ERP 131: How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love – Part Five [Transcript]

ERP 131: How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love, Part V

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for tuning into today’s episode, 131 – How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love Part V. We are closing out the series in discussing the topic of kindness, which was inspired by an article written by Emily Esfahani Smith, titled Masters Of Love, where she is largely quoting Dr. John Gottman and his research team in discussing the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage, which is kindness.

I have taken five episodes – or this will be the fifth – to discuss kindness, and ways to display and be kind through gesture and action in relationship. These are all tips, suggestions, and I’m giving you examples and stories to work with, in the hopes that you will consider practicing more kindness to strengthen your bond in your relationship. I’ve also invited you to join me in a 25-day practice. I’ve given you a graphic to use to guide you; if you’re interested in that, you can go to my website, DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, and you can find the latest episodes there at the top. Again, this is episode 131, How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love Part V. In any of these episodes of this series, you can find the button to access the download of this graphic that will help guide you in this 25-day experiment.

The goal here is to just choose one of the 25 tips, one of the 25 recommendations, and practice one a day. Now, you could practice each of the 25 and give it a roll for each one of the 25 days; you can choose your own, or if one is more challenging for you, continue to practice it.

You can start this 25-day challenge anytime you like, or my intention here was to build us up into the new year. So if you’re wanting to jump onboard with that, feel free to visit the website, get the download and join us. I truly believe even one day of focusing on kindness will boost and infuse your relationship interactions with more positivity.

Kindness encourages a positive cycle. When we see our partner look at us with loving, soft eyes, or they smile, or they touch you in a gentle way, that contributes to a feeling of warmth and closeness… Versus your partner glaring at you, giving you the cold shoulder, ignoring you. That usually hurts and feels awful. And even in these small moments, kindness has the power to bridge and create connection and really spin the dynamic into a positive trajectory. If your partner tries to get you to laugh and makes a joke, the invitation there is to play along, or to reciprocate or engage and play with your partner. Or if they smile at you and they hold out their arms and want to give you a big hug, most likely that will soften and invite you into that embrace.

As we infuse our relationship with more kindness, again, it invites more kindness, and that’s where I think this principle of kindness being one of the most important predictors of satisfaction and stability in a marriage or a relationship is that we’re creating that warmth, that bond, that connection, that trust, that love, actively, in every moment, as much as possible. This is not every moment, but as much as you possibly can.

To get access to the PDF “25 Days To Strengthening Your Love With Kindness”, visit my website DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast, click on any of the “How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love” podcasts and you can find the button to download this PDF in the show notes.

Okay, so I am giving you 25 suggestions. I’ve given you 20 already, I’m not gonna recap that for the sake of time, but I’m gonna give you the last five today.

Before we get started, I just wanna again, like I typically do in most podcast episodes, invite you to just take pause and to look at the bigger conversation that we’re engaging in as we look at relationship more consciously, more intentionally, and that is that we know the landscape of intimacy will challenge us. We might feel the upset, the pain, the difficulty, but there’s opportunity there, and that might feel like a low.

On the other end of the spectrum we will feel moments and phases of pure joy, bliss, happiness, and that we can actually absorb and receive and expand our capacity to experience more of that joy. And then the stability, the security and the consistency of a healthy, lasting, loving relationship, that the foundation, the container is safe and solid, and that you can depend on your partner, and that interdependence… And that’s the ultimate goal in these conversations, it’s so that we can feel more equipped, better prepared to engage in these difficult areas, and also to show up and do the consistent work to invest. This is all an investment; like most things in life, you get what you put into it.

Okay, let’s talk about the last five tips/suggestions that I have for you and how to express kindness to strengthen your love.

Number 21 – Be inclusive. In relationship, we can drift into being a little more self-focused at times. However, if we don’t calibrate this, the relationship can be one-sided, where one partner dominates the decision-making. It can be helpful to ask yourself how do you and your partner make decisions? Do you typically make an executive decision and then talk about it after the fact, or do you work collaboratively, sharing your ideas and input and research to come to a solution that you both feel good about? That’s easier said than done.

Many times I work with couples and I’ll ask them how they arrived at the decision that they made, and often times there’s very little dialogue or process involved, and usually one person is conceding… Conceding and even sacrificing from time to time is understandable, and there may be even agreements where one person will take the lead and then the other person will take the lead, so it’s almost as if you are piggy-backing.

