Though I’m no longer single, I still have lots of single friends, and love hearing their dispatches from the frontline of dating in 2018. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes romantic, and occasionally – and far less enjoyably – downright disturbing, these tales reflect a time in which it’s easier than ever before to meet a man at the swipe of a finger but all but impossible to have one approach you in a gallery or bar. Yet however my friends have gone about setting up their latest dates, online or off, I always ask the same question of them when a good friend meets a promising prospect: “Is he kind?”
I didn’t used to especially value kindness in men. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was at all important; I merely prioritised other traits above it. In 2005 it seemed imperative, for instance, that a man wore skinny jeans and listened to indie music. Hair and shoes were crucial throughout my twenties. As were height, good looks, other fairly shallow traits. I should state for the record that it wasn’t all about surface appearances when it came to my taste in men. I liked men who were intelligent and well read, and generally ones with similar politics (though not, to my lasting shame, always). And while I was generally prescriptive, my preferences were constantly in flux. I was young and curious and keen to meet different kinds of people: there were a couple of musicians, a physicist, a chef, a lawyer, an artist. I was drawn to them all for different reasons, but “is he kind?” was not a question that I ever asked of any of them.
Perhaps it was to do with not wanting to settle down. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, so kindness was not as important a trait as it might be in someone you spend a lot of time with. But I think it’s also to do with how women are raised to interpret male affection. We are taught to expect kindness from our female friends, and as little girls are encouraged to share and play together, while petty jealousies and fallings out are discouraged. When it comes to boys, however, it’s completely the opposite. When a boy pulls your pigtails in the playground or teases you in front of his friends adults will say, “it’s because he likes you.” As we enter adulthood, these ideas do not disappear – just look at “negging”, the pick up artist technique of making cruel remarks to a woman so she becomes insecure and therefore more likely to sleep with you.
I have had many female friends who have been in relationships with men who have been cruel and unkind to them, and I have experienced it myself. At the time, we put up with these men because we had been conditioned to see certain behaviour, whether it was possessiveness, humiliating remarks, game playing or cruel disinterest, as a sign that they cared about us. Looking back now at some past experiences, I can hardly believe what I allowed to slide. There was the ex who cheated, the guy who told me to shave off all my body hair, the man who told me I talked too much. All were bad for me.
This all lasted until I met my husband, one of the kindest men I’ve ever known. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to tick these boxes that it hit me how great it is to be with someone who treasures and respects you, and finds ways to show they care about you. It’s a trajectory that will be familiar to many other young women, and a process that Harmony, the main character in my novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, also undergoes. I wanted to depict how the men we choose who disrespect us are sometimes reflections of how little we deem ourselves worthy of respect. Building that confidence and independence as a young woman takes time.
Thankfully, we are seeing something of a return to kindness. The British Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm has written a book about a new form of meditation called “kindfulness”, which is all about directing kindness outwards into the world by being “kindfully present.” Other books, such as The Kindness Method, are hot on its heels. Perhaps because awful headlines dominate the news, small acts of kindness are seeing a renaissance, and volunteering and charity donations are on the rise. We can only to so much to minimise international suffering, but on a local, or micro level, everyday acts of kindness can make the world of difference.
It is my hope that more of us will start to see the importance of kindness in relationships, too. Friends have since adopted my “if he isn’t kind, don’t bother” mantra and have met lovely, decent partners in the process. Why not try it? After all, our time on this planet is far too short to spend it with someone who isn’t nice to you.
The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is out now