Kindness: the Secret Ingredient for a Happy Marriage

by Tova Kreps, LCSW

Why do only 3 in 10 marriages remain happy and healthy, we ask. Are financial stressors, cultural differences, childrearing conflicts, or the political climate the culprits? While all of these factors may play a part, social scientists have begun to tell us that the secret ingredients of marital success may be more simple than these. Research has shown that kindness, along with emotional stability, is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. That’s right, just by watching couples interact – childless or not, straight or gay, rich or poor – researchers can predict with up to 94% accuracy whether or not those couples will be broken up or still together and happy within several years.

So what is this kindness quality? According to Merriam Webster, kindness is “having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others; wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others”. Kindness in a relationship describes the spirit that a person brings to a relationship. Is there a bent towards generosity and making others feel good or towards contempt and criticism?

Those who are kind tend to think of their kindness more like a muscle to be exercised and developed than a permanent character trait. So how can we develop kindness muscles? Consider these few intentional choices.

  • Actively respond to opportunities to connect. When your partner invites you to notice something, shares a story with you or asks for connection in any way, how do you respond? If it is with focused attention and responsiveness, this is kindness. In our busy lives, it is easy to ignore or minimize these connecting moments, leaving the other to feel vulnerable or foolish. A pattern of these ignored requests for intimacy will soon erode a relationship because trust, safety and feeling valued is lost. When our partners reach out, we need to reach back.

  • Celebrate success. Empathizing with another in rough times is certainly kind. But even kinder is to share in the joy of others. Many of us withhold this rejoicing with and for others because of our competitive natures and tendencies toward envy. But when someone is genuinely happy for us, for our sake, it makes us feel safe and loved. Try joining your loved ones by acknowledging and celebrating their successes with them.

  • Focus on appreciation. If we look for what others do right and what we are grateful for, we will express it in kindness to them. If we are always looking to catch someone in the wrong, we will express criticism and contempt for their failures. Research shows that we look for is what we actually see, often ignoring the evidence to the contrary.

  • Speak gently, even in a conflict. When we are angry, we are most likely to be unkind, but good relationships include kindness even when fighting. There is a big difference between saying, “You were rude in front of my friends.” Vs. “I wish you didn’t speak to me like that in front of others.”

It seems obvious that being kind is a good way to love. But there are reasons that we may withhold this favor. Here are a few possibilities:

  • We are angry. When someone hurts us, we may want to hurt them back in order to “bring about justice” or communicate our pain.

  • We want power. When we are in a competitive power struggle with a person, putting them on the defensive through criticism or contempt gives us more power over them

  • We don’t know how. It is hard to give away what we have never had or seen. Sometimes, we have unused kindness muscles and overdeveloped contempt muscles from a lifetime of experiences.

In order to have successful relationships, kindness is an essential part of our love. The hopeful thing about knowing this is that we can learn to be kind, and we can choose to act kindly. We are not doomed to failure in our relationships. Kindness is not mysteriously out of our reach; it’s a skill set and the results of daily choices we can master – even when we are tired or frustrated. We may have to give up a bit of anger and power, and we may have to learn new skills, but it will be worth it. Ongoing, satisfying and happy relationships make life full and rich.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Alexandra Delgado