Kindness Matters

I’ve read the article from The Atlantic three times. Titled “Masters of Love,” it explores the dynamic that research suggests may be key to marital happiness — kindness. Apparently, partners who show an interest in one another, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and share each other’s joys have a 97% chance of having a marriage that lasts and of being happy in that marriage.

One thought strikes me every time I read this: ALL relationships benefit from kindness. Without kindness, there’s not much hope.

I know I go back to this article over and over again because I keep looking for the answer to my question: How do you turn a significant relationship around when kindness went out the door years ago? I’ve been worn out by one such relationship. I don’t want to end the relationship, but I’ve been treated such contempt and such disrespect on such a consistent basis for so long, I just feel like walking away.

On a good day, there’s cool courtesy mixed with snide barbs. On a bad day, there’s outright hostility. Often, situations escalate beyond comprehension out of nothing.

A couple weeks ago, just to make conversation, I notified her that my supervisor — someone she knows — had resigned. I was sorry to see him leave, but also understood the reasons for his choice. She didn’t; I defended him — and BAM! The whole thing spiraled out of control. When I saw a very familiar pattern unfolding, I tried naming the no-win dynamic and asking her to stop. I tried changing the topic. I tried explaining that I had just received news that a friend in hospice wasn’t doing well, and asked her to show some compassion. The situation just kept escalating.

Eventually, I received this text: “You are a self-centered individual. I can’t believe I have even attempted a relationship with you. You can stop communicating with me. Ever.” It’s a disturbing message, but I find myself wondering if that might not be best for both of us.

Obviously, there’s a tremendous disconnect between the way she sees me and the way I see myself. I don’t see myself as self-centered or narcissistic (another of her favorite descriptors lately). I suspect that what she’s really saying is this: “I don’t get from you what I need from you.” I will openly admit that at my age, I have physical limitations that prevent me from being as active as I was at 30 or 40. However, I don’t believe that knowing one’s limitations makes one either self-centered or narcissistic. I think it’s healthy and appropriate.

I will also admit that I have probably withdrawn emotionally in recent years. I doubt if I’ve had a dozen conversations with her in the last three years that didn’t involve criticism expressed with greater or lesser degrees of contempt. I have to give myself a pep talk every time I’m going to see her. Breathe deeply. Don’t get defensive. Show an interest in her, but be careful with the way you express your interest. Look down and not at her if you have any concerns, because if she reads anything in your face, she’ll jump all over you. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. That’s not good. It’s hard to be loving and supportive when so much energy is tied up in protective mechanisms like that.

So, at present, we’re at an impasse. I can’t change the way she sees me, and I can’t change the way she speaks to me. I’m sure she would say that I should change, but when I reflect on the choices I have made, I believe they are healthy and appropriate. I’ve established appropriate boundaries. I don’t say in anger what I wouldn’t say over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I keep showing up and making an effort, even though I have been deeply hurt by some of the things that have been said.

But, now I’ve been told to stop showing up. I could say yet again, “She was speaking in anger and didn’t mean it.” Or I could listen to what she says and honor her request. When I consider what led to this communication embargo, I suspect that might be best. I refused to apologize for her thoughts; she insisted I apologize not for what I said or for what I meant by what I said, but for what she decided I meant; she refused to consider the possibility that I meant something entirely different.

That’s not reasonable. That’s not fair. And, it’s certainly not kind. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the long run, but I do know that unless kindness becomes a key component of this relationship, it will not be a relationship that brings either of us joy or enables either of us to feel loved.

If that’s to be our future, maybe walking away is best.

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