Is Kindness the Secret to Healthy Relationships?

Parent Footprints

By Dr. Dan Peters

My wife texted me the link to an article in The Atlantic called “Masters of Love.” The subtitle read, “Science says lasting relationships come down to — you guessed it — kindness and generosity.”

It was a great article summarizing over four decades of research on couples. This research started in the 70’s when the alarming divorce rate gained public attention. I am sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it hasn’t changed much since then. Estimated percentages of divorces vary but most sources agree the current divorce rate for first marriages remains at approximately 40%–50% with second and third marriages ending at a higher rate. Why don’t or can’t couples stay together? And…what is happening to their children?

I went for a run and pondered parts of the article that spoke to me. As I ran, I had several thoughts. First, I thought of all of the therapeutic programs I have worked over the years where we taught “social skills” to kids by talking to them about the elements of friendship. We spent hours teaching and discussing things like: How do you know who is a friend and who isn’t? What characteristics do you look for in a friend? How do you show someone you care about them? What do you do when someone has hurt your feelings? When should you forgive someone and when should you realize they are not good for you? These questions and skills seemed so basic — yet, these basic skills seem to be related to picking your partner, lasting relationships, and happiness. Shouldn’t we be teaching this stuff to all kids?

I also became keenly aware that kids learn how to be in relationships by watching their parents relate to each other, as well as with their parent’s other significant relationships. Arguing itself is not bad, but how parents argue makes a difference. It is about how parents talk to each other — mean, dismissive, sarcastic, or attempts at kindness and compassion — even when upset. Do they apologize or not? I took a quick inventory of my marriage and started asking important questions. Do I turn in or turn away? How do I communicate when I am mad? Do I show caring about my wife’s accomplishments, small and large, or do I focus on my own? Am I kind enough? I then immediately thought of my kids. What do they see? What do we model for them?

I found myself running much faster than usual as I was thinking about all this, being driven by emotion. It can’t be that hard! Why can’t people be kind?! What do we have to do to raise kind children who grow up to be kind adults in loving relationships who show their children how to be kind? It became clear to me that it all starts in our homes.

Many months from now we’ll all make our list of 2019 new year’s resolutions but I’m starting mine today:

  • Show kindness and compassion to everyone you interact with — friends, family, and strangers
  • Teach your children about what it means to be kind and compassionate. Give them examples. Tell them stories from your day about yourself or others being kind
  • Be kind to your partner. Be kind to your kids. Be kind to yourself.
  • Don’t settle for being mistreated. If you are not in a healthy situation, do something about it. Take action.
  • Commit to being in healthy relationships where you care for your partner and your partner cares for you
  • “Turn in” to your partner as the small things often matter more than the big things

Anyone can be kind. Anyone can practice being kind. Anyone can be taught to be kind. Show it to others and expect it from others. Show your kids what it looks like to be in a loving relationship. It starts in our homes.