How Kindness Preserves Love When You Argue
“It feels like we have the same arguments over and over again.”
“I know deep down that I love him, but too often, I just don’t feel it.”
“Why does it take so little to set her off? I barely walked in the door before she started in on me again!”
“Why can’t we solve anything? We can’t stop fighting.”
Couples can love one another very much and still struggle to connect. They can be extremely committed to their relationship. But for some, minor spats keep turning into big arguments.
We see many couples who struggle to communicate. Why do disagreements get worse the more you try to talk?
You might be thinking: “There are so many things to like about him. But for some reason, I just can’t satisfy him.” Or: “She doesn’t see that I’m trying very hard to make her happy.” The paradox is, both partners are unhappy, both want to fix it, and neither seems to know what to do.
Most People Aren’t Selfish Jerks; The Danger is a Habit of Thinking That Way
Most couples know they can get along. When life is good, everything’s fine.
But what happens under stress? Bills pile up. Pressures rise at work. Children or family members may need more support. Nobody’s perfect, and anyone can crack under stress sometimes. One partner may slip up and do something hurtful or thoughtless. The other reacts in anger.
Now you’re upset with each other.
Most people are not selfish jerks. They’re simply trying to cope with stress. They want to believe their partners know them well enough to understand. Yet partners forget this when they get angry.
They sometimes forget to look for the good things in one another.
We get angry when our loved one doesn’t respond the way we want. We get upset when we misunderstand. We forget to make it okay to smile, laugh, and play together. A habit of feeling resentful can take over.
We have a human bias to notice negative feelings and thoughts. Un-healed hurts pile up, and both partners slip deeper into feeling unappreciated, annoyed, and irritable.
Every couple faces the risk of falling into negative patterns of thinking and feeling. These habits can take over the relationship unawares! We slip into patterns of pursue-withdraw or offense-defense without realizing it. One person reacts to something small with a sarcastic comment or a snarly answer. The other person gets defensive and angry. It’s all too easy to get swept up in the cycle.
If the cycle doesn’t stop, it will ruin the relationship. It’s the cycle, not the partner, which each person needs to rethink.
Shifting From Hard Feelings Onto Your Softer Side
How do happier couples stop the downward slide? It’s about finding those softer, more vulnerable emotions, and making a safe place for them to come out.
Of course partners need to address issues like who should clean the kitchen or how to manage the credit cards. But they need to restore harmony together first. Couples need to help each other calm down and re-connect, especially while when life gets more complicated.
Truth be told, soothing hurts is hard work. But it makes fixing the rest of the issues much easier.
It starts by being curious — rather than angry — about what upset you. Maybe you tried to ask an innocent question. Your partner took offense and answered with anger. Important: Look beneath the hurt and anger. Below the defenses, both partners likely fear that the relationship is broken.
You both need to know: “Do I matter to you?” You need to know your attachment is safe.
You need to confirm your sense of friendship and attachment. First. Then problem-solve. The mistake a lot of couples make is rushing past feelings to find a solution. They need to slow down and look under the table emotionally. “Submerged below is the massive real issue: both partners feel emotionally disconnected,” says couples therapy expert Dr. Sue Johnson. Over 25 years of couples research, Johnson found the core ingredient: Kind emotional presence.
Kindness — to yourself and each other, is the first step toward calming the alarm.
The Science of Kindness
You can learn healthy, proven steps to climb out of a cycle of arguing.
It’s about accepting your need for love and connection. It’s about speaking from the heart about what you need without blame. And seeing your partner as a friend.
Like Dr. Sue Johnson, Dr. John Gottman spend decades studying the science of love followed hundreds of couples for over thirty years. He watched couples experience both positive and negative interactions in his lab. He looked for differences between couples who went on to stay together happily, and those who stayed unhappy or later divorced.
Here is one valuable highlight from what he found:
The Magic Ratio, 5 to 1: Even when you disagree, you can be friendly. It’s especially important if you want to come out of an argument feeling good together again. Hugs, smiles, and kind words help both partners feel good even during a dispute. Being ignored, dismissed or criticized feel bad. Tally up the good and the bad during your collective spats, and you can see which happens more often. Gottman found a kind of “golden ratio” of 5:1 meaning that couples who come out happy create at least five positive incidents to every negative one when they face problems.
How can partners find a five-to-one balance? Gottman found even small things count:
- Holding hands,
- Speaking politely
- Laughing together
- Gentle eye contact
Kind gestures do add up to to restore positive feelings after fighting. Couples don’t need to deny their differences. Having arguments is inevitable. Successful couples take steps to ensure good experiences outnumber the bad ones.
More on the Big Benefit of the Little Things
Little things matter more than you might think. Smiling when you first see one another, a quick kiss before you roll out of bed, and listening attentively as your partner talks in the evening can help you reconnect at the end of the day. Small acts of service, like preparing him a cup of coffee as you make your own, or taking her turn to get up at night with the baby communicate your love to your partner. Politeness counts too! Getting into the habit of being kind and polite when talking together — even on stressful days –goes a long way toward defusing conflict before it ever starts.
Basic kindness is the glue that holds relationships together. Couples learn they can be angry and still be kind. Kindness tells your partner that it’s safe in this relationship. It won’t be a perfect relationship, because no one is perfect, but it can still be a healthy one where you care about making the problem the issue, not each other, and that you value each other’s happiness.
Kindness Is the Key to Reconnecting
Even on those bad days when one partner is irritable, kindness means that the other partner can look beyond a harsh tone to try to see what the person is really trying to communicate. It might mean, “I’ve gotten behind in my sleep this week,” or “Work was really awful today.” Kindness fuels empathy, understanding and connection.
When it comes to long-lasting relationships, kindness counts. It opens the door to deeper feelings that that help you soften your approach to each other and learn what you want to resolve in your partnership.