“Be nice. Be kind. Be generous.” These are just some of the phrases that may play in your internal monologue when your partner begins to get on your nerves. But what if all of this enforced kindness is actually hurting your relationship?
Kindness: we grow up believing it’s the foundation of a healthy, happy relationship; that with our partners, we should strive to be generous, empathetic, understanding, nice. The importance of kindness in love is an age-old concept. “Kindness in women, not their beauteous looks, shall win my love,” wrote William Shakespeare in The Taming Of The Shrew, while an article in The Atlantic claims that kindness is the key to long-lasting relationships and that it “glues couples together”. Then, of course, there’s the growing #BeKind movement on social media.
But what if our cultural obsession with being kind in our relationships isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if it’s actually doing more harm than good?
Is kindness or honesty the best policy?
As Sherman points out, we are taught two conflicting maxims about relationships. We are taught that, on one hand, honesty is the best policy. “We must respect the power of truth, realism and honesty,” he writes. “If we really care about people we have to be honest with them […] Honesty must always trump dishonesty.”
On the other hand, kindness is also considered a pillar of any relationship. “You have to be kind, tactful, diplomatic, affirming, sweet and flattering. You can’t afford to say everything you feel and think,” writes Sherman. “Learn to bite your tongue because if you’re caught saying what you really think, sometimes you’ll cause lasting damage.”
In other words, we are left with quite the conundrum – while being honest about how we feel is of vital importance, so too is taking care of our partner’s emotions.
The ‘truth or care’ dilemma
This dilemma, Sherman explains, can be summed up as “truth or care”. As he puts it, we often struggle with “when to speak our minds in the name of honesty and when to bite our tongues in the name of care”. And the longer the relationship lasts, the harder it can be to successfully straddle both kindness and honesty. Hard truths can become more and more cutting, while being kind can feel more and more like you’re biting your tongue.
Things can also get worse when you develop unhealthy patterns in the honesty-kindness balancing act. For instance, if you try to be kind by holding in how you honestly feel, you may fall into a pattern of constantly ignoring problems in your relationship in order to be kind to your partner.
Alternatively, you may fall into a pattern of holding it all in until you blurt things out without much tact. In turn, your partner might shut down whenever you tell them the truth. They might feel, as Sherman puts it, “You hurt my feelings so I don’t have to listen to you.”
Finding the middle ground
This difficult “truth or care” paradox is ingrained in every romantic relationship. So, how can we find a middle ground where we are both kind and honest?
According to Sherman, it has to begin with redefining kindness altogether. To quote Shakespeare again, sometimes, we must “be cruel to be kind”. In other words, kindness isn’t about hiding how you feel, but it’s about learning how to say what you really feel with as much tact and understanding as possible.
Once you understand that kindness can sometimes be cruel, the next step is to understand that your partner is facing the same dilemma, too. They will also be faced with situations where in order to be honest, they’ll need to hurt your feelings.
“We often seek compatibility in relationships without paying enough attention to our need for compatibility in how we negotiate the incompatibilities,” writes Sherman. “One of the most important of these compatibilities is not blaming our partners for the ‘truth or care’ dilemma intrinsic to any intimacy.”
Are women prone to too much sweetness in relationships?
Is the inclination towards too much kindness worse for women? Maybe. While the days of the perfect 1950s housewife may be a thing of the past, our desire to please our partners in heterosexual relationships remains. Many women find themselves thinking, subconsciously, that they need to be ‘kind enough’ to maintain a happy relationship.
It’s not that kindness is wrong – quite the contrary. Rather, in our cultural understanding of kindness, we sometimes put honesty on the backburner. Maybe, it’s finally time that we ditched our obsession with being nice to our partners. After all, in our quest to be kind, we might be being more cruel than we realise.