Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Love and Kindness

This past weekend, my son got married. I took a personal day Friday to help decorate for the reception and the rehearsal dinner. Our wild and crazy bachelor party involved bowling (which we did not very well). Then on Saturday, my son and daughter-in-law were married on the stage of the same community theater in which they met almost a decade ago. Family members who couldn't be there because of health or distance issues watched via facebook live. Then there was food and dancing in the Elks club ballroom.

It was a good wedding, and like the best weddings brought together a wide assortment of people from the couple's life plus aunts, uncles, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc etc etc. There were plenty of people there, and it was good to see everyone.

For those of us who are divorced and remarried, even the most joyful and trouble-free weddings come with a side order of Thoughtful Reflection. For the last couple of years I have periodically posted references to a study on what makes relationships last, and lo and behold, this morning there was another article about the study from two years ago, right there on my facebook feed (h/t Anthony Cody).

Emily Esfahani Smith covered the study for the Atlantic, and the subheading pretty much summarizes the findings -- "Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity."

Smith takes us back to the work of John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, an outfit set up to help couples "build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies." So what does some of that science say?

In 1986 Gottman and Robert Levenson (University of Washington) set up "The Love Lab," which was apparently way less sexy than it sounds. One of their big studies involved electrodes and measuring physiological responses. They sorted the couples into "masters" and "disasters" and looked for differences. With disasters, they found that physiological responses, even in simple seemingly harmless conversations, were heightened flight-or-fight mode. Even when discussing simple topics, "having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger." Masters, on the other hand, stayed calm, as if they felt safe and comfortable.

The masters maintained long, healthy relationships; the disasters' relationships were messy, difficult, unhappy, and often fully broken.

Now, this is worth keeping in mind when it comes to your marriage or primary relationship, but let's think about it in terms of another relationship-- that between teacher and student. Does it not make sense that when a student doesn't feel safe, when even the simplest interaction triggers a physiological flight-or-fight reflex, that student's connection to the teacher and therefor to the material, the school, the classroom, the whole educational experience-- all of those lines are going to be at best intermittently shaky and at worse just plain busted and down.

If a student feels unsafe in the classroom, the relationship with the teacher is broken and everything suffers.

Gottman went on to examine how that safety could be established or broken. What he found was subtle and simple and profound all at once. Gottman saw that couples in the course of a normal day made "bids" each other's attention and connection, at which point their partner could either turn toward them or turn away. Those who turned away became the disasters.

How good is Gottman's science? He can predict with about 94% accuracy what the future holds for a couple, regardless of factors like wealth, children and even sexual orientation.

The number one destructive factor? Contempt. The cold shoulder. The number one relationship healer and strengthener? Kindness.

Again, the implications beyond the realm of marriage seem obvious to me. Students who feel dismissed or ignored will be beaten down. Those who experience kindness and generosity of spirit-- their relationship with school will thrive, and so will they. This also seems like a model for understanding classroom dynamics; as a first grade teacher, my wife must have handled roughly six million "bids" a day from her students, while my high school juniors make fewer, and they're far more subtle.

The older I get, the more certain I am that kindness is hugely important (though I don't think kindness always looks like a warm, fuzzy Care Bear). There is science on my side; mean people really do suck, and they really do have a hard time building good relationships. We seem to have entered a pronounced mean streak as a country; the challenge will be to remember that unkind, ungenerous meanness is not beaten by more of the same.

Here's the rest of my weekend story. Sunday they headed off to her parents' to swap out some wedding paraphernalia, but instead they put their car in a ditch. So instead of heading home to spend a few days off basking in newlyweddedness, they've been staying at my house with nothing much to do but wait on repairs, play with their dog, hang around each other, play games. It has been my privilege to be the father in the house who gets to watch them be their newlyweddy selves. Yeah, they're in love, but being young and in love is easy. What's more heartwarming is to see how kind and generous and thoughtful they are too each other. Kindness really is the nutrient that makes everything else grow strong.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your son's marriage! Lucky guy - he has such a wise father.

    Christine Langhoff