Sunday, November 27, 2016

And Again

I seem to be on a kindness kick this month because last week I stumbled on an  article by Emily Esfahani Smith  entitled, "Masters of Love" that appeared in the June 12, 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

Smith's article looks at the research of psychologist John Gottman. In the 1970's, social scientists began to wonder why the divorce rate was escalating; they sought to identify the factors that make or break a marriage.

John Gottman's research is a major contribution to this effort. Gottman discovered that the #1 predictor of divorce is... contempt.

Because when you're contemptuous of someone, you're just being mean. You're assuming a position of superiority over the other person and deliberately belittling that person and his or her feelings or concerns. You're fueling a long-standing attitude of negativity towards the person in particular and your relationship in general.

In short, you're communicating a measure of annoyance and disgust. And in doing so, you're demonstrating an underlying lack of respect for your partner. Over time, this attitude will erode a relationship to such an extent that it will either end entirely or continue on, haltingly and unhappily.

As Smith points out, Gottman argues that there are two types of relationship participants: "masters" and "disasters." The relationship "disasters"among us operate in fight-or-flight mode, but physiologically and emotionally.

As Smith notes, "Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked."

By contrast, "masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable." This doesn't mean that they never fought; it means that when they did fight, their experience of discord and disagreement was far less disastrous, both to the health of both partners and to the relationship in general.

These observations lead Gottman to argue that the key to a successful marriage or relationship is kindness and admiration.

Unlike the "disasters," who "are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes," the "masters" cultivate a "culture of respect and appreciation"--as Gottman puts it, "they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for," a mental habit that they constantly bring to bear on their relationships with others.

And this constant mental exercise bears fruit. As Smith points out,
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
"Masters" have cultivated the strength it takes to be kind and generous, even when they don't feel up to it and this, in turn, translates into successful relationships and/or a happy marriage.

To become a "master," though, you need to practice.

Practicing kindness doesn't have to involve constant gift-giving or self-sacrifice. In fact, simply being happy at someone else's good fortune can go a long way towards strengthening the muscles of kindness in one's psyche.

Or, trying giving others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming that people are out to get you or deliberately doing things to annoy you, assume that they probably mean well (don't ignore obvious evidence to the contrary, of course). If there's evidence that the intention is good, go with that.

This one is tricky, though, because you don't want to fall prey to what my best friend and I have come to refer to as "Operation Butter-Up." For those of us with Caretaker or "Rescuer" tendencies, people with less than honorable intentions can work their magic on us all too easily.

We want to believe that they "mean well," so we feel guilty when we have to say "no" or when we try to draw a line in the sand and assert our own needs and feelings.

The key, I think, is to measure the extent to which you feel that you are operating in a space of trust and intimacy. If the Sabre-Toothed Tiger that is your spouse suddenly, voluntarily, offers to do something "nice" for you, watch out.

If the general atmosphere isn't (or hasn't been) one of overall kindness and generosity, chances are, you're getting a dose of Operation Butter-Up.

In that case, be firm about your boundaries: "no" means "no," and if they mean you well, they'll understand and respect that, even if they don't like it all that much.

Because kindness isn't about an absence of conflict or disagreement. Kindness is about responding to conflict or disagreement in ways that don't demean or belittle those around you. It's about demonstrating a generosity of spirit, even when you may not feel all that generous, because you haven't lost sight of the overall admiration and respect that you feel for the person you're interacting with.  

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."