A Reconciling Presence
Romans 12:16-21; Philippians 2:1-4
I’ve been reading the latest book by John Gottman, the expert on marriage at the moment. Professor Gottman has studied over 30,000 couples in his love lab at the University of Washington. His work is simply empirical. But lately he has started to draw some conclusions after two decades of research on how to get along and what predicts divorce.
Gottman first became famous because he can predict divorce 94% of the time. That is pretty good and it turns out relatively simple. There are four elements they were able to identify that are toxic and signal that couples are choosing to be separate rather than together, even if they occupy the same physical space. Over time, they eventually choose to divorce because they have been living independently of one another for quite some time.
In his latest book, Gottman wonders what makes love last? What keeps the snap, crackle, and pop alive? And he raises the question, in part, because it turns out the actual data suggests that the typical American bedroom is a lot less fulfilling than you might imagine. And I raise the subject in the pulpit because the answer turns out to be a lot more spiritual than you might imagine either.
I just happened to see a scene this week from the poignant movie Fried Green Tomatoes. It harkens back to traditional America when women were in the kitchen, gays were in the closet, and the races were segregated in Alabama.
It is the 70’s and the protagonist of the film, played by Kathy Bates is on a quest for self-discovery. Like a lot of women in that era, she just wasn’t fulfilled, she wasn’t happy and she doesn’t know why. So, she gets involved in these feminist workshops, meditation groups and the like and decides that she is going to take her life in a new direction.
One night, she decides to make her husband a special meal. She sets the table with the fine placemats, flowers in the middle of the table, candles. As she is putting the finishing touches on everything, her husband swoops into the kitchen after work, grabs up a plate of food, compliments her on the fried chicken and jumps in front of the TV set, completely missing the table that his wife set.
She says, “I was hoping that we could talk” as her face falls with disappointment.
“Football is on” he replies over his shoulder.
She slumps in her chair, feeling rejected, unappreciated, unacknowledged, unimportant.
The scene cuts away. The next scene, we see the couple both lying in bed in the dark, each staring at the ceiling, alone, frustrated, trying to soothe their feeling of isolation or hurt, each thinking that the other is not able to meet their needs.
You’ve been there.
That scene took me back to my childhood in a minute, so familiar. We had a lot of different male models. The independent, take care of yourself and do what is right guys like John Wayne. You had the decisive leader, responsible for the whole crew, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek. You had the charismatic, raffish handsome leader like John F. Kennedy. And we had the anti-hero, anti-PC, I’ve had enough of the shuck and jive of our world, Archie Bunker.
All these different male role models had one characteristic in common. No woman could move them. Independent, self-directed, they called the shots. Take it or leave it, this is what you get. It wasn’t exactly machismo but it was the default Male identity.
I got to thinking about that identity model because Professor Gottman says that the single most important quality you can develop in order to make your love actually last in your marriage is… the ability to let your spouse genuinely change you.
Professor Gottman was at a dinner party, observing a phenomenon we are all familiar with. One man is telling a story about getting his truck stuck in a ditch during a snow-storm. Another woman interjects, “My family was actually in a head-on collision during the last snow storm.”
The man continues right on with his story, “So I go inside to get a blanket to put under the wheels for some traction”… leaving the rest of the guests unsure of which conversation to follow.
Professor Gottman leans over to the woman and says, “Oh my God, you were in a head-on collision?”
It is a three-way exchange, replete with non-sequitirs. People talking past each other. “The famous Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget called this phenomenon ‘Collective monologue’. He was describing the conversations among preschoolers… but we adults do the same thing too, particularly when alcohol is involved.
These days, our discourse in Washington too often is ‘collective monologue’, people reciting their talking points to make sure they get the sound byte in without actually engaging their opponents, just talking past each other.
Professor Gottman says this, “Many people think that effective conversation entails making yourself sound interesting to others, when actually it is all about being interested in others and listening.
As we mature in our love for each other, the Professor says, we should be growing towards attunement with each other. That is when we understand each other well enough that we anticipate what the other needs and we give it to them and a relative harmony ensues.
The team in the Love Lab categorizes our conversation exchanges in the negative, positive, and neutral categories. And they note that the successful long-term relationships have very few negative interactions, quite a few positive interactions and a lot of neutral exchanges.
In other words, fewer fights- particularly fights of consequence- and a lot of contentment. I’m reminded of an article I read about prairie dogs that have high levels of Oxytocin. They spend a great deal of time each day just standing next to each other in contentment. Love that picture.
