I love doing weddings. I love watching couples talk about love with their hormones bubbling the joie de vivre toward each other. I get the closest view when they make those passionate, heart-felt pledges to each other ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til we are parted by death.” This is my solemn vow. Off to the honeymoon, looking good and feeling good.
And I know that in a very short amount of time, they will both have this moment where they have a significant argument about something that really matters, like how we will spend our money and on what, and they will be shocked that their little buttercup not only has a very different view from them, they don’t even really understand why there is a difference, because this is so damn obvious. And then there is some explosion of anger, one of them walks out, and both of them are alone, wondering what the hell they gotten themselves into. They are thinking to themselves, is this a mistake?
I love one expert on marriage who said, “Actually every marriage is a mistake. The question of your life is what you do with that mistake.” Another noted authority on marriage, Dan Wile, said “choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems… there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.”[i]
We all have that day, just after one of these arguments, when you are driving down the road together in silence, wondering if your partner is going to change enough or if you are flexible enough to deal with this person that is not only a cute little buttercup but also a mélange of problems. Ay yay yah!
When we are young, we are probably not really realistic in thinking that we can change the other person. We try harder, different approaches, only to be frustrated by all these different angles. What is wrong with my boyfriend that he doesn’t agree with me? It is a puzzlement and you try to get some advice from your sister, from your Mother, from your good friend. They all agree with you, to no avail.
And here is what is interesting, now that we have thirty years of research watching couples argue about things. That is tens of thousands of couples, old and young, recently married, married for decades, heterosexual or homosexual. It turns out that 70% of the arguments you have with each other are essentially irresolvable and you will be having them a decade from now in a different way. I exaggerate. It is 69%. That is a number that is big enough that it ought to get your attention.
It suggests that our most important arguments, the ones that really get us worked up, are not best approached by thinking that we need to win or avoid losing. Probably they are not best approached by thinking that we are going to change this person and get them to become different than they are. If we could analyze why we have these arguments, and we really can’t, what we would find is that the vast majority of the difference that we have over this issue is a constitutive part of what makes us unique, interesting. It is a value that we hold dear that we can’t really get rid of without being who we are.
When you first met her she was so care free and just dropped what she was doing and ran off with you for that great adventure to the beach that was so spontaneous and just fun… I didn’t know that meant I would never again attend a dinner party on time because I don’t know what she is doing in there to get ready but it takes forever.”
“I really loved that he was so responsible and successful and just took care of things and planned things for us that were top line and really interesting. I didn’t know that meant that he would take over the family finances and need to control almost all our money.”
I mention those examples because often what we end up arguing about are things that originally drew us to this person in the first place. We recognize that they complement us. They do things well that we don’t do well and we like that because we are a better team.
But, Oh my God, now he is a pain the …. So we argue about the same things over and over, hopefully separated by many moments of intervening good times or neutral times, but a couple months go by and you are having a quite similar conversation, wondering if your spouse is nuts. They aren’t. But you’ve reached this place of fundamental difference and it is quite unlikely to actually change. So winning and losing aren’t really the way to approach these points. And you can’t stop being you, so capitulation is not an option. What is going on?
Professor Gottman did a study of newly weds around issues of conflict and he gives us a helpful reminder of what he was watching. He had 130 couples in the ‘love lab’ filming them for a weekend and he catalogued their arguments in terms of small every day stuff, incidents from the past they regretted, and more substantive conflicts.
He noticed that so much of what was actually taking place in front of him, regardless of the subject of the argument, revolved around trust. Such as: “Can I trust you to choose me over your friends? Can I trust you to choose my interests over those of your parents? Can I trust you to care more about this relationship than about yourself? Can I trust you to be home when you say you will be home? Can I trust you to be motivated and earn money and create wealth for our family?”[ii]
He points out that there are two different dimensions to trust when you review the videotape. The first is whether your spouse really gets you. Do they understand you? Do they know who you are? Are they listening to what you are saying and get what your needs are?
And the second is dimension is about transparency. Do you do what you say you will do? Are you being honest and open with me?
Trust is actually pretty foundational in our lives. That is probably the reason that “faith” plays such a big role in the scriptures. Faith, hope, and love. We have faith in God, we trust God. We have faith in others, we trust them.
Gottman made another empirical observation that fits well with the insights from scripture. We are looking for positive moral certainty in our partner. We want to have confidence that our spouse has integrity, that they are honest, kind, loving, people of good will. We look for that in how they treat others but also we need to trust them that they are like that with us. We need to know that we motivate them, that we matter to them, that we take priority over other people and other concerns or interests that they have.
A lot of our early arguments, whatever the particular issue happens to be, revolve around this sub-text. And they their core emotional intensity from the fact that the issue of trust and trustworthiness are so fundamental to everything else.
I would add from years of doing divorce counseling that these issues of trust become more magnified as you mature. I’ve been surprised over the years, listening to people talk about why their relationships fell apart after twenty or twenty five years of marriage. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have guessed that so many people decide that there is something about their spouse that they just can’t respect. I wouldn’t have guessed that the moral dimension, the spiritual dimension would have been so important. But I’ve learned that as we mature, we actually become more spiritual and this basic moral outlook on the world becomes more important over time, so these issues that start with newly weds actually become magnified, deeper, and richer as we mature. They impinge on our romantic lives and our core sense of fulfillment more than I might have imagined when I was 25.
Couples that successfully establish trust over many years develop what psychologists call “emotional attunement”. They have arguments and important disagreements but they read each other, give each other what they need, and they establish a broad equilibrium in the relationship. They subconsciously calculate how to inflict the least damage during conflict and how to maximize win/win scenarios where they both are fulfilled.
I remember talking with one of the Psychology professors at Princeton that had given a paper on sex and fulfillment in relationships, a subject that everyone is interested in. I was struck by a chart that he handed out that showed a fairly broad distribution. Some fulfilled couples had sex frequently and others much less so and I asked him to explain to me the discrepancy. He said, ‘how often they engage is not nearly as important as the fact that whatever they do works for both of them’. Right, they are attuned to each other which is how they find fulfillment through each other.
So, Tolstoy got this almost exactly backwards. You recall that in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy observed that happy families are all the same but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. It turns out that fulfillment through attunement to each other has many different expressions but unhappy marriages follow a pretty tight script with less variability as it gets worse, so that there is a remarkable similarity to their end.[iii]
This is because as trust erodes in a relationship, each of the spouses feel less and less secure taking risks that are outside of these fairly scripted ways of relating to each other. Once the relationship is going south, both players tend to avoid upsetting the apple cart and they slowly become more and more independent over time, until they are genuinely lonely in close proximity to each other and the actual end is fairly uneventful.
It is why Gottman’s team can observe couples without having a whole lot of tape and they can predict pick out the behavior patterns with will lead toward divorce.
I found it interesting that they confirm what St. Paul suggests anecdotally in our readings today. In every letter that he writes to the early church Paul says something like ‘become ambassadors of reconciliation’. Our psychