“Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?” Sylvia Boorstein

     One of the challenges of being a couple’s therapist is that you often feel as if you work in a war zone, but you have no uniform or weapons. Instead, you have your heart and you have tools, and both are needed.   One of those tools is just plain common sense, which seems to elude many adults who are in pain, (and who isnt’?) who, like children, do and say the very things that will most assuredly trigger their partner to be unable to muster empathy, and extend support.

     The truth is that when we are out of empathy and thus out of compassion for ourselves, it is the time we need that from someone else the most, and the times that we are most likely to be out of empathy and compassion for our partners. Common sense and Plato tell us it’s the time to be kind: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

 In the absence of kindness, it often goes like this:

Husband: “It’s been a helluva day and I am starving. “

Wife: “How do you think I feel after another stressful day with 2 sick kids? Maybe you could think of getting something ready for me.”

Husband: “I didn’t ask for anything, but it’d be nice to get some appreciation for working my ass off all day. No, instead I come home to an ungrateful wife who thinks she has it so hard.”

Wife: “You have no idea!!”

Husband: “I don’t wanna hear it.”

Wife: “Right, it’s all about you and your needs.”

Husband: “F-ck you!”

Wife: “Don’t you dare say that in front of the kids.”

Husband: “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot say.” (exits scene, slams door, and drives away.)

Kids: “Are you and Daddy getting a divorce?”

     It gets much worse, but you get the picture. I did it too, until I tended to my own pain.

     How in the world do we change this unconscious dynamic? According to John Gottman, couple’s researcher and therapist, who wrote The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, it’s not the conflict that is the biggest roadblock to intimacy, but the failure to repair and return to seeing the goodness and value in our partner. Gottman explains that when couples have what he calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) in their arguments, they divorce 5-6 years after the wedding.

 

     In this brief video Gottman shares his thoughts on this dilemma.  One of the Gottman’s seven principles that strengthens the friendship that is at the heart of a healthy relationship is called enhancing “love maps.” A love map is the part of a person’s brain where s/he stores all the relevant information about their partner, such as their worries, hopes, and dreams in life, as well as their history and the facts and feelings of their world. When you are attuned to your partner’s love map, you nurture fondness and admiration and turn toward each other instead of away. You allow your spouse to influence you, rather than fighting them. You solve problems together, and you put the energy required into overcoming emotional gridlock, rather than letting it fester.   You create shared meaning based on a deep knowledge of your partner. You are kind to each other.

In the presence of kindness, it would go something like this:

Husband: “It’s been a helluva day and I am starving. “

Wife: “Me too. How about we have a snack now, and order Thai food after we get the kids squared away?”

Husband: “Sounds good. Let me take over with them while you get their dinner and a snack for us and order the food.”

Wife: “Great. I could use a break from them right now. Do you want Pad Thai or that Drunken Noodle dish you liked last time?”

Husband: “Drunken Noodles sounds perfect for the occasion!”