“I don’t need much… I just need a soft place to land.”

I could feel for him. We were breaking up, and I knew I had been more difficult than pleasant during our short time together. Each day I blamed my less-than-best self on work, adjusting to a new city, new job, on wounds from my past. In reality, I was looking for a complicated fix when I had not yet learned the simple lesson I have in years since.

Truthfully, that relationship was not a fit for either of us, and for various reasons we would have ended it down the road. But each connection made with another person, if we let it, will teach us something about ourselves. I wasn’t being difficult because of him. I was difficult because I told myself it was him not accepting me for “who I am”.

I was difficult because I told myself that difficult must be who I am.

I remember so clearly the day Jon described me as a “soft place to land”. We were driving home after visiting my parents for the weekend. We hadn’t been on the road long when he asked if he could tell me his top ten favorite things about me. Okay fine, if you insist…

He mentioned that he loved that he could share things with me and I wouldn’t use them against him later. That I was a soft place to land. This line pierced my heart and was one of the greatest compliments he could give, as I had decided to believe that it must not be my style, my gift, or my personality to be gentle, sweet, or soft.

There have been times since where I have, regrettably, not been a soft place for my husband. Where I have been harder than a slab of concrete in my dealings with him. Not only are those moments cause for my deepest regret, but also evidence that being “hard” is not actually who I am. Nothing in line with my true self would feel so foreign and agonizing as knowing I have pained the one I love most.

These moments, which I hope become increasingly scarce in years ahead, are what reinforces the most valuable (albeit obvious) lesson I’ve learned about relationships of love:

Just be kind.

I’ll probably lose some of you here. But that’s because it seems so obvious that it is brushed over almost chronically to the demise of many could-be-great relationships.

Two main reasons for this: First, most of us would characterize ourselves as being “a nice person”. And therein lies the problem! “Nice” is the seed of “kind”, but niceness is not kindness. Kindness is benevolent and warm. Niceness is agreeable and pleasant, but can still be quite cold.

Second reason you may think this doesn’t apply to you: Most of us are nice, even kind, people. Because of that, we can be blind to the fact that we are not being kind to our spouse. Since we are good most other places, we assume we are being good to him/her, too.

So, we go about our shared life, subtly criticizing, belittling, nagging, disrespecting, unappreciating or outright attacking the very person most vulnerable to our shots. When that person attacks back, shuts down, or decides to leave, it’s easy to point the finger and say, “But everyone knows I’m a nice person! You need to change.”

It wasn’t until the last few years that I became very sensitive to the way people speak to, or about, their “Beloved”. Perhaps that’s because I’ve had to be conscious of it within myself. It’s strange to see people who have never treated me with anything but generosity, respect, and kindness, being outright mean to (or about) their spouse without batting an eye. Sarcasm is typically the biggest culprit, which could be the reason the digs fly under the radar. But the recipient feels them, and little by little, the sure foundation of love that started the whole thing, chips away until it’s hard for either party to remember what it feels like to land in a soft place.

Side note: I’m a lady, so I can only speak to the ladies on this one: This includes long girl-talk sessions where friends talk ad nauseum about their husbands like it’s a hobby. Those sassy, condescending jokes you tell about him while watching The Bachelor mean something. Along with the comparisons you make to other marriages, they get in your head and lead to how you treat him later on.

Talk about your husband with the respect you’d give the person you picked to be your lifelong teammate, not like he’s one of your children who needs parenting. Your friends will be shocked, but your life will be happier. Rant (somewhat) over.

The trick is, these words and actions don’t seem mean. Big arguments with raised voices are obvious. Here, I’m talking about the little things that sneak into our everyday interactions. Many times it’s unintentional; we may have become calloused to it from the home we grew up in, or from years of carrying on a harsh dynamic with our spouse. That’s why sometimes it can be hard to identify where exactly we need to soften up. When in doubt, ask your partner and be genuinely willing to hear, and act on, the answer.

John Gottman is a marital researcher whose work has allowed him to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy, sometimes within minutes of observing a couple. One of his most famous works is discovering the “Four Deadly Horsemen” of a relationship. If any of these four things exist consistently, the relationship is in serious trouble: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Of the four, contempt is the most deadly, as it communicates disgust with the other person and is likely to escalate the situation. Contempt includes sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. When I look at it that way, seemingly small jokes or minor finger-pointing don’t seem so small or minor. My parents have been married 30 something years, and I can’t think of a time where I heard either one say anything sarcastic or mean-spirited to the other. Thirty-something years is no coincidence. Kindness kills contempt.

People balk at the idea of physically hurting their spouse or being unfaithful to them, but will knowingly throw them under the bus in front of friends, shoot down their dreams, or belittle them when they fail. These things, over time, coming from one’s closest confidant, can destroy a person. Maybe not a literal slap in the face, but rather death by a thousand paper-cuts.

Sometimes, it’s unkindness by omission. You know I loved The Oprah Show (RIP). One line that has always stuck with me is from Toni Morrison talking about her children. She said when they would come up to her, initially she would fix their pants, or wipe their face, thinking that by caring for them she was showing them love. She later discovered that all a child is really looking for is to know,

“Do your eyes light up when I walk into the room?”

I feel this applies every bit as much to marriage. Once, after a joking conversation about the feeling I get when someone seems excited to see me, Jon started being over-the-top whenever he saw me. “HEYYYY KAAATE!!!” with the biggest smile he’s got. Even though I knew he was teasing, I couldn’t help but feel amazing inside and it always got a good laugh out of us both.

Watching the way we greet each other, regardless of how terrible work was, how difficult the kids were, or any other nonsense going on in life, is a quick way to check the pulse on a marriage. If I ever feel myself heading down negativity’s path, the first thing I do is commit to taking a moment at the doorstep for every coming and going between us. Just a little extra attention and kindness is quick to point me down a better path.

Sometimes with everything going on in life, it feels overwhelming to add “Fix/Improve/Nurture Marriage” to the list. My personal mantra: Just be soft. Just be kind.

It’s really hard to be unkind to someone who is being kind. It’s really hard to be mad at someone when you’re being kind to them. The world out there is hard enough; home should be the one soft place we can count on.

Being a joy to come home to, or a joy coming home, is the single best thing I have done (or try to do) for my marriage. There are a million techniques out there for better communication and relationship success. But nothing has ever come close to a little kindness, straight up.

“Kindness is the essence of GREATNESS and the fundamental characteristic of the noblest men and women I have known. Kindness is a passport that opens doors and fashions friends. It softens hearts and molds relationships that can last lifetimes.” -J.B. Wirthlin