The Frontiers of Adulthood: Kindness is a Muscle

Now, I don't know about you, but when the words "Love is a Battlefield" come up in casual conversation (which they totally do because we're all always talking about Pat Benatar, right?), I can't help but take a moment to revel in its absolute truth. I'm not calling it war, but it is absolutely a battle.

You see, my relationships over the years took all sorts of shapes and forms. There were very high high's and extremely low low's. There were moments where I absolutely hated myself and couldn't understand why I was acting the way I was and still other moments where my inner therapist was giving me a figurative high-five for dealing with things so well.

Love makes us do and say stupid things...sometimes it's not even love. Sometimes it's lust. Sometimes it's just insecurity and an innocent bystander...and at some point you might wake up one day and realize you've committed yourself to just one other person. (Whether by marriage or the use of commitment-related names like boyfriend, girlfriend, other half and so on.)

And though we're brainwashed at an early age to think that people find love, fall into it and then live happily ever after, the truth is that you find love, you fall into it, then you are standing in it and have to figure out whether you think love is being knee-deep in the River Styx and you just have to survive or love is wading through an oasis in the middle of a quiet, palpable alone-ness...or somewhere in between. (Which is where I think most of us are.)

Let me start by saying that this particular post was sparked by this article I read in The Atlantic a few months back that I found so important to the future of my marriage, I spent an entire drive home from somewhere reading it out loud to Charles...and, you know what? It did change least for a little while. (We probably both need to read it monthly as a healthy fact, I suggest you do the same if you have the memory of a me.)

The article is full of great information and really interesting studies on how people react to each other in relationships. Being present, being aware of your partner, and also kindness. That's huge and that's what I want to talk to you about.

I preface this by saying that I am, by my very nature, incredibly passive-aggressive in relationships. That's my M.O. and I spent a lot of time in my 20's being a complete and utter bitch. (Not to say that some of it wasn't warranted, but my communication skills were horrendous.) Luckily, I realized somewhere along the way (probably when I found Charles and realized I was totally into the idea of being with someone that didn't treat me like crap) and have spent many years trying to course correct and take hold of my knee-jerk reactions to things. I mean, sure, I could spend the rest of my days slamming doors, letting out loud sighs and giving icy cold looks of disappointment that could kill a kitten if it was within a 10 foot radius of me, but that's not fun for anyone.

Also, Charles didn't really deserve to be treated that way. He was one of the first men I'd dated long term that didn't rage, wasn't passive-aggressive back, and was willing to listen to me if I spoke. (I'm sure there were others early on, but I must've ignored them because I didn't find them challenging enough since I was a complete idiot back anger and rage were a sign of passion or some stupid idea that I must've gleaned from reading too many dramatic things.)

So, after a few years, I've been able to more or less control my weird outbursts. Sometimes I slip when I'm exhausted or suddenly feel like Charles should be able to read my mind and help me with things that I haven't mentioned so that my life can get a little easier. (ALSO KNOWN AS "NAMI BEING A MARTYR.")

And now that I've gotten to that point, it's time for phase 2. Exercising my kindness muscle more. You see, people, a lot of this has nothing to do with Charles as a person except for that I want to have a great marriage with him. Sure, relationships are hard work, but each individual really needs to focus on bettering themselves not only because it's good for them, but also because it's great for everyone around them too. (This part can also be applied to children and friends as well.)

The thing is...I can be really mean. I've gotten so much better in the last 5 years, but I used to be downright dreadful. Even after a lot of thinking and processing emotions, I could still drop a one liner that could destroy a relationship in a second. Blame it on all sorts of psychological things from my life that I don't care to share because I'm not going to blame anything else. I'm an adult. It's on me to be kind.

It was maybe a year ago or so that I started having anxiety attacks which led to lots of searching inside myself, rehashing issues, coming to terms with insecurities, and allowing myself to be completely vulnerable and honest with myself (which was excruciating because I'm sadly pretty proud by nature.) Long story short (because it was a fairly arduous process that was relentlessly happening in my head every day for weeks), I decided to exercise kindness.

I didn't want to hate who I was when things got ugly; when I got insecure or sad...because often times if I'm sad, I'll just hide it with total aloofness because I learned somewhere that being sad is being, I had to change my perspective on everything. I had to re-learn emotions and how I perceived them...and here's what I learned about myself so far...

Being Honest About Your Emotions Shows Incredible Strength

...because most of us were taught the complete opposite at some point...also, allowing yourself to be vulnerable is basically the emotional equivalent to walking through a tunnel of fire naked...and that takes a lot of guts.

