This is Part 2 of a series that looks at the research-based solutions to navigating this trying time in our lives and marriages—and emerging stronger. Feel free to share this with those who might benefit!
How do we come through this season with our personal relationships not only intact but stronger? How do we move past the inevitable daily hurts and build delight instead? That question is even more important now that our current shelter-in-place mandate seems unlikely to be a short-term, one-and-done situation. Even once government rules relax a bit, we’ll probably have to live, work, school, exercise and play at home more than before. At least for a while, different personalities, values and opinions will continue to be crammed together with no easy relief.
It would be so easy for the pressure to magnify small issues and annoyances in our relationships. Now add the heat of financial worries, and those who already had cracks in their bedrock might feel the magma building toward a volcanic explosion.
The other day, I was shopping at Target for my Mom, whose retirement community understandably prohibits people from visiting or leaving. As I pushed my (disinfected) cart around the aisles, I heard the exasperated voice of a woman near me as she spoke to someone on the other end of the phone.
“And I swear if he says that one more time, I’m going to scream,” she said. “I was annoyed anyway, but now we’re both home all the time and I can’t get away from it. We’ve grown apart, and now we’re having to be together all the time. And when I say anything about him not working minimum hours, he sulks. It’s awful.”
Heat and pressure.
I wish I could have interrupted her phone call and given her hope.
Because here’s the key truth: The same heat and pressure that produces hot, scorching magma also creates diamonds. If there is a special process in place, those diamonds are carried quickly to the surface intact instead of being destroyed.
What special process will allow all of us to come through this sparkling like rare and precious jewels instead of scorching others or our relationship into destruction?
It’s called kindness. Not “compatibility.” Not “having an uninterrupted income.” It’s not about having a lack of trouble or a particular set of circumstances. Rather, it is about being kind toward those around you. Especially when paired with a willingness to work at things.
We saw those principles in our research for The Kindness Challenge, and they have been discovered and fleshed out many times by others.
One 2018 Michigan State study by William Chopik discovered that kindness—being agreeable, considerate, nice—is far more important to creating a great relationship than being compatible or having a similar personality. He also found that conscientiousness (working hard and thoroughly) was highly predictive of having a sense of well-being in general and relationship satisfaction in particular. By contrast, a sense of dissatisfaction, anxiety or worry leads to a lack of well-being and satisfaction.
As Chopik put it in an interview, it is all too easy to focus on whether my partner is compatible with me. When “Instead, people may want to ask, ‘Are they a nice person?’ ‘Do they have a lot of anxiety?’ Those things matter way more than the fact that two people [have similar personality types].”
Lesson? Kindness wins. To get through these unprecedented times it isn’t about what your partner does or doesn’t do amidst the heat and pressure: it’s about what you do.
What does “kindness” look like? It means withholding negativity and unkindness, speaking words of affirmation, and being generous in your actions. To make that a habit, try the 30-Day Kindness Challenge, which improved 89% of relationships in our research. Although we recommend that you sign up for the regular initiative, our “Raise the Curve on Kindness” page also has informal ideas specific to this time of social distancing.
And ironically, using this time of distancing as a time of learning and growth, will bring us closer together than we have been before.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-trained social researcher and best-selling author who is sheltering-in-place in Atlanta with her husband and co-author Jeff, two teenagers who are figuring out how to do college and high school online, and two cats who are thrilled to have even more video meetings to walk in front of each day.
Shameless plug: The Feldhahn’s newest book, Thriving in Love & Money, about how to have a great relationship around money (even in a time of trial), was published right before the National Emergency was declared, and is even more essential now. You can support Shaunti’s research and team during this time by purchasing a copy for someone who needs it.