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The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article about what makes a marriage last, what makes it strong and healthy. The writer uses research by John Gottman, a psychologist and researcher who has studied marriage for over forty years, to explain the difference between a thriving marriage and a dying marriage.
The difference, it seems, comes down to the simple act of kindness.
At my mother-in-law’s in Duluth we’re sitting around and small talking. There are a whole slew of people present—my husband and me, his sisters and their husbands and tiny girls playing dress-up. Jessie, Jonathon’s oldest sister says something that differs from what Jonathon told me earlier and I say something to correct him with a tone, that tone, the tone I’ve hated, the tone wives and husbands use with one another that communicates, you’re stupid, how could you think that, I can’t even believe you said that. I’m so annoyed with you. It’s a tone that’s rare for me, a tone I work hard to avoid. When Jessie jumps in because she’s realized she misspoke I immediately feel terrible, afraid that she may have thought my tone was meant for her. And then I feel terrible over again because, well, why should I be mean to my husband? After a few seconds, I turn to Jonathon and mouth the words, I’m sorry.
A friend once told me that her father would not attend her baseball games but instead attended the neighborhood kids games. She said, “I mean, I guess you take for granted the people you love the most. They’re a part of you and you know they’ll always be there for you.”
I don’t want to take the people I love for granted.
It is early morning, summer, and we are still in bed. The windows are open and pale golden light floats in amongst greenery and bird’s singing. The Little Black Dog sits on my chest, his ears alert and his eyes expectant. In a moment he will jump on Jonathon, my husband, and lick his face and tell him in his doggy way, that it’s time to wake-up, it’s time to go out, it’s time to get this day started. And my husband will arise and get dressed and take the dog out because he knows I do not rise easily and because he is generous and he is kind.
That friend and I are no longer friends. Toward the end of our friendship, we were unkind to each other in the subtle ways that most people are unkind to one another—blame, ignorance, avoidance, one-upping, competition. All the things that do not say, “I believe in you.” All the things that take the other for granted.
Gottman separates married couples into two groups: masters and disasters. What distinguishes the two comes down to making bids for one another’s attention.
“Look at this puppy!”
“Can you believe what’s happening in Israel?”
“I’m worried about the leaking in the basement.”
“Did you see the bunnies in the front yard?”
The other person has a chance to react in kindness or in annoyance. The couples that react to each other in kindness are the ones that stay together.
My husband is kind but he is also funny and brave. He is someone who needs a little danger in his life. He does not like to be described as simply kind but who does? Who does like to be described as one thing and one thing only? We are dimensions, we are worlds, we are not always one thing and not always another.
For the first few years of marriage, I refused to slip into the role of domestic housewife. I am a modern woman. I am a feminist. Make your own lunch for work. Do your own laundry. You take care of yourself and I’ll take care of me.
I wish I could pinpoint the epiphany moment, when I realized an act of kindness is a way to relieve the suffering of another. And we’re all suffering because the world is a mean place to be.
Can we agree that the word kind has slipped away from concrete association into the realm of abstract? Kindness means different things to different people. The definition leads to more abstract words—good, benevolent, generous. A quick search of the etymology of the word brings back that it’s Old English and that it comes from gecynde, that it means “natural” or “native”. Perhaps the state of being kind was a natural way to be. I do not know but I like to hope that it was.
Concretely, kindness is coffee made, dishes done, the dog out, meals prepared with thought and care. Kisses on the top of the head, kisses on knees, kisses on the inside of wrists. Kindness is alleviating the suffering of another. And isn’t it honor then, to be the one to alleviate the suffering of someone, somehow, someway?
“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” ― Khalil Gibran
Is kindness then an act of bravery? Don’t we often have to reach somewhere deep inside ourselves to say the kind thing instead of the harsh criticism? Your eyes are a lovely shade of green. I love the way you make other people laugh. Yes, that puppy is really cute. No, I can’t believe what’s happening, it’s difficult to make sense of what is happening in Israel.
Marriage is vulnerability. Kindness, I suppose, then, is too.
The Atlantic article reminds me to “think of kindness like a muscle” and not as if it’s a personality trait you either have or you don’t. In Duluth, Jonathon forgives me for the tone I’ve used but I know it’s the tiny things that can destroy a marriage so each day I work on my muscle and I know he does too. I take the driver’s seat so he can rest and he takes the dog for a walk around the block and I do the dishes and he takes care of the laundry. In the evenings we rest together on the couch and tell each other about video games and puppies and childhood fears and hopes for a kinder world.
Melody L. Heide is a writer based in Minnesota. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Beard Literary Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Switchback Magazine and the anthology Love and Profanity. She teaches writing and literature at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and when she's not writing or teaching, she walks in the woods and visits family. And art museums. And eats. Mostly chocolate, but other things here and there. www.mlheide.com