that there won’t be times of anger or frustration, but old habits can be changed through trial and error. Habits of kindness can be developed in relationships where they’ve been lost.
And even in the midst of anger we can choose how to express ourselves. We can choose to explain why we feel angry, confused or hurt, and we can fight the temptation to unkindly assume that our partner is actually trying to hurt us, demean us, or dismiss us intentionally.
Once we become convinced that our partner is no longer doing their best, we need to decide if that is true or if that’s our lack of kindness. If we choose not to put in the effort to be kind ourselves, then the downward spiral of relationship disappointment, the studies show, has begun.
Then we’ll have to decide what to do with that realization.