Outside the small aluminum frame window, the green maple leaves were stirring softly in dappled late summer sunlight. Inside, I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. My guts were churning and my heart was racing. Unsuitable comments swelled like stuck oatmeal in my throat.
Things weren't going well for me in the discussion group. Across the room a woman was talking about something I wasn't interested in. I wanted to dismiss her. Didn't want to listen to her. Wanted to redirect the conversation my way.
I like to think that I've made progress in learning how to respect other’s opinions, listen, make space in my world for doing things differently than how I would do them. And, I have. I am able to pull back, calm down, and absorb in ways that were impossible for me when I was younger.
But not always.
It’s like having an allergic reaction. All my buttons get pushed, all of my alarms go off, and adrenaline surges through my being. I’m rude. I interrupt. Refuse to acknowledge. Resent that person's very presence. Critically judge how and what is done and said. Feel my skin ripple with resistance and impatience.
There are some people who have this response to me. Every word that comes out of my mouth annoys. My very presence in the room, or maybe upon the earth, irritates.
While I was thinking about this the other night, a recent The Atlantic magazine article, “Masters of Love,” popped into my head. It was about what makes relationships work and not work. How it’s really all about how kind, how generous, couples are to each other.
I know, I know. So much pap. But I have to confess since my era of horrible geezer dating followed by falling in love with Steve, my curiosity about what makes relationships work and not work has been high.
The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce, separation or chronic bitterness. Of all marriages, only 30% end up in healthy and happy relationships. The other 70% can barely stand to be around each other. Research by marriage therapist John Gottman shows that people in dysfunctional relationships suffer from the fight or flight response all of time.
Contempt, it turns out, is what tears couples apart. Eye rolling, sarcasm, lip curls. The arrogant, angry disregard of each other. Shutting out. The underlying message to the other person: you don’t matter.
And kindness is what keeps couples together. Eye contact, indulgence, a slight smile. The generous, warm acceptance of each other. Making room. The underlying message to the other person: you matter.
I think this applies across the board to all types of relationships.
I was telling Steve about this the other day. His question was: “Why? Why does this happen??”
The article didn't really answer that.
Maybe a few people have a natural inclination to make the space, time and attention needed for kindness. That’s not my inclination. My inclination is to be selfish and focused on my needs. That’s what I know about me, and that’s what I must turn away if I want to harvest all that the world offers me.
I can be selfish and kind simultaneously for kindness is it's own reward, on the physical level. Kindness elevates levels of dopamine in the brain, giving a natural high. It produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body, dilating the blood vessels and keeping blood pressure low and reducing the levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system that cause aging. Kindness positively impacts the vagus nerve which is sort of an electrical circuit that links our heart, lungs, and gut to the brain-base.
I'm pretty good at being mindful and generous to Steve when he is around, and our relationship might be one of the 3 in 10.
I'm not so good at paying attention and being kind when it is really hard. When I’m not getting the conversation I want. When someone looks at me with daggers and dismisses me.
Stop, breathe, and relax. Drop my resistance. Set aside my judgments. What good are they?
Bring a spirit of scanning for what's positive, what I can be thankful for, to each interaction.
Be kind. Really, it shouldn't be that hard.