J and K: “Just be Kind!” We are often told to “Just be Kind!”, and “Listen!” They’ve become cliches in our social media world, where we’re constantly given advice about personal change and self-improvement. These Notes are also in that world, but I want to offer some different viewpoints, relevant to our close relationships.
Always acting and speaking kindly can be so difficult when we’re together with someone 24/7 – whether that person is our intimate partner or not. For many people ‘just be kind!’ is a simple moral injunction from earliest childhood. But…
‘Just’ ? it’s not that simple! Trying hard to be kind becomes quickly associated with guilt about failing to live up to an assumed ‘gold standard’ of kindness. Also, we may have heard of the popular science notion that tells us that being kind (altruism) produces a ‘natural high’, that it’s good for our mental health, or even improves our immune system! – but then we may worry that our motivation for kind words or actions is self-interest, not ‘real’ kindness.
K. Kindness is central to our close relationships, and a precious quality in these difficult times. Perhaps we need to think of what we actually believe about it, and give it a little more maintenance and repair attention. How?
-In everyday life, positive and negative emotions are in constant flow, and they are often finely tuned in to the feelings and moods of our partner. Over the course of a day or two, pay attention to your desire to act or speak kindly – when is this easy? when do you definitely not feel like being kind? Try to develop your awareness of this, and practice increasing the positives gently, without forcing yourself.
-We have some control over our emotional states, but not as much as we would like to believe. Some negativity is inevitable. We can however try not to ‘feed’ negativity – for example “here we go again- this is typical – s/he is so selfish – it’s just like yesterday” etc….. especially when we revert to habitual patterns of thinking [see ‘H’ for habits]. Noticing and interrupting the pattern is useful – something like “can I get you a cup of tea?” Another interruption to a spiral of negativity is simply saying “I’m sorry”. Acting kindly IN SPITE OF feeling resentful, irritable, anxious can really shift our mood and be a productive relationship-building gesture.
– Kindness seems to come more naturally to some people than others! If you’re struggling, it can help to think ‘theoretically’ what a kind act would look like or what a kind response would sound like, in an ideal world, and then test it out in your situation.
-Be careful not to force expectations about ‘I must always be a kind person’ on yourself. Such unrealistic expectations produce guilt and can undermine your capacity to be patient and better understand yourself. They can make you (unknowingly) demand gratitude or at least reciprocity in your partner, sometimes resulting in your feeling disappointed, resentful or angry.
L. Listening: Listening to our partners, with openness and courage, and really hearing what they are telling us, is an act of kindness. But having to talk and listen to them almost constantly during ‘lockdown’ can be really challenging! In recent times communication styles and opportunities have changed hugely and spontaneous conversations outside the home are rare. Now we rely on our partners for a wide range of communications: sharing our humour, resolving problems, discussing our fears. And there is a new level of intensity as well as frequency.
What may help is to remember:
– We normally ‘filter’ a lot of what we hear, and the more we know someone, the more likely we are to tune things out, as a voice inside our head tells us “I know what s/he is going to say”. Try to replace this habit with ‘new ears’ (!): be intrigued; show your interest with your facial expression and tone of voice. Pretend you’ve only just met! Avoid interrupting, and talk less yourself.
– With in-depth conversations, recognise that listening carefully is genuinely tiring. Suggest returning to a discussion at another time if one of you is finding it hard to stay focussed. Practice summarizing back to your partner what s/he has said – this may feel odd but can be very helpful to both of you, particularly to clarify feelings – eg “Can I just check that I’ve understood – you’re saying that….”
Recommendation: Esther Perel is a renowned couples therapist with an excellent series of free podcasts and other online resources. Very worth listening to. www.estherperel.com