Adam and I have talked for years about how to have a happy, satisfying marriage. He's changed a lot in me. He's changed a lot himself. After 27 years together, we've developed some helpful habits to ensure a contented union -- we're not perfect (or even close) and we still argue and hurt each other sometimes, but we both believe the same thing:
It's absolutely important to be kind.
Unkindness and meanness will kill a marriage faster than anything. And I don't just mean divorce. You can live together and still have a very dead marriage.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been studying marriages for decades. Here's a great article, "Masters of Love," about their gradual conclusions of the many couples they've observed.
"Kindness ... glues couples together," it says. "Kindness ... is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage."
I wasn't good at kindness when I first married. I was more interested in right and wrong, i.e., whether Adam was doing right or wrong. Because I was quick and hard-working, I always assumed that I was doing right. So if we were at odds or arguing, I assumed he was wrong. The Gottmans call it "scanning the environment." I was "scanning him for what he's doing wrong and criticizing, versus respecting him and expressing appreciation." Ouch.
That was me as a newly-married 26 year old. We immediately had three kids in four years, and since I did most of the hard work in that department too, I considered myself to be doing all I possibly could. So if there was anything lacking in life, I felt it was Adam's fault. I was all into finding fault. Kindness rarely entered my head. I'm not sure how much it entered his head either, but we muddled through.
In the past five or ten years, we've grown to appreciate the simple attitude of kindness. It's not even acts of kindness necessarily ... nothing big. Not flowers (although flowers are lovely) nor chocolates (although they're appreciated). Kindness can be a smile, a word, a compliment, a touch, a kiss or hug. These kindnesses expand to real generosity when given under stress or weariness. When you're tired after work but you reach out to your spouse instead of indulging yourself, that's kind and generous. When you've done dishes four nights in a row but you willingly do them again even though your feet hurt, that's kind and generous.
This kind of generosity, according to the Gottmans, is another sign of couples that will stay happily together.
One thing that struck me in the article was the third choice among couples. 1) Divorced, 2) Together and happy, or 3) Together and unhappy. Nobody wants #1 or #3. But #2 comes only with kindness and generosity. Kindness is in your marriage vow. When you vow to love your spouse, you're vowing kindness. "Love is patient; love is kind ...." If you love someone, you'll be kind to them. Sounds simple, but so many marriages are bereft of kindness.
"Contempt ... is the number one factor that tears couples apart," say the Gottmans. When two people daily practice unkindness (just the absence of kindness) contempt quickly follows. It's easy to see in couples who are habitually unkind. They're both reading that lack of love and sending it back. How easy it is to hold someone in contempt who is unkind to you daily for no real reason!
Marriage is years of habits. Each day both spouses practice staying together happily or hurting each other. Adam initiated a shift toward kindness in our relationship, an indication of his spiritual leadership in our marriage. After he did this, I found myself wanting to reply in kind. When two people are mutually kind and generous to each other, a marriage is daily strengthened. It's a joy.
The article is worth reading for everyone and is helpful in all relationships. But it's a great diagnostic for marriages. Adam and I are still learning, but I think we've overcome some of the biggest obstacles of the first three decades of marriage.