You may already be rolling your eyes at the vast oversimplification of this title... and if you were to go back to read the many articles I've written on relationships, you'd know that I don't think the secret to romantic success can be boiled down to one simple piece of advice. However, if people ask me what is the most important action we can take to improve our relationships and stay in love, I do have an answer, and that is to just be kind.
Yes, the suggestion seems obvious on one hand, but it's actually really hard for most couples to take at a certain point in their relationship. Many people I've talked to resisted the recommendation, responding with statements like "I can't do that, or "Why would I be nice to him/her?" To understand why we have this resistance and why we often find it challenging to simply be kind to our partner, there are three important concepts to consider:
* Fear of Intimacy -- The reason many couples fall out of love is because they stop treating each other with a certain respect, warmth, attraction, passion and affection that makes up what we refer to as romantic love. Many of us have unconscious fears around intimacy that cause us to want to keep our partner at a certain emotional distance. We resist getting too close in many, often unconscious, ways in order to maintain old, familiar defenses that may keep us feeling safe and self-protected but that actually limit us in our lives. When we are in this mode, being kind to our partner is experienced as a threat to our defenses. It would draw our partner closer at a time when we're driven to push him or her away.
* The Fantasy Bond -- Many couples make the mistake of overly connecting to each other and losing a sense of themselves as separate people. They begin to form an illusion of fusion or what my father Dr. Robert Firestone termed a "fantasy bond." They start to overstep each other's boundaries, replace substance with form and diminish real, personal interactions. Although it isn't a conscious process, when a couple forms this type of fantasy, they stop engaging in small acts of kindness or even showing care and concern for each other.
Without realizing it, couples form a fantasy bond in order to feel a sense of safety. However, what they end up feeling is resentment and frustration. Instead of seeing their partner as someone they chose, they may feel like their partner is someone they're stuck with. The behavior between the couple deteriorates. One partner may become withholding or controlling of the other. Both can become more nitpicky, critical and less accepting of their partner's individuality and freedom. While the quality of the relationship may be deteriorating, a fantasy bond still offers us an impression of unity that gives us a certain sense of security. When we've formed this type of bond, being kind to our partner actually threatens to disrupt the sense of safety we experience from this defense, because it forces us to acknowledge our partner as a separate person.
* The Critical Inner Voice -- When we get into relationships there's a lot of coaching going on in our heads that influences how we treat our partner. Our "critical inner voice" has plenty to say about us and our partner throughout the course of our relationship, particularly when we feel challenged or get scared. "She doesn't really care about you. You don't need anyone," it shouts. "Don't give him anything. He'll just hurt you in the end," it warns. The critical inner voice is formed from our early life experiences, negative attitudes directed toward us or that we were exposed to that ultimately shape how we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us, particularly the people with whom we've chosen to be in close relationships.
When we listen to the skewed commentary of this mean inner coach, we often start building a case against our partner or ourselves, and the relationship starts to crumble. We may feel more insecure or distracted, aloof or self-protective. We may act more distant, clingy or rejecting. We may lash out, bickering more and more, with our focus switching from being close to being right. In effect, we stop being compassionate toward our self or our partner. When listening to the dictates of our critical inner voice, being kind to our partner is experienced as being weak, vulnerable, foolish, reckless or even phony.
With all these below-the-surface elements of defense operating in our relationship, being caring and loving toward our partner stops feeling so easy and straight-forward. However, at the end of the day, being kind is the only real action we can take to improve our relationship. The only person we have any real control over is ourselves. The more we come to know and understand ourselves and our defenses, the more we learn that the struggle to love and be loved is very much internal. So, how can we silence the inner critic that tells us not to be vulnerable? How can we foster more kindness in ourselves, and what specific actions can we take to create more loving feelings and interactions with our partner?
1. Feel the feeling, but do the right thing. This is one of my favorite things relationship expert and author of The Truth about Love, Dr. Pat Love, tells couples. Whatever you feel is acceptable: hurt, anger, insecurity. Your feelings are reactions that you have little control over that help you know yourself. However, how you act is within your control. When you feel triggered by your partner, try to take a breath or take a walk before you react. Find ways to calm yourself down, so that you can feel whatever you feel then act in a way that reflects the outcome you truly desire. Be the person you want to be in your relationship.
