Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970’s in response to a crisis: married couples were divorcing at alarming rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of these broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into a lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were.
From the data they gathered, the couples where separated into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.
The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal — of being in fight-flight-or-freeze mode — in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their nervous system, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, explained in an interview. “They are scanning their social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
What is Habit of Mind?
A “Habit of Mind” means having a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems. When humans experience dichotomies, are confused by relationship dilemmas, or come face to face with uncertainties–our most effective actions require drawing forth certain patterns of intellectual behavior. When we draw upon these intellectual resources, the results that are produced are more powerful, of higher quality and greater significance than if we fail to employ those patterns of intellectual behaviors.
Kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important habit of mind and predictor of satisfaction and stability in a relationship. Kindness makes each partner believe they are cared for, understood and validated—feel loved.
When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of giving, like buying each other little gifts or offering one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolate treats involved.
The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting anger and aggression spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict long-lasting damage on a relationship. Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness dictates how we choose to express the anger. You can throw daggers at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry without blame and insult, and that’s the kinder most productive path.
In most marriages, the level of satisfaction can drop dramatically within the first few years together. But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness is the driving habit of mind.