What makes for a happy relationship? Everyone has a different answer for that questions. Some of you will say “things in common.” Others will say “sexual chemistry” or “attraction.” Others, if they were being honest, will say things like the “class,” “race” or “religion.” But there is a problem with that list: those are all cultural markers of identity. They say little about what a person is actually like.
So if I asked you, what character traits make for a happy relationship? Again, everyone would have a different answer to that question. Some of you will say “sense of humor.” Others will say “honesty.” Most of you will say, “kind.” But what does that actually mean? What does kindness actually look like in a relationship?
Kindness as the Key to a Happy Relationship
Yesterday I was rereading an Atlantic piece about the secret to loving relationships. I was going back to it because I have recently been dealing with a failing relationship in my private practice, and I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on what is wrong, except that they are fighting a lot and both members feel that their needs are being ignored. And then I remembered a passage from the Atlantic piece and thought it might be worth sharing with you all. It reads:
“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.”
This passage struck me as so obvious and simple yet it explained so much about the couple I see in therapy (but also in many other dysfunctional couples I have known.) At its core, these relationships lacked one big trait: kindness to each other
For example, the couple I see in private practice are seemingly a good fit as they fit all the same cultural markers: same class, race, grew up in similar areas, have similar families and share similar interests. But at its very center, the relationship lacks the “turn-toward bids” discussed in the passage above.
What do I mean by that? Well, one member of the couple explained to me the other day why they felt unhappy in the relationship. This person reported having an all-encompassing job and needing support in it. But this person said that their partner rarely ever took any interest in the project they worked on daily. And when they start to talk about their work in detail, the partner either changed the subject or mentally checked out. As this person was saying this, the hurt was written all over their face. I don’t think that explains all their problems as a couple. But it explains a lot.
So How Does This Apply To Me?
The good news, of course, is that things can change. As the article notes, kindness should be treated as a muscle that can grow stronger, not a binary character trait. When you find your relationship in poor condition, it’s really easy to blame the other person for the problems of the relationship and play the victim. But a more constructive activity might be to probe “how am I affecting this relationship too?” Maybe it’s time to think about how you can be a little kinder and attentive to your partner’s emotional needs. It might be that simple act that saves the relationship and leads it to happiness.