If the person you're with takes a jab at you when you're naked in a tunnel of fire, you may want to reconsider your relationship.

You Are You. Other People Are Other People.

...also known as "NOBODY IS A MINDREADER." Do you really want the trash to be taken out and you're fed up with always being the one to do it? Instead of staring at the trash can and huffing or trying to will your other half to get up and take it out, why not ask? They probably had no idea it was full.

Also, don't be a jerk about it. I usually just ask for a favor and then shower Charles with appreciation. Now, he takes out the garbage sometimes when I'm not paying attention and it fills me with all kinds of warm feelings when I discover a fresh trash bag in the can.

Appreciate the Intention

This one is MASSIVE. You need to think about what a person was planning for you, no matter what the outcome. You can't get mad at someone for being stuck in loads of traffic after they made a dinner reservation so you could have date night.

I assure you, your beloved wasn't thinking "oh, I can't wait to sit in traffic and disappoint you! It's gonna be so awesome."

Don't Do Things with Expectations

...because you are totally going to screw yourself. Love is not about a running tally. You shouldn't be doing things so that you can get that same thing in return. (For instance, Charles is a great foot rubber and I'm a great card writer. I am not a foot rubbing kind of person and Charles only wrote me one card once because I asked if he would...mostly because he doesn't have faith in his own writing skills which is ridiculous, but I respect that.)

Do things because you want to do them for someone. You should get joy out of the action of giving. Do not give to receive. If you do, you're in for a life of complete and utter disappointment.

Say "Thank You" A Lot

Positive reinforcement is important for all of us. It's just how we're built. If I know I'm bringing Charles joy, I will make that action a habit. (Random dancing is one of those things that's become something that happens several times a week just because I really love seeing him laugh.) He may not have actually said "thank you," but him being present with me and reacting the way he does is thanks enough.

That's the thing. Actually saying "thank you" is incredibly important...but "thank you" comes in many forms. From kisses on cheeks, to big bear hugs, to laughter, smiles, high-fives. It's the act of being there and letting your significant other know "hey, I saw what you just did and I really appreciate that."

My favorite recent example of this happened a few nights ago when I walked out of the bathroom, almost ready for bed, after waking from an evening nap on the couch. The conversation went as follows:

Me: [Groggy and grumpy, with a tinge of passive-aggressiveness which I'm not as good hiding when I'm tired] There are still a lot of dishes to be done, aren't there.

Charles: [Not looking away from the TV] No, because I did them already.

Me: [Shocked] Wha? Wait. That was so fast!

Charles: [Looking at me straight] It wasn't fast at all. You were just asleep.

I thought he had done the dishes while I was in the bathroom, but, in fact, he had done them while I was completely passed out on the couch. Waking up, thinking you need to do the dishes to find that your love has already done them...there are no words for that kind of joy.

I just kept looking at him in disbelief, saying "wow!" and throwing my arms up. He seemed to get a real kick out of the fact that I was completely unconscious during the whole dish-washing ordeal.

Apologizing Doesn't Mean You're Wrong

Admit it. You hate being wrong. I don't know anyone who likes it...which is why I feel like a lot of people don't apologize during disagreements or discussions.

Here's the thing though. Just because you apologize in a situation doesn't mean you're wrong. Sometimes you want to apologize because you're acting like a complete jerk or you didn't respect your other half like you should's not about being right or wrong about what you're discussing.

You can totally agree to disagree...but one thing you can probably both agree on is that disrespecting the your other half warrants an apology. It also shows the person that you're self-aware and not a complete sociopath. That's important.

Finally, Kindess is a Muscle

The more you exercise it, the stronger it will become and the more you'll use it. There's often an uptick in trust, honesty, and affection that comes with just being kind. I know it might seem unnatural at first (at least, it was for me...that's how bad I can get), but once you and yours realize that the other person is being kind to be kind and it isn't some sort of trap (because who isn't suspicious of sudden kindness), you'll be on the road to growing closer, communicating better, and being happier overall.

By no means have I become a master of any of the above, but these are things I strive for every day. With any luck, I'll master them over the coming years in time to not treat my children horribly and not create monsters who will have to find themselves and write similar blog posts when they get older.

But, seriously, people, if you're feeling particularly negative (thanks, shorter days and daylight savings time...and the earth's orbit and rotation) or stressed (thanks, my neurotic tendency to try to do too many things in one day) and it might seem like it's affecting your relationship with your loved ones, just give this a read as a friendly reminder.

...and possibly read that Atlantic article out loud to your loved one some time and see what happens.

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