Perhaps strangely for someone with limited interest in ever getting married again, I’m currently reading The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by US psychology professor and researcher John Gottman. In the book – considered an important one by relationship counsellors – Gottman draws on decades of academic research into thousands of marriages and concludes that the secret to enduring romantic relationships is – and prepare to throw out all your preconceived notions here, guys – mutual kindness.
Well, duh. Surely this is not news to anyone who’s been through formative (and, sadly, almost obligatory) Relationships Of Doom with those partners who undervalue basic thoughtfulness, selflessness and sensitivity. Even vital qualities like sexual chemistry and a shared sense of humour are ultimately worth little in a relationship if not underpinned by kindness. Nothing good in the world is possible without it, despite it seeming – in a post-Brexit and Trump world – to be a receding commodity. If people – especially the people who matter most – aren’t kind to us, then our chances of loving or tolerating them indefinitely are slim. Gottman’s book appears, on first glance, to be a study of the bleeding obvious. But, on closer reading, it boils down the broad term of “kindness” to one specific, barely perceptible act absolutely essential to happiness: successful bidding.
“Bids” are how Gottman identifies our usually tiny daily attempts to seek kindness from our partners. For example, when my other half reminds me of a gig he went to and enjoyed, or if he complains that the dog ran off in the park and he spent ages trying to get her back, or mentions something ostensibly insignificant about his childhood friends, then that’s not really smalltalk, more a “bid” for an emotional connection, an indirect request for me to look up from the laptop or book and show him I give a damn about what’s going on in his head. To stop for a moment and hear him, digest the thought and respond is to “turn towards” my partner and is shown in studies to make for successful marriages. Conversely, to carry on typing, half-heartedly “hmm-hmming” (what is known by Gottman as “turning away”), is, broadly speaking, the sign of a relationship in poor health with a lower chance of going the distance. Couples who respond to these almost imperceptible bids tend to stay together longer and feel happier in their relationships.
The secret to enduring romantic relationships is – and prepare to throw out all your preconceived notions here, guys – mutual kindness
This is harder than it sounds. One of the realities of a longterm romantic relationship is that there are anecdotes you will already have heard many times before, bad impressions out from which the last drops of entertainment value have long since been wrung, annoying adverts already pointed out to you so often, when you’d much prefer to be spaffing about on Facebook, that the advert is now significantly less annoying than the pointing out. Another is that there will always be days when you’d like to cave in your beloved partner’s skull with a clawhammer. It is sometimes neither possible nor desirable to turn towards them. And, while we extend almost unfailing kindness to our close friends, our partners – with whom we can be real and unfiltered – can act as a sort of anger sponge, someone with whom we can ditch the day’s social pleasantries and just feel how we feel with impunity, much as we remove our make-up and pull on gross trackie bottoms the moment the front door slams behind us.
Except that, left unchecked, this comfort can evolve into taking someone for granted and thinking we’re indestructibly fine. We congratulate ourselves on being kind when what we often really mean is that we’d never be directly cruel or critical. We think of the less dramatic momentary disses as inevitable collateral damage, with little bearing on the overall success of our partnerships. But, Gottman’s scholarly research shows, politeness is important, manners are everything. They take effort, but they make our relationships work.
And so, the next time we are driving down the M23 and my partner draws my attention to the phone mast disguised as a tree that he has already pointed out what must be nearing a hundred times, I’ve decided to turn towards him and appear enthused. It’s a lie, he may well know it’s a lie, but what he’s really trying to do is establish a tiny, but important, connection. And, married or not, I’d like this one to go the distance.