Want to know why some relationships thrive and others deteriorate? This excellent and readable summary of the research tells us that it comes down to two things: emotional stability, and kindness.
Let’s start with what kindness looks like in a relationship: a positive, interested, supportive response to your partner’s reaching out. We’re not only talking about flowers or hugs here – just the normal every day comments people make, in large part, to engage with one another. Things like, “I had a rough day,” or “I’m going for a walk,” or “It looks like rain is coming.” If the typical response is ignoring, dismissive, minimizing, or attacking, that couple will not last (or if it does last, they’ll be miserable). If the typical response is engaging, supportive, interested, that couple will survive and thrive. Contempt is the killer, and kindness is the nurturer of relationships.
But why would people get together and then not be nice to each other? According to the research, this seems to depend on the level of physiological arousal associated even with apparently positive interactions. The couples that are able to be responsive and kind to each other are actually comfortable with each other, and being together makes them feel more safe and relaxed. On the other hand, those couples that end up being troubled started out troubled too, even if it didn’t look that way. Because even while they were being nice to each other, they were in a “fight or flight readiness” state of physiological arousal. Always on the lookout for danger. Always ready to protect oneself. And defensiveness doesn’t always come out kind.
This body of research would appear to indicate the value of couples intentionally practicing being kind to each other, responding in an engaging and positive manner, to create that safe, supportive atmosphere that leads to more of the same. And this would be a reasonable and correct conclusion. But if that’s all we got from the research, we’d be missing out.
Because not every couple can be kind, even if they try. Remember? Some are in that aroused hyper-vigilant state, ready to defend themselves at the first hint of danger. But why? Why be so defensive even in what appears to be a good relationship characterized by positive interactions? This can readily be answered by asking where such hyper-vigilance comes from. It comes from prior experience. People who have previously been wounded – by trauma, loss, or other relationship harm – have learned from experience that others are dangerous and they better watch out. Of course this becomes a self-fulfilling fear, as the hyper-vigilance and defensiveness contribute to new cycles of hurtful interactions.
Couples therapists have long recognized that baggage from childhood and from prior relationships can negatively impact one’s current relationship. This is why many couples therapy approaches involve identifying those key earlier experiences, sharing them (in therapy) with the partner, developing empathy for one another, and perhaps doing some trauma work or grief work together (e.g., Kantor, 1980; Paul, 1975). This is good work and can really help couples to recover and rebuild their relationship.
Better yet: Why not just do your trauma healing up front? Then you’re not starting out wounded and hyper-vigilant, and you have a much better chance of being kind.
Incidentally (or not), trauma healing also reduces emotional instability, which brings us full circle on these two key factors. Emotional stability is typically thought of as a character trait, whereas practicing kindness can be seen as a behavior, something you can actively choose to do. Yet the hyper-vigilance (that interferes with kindness) may be connected to the emotional instability; and trauma healing impacts both.
Nearly two decades ago I suggested routine annual screening of all children for mental health problems, often due to recent traumas or losses, so that those could be quickly treated before incurring long-term developmental harm (Greenwald, 1997). I still think that is a good idea. And since we’re not doing it yet, how about identifying other key moments in the life cycle, and doing some preventive trauma healing at those points? If pre-marital counseling included a course of trauma-healing therapy for each party, I suspect that we’d get a lot less hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance, and more emotional stability and kindness. And more of those good kinds of relationships that we all hope for.
Greenwald, R. (1997). Children’s mental health care in the 21st century: Eliminating the trauma burden. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry On-Line. Available Internet: http://www.Priory.com/psychild.htm
Kantor, D. (1980). Critical identity image: A concept linking individual, couple, and family development. In J. K. Pearre & L. J. Friedman (Eds.), Family Therapy: Combining Psychodynamic and Systems Approaches, pp. 137-167. NY: Grune & Stratton.
Paul, N. L. (1975). The role of mourning and empathy in conjoint marital therapy. In G. H. Zuk & I. Boszormenyi-Nagy, (Eds.), Family therapy and disturbed families. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.