2. Break from your past. Oftentimes, people react negatively to love, because they've never seen or experienced this type of kindness before. They may never have witnessed it in their original family or felt it in their past relationships. In addition, they may have been hurt in the past in ways they're afraid to re-experience. In this way, love can feel painful or threatening. All of a sudden, you feel vulnerable, as if you have a lot to lose or can be hurt all over again. In this state, you may do a lot of things to squelch those feelings of love in order to feel more comfortable or familiar. You may stop treating your partner in ways that would draw him or her closer. In order to move forward, you have to be willing to let go of the past and surpass it by being even more vulnerable and open to love. Letting go of your defenses will let more love into your life.
3. Drop your half of the dynamic. One technique I often share with couples to help them end an argument is to practice unilateral disarmament. What this basically involves is dropping your half of the dynamic and saying something kind, open and vulnerable like, "I care more about being close to you than I do about winning this argument." If you start to fly off the handle, try to gently get ahold of yourself and take steps to calm yourself down. Then reach out to your partner, show concern and care and stick with the behavior of being kind. You'll be amazed at the way this can melt your partner's heart and cause them to reciprocate.
4. Don't act out projections. If you notice that you have intense feelings of jealousy, anger, etc., it's important to think about their source. Is your partner really rejecting you or might you be distorting reality? Perhaps, you're listening to your critical inner voice when you hear thoughts like, "He's cheating on you! Who would want to be with you anyway?" or "You're just being used. Don't show her that you care." In many cases, you may be projecting these feelings onto your partner based on old experiences.
This is why it's so important to keep your actions in sync with your ultimate goal of being close. Of course, if your partner is mistreating you, this should definitely be addressed, but anytime your reactions seem intensified or to not quite fit the situation, you should make sure you're reacting based on something that's really happening in the here and now and not your past. In any circumstance, you can choose to be the loving person you want to be.
5. Be mindful of your partner's wants and feelings. This sounds basic, but so often we get wrapped up in a "me, me, me" attitude without even realizing it. We become so distracted and lost in our own heads that we stop thinking of our partner as a real person being affected by us. We may feel victimized like we do and give so much, but we refuse to slow down and see things from our partner's point of view. Take time to try to grasp what your partner feels and experiences when interacting with you. What does how you act make them feel? Simply paying attention to your partner and acknowledging their feelings will make them feel safe and seen. Then, you can be kind by engaging in behavior that acknowledges their wants and desires.
6. Show care and concern in a way your partner would experience as loving. We often say, treat others the way you want to be treated, which is good advice, but better advice is to treat others the way they'd want to be treated. In other words, your idea of what is an act of love may not be quite the same as your partner's. You may think doing his laundry would make your partner feel loved when actually he'd prefer if you just sat and talked with him about his day. You may think your partner would want a dozen roses for Valentine's Day when she'd rather just hear you say how you sincerely feel toward her on an average afternoon. Little kindnesses can go a long way, and yet, we're often the most resistant to doing the very things that would light our partner up. Just bringing a cup of tea or offering a random act of affection can shift the entire dynamic of your day to be more loving and romantic.
7. Don't engage in a tit-for-tat mentality. Like I said, it's easy to get victimized and want to quantify how much you do for your partner. However, you feel a lot better doing things for your partner, because it makes you feel good and not so you can get ahead in the scorebook. It feels bad to walk around feeling as if you're owed something, especially by the person you're the closest to. Kindness need not be quantified. This doesn't mean you should trade your own needs for your partner's or accept someone being unkind to you. You can always clearly say what you want. However, when you get too focused on who owes who what and why, you may start to feel resentful and bitter. You lose track of your real goal, which is to make you and your partner feel happy and close.
Being loving in these ways is harder than it seems, because it makes us feel vulnerable and anxious, as if we're weak and can be hurt. When we have something precious, we become fearful of what we can lose. However, if we acknowledge these painful feelings and fearful reactions, we can be aware of when they arise, but still choose to persevere by remaining kind and close to the people we love.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org