When I met my husband, I thought I knew what to look for in a spouse. But it wasn’t until I became pregnant that it really became clear to me what’s most important in a marriage.
Recently I saw a social media post in which a single woman asked, “Married ladies: What’s the most important thing I should look for in a man?” Some women prioritized a great sense of humor and charisma, while others put the most value on honesty and reliable character.
But if you look at social science research, there’s one trait that’s more important than anything else when it comes to a successful, happy, lasting marriage.
Psychologist John Gottman has spent the past four decades studying relationships. He’s found that the trait most critical to relationship success is kindness:
For the hundreds of thousands of couples getting married this month—and for the millions of couples currently together, married or not—the lesson from the research is clear: If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.
Years ago, when I met my husband, I knew it was important to look for a man who was very kind. Before we started dating, I appreciated that he was the kind of person who would drive a friend to the airport or help a friend move without hesitation.
But it wasn’t until I was pregnant that I understood how kindness becomes the glue that holds a marriage together, through good and bad times, in countless tiny moments of everyday life.
For most women, pregnancy and the postpartum period are one of the most vulnerable times of life. It’s a time when a woman is physically weakened and in need of rest and recuperation. This was certainly the case for me: During each of my four pregnancies, I experienced the common symptoms of nausea, discomfort and exhaustion.
That these symptoms are expected and normal during pregnancy doesn’t make them easier to live with. Like so many pregnant women, I found it hard to fulfill my usual household duties for weeks at a time. It’s precisely in these times of need that the kindness of your spouse makes all the difference in the world.
One of the more vexing problems was the severe nausea I experienced whenever I was hungry. True to its name, the morning sickness was especially bad right when I woke up. I felt too sick to cook a healthy breakfast, but gulping down cereal or other processed snacks didn’t feel great and didn’t alleviate the nausea for long.
True to his character, my husband wanted to help me, and he quickly devised a practical plan. Every Sunday afternoon for those nine months, he spent an hour or two cooking a hearty frittata with plenty of vegetables and eggs. But he never ate a bite of them. Instead they were set aside for my breakfast every morning of the week, so I could have something healthy and high in protein without having to cook.
My husband’s simple act of cooking a make-ahead breakfast for me each week transformed my mornings and made a huge difference in my symptoms. Even more important than the physical relief was the solace of knowing that he would do whatever he possibly could to take care of me and our children.
His cooking weekly frittatas is just one example among countless acts of kindness and service over the years of our marriage. But it’s an act that seems to epitomize how choosing to serve each other makes a marriage stronger.
My husband and I certainly didn’t imagine, when we were first married, the extent to which we would be called to “lay down our lives” for each other and our children. But each time we make the choice to put each other first and choose service over selfishness, that choice strengthens our marriage and cements the bonds that hold us together.
After seeing the effect of kindness on my own marriage, I wish I could tell every unmarried woman (and man!) to prioritize kindness in relationships—to seek out someone who’s not just nice or courteous but who reveals a down-to-the-marrow compassion and selflessness. But don’t just take my word for it. As Gottman has found,
There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness … But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.
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