Can You Be Kind in the Face of Negativity?

Courtesy is underrated.

Posted Mar 01, 2014

When feelings are hurt or needs are not met, people tend to express themselves more impulsively and without filtering what they say. When strong emotions, such as anger, enter the picture, they need to be carefully introduced into the dialogue. Interactions based on hotheadedness, whining, defensiveness, or offensiveness, will quickly incapacitate any communication attempt.

Therapy is often the place where these heated exchanges play out. From time to time, couples describe their negative interactions by retelling an event from the week and sometimes, I find myself smack in the middle of the mudslinging. When that happens, after the insults begin, I begin to lose sight of the content and retreat into the process. What are they doing? Why are they talking this way? Why are they both perpetuating it? What is the secondary gain?

I do my best to conceal my reaction; that is my job, certainly, to remain impartial and objective. I am certain, however, that there are times when my eyebrows hike upward in disbelief, or downward in furrowed disapproval. Why are you both being so unkind, I think to myself or, sometimes, say aloud? Isn’t there a better way to say what you are saying? In other words, can’t you say it in a way that will increase the likelihood that you will be heard and get what you want? And not alienate your partner, and estrange his or her sensibilities?

Problem solving is a process that is best achieved by the acceptance of a common goal and a kind heart. That does not exclude the expression of painful emotions. You can love someone and be very, very angry. It’s the way you express it. It’s how you express it that matters. The success of your interactions is directly related to your awareness of these communication nuances.

I learned this when my daughter was about 6 years old and my husband was making her an omelet. He loved making breakfast for her. She would sit at the table with eyes wide open watching him spin from sink, to refrigerator, to stove, all the while, singing or making silly faces. In the meantime, I was busy with my own uneasiness relinquishing my mommy duties and kept strolling back and forth monitoring each phase of his omelet creation.

“That’s a lot of cheese you’re putting in there,”

My husband has always been good at not hearing me. He stayed focus on his task; chopping, cutting, singing.

“Seriously, she doesn’t like that much cheese,” I insisted.

I paced back and forth, finding all kinds of ridiculous reasons to supervise his handiwork.

“She doesn’t like green peppers.” I added, just in case he thought he knew what he was doing. “I think you should take the green peppers out.” I whined in the spirit of cooperation.

And then, in a moment that would be forever branded in my brain, he shot me a look. It was a brilliant look. It was piercing. It was calculated. If looks had words, this one said: Really? Are you kidding me? I know how to make an omelet. Go away. Leave. Let me enjoy this. You’re getting on my nerves, just leave the kitchen. But none of those words were spoken. Nothing was said. Only his eyes spoke. Immediately, when I looked into his eyes, I heard the words that were not uttered.

That was the moment I learned how to listen to what was not being said. I learned the role that common courtesy plays in a relationship and when to step back and let things be. I learned when to take a deep breath and, quite literally, leave the room if necessary. I realized how indispensable my husband’s happiness was to me and how easily I could get in the way, if I weren’t careful. I learned how important it is to accept responsibility for my part when making things worse and above all, when to say I’m sorry.

But more to the point here, I learned how successfully one could express one’s discontent with a single gaze. How two people can communicate effectively, sometimes without words, when they stop what they are doing or thinking and tune in to what the other is doing and thinking. It can be a moment of awakening for the marriage when you discover your ability to make that happen either as the initiator or the recipient. Learning to successfully convey and accept the expression of negative emotions is a vital element of your marriage and a skill worth perfecting.

Being nice to each other is more than good manners. It is a prerequisite for healthy connections.  When you reach out on behalf of your partner, it obliges you to simultaneously look within yourself.

For example, do you:

  • Say “thank you”?
  • Say “please”?
  • Say “I’m sorry”?
  • Say “I miss you”?
  • Look into your partner’s eyes and try to understand what is being expressed or not being expressed?
  • Pay attention to the subtle hints your partner sends you whether they are positive or negative?
  • Appreciate the small things your partner does or says?

These gracious phrases and gestures may seem too basic to even take notice, but if you are not already exercising this muscle in your marriage, it is never too late to start. We have discussed that good marriages are more at ease with the mutual expression of respect. Sadly, people are often more considerate of strangers than they are with the people closest to them.

A recent study suggests that saying "thank you" may be a direct and simple way to improve marital happiness. The cycle of appreciation and expressing gratitude out loud has been shown to be linked to more enduring satisfaction (Gordon, Impett, Kogan, Oveis, & Keltner, 2012). Many times, in a relationship, we wait for the other person to make us feel good, or repair a broken moment. Rather than passively expecting your partner to make things better, you can actively start focusing on what is good, and what you appreciate. This, in turn, makes your partner feel appreciated which encourages them to feel more appreciative of you.

copyright 2014  Adapted from "Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming Your Marriage After Postpartum Depression  (Routledge)  Kleiman & Wenzel

About the Author

Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, is the founder and Director of The Postpartum Stress Center, a treatment and training center for prenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

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