In reality, people show their prickly sides to their spouses. We become confident that we are loved and as a consequence don’t always put as much effort into nurturing the relationship.
Research on couples with successful relationships–that is, couples who do not separate or divorce–suggests that the secret is treating each other kindly. Specifically, the individuals in these relationships make proactive efforts to reach out to their partner with kind words or actions.
In her book Love 2.0, psychologist Barb Fredrickson writes about some of the positive effects of experiencing love. They are many, including improvements in physical well-being, and naturally, in feelings of positive emotions like happiness. Perhaps more surprising is that experiencing love and kindness can make you smarter, both in the moment and for the long term.
Frederickson became known years ago for work on what she called the broaden and build theory of positive emotions. The idea is that negative emotions cause our attention to narrow and focus only on the immediate situation in front of us. It mimics fight-or-flight: How can I either solve this problem or get the heck out of here? Positive emotions, on the other hand, buy us the security to more thoughtfully take in the environment, explore creative options, and experiment with different types of behavior. Once a few of these experiments yield good results, people experience even more positive emotion, which leads to even more creativity and exploration. In this way, feeling good can lead to interacting more effectively with the world in an ongoing upward spiral.
In a marriage, these types of positive emotions may give us the psychological sanctuary to bring our best selves to a relationship. Showing kindness to a spouse makes him or her happy, and likely makes you happy as well. This may lead to behaviors that continue to nurture and grow your relationship–perhaps having an in-depth conversation or doing an activity together. Kindness can spark a positive trend.
An example of the effects of kindness can be seen in married women’s weight loss efforts. One study of women trying to lose weight found that they were more successful when their partners were kind about their bodies than when their partners were critical. The experience of kindness may have helped these women cope more effectively with the demands of diet and exercise. Kindness, it seems, can improve the health of the people you love.
It’s not always easy to be nice, not even to the person you love. After all, life can be stressful and who can you be your stressed out, prickly self with if not your partner? Still, this type of research is a good reminder that as much as you can, there’s a big payoff if you can offer your loved ones a little kindness.