Smiling man with arm around smiling woman

Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not. –Mark Twain


I’m often asked what the key to a happy marriage is. There are many factors that make a relationship great, but the common denominator in all long-lasting and happy relationships is kindness. An abundance of kindness every day differentiates successful relationships, what John Gottman calls the “masters of relationships,” from the disasters. Kindness is an everyday way of being, one which requires an understanding that your partner’s expression of needs are not a personal attack.

In order to be kind to your partner, you must be able to see that your partner is a separate being with his or her own unique needs, frustrations, and feelings. In effect, you need to see past your own needs and have empathy for your partner, rather than seeing him or her as your enemy who is deliberately frustrating you. With this perspective it feels right to reach out and offer a kindness.

In my work with couples, I see little kindness when conflict is out of control or when one partner is emotionally checked-out. My work is to help these couples both increase goodwill and manage conflict/emotional disconnect. The biggest shift needed is to see their partner’s complaints as being about their own needs rather than a personal attack. A perspective of caring about your partner’s needs helps deactivate the flooding response, which is the biggest escalator of conflict. Flooding is a physiological escalation which happens when your brains senses danger and sends signals to produce adrenaline and cortisol. It is the basic fight, flight, freeze response when confronted by a wild bear. In relationships, however, flooding only causes damage. Kindness helps buffer against flooding because you become more focused on what your partner needs than feeling attacked (and self-justified in responding negatively).

Kindness helps partners feel understood, validated, and, importantly, cared for. It makes a relationship feel like a good place to be. Kindness is not something that happens without effort, however. In fact, without conscious intent, relationships become unbalanced with a focus on the negative. This can be seen when one partner arrives home and immediately focuses on the dirty floor, car parked wrong, or supper burnt. Instead, practice kindness even when tired, hungry, or rushed.

Kindness is essential during conflict. In healthy relationships, there is more positive than negative even during conflict, at a ratio of 5 to 1. One way to support this ratio is to be the expert in yourself, sharing that information with your partner rather than attacking. Instead of blame and criticism, “You are making me so angry!”, express how you are feeling in a kind way and ask for what you need: “Wow, I am really upset right now, and I guess a little hurt. I really need to hear some gentle words right now.”

Kindness is more easily given when we are not making assumptions. Assumptions are usually negative, and negative assumptions are always destructive. Assumptions are a form of criticism and contempt of our partner’s personality. Instead, focus on what is going on for your partner and what they need, as well as what is going on for you and what you need, without blame or criticism. Instead of “I’m so upset, you are making me angry and you need to apologize. You messed up because you forgot to get the dry cleaning,” try “I guess I’m really frustrated, It has been a long day. I think I thought the dry cleaning would be one thing off my list. What can we do?” You can see how the second later invites a gentle response which will likely bring about what you need—recognition for how hard the day has been and maybe even an offer to get the dry cleaning tomorrow.

Recipe for Kindness:

  1. See Past Yourself: Perception bias means that we tend to ignore the negative we are doing to a relationship and up-play the negative we feel our partner is doing. Instead, when your partner is upset remember to not be defensive and focus on what he or she needs.
  1. Be Positive without Zingers: Kindness does not include zingers. Instead of “I really like how you spent time with me today; why can’t you do this everyday?”, say “Thanks for spending time with me today; I really enjoyed it. I am going to take a walk tomorrow after supper and I would love it if you would come—I enjoy my walk so much with you.” Zingers negate anything just said, like the word “but.”
  1. Avoid Assumptions: Instead of replaying negative assumptions in your head (and planning to be upset), focus on what your partner is feeling and what they need, and what you are feeling and what you need.
  1. Practice Addition versus Subtraction: A healthy relationship has about 10 to 20 times more positive interactions than negative each day. Being kind—focusing on what your partner is, in your mind, doing well helps. Other skills: listening, offering empathy (instead of criticism or judgements), and patience all add to the positive. Simply put: Be kind, and often.
  1. Offer Kindness Freely: Negative interactions are often tit-for-tat. Kindness should be freely given without expecting a return. Of course, both partners must be engaged for a relationship to work. If your relationship feels out of balance, see a marriage counsellor.
  1. Practice often on Yourself: If you checked in with your inner dialogue, you might find that you are not very kind to yourself—“That was stupid; what an idiot; I can’t believe I forgot the dry cleaning!” Practice being a friend to yourself and speaking kindly, and you will find it easier to do so with your partner.

As life gets busy, shuttling kids to after school activities, planning trips, working overtime, kindness is often the first thing to go. In reality, it should be the top priority. Like the Zen saying about meditating when rushed, a good relationship maxim is: “Practice 20 kind things a day; when busy or stressed, 40.”