Sanaa Hyder, M.S.Ed.
One of the hardest things to do in a relationship is to be nice to your partner when you’re upset with them. It’s also one of the most important moments to be kind. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that couples who start arguments gently are more likely to manage conflict effectively, without harming the relationship. In fact, it is in these moments that Dr. Gottman can predict the success or failure of the relationship with over 90% accuracy.
In a popular Atlantic Magazine interview, Dr. Julie Gottman explains that, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the 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.”
The Vow of Kindness
Kindness is not just important in the heat of an argument, rather, it is about your mindful and considerate behavior throughout your relationship.
When we enter into a committed relationship, most of us make some sort of declaration – a promise or a vow – that we will uphold our partner and care for them. We also make a secondary promise: that we will be our best selves , full of integrity and hope for a successful future.
The act of not choosing kindness is therefore doubly hurtful – to our partners and to ourselves – because it undercuts our efforts for growth and the potential for greater intimacy.
A relationship is the concerted effort of two people who mindfully and enthusiastically work towards a shared vision. Despite the difficulties of daily life, partners are in charge of their own behavior. While a couple grows together, they are not precluded from growing as individuals as well – in fact they must evolve as individuals in order to continually bring their “best selves” to their partner.
Kindness Begets Kindness
How can you cultivate a habit of kindness in your relationship? Below are 3 powerful tips that you can put into action right now, regardless of where your partner is on their journey:
1. Think good thoughts
We are wired to feel how we repeatedly think. Thinking positive thoughts about your partner will make it easier for you to think more positive thoughts, and to speak and behave positively towards them. In order to get into the habit of being kind, you must practice the thoughts as well as the actions.
Remind yourself of the nice things your partner has done each day. For instance, did they take out the recycling or come home early one night for dinner? However small the action, make it a habit of noticing the kindness as it is happening and make a mental note of how happy it makes you feel. When you see your partner, mention it to them. Noticing the good things about your partner helps to keep you in what Dr. John Gottman calls the Positive Perspective or Positive Sentiment Override. It is a sense of hopeful well-being that arises from a positive thoughts and positive interactions.
2. Accept responsibility
Take responsibility for assessing your own feelings before presenting them to your partner. Whereas anger and frustration are legitimate emotions, further exploration might reveal that in fact you feel annoyed or sad about a situation. Perhaps upon reflection you find that in fact you felt abandoned or that your dreams are not being acknowledged. Being able to accurately pinpoint your feelings will help you to convey them in a kinder, gentler tone to your partner.
You might think it is more authentic to say exactly what’s on your mind without filtering anything for your partner, but consider that once they are hurt, it is harder for them to connect with you empathically. Take a moment to process your feelings with a therapist or by yourself. Try keeping a journal or log of your day and how you were feeling. Processing your feelings through writing often helps to sort out and organize thoughts.
3. Let hope win
Have faith in the relationship and in your commitment. Even though you will have ongoing arguments with your partner, focus on your friendship. I see couples in my office who want to “solve” their issues first before going out for an ice cream or relaxing over dinner. It’s not possible to solve problems with someone you don’t want to collaborate with.
I often encourage couples to do an activity together to enjoy their love – despite their gripes! It is much easier to discuss problems with your best friend than with your “enemy.” It may take effort to institute a date night, but being close and connected is a habit, and habits have to be practiced consciously and regularly. Try going out of your way to be friendly to your partner.
For instance, pour milk in their cereal in the morning, or offer to walk the dog. Look up a movie they’ve been meaning to watch, or even send them a text message today (not about errands or scheduling) about something you’re looking forward to doing with them later.
Kindness Allows You to be Heard
Ultimately, kindness serves your expression of difficult emotions by offering your partner the capacity to really hear you. Even if you are angry, in order to approach your partner effectively you must be kind. If you’ve paved the way for your partner to be open to you, they are more likely to hear your frustration and respond with compassion. Kindness gets your needs met.
Being kind and gentle is a decision. Just as we offer a smile and hold the door open for a stranger, we must remember to cultivate this habit in our relationship no matter how many months or years have passed.
The longer we try, the easier it gets to summon up a positive picture of our beloved. The more we practice kindness, the easier it is to recall that our partner is also a human who is experiencing life alongside us. It becomes easier to offer a smile and to extend an olive branch to the person who is in the struggle with us – not against us.