I was recently reading a famous study about marriage by John Gottman a psychologist that has studied marriage since the 1970s. He set up what is known as "The Love Lab" with his colleague Robert Levenson. They brought newlyweds into the lab and watched them interact with each other. With a team of researchers, they hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked the couples to speak about their relationship, like how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects' blood flow, heart rates, and how much sweat they produced. Then the researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six years later to see if they were still together.
Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?
From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for their partners’ mistakes.”
Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss 50 percent of the positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
This afternoon, my mom came over to chat. I was tired and grumpy, from a long day and I was really unkind. After she left, my daughter told me I had been rude, and that it felt a little uncomfortable. My first thought was to get defensive, but I listened and was silent. My daughter was right. I felt bad, and quickly walked over to my moms to apologize. She was gracious and kind. She said she came home, and told her husband I was so rude she didn't bother to invite us to dinner.
When I was a little girl I learned this little song in church.
I want to be kind to ev'ryone,
For that is right, you see.
So I say to myself, "Remember this:
Kindness begins with me."
So let us all begin this week with kindness. It has the power to heal broken marriages, broken hearts, and change the world.