Everyone has some kind of checklist for deciding whether to date someone. Sometimes, granted, that checklist isn’t very long. Sometimes it’s just, “Did they ask me out?” I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one trait that really, truly matters. Without it, no relationship has a chance. With it, nearly anything is tolerable. The trait is kindness.
I tell all my students, “Only date people who are nice to you.”
Unfortunately, in the short term, it’s possible to be hoodwinked by a skilled manipulator who is deliberately faking you out with superficial charm. This is why it can be more helpful to watch for the person to show kindness to someone else.
There are four types of undesirable lover. One, the narcissist. That’s estimated at about six percent of the population. Narcissism is a personality disorder, and it’s considered more or less untreatable, mostly because narcissists don’t think anything is wrong with them. Two, the sociopath, at about three to five percent of the population. Three, ordinary selfish people, and four, ordinary people who resort to violence. No idea how many of those there are out there. Kindness is nice on its own, and I think it’s also a fairly reliable way to weed out all of these four types of people who will inevitably be mean.
Mean to us, mean to our kids, mean to our friends, mean to our neighbors, mean to our pets, mean to our parents, mean to random passersby - it doesn’t really matter. Any or all of those scenarios are drama that we don’t need.
I once had a boyfriend who picked up my earring off a table and crushed it out of shape. It was pointless and unprovoked. Looking back, I wish I had broken up with him on the spot, because it wasn’t the last time he did something dumb and mean. Looking back, I’m also hard pressed to think of a single time when he did something nice for anyone. It’s an interesting exercise. What are some nice things that my ex did, and what are some mean things?
Part of what made me want to be friends with my current husband was that he would leave little uplifting notes on my desk. I still have a couple of them in my wallet a dozen years later. I saw him stand up for other people and do sweet things for his kid. I started to trust him. I’ve seen him help lost kids and stroke victims, break up a fight, tie heavy furniture onto a girl’s car in the IKEA parking lot, help various people get jobs and promotions, and one day he even saved a couple of little frogs from dying of dehydration. Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout, what can I say?
As I was writing this, he popped out the door with the bag of laundry that I had planned to wash later this evening. He has this habit of sneaking off to do my chores. What’s worse, if there’s burnt toast he always takes it. I find myself having to bend over backward sometimes to keep up with him.
The thing about kindness is that it’s hard to fake because most of the opportunities are not obvious. Well, they’re obvious to a kind-hearted person. If you make it your mission to hold the door for people, always try to make eye contact and smile at everyone you pass by, and get a laugh out of every business transaction, you recognize those moments. Not everyone notices, though, when someone at work could use a pep talk, or when a tiny kid gets separated from her mom, or when someone is struggling with a heavy load. You can always label an act of kindness after the fact, but you can’t always see them coming in advance.
There are romantic gestures that don’t necessarily count as kindness. For instance, I once had a boyfriend who would ride his bike seven miles across town to see me. This was impressive, but more of an act of valor than anything else. Mix tapes, well, I don’t know if people make those too often any more, but there’s a big difference between whether they represent the giver’s taste or the recipient’s. I would be seriously surprised if someone were able to put together a playlist of music fitting my tastes or bring me a book relevant to my interests that I hadn’t already read. Gifts and photos are also usually more revealing of the giver.
One of the main reasons I fell for my ex-husband was that he cooked for me. He really was a fantastic cook! As it turned out, he just preferred his own cooking (understandably) and refused to eat mine (even more understandably). What I interpreted as kindness turned out, in our relationship, to be a power play. He had learned that if he made all the meals, he could walk away from a kitchen disaster that someone else would have to clean up every night. That’s not necessarily a big deal, but his constant insults, criticism, and mind games were. If I had been as good a cook back then as I am now, I wouldn’t have fallen for a few great dinners. I would have looked further. I wouldn’t have written off a few early, telltale incidents of rudeness as “not a big deal.” I could have saved both of us from those three wretched years.
People tend to outgrow early selfishness as we age. The drama and bad habits we may have exhibited in one relationship are lessons we can learn so that we don’t carry them forward into the next match. This is part of why we shouldn’t reward unkindness, selfishness, cruelty, or mistreatment. Sometimes people need a little time on their own to work things out, and other times, maybe they never will.
Kindness is an upward spiral. It ripples outward, touching everyone who experiences it, even second-hand. The uplift we get from these altruistic acts can be enough to inspire us to do kind deeds for others. We learn to trust each other and we seek to impress each other. It gets easier and easier to be generous and rely on the expectation of mutual sweetness. That’s where long-term love resides.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.