But Professor Gottman says that when they look at thousands and thousands of couples, “boring is good.” He says that we find the reality drama of “Atlanta Housewives” or “The Kardashians” entertaining. But in real life, attunement brings us real contentment. When we are attuned, being present together brings a quiet contentment.
O, yes, and allowing yourself to be changed by your spouse, is also the single biggest correlate with a fulfilling romantic life over time… Someone asked him the question once on how active your sex life should be to be happy. The Professor answered that the key is not how often you romance each other, the key is whether you both agree that it is about right. Someone asks him an external question- how much/how often- and he responds with an internal spiritual disposition. “Are you attuned to one another? Are you both meeting each other’s needs?
But what strikes me is that these are both fundamentally spiritual quests, being open to being changed by your spouse and becoming attuned so that we compliment one another and live in harmony.
In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus turns towards Jerusalem to complete the work that he came to do, three times he says to the disciples. “The Gentiles use hierarchy to Lord it over one another, but it shall not be so with you. For whoever would be the greatest, must become the least. Whoever will lead must serve other people.”
Usually when I was a child, I heard these texts expounded upon with some story of heroism, of people who give up everything to serve the poor like Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Jesus, as we know, had to lay down his life in the cause of service to others, so there is this heroic dimension to these texts.
But these days, I’m wondering if we didn’t way over shoot the mark. Maybe we don’t need extraordinary heroes so much as we need quiet heroes that daily work toward putting others first, thinking and acting in ways that get the collective needs of others met, so that we might develop resonant harmony and attunement in our marriages, in our close friendships, in our families, with the team of people that we work with day in and day out?
Professor Gottman says that it is critical for us to routinely communicate to our spouses, “I have your back”. Psychologists call it trustworthiness. In small acts of caring, in paying attention to our spouse as they unpack the difficulties of the day, our main goal is simply to pay attention. We are communicating with our words and our non-verbal cues that you are important to me.
Christians call this “faithfulness”, being there for one another in season and out of season. We all repeat this part of our vows when we marry, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” And that kind of love, the reciprocal kind, when both of you put the other person first. That is the most profound love that we humans are given to know.
That love is transcendent. One pair of my grandparents had a profound love relationship. Everyone around them knew it. When my grandmother was about 85 she got Alzheimer’s, eventually not able to recognize us. Sometimes she would become agitated and one night the staff called my grandfather because it was bad. I drove him over to the nursing home. We see the exasperated staff about to give her an injection. My grandfather starts to speak to her and she immediately calms down, just the sound of his voice, his presence. It left an indelible impression on me as a college kid.
I’m holding my grandmothers hand and she says to me, “Who is that man?” She doesn’t know (rationally) but she recognizes the spiritually comforting presence. In the Gospel of John (10:27) Jesus says, “My sheep recognize my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Profound love is comfort and strength like that. It is the most profound love that we humans are given to know.
We let each other inside us and we are willing to become changed by them. What a wonderfully open-minded disposition too which is so necessary. Very, very few of us can actually see the potential that resides in us. We need other people to name our potential, to call it out, to confirm for us what it is that we bring to the table.
We need other people to inspire us with the confidence and the personal strength to step up and actually develop in a given direction. We need our people to bloom us.
Christians, of all people, ought to be open-minded. In prayer, we have to daily pray to be open to change, recognizing that we are just a work in progress, looking to those around us, in love, for some of the concrete road map of the change that needs to take place.
Imagine if we each could reflect before we speak and remind ourselves, “You know, I don’t have all the answers.” Imagine if we could take the best critique of our position and actually incorporate it into our thinking, enabling those around us to engage in their more imaginative selves.
Then our staff becomes a team. Our politicians become Statesmen. Our foreign service personnel become diplomatic. Our siblings and children and our close friends become family. Our couples radiate love.
That is who we can become on our best days. I hope that for you in this epoch of anxiety that swirls in the background, surrounded as we are by so many egos bouncing into one another like pinballs lighting up the arcade until they go ‘Tilt’.
May you interiorize God’s acceptance of you to the point that you are open to being changed by others. May you have trustworthy people around you that will reciprocate your openness. May you know the heartbreak that comes from a life invested in compassionate love with your people. And may you become humane and understanding, resonate and attuned, as the Spirit of God flows through you.
You can become more of a blessing than you know. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Gottman, John. What Makes Love Last (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), p. 92