An Abundance of Understanding 

Awhile ago I wrote an article on the Gottman Blog about the power of kindness in a relationship (How to Be Kind When You’re Upset With Your Partner). There are some concepts which make sense on paper (such as the idea of being kind, calm), but which, in practice, remain elusive – even frustratingly out of reach – when it really comes down to it.

Why is it hard to be nice?

My clients and I sometimes practice important conversations they want to have in the future. I play the role of the client and of the other person. When I am the client, I act patient, brave, calm, and I place boundaries. When I am the other person I act being insecure, I make assumptions, and dismissive. The challenge for my client is to remain centered while conjuring up this future discussion so that they can get accustomed to tolerating the discomfort of the actual discussion.

What we find during this simple exercise is that we start out wanting to be nice. We arrive at the table to our discussions with a full cup of niceness. We want to work things out. And very quickly, our heart rates climb, our mind shuts off, we get triggered by a look or a gesture or the first few words uttered by the other person. All of a sudden, our cup is empty. We’ve forgotten our script, and kindness is no longer our goal. Our new goal is survival. Let’s just survive this discussion and get out of here intact.

We also inhabit the qualities we find hurtful in other people: we can also be dismissive and judgmental. Slowing down and thinking of our responses helps us avoid those patterns.

Does this ring true for you? I feel a shiver up my spine just writing it! Why is it so hard to be nice? We are often stuck in a pattern of conversation and we are having so much trouble breaking free of it.

Know what and who you are bringing to the table

Know yourself. Know what triggers you are sensitive to, and be honest with yourself about how you act and react during arguments or discussions. If you can openly own your typical patterns, you can then set out to challenge those feelings as and when they occur. If you don’t know these things about yourself, you will feel surprised every time you end up in another discussion that blows up.

We love being understood. And, most of us believe that we are quite easy to understand. “Hey I’m an easygoing person!” Or, “My needs are so clear and so simple!” Or, (my fave) “Why can’t you just give me what I want!” We are therefore struck dumb when those around us – partners, parents, or good friends – miss the mark and misunderstand us. We end up feeling even more isolated.

We are built for connection, we crave connection, so these missed connections are devastating. They teach us the wrong lessons: that we are unworthy. What these moments ought to teach us is that we have to re-learn how to communicate so that we can do it better and achieve that connection that we all deserve and that we are all worthy of.

Why are we so hard on some people (aka our partners)?

Couples who have been together for years are often good at describing their arguments. They know what will happen first, second, and third. They know at which point their stomach will tense up and at which point the other person will look away or say a certain thing they always say. These couples often want to break free of these constant battles – even the constant bickering (which can be just as grating) – and do better. But they first need to overcome one huge leap. They need to stop being so hard on their partners and they don’t feel like it.

I get it. It would be so much easier if the world changed and we could just be ourselves. But that’s not how this journey works.

Being kind means talking the talk and also walking the walk. We need to be nice even when we don’t feel like it. We still set boundaries and we still ask for kindness in return, but we don’t use the lack of kindness* as a reason for not being kind in return.

“But why should I be the first one to be kind!?” Because you want to. Also, how nice for your partner that they have a kind, calm partner. If you care about each other, then it’s OK that you put in this work.

What if I am kind and nothing changes?

If you are committed to truly bringing an abundance of understanding and empathy to your relationship, and things are still hard, then you can gently, tenderly ask your partner if they would like to try therapy with you. Your desire to understand him or her will put you in good stead. You will be showing (not just talking about) your dedication to the relationship and to your ability and desire to change as well.

Often telling your partner you want to grow and learn and change can be a compelling reason to start therapy together. And often it is both partners that need to recalibrate, re-learn communication. And that’s perfectly OK.


*The caveat here (and in all my articles) is that if there is emotional or physical abuse, you don’t tolerate it, you seek safety and help immediately.