As children, we are often fed an unrealistic narrative of what it means to be in love. The influence of a novelist’s romantic imagination, magical fairy tales, and an abundance of romantic comedies all serve to entwine us in an idealised image of love, leaving many yearning for what is portrayed in the media. Until one day we are hit with the harsh reality that we live in the real world, and the real world is not always as perfect as it seems.
On the 27th July 2019, the most popular wedding day of the year, over 1,628 couples looked each other in the eyes and said “I do”, entwining themselves together in a lifelong commitment of love, fulfilment and companionship, till death us do part. However, albeit declining, the average divorce rate in the UK currently stands at 42% (as of 2021). Despite their best wishes, many married couples will begin to fall out of love for one another, as the idea of a life together becomes impossible, frightening even. In a turn of events, a once happy relationship may become dominated by feelings of rage, resentment, and clear dysfunction, eventually culminating in divorce or separation.
In a pursuit to find out the truth about marriage, that which tears it apart, or that which unites it, I find myself exploring the very key to a successful partnership…
I begin in the 1970s, with divorce rates reaching an all-time high, alongside the liberalisation of divorce law, changing attitudes around the expectations of marriage, and the greater economic independence of women. With such a peak, social scientists began studying marriages in an attempt to discover the ingredients to a long and happy bond. Spearheading this research was John Gottman who established ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’. In this ground-breaking work he concludes that there are seven principles which, if followed, allow a couple to flourish, these include nurturing each other, turning towards each other, influencing each other, solving problems together, overcoming gridlock, and creating meaning together. He further argues that the basis for a joyful marriage relies upon a deep friendship, emotional intelligence, mutual admiration, and a positive attitude, whilst it is important to minimise and avoid criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
Kindness, on the other hand, cements couples together, making each partner feel understood, validated, and loved. Kindness originates from the word ‘kin’, meaning family, thus when you show kindness to your partner you are demonstrating your acceptance of who they are as person and accepting them as a member of your family. In this way, kindness becomes a way of demonstrating unconditional love to one another.
“A kind heart he hath: a woman would run through fire and water for such a kind heart”, says Shakespeare’s Quick. In a way that is precisely how kindness works: the more compassion a spouse receives the more likely they are to return it, which leads to a cycle of benevolence and empathy in a relationship.
But what exactly is kindness? It is perhaps a somewhat difficult attribute to define, and individuals will undoubtedly have their own explanations for such, however, what does remain clear is that there are a plenitude of ways to demonstrate it. What about the boyfriend who drove you to your vaccination appointment when you really needed it, especially when deep down you were slightly scared and needed his support. Sure, that’s a very specific example but as human beings we know when we have experienced love, and we know how to recognise and reciprocate it.
As Emily Smith echoes, we have repeatedly heard the all too familiar phrase that it is important to be there for a loved one (especially when things go wrong), but what about when things go right? Shelly Gable’s (2006) lab experiment explores just this, studying the way in which partners react to each other’s triumphs. Of her research participants, she found that couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways. She labelled these reactions as passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive, reaching the conclusion that the active-constructive response style was the kindest and healthiest, and was also associated with higher relationship quality and intimacy. Take, for example, a young lady who has just received a promotion from work, when she arrives home and tells her partner the good news, the kindest reaction would be for her partner to wholeheartedly engage with her and respond to her joy, allowing the couple to bond over the great news.
Kindness is certainly not a fixed trait, instead it is something that can be continually worked on. Practising kindness is not just about the small, random acts of generosity but instead it forms part of a continuous process that must be built upon through every-day interactions and narratives. In the same way that a person may dedicate themselves to the gym, kindness, alike to muscle, can only grow stronger with sustained practice.
The more kindness a spouse receives, the more dedication, love, and generosity they will likely yield in return. A lack of attention, emotional response and neglect can in turn cause a partner to resent you and breed a toxic relationship. That is not to say that life is perfect, or that successful couples don’t fight, of course they do, but it is how they handle their emotions when disagreements break out that is important. Having a conversation, rather than shouting and blaming, is fundamental to a kinder path. No one is perfect, but everyone can learn.
It goes without saying that relationships and marriages are far more complicated than this article implies, but what remains clear is the fundamental importance of kindness. When life becomes difficult and complex, and couples begin to neglect intimacy and romance, they begin to fall apart, and small grievances can slowly begin to tear away at them. Like gardens, happy marriages cannot thrive without constant attention, care and kindness – and they can only become the magnificent places that they are destined to be if they are given the tender loving care of both partners.
Image by Jennifer Murray on Pexels.