Where this gets complicated is where one person is dominating and one person is always conceding. So if you can recognize how you and your partner typically make decisions, how do you arrive at what you’re planning to do, whether or not that’s through events that you have on your calendar, or your financial budgeting and planning, parenting, who you buy gifts for… All these decisions — some you may not share, but other times you may want to share, and again, what’s the collective? If you look at it all from a bird’s eye view, how do you and your partner typically make decisions? How decisions get made can leave a lasting imprint on the quality of the relationship and the feeling tone.

A while back I was working with some clients, and the husband had actually reached out to me to get support with the great disconnect and dissatisfaction. They were actually really questioning their marriage, and a huge source of pain for him was how they moved across country to relocate for her work. He felt as though she unilaterally decided to move their whole family and disregarded his preference and his vote… And that it just really left him feeling as though she didn’t care about him, she didn’t really want his interest to be met, and he was just really questioning how the marriage was gonna work in that kind of environment.

In her defense, her perspective was “I have a successful career” (she was the primary breadwinner for the family), and this was the next level for her; to evolve and get promoted, she would need to be local and be on site where the company was, and that’s on the East Coast… Where for the husband, he was feeling great dissatisfaction, wasn’t feeling a lot of clarity around his direction in his career, and so for her, she felt “I’ve been traveling and commuting across several states for years now to support your desire to be in Colorado.”

She evaluated many variables for the family, but basically said “This is the best thing.” The husband felt as though he had to go along with this decision in order to be with his wife and be with his family. It was against his wishes, against his preferences, so he felt great conflict in this and felt very unresolved. So when he reached out to me six, seven, eight months later after the move, he was still in great distress about it all.

Their dynamic complicated this. They had great difficulty being able to be vulnerable with each other and turn to each other, help each other, work together, and then when this decision was on the table, they didn’t have a lot of tools and resources around how to arrive at a decision that could feel good for both of them. Now, granted, he would probably never wanna move to the East Coast given his desire for recreation and nature and travel, all the things that he really felt were quality, things that supported a quality lifestyle. However, if they were working together and felt that they were being inclusive of one another and supporting each other, they could have gotten to a creative solution.

Perhaps it would have been like “Okay, let’s move and let’s have a timeline where we will re-evaluate this decision and see if this is working for our family, so let’s consider this as a phase, and that it might not be our forever place. We may move to a place that you would prefer maybe five years down the road. Perhaps in the time that we are living on the East Coast we weave in trips that are really aligned to things that would give you what you need – the recreation, the outdoor activity, the nature, so that that is woven in… But more or less, how can you feel cared about in this deal? How can it work for you?”

Being inclusive in decision-making in your relationship will help you feel closer, more connected, more together with your significant other. I can tell you many times I have heard pain, resentment, bitterness when decisions have been made unilaterally or that when a partner wasn’t really considered, whether or not it’s a move, or taking a job, even having a child… So I wanna just encourage you to consider what it would be like to share in a decision-making process, considering one another’s needs, values and preferences.

Now, I realize this is way harder to do, and sometimes we don’t have the luxury of time, right? We need to make a decision quickly and we do the best that we can, and if you can slow it down to be inclusive, it will allow your relationship to foster just the strength and the bond and the closeness and the connection that I believe is so worth that extra effort, that you have that trust, that you have each other’s back, you have each other’s interest at hand.

My invitation in this number 21 tip of being inclusive is to consider, again, how you make decisions, but also including your partner, if this is not a habit for you… To slow down, perhaps get their input, ask for their opinion; let them know you value their perspective and their thoughts, prioritizing their needs along with yours. The hope here is that you guys can find a creative solution where both people feel cared about.

And also just in general, including them in your conversations and activities… I remember one time when my husband and I were just starting to date and I was talking with him and someone came up and they needed something and they interrupted me, and I just think we were still really new – he didn’t know if he should stay, continue talking to me and wait, or if he should leave me to have this conversation with this other person, and I grabbed his hand to let him know “I’m still with you.” He later told me how nice that felt, just to feel me reach to him, like “I haven’t gone away, I’m still with you. Stay, if you can, and I will finish this conversation in a moment.”

Number 22 – Have your partner’s back. There’s a few things I wanna say about this and I’ll start with, which weaves really nicely into tip number 21 (Be inclusive). If you’re being inclusive and you and your partner have arrived at a creative solution that works for both of you, it is so much easier to work together. How can you complement each other? How can you be a stronger team? This does take some practice and some experience of being with your partner. So this is much, much harder to do in the beginning stages, because you’re still learning about one another and you haven’t even encountered the differences or the dynamic – who’s leading? Who’s following? How do we collaborate? That’s all still uncertain, and we don’t entirely know each other’s unique strengths and weaknesses.

As you begin over time to become more aware of this, you can intentionally work together. Have their back, take something off their plate if you know that they’re having a really stressful time. My husband is particularly good at this and I’m so grateful that there have been times where I have been stressed and he has done something to make my life easier or logistically had my back in some way. Typically, in my life I’ve been pretty independent and I still like to be independent, but this interdependence of being able to rely on him at times, and for him to rely on me at times – it has felt so incredibly rewarding to feel that support and to feel that he’s on my side, that he’s looking out for me, he’s got my back… It just feels amazing.

Perhaps it could be helpful to look at how you and your partner can complement each other, how you’re collective efforts can make you stronger. In the history of my husband and I living together, we’ve moved several times and I have had an act for finding really high quality things for affordable. Some things we buy new, but some things we buy used, and whether or not I use Craigslist or someplace to get a really high-quality item… And if we move and we don’t need that item anymore, my husband is amazing at selling things. I can give you several examples of that, but it’s just funny that we’re completely different in that regard, but together we make a great team.

Another aspect of having your partner’s back is taking their side. This is where your partner may be struggling with something outside of the relationship. Taking their side means being supportive, even if you think they’re being unreasonable. In the past, this has been a little challenging for me, in that I tend to look at the bigger picture, and try to identify the variables at hand, and I do have a desire for growth, so I’m usually looking at those aspects, yet — for example, let’s say my husband’s having a challenge at work… Let’s say he got reprimanded by his boss for something that he wasn’t fully responsible for; he’s feeling how unfair that is, and really upset by feeling like he got thrown under the bus.

In the past, I would empathize, and then I would shift into looking at other variables. “I wonder what was going on with your boss… Perhaps your boss was looking at it like this. Or he was having a really bad day, and stress because his wife this and that.” Or perhaps even looking at my husband’s patterns and wondering, “Well, is there some part that maybe you were responsible for”, and looking at that… Which none of that is really helpful in that moment, because he wants me to take his side. Something to the effect of like, “Oh, man, I’m sorry… I’m so sorry! That must have felt awful! I know how hard you work, and to not get appreciated and then get thrown under the bus… That sounds so unfair and frustrating! That sounds awful!” Yeah, perhaps he might wanna look at some of the other variables later, but he’s not ready to hear it in that moment. He just wants to feel that I am on his side.

I think in the past I have worried that somehow that’s dishonest if I’m just focusing on one aspect and not the full picture, and that it’s enabling, but really what’s happened is when I can just be on his side, it allows him to look at his own constructive process, where he will give himself feedback and shift into that.

Truthfully, I do not need to be responsible for his constructive process of improvement, that’s his… And what really he’s wanting, again, is for me to be his person, to feel as though I am on his side, I’m giving him that support, and having his back.

Number 23 – put your partner first. This suggestion might be a little tricky when you have children, or perhaps your career is extremely demanding. In these circumstances it’s gonna feel as though some of these priorities are going to trump your partner’s needs – as they should, at times… And are there any moments that you can prioritize your partner’s needs?

I’ve seen clients feel so hurt when they have the impression that everything else comes before them. They feel insecure that their partner really doesn’t care about what they need and what they want, or their preferences. This is especially true for, I believe, partners in relationship who are natural caregivers or pleasers. They’re the ones that are always giving, but then they’re looking for “Where’s my partner reciprocating? Where am I getting my needs met?” and if it appears as though the partner is always prioritizing everyone else, that can feel lonely, that can feel scary… Like, “Actually, do they love me as much as I think they do?”

From time to time, I think it can be a kind gesture to put your partner first. Help them feel important, feel cared about, and not just when it’s convenient. When it comes to work, or even the children, prioritizing your spouse, your significant other can feel tricky; however, I do believe a partnership, a marriage – when that’s solid, the children are actually way better off in that family environment than always prioritizing the children. Or even with work. There have been times where I have been delayed in getting out a podcast because I have paused and put my husband first, and really just not wanting to compromise the priority of him feeling important for me to stay up late and try to get something done, but to really be doing the practice and doing my work of these principles.

Putting your partner first maybe when you walk in the door, hugging them first. Perhaps making THEIR favorite dinner, or going to a restaurant that THEY would love… Or choosing an activity that is something they enjoy, and that it’s their top vote, or watching what they wanna watch on TV.

I have a client who experienced great pain in his last relationship, where he felt like he ranked bottom all the time. Below the kids, below work, below community, friends… He never felt as though he was important, and that ran very, very deep for him in many ways. It ultimately led to their break-up, unfortunately, amongst many other things… But that was a big one for him.

Number 24 – Practice acceptance, instead of control. This looks like respecting their choices and their preferences, giving them space for their individuality, even if it’s not your style or your preferences. Let them be who they are.

An example of this is my husband and I’s social styles. I tend to be aware of other people and really work to help people feel comfortable, whereas my husband feels very at ease letting people do what they wanna do, and even squirm if they are feeling uncomfortable. I have a hard time letting someone be super uncomfortable; I really wanna help them feel more comfortable.

When my husband and I were in the early stages of our relationship, he also would tease people, but he would tease people in a playful way, but also in this dry humor way, and people weren’t always clued into the fact that he was teasing them, and I would find myself interjecting, trying to explain for him, or “Don’t let him tease you” or “Don’t let him take you on a ride!” I would somehow get involved, and I think on some level it was my way of trying to feel more comfortable socially, because I had a hard time with what felt a little awkward at times… Because even my husband will say something that is from left field, and sometimes people don’t quite understand where he’s coming from, and it’s just his particular style; some people find it really funny, other people don’t get it. I’ve had to learn to really just accept that this is part of how he likes to be socially, and it’s not up to me to try to control that all, so that I feel comfortable.

This example that I’m referencing is a lighter example. This gets even more challenging when we are feeling anxious, stressed, insecure, afraid. A lot of the times we will attempt to alleviate this emotional tension by trying to control our partner. On the Empowered Relationship Podcast I go into a lot of depth around the conflict dynamic and how we will tend to try to control each other and what that all looks like. I really wanna stay focused on the act of kindness, so when we are in a place of accepting our partner, we are contributing to creating an unconditionally loving environment, and that is so important to feel as though we are okay.

No matter what shape or form we are in – the high, the low, the side [unintelligible 00:28:54.27] that we are acceptable, and that our person is holding that space. And I do get that there is a role that we play in partnership from one another, and that is to help support each other along the path of growth, to encourage and to believe and to have goals and have intentions, and also how do we hold that space of full acceptance. If your partner if watching TV and you’re thinking, “Yeah, they’ve been talking about wanting to work on this project and they’re not doing it”, and you can get on their case, and you could try to remind them, and that might be helpful in a time and place, but also can you give space for perhaps, okay, maybe they just really need to decompress; maybe they’ve had a long day and are stressed and they’re just unwinding… Or for men who watch TV, sometimes that’s known to increase testosterone; we don’t always fully get what all is at play in those instances.

A few days ago I was working with a client and she is in the midst of a pretty big transition. She comes from an Ivy League school, she has a very high-level position in her field, and she has huge aspirations in her life, and what is ahead of her is daunting, and there’s a lot of things to be uncertain about, and she’s got some level of fear about it, and I don’t think she’s been fully acknowledging that fear, because when we were discussing this, she was really being hard on herself and being very judgmental about some comfort activity she’s been engaging with. There’s this guy that really there’s no opportunity for them to move forward and it’s actually really not a healthy dynamic, and she keeps seeking comfort in his company.

We were talking about him and I said, “Well, you know, maybe you’re really scared about what’s ahead, and that’s just a way to feel some acceptance and some nurturing and some unconditional regard because this particular person is very comfortable, and he doesn’t have his life together”, and it’s just okay, she doesn’t have to worry about all her goals and aspiration, she can just be.

I’m suggesting that perhaps if she recognized that it was okay to be afraid, and that she’s scared about what’s next, and could she offer herself some of that comfort and that acceptance in the midst of this transition, even while she is having high aspirations, where she gets to feel unconditionally okay.

In partnership I do think there’s a balance here, that yes, we will want to encourage and support each other’s growth, but also how do we hold this space of unconditional acceptance?

Number 25 – Appreciation and gratitude. From the article which inspired this whole series, “How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love”, this article titled Masters Of Love by Emily Esfahani Smith quotes John Gottman in saying:

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have, which is this – they are scanning 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 partner’s mistakes.”

Oh, gosh! The contrast there is so striking. Again, for those of you who are unfamiliar of John Gottman’s work, he refers to Masters as people who are in successful relationships and he refers to disasters as people who have gotten a divorce and are in very unsatisfactory relationships that are likely gonna lead towards breakup.

Okay, so scanning the environment for things to appreciate and say thank you, or scanning the environment for things to take issue with. Likely, both exist, and it’s what we are focusing on that’s gonna increase the climate of positivity or increase the climate of negativity. Essentially, simply, how can you look for the good? How can you train your mind to focus on what is the positive, what can you appreciate about your partner’s qualities and attributes?

The other night my husband and I were out to dinner, and we were at a local restaurant and my husband had never been there before, and we were both excited to share the evening together and have this particular cuisine. And unbeknownst to us, there was a large party gathering at the restaurant, so it was busier than we had anticipated for a weeknight.

We were seated rather close to the door, which we were both fine with, and we were chatting, and it was probably five minutes into just looking at our menus, deciding what we wanted to eat, and just enjoying the evening. Several minutes later, another group comes in, a smaller group of five people, and one of the gentlemen in that group was a very loud talker, and my husband had commented on it a couple times, and unfortunately they get seated right next to us. It was after a pretty long week, and I think my husband was just really interested in a quiet, nice ambiance, and a low-key dinner.

This group next to us was very loud and I could tell he wasn’t happy. We were discussing whether or not we wanted to stay, and he wanted to go, so we talked to the waitress and said, “You know what, things have changed and we actually don’t feel so great”, so we were gonna leave. I could have looked for the negative, I could have said “Gosh, why couldn’t he have just rallied and we could have had a really great meal together, and how come he’s so sensitive and affected? Why can’t he just tolerate it?” But instead, I genuinely was appreciating that he was taking care of himself, that he didn’t just try to grin and bear it and have an awful dinner. That’s not at all what I was interested in. So I was actually genuinely happy that we could create a different experience together that could work for him.

In any interaction, what you choose to focus on is gonna greatly influence how you treat your partner. When my husband and I left, he felt a little bad and he’s like “I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to eating there”, and I was like “No problem.” We had some other idea in mind, and we had a great evening together.

Had I been down on him, I might have been like “Yeah, that kind of wasn’t fun”, and I could have been irritable with him, and it could have changed the whole tone of the evening.

Sure, there are going to be instances where you are going to feel negativity and challenge arise, and I wanna encourage that you just take a moment at some point to check in around what’s going on. You may be irritable because you’re not giving yourself what you need; you need to do some self-care, you’ve been giving too much and you need to fill your own cup. Perhaps you actually have a concern with your partner, there’s something that isn’t working in your interaction, and that would be to take note of and to bring up at a good time when you both can actually talk about that constructively.

And then there is the habit of just noticing the negativity and the bias that we have just as human beings to track for threat, issue to try to resolve and to take care of ourselves, to protect ourselves. But we wanna watch this, because again, as we’ve talked about, the power of a negative emotion and a negative interaction is way greater than a positive, and that’s why we wanna counteract, counter-balance by adding intentionally positive feedback and energy into the dynamic. So perhaps looking at the positive aspects of your relationship, recalling the good memories together, looking at your partner’s strengths. Again, this infuses the dynamic with positivity, warmth and joy.

The next level of this is to express your appreciation and gratitude through the form of compliments, appreciations and acknowledgment. Perhaps “You look great!”, or “I see how hard you’re working and it means a lot to me.” “Thank you for making me laugh.” Cultivating these positive interactions – big and small – help strengthen your relationship.

Three suggestions of exercising appreciation and gratitude. One is to genuinely find something that you appreciate about your partner and tell them. “I appreciate…” and perhaps a quality of theirs, or something that you just genuinely find value and want to acknowledge. Or secondly, just thanking them for something they do for you, or something that they add value to your life in some way.

Thirdly – this is the one I’m gonna do, which is to write a love letter about what you admire about your partner, what you appreciate about them, perhaps thanking them, or recalling a time where you felt joy in an interaction with them, a shared memory, and perhaps acknowledging ways that you guys have grown together closer as a couple.

To recap today’s five suggestions of expressing kindness in your relationship:

21. Be inclusive.

22. Have your partner’s back.

23. Put your partner first.

24. Practice acceptance instead of control.

25. Appreciation and gratitude.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode. Again, this is episode 131, How Kindness Can Strengthen Your Love, Part V.  Again, if you are interested in getting the download for the 25-day experience, you can find that on today’s show notes on my website, DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you can find this episode at the top.

If you have questions or would like to submit a question for the Empowered Relationship Podcast, you can again go to that website, DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Contact and find the ways to reach me there.

Thank you for your listenership and allowing me to guide this conversation. Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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