My wedding couples sometimes ask me for referrals to pre-marital counselors. They share their concerns that maybe, no matter how much they love one another, they won’t “do it right.” So they want to learn from someone who can teach them how to succeed. I understand. Marriage is a huge decision, and some of us don’t have inspiring role models to follow in crafting a healthy one.
What do you think is the secret to a successful marriage? Do you know?
That’s it. Just kindness.
Not the presence or absence of children.
Not the couples’ sexual relationship.
Not socio-economic pressures.
And not whether they married earlier or later in life.
But researchers firmly believe, based on peer-reviewed data that has been replicated in numerous studies over the last four decades, that the strongest predictor of a good marriage is the presence of kindness.
“Your own soul is nourished when you are kind; it is destroyed when you are cruel.” (Proverbs)
Kindness toward another involves many, many behaviors: compassion, concern, empathy, respect, care, humor, helpfulness. Partners show kindness by requesting connection with the other. “Would you like a warm-up?” “Thanks for taking the mail with you.” “Enjoy your work-out!” “What would you like to do on Saturday?” Kindness can also include acts of silence and quiet acceptance without judgement.
And partners who receive kind behaviors can also show kindness by gratefully acknowledging the giver: by putting down the smart phone, making eye contact, smiling at the other, and just actively listening. “Oh, Saturday might be a great day to walk together. Maybe we could talk about your frustrating week.” The Gottmans called this responding “turning toward” as opposed to “turning away.”
The kernel of this relationship research comes out of my own state, Washington, where Dr.s Julie Schwarz Gottman and John Gottman have conducted the Gottman Institute for over 40 years now. Their research, combined with that of Robert Levenson and many others, has focused on what behaviors predict that any committed relationship will last.
And researchers have studied loving relationships of all kinds and found similar indicators. For both straight and LGBTQ couples, being treated with kindness and having the kindness you offer your partner accepted and appreciated is central to a relationship’s success.
On the other hand, predictably, behaviors the Gottmans call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, will doom a couple to misery. Any of these four weapons can, over time, destroy the atmosphere in which kindness can be offered and received. And of these, contempt is the most damaging.
Moreso, these negative behaviors result in physiological arousal (think “fight or flight”) in most of us. As our heart rate increases we become angry, we yell, we withdraw, and we lose access to our rational mind. When we feel attacked, we will reflexively either respond in kind or retreat to safety. No relationship can thrive in such an environment. And next time, we will behave defensively or with anger even before provoked. And so the spirit falters.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
In her 2014 article in the Atlantic Monthly about the Gottmans’ research, Emily Esfahani Smith writes of contemporary marital success: “Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?” Research has supported the findings that working hard to treat our partners with kindness is a worthy effort, and will create an environment of safety and understanding, an atmosphere in which love can grow.
Can it be that simple? Perhaps not in every single case. But the facts are strong. Credible research indicates that, when we teach young couples to exercise behaviors positive for kindness, their relationships flourish and the likelihood that they will stay together and continue to report satisfaction with their relationship is greater than for couples who do not learn these behaviors or learn them too late.
When we realize we alone are responsible for what we unpack into our relationships, when we each realize that we help set a tone by the spirit we bring to the table, we can choose whether that tone will tear down or build up.
“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” (Henry James)