As we’ve watched our two older daughters grow up and fall in—and sometimes out of—love, my husband and I have revisited and reanalyzed our own romance, which has continued coming in over the years like a slow, steady tide. It’s not luck or general compatibility that keeps the tide coming, but our discovery of an elemental truth: A thousand little kindnesses add up to romance.
Most of them go unnoticed or unremembered. We really don’t say a lot about them. We just keep them coming, and with increased frequency. After all, the more time you spend being kind, the less time you’ll have to be otherwise.
Personally, I wish I’d figured it out sooner. Early on, most of my kindnesses were accidental or incidental. I was not wise enough to intend them. My husband kindly overlooked my selfish motives, and I eventually realized that most of my complaints were petty. And they were petty, which is not to say that every couple’s issues are petty. But most of ours were, despite my tendency to magnify them.
That was fine, sort of, when it was just the two of us. But when children came into the mix—one, two, three, and then four—motivation became a bigger issue, because they could see right through us. And that’s when we discovered another elemental truth: It’s more important to be kind—and mean it—than to convince the other person you’re right. Which is not to say it’s not important to be right.
The next thing we discovered was the most important of all: If you want your children to enjoy your company and embrace your family values, you must be kind to your spouse—their father or mother—regardless of culpability. The kids know when dad is being unreasonable or mom is being hormonal. They don’t care. All they want in life is for you to love each other—or at least to treat each other respectfully. It’s the best way I know of to melt away tween angst and teenage rebellion. Without that mutual exchange of parental kindness and respect, I’m convinced that no well-trained counselor or psychologist in the world can solve a troubled child’s problems. It may be just a start, but it’s an important one.
In Blink, a favorite book of mine, author Malcolm Gladwell describes research done on relationships by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, who has discovered that each relationship has “a distinctive signature that arises naturally and automatically. That is why a marriage can be read and decoded so easily, because some key part of human activity…has an identifiable and stable pattern. Predicting divorce, like tracking Morse Code operators, is pattern recognition.” In fact, Gottman can analyze an hour-long conversation between a husband and wife and “predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later.” His accuracy with only a fifteen-minute conversation is 90 percent, and he can evesdrop on a conversation between a couple at a restaurant and “get a pretty good sense of whether they need to start thinking about hiring lawyers and dividing up custody of the children.”
The interesting thing is, Gottman doesn’t have to analyze every aspect of a conversation to make an accurate prediction, although that’s what he did in the early stages of his research (a process he calls thin slicing). He only has to focus on what he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. And the one emotion that’s particularly decisive is contempt. In fact, he considers contempt “the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.”
In my experience, it doesn’t have to be direct or personal contempt. It can be contempt for another person’s habits, beliefs, or values that infuses poison and ultimately destroys a relationship, including friendship. It’s the stuff of sitcoms and movies and even great literature. It’s great comedy or riveting drama—unless it’s your life.
As I read Gladwell’s book, a lot of things became clear. I was especially thankful that my deeper instincts had kept me from the brink to which selfishness would otherwise have driven me—instincts inherited in large part from my own parents and my faith.
As of late, my kindness is more deliberate than accidental. Intended, not feigned. And I’ve seen the effect it has on my children—especially my daughters as they ponder what love and marriage should look like. My husband and I have been able to show and tell them in advance, despite stumbling many times along the way. It seems to mean more to them that we’ve chosen to walk the path of kindness and respect than the actual progress we’ve made.
And the byproduct of all this kindness is, you guessed it, romance. What a pleasant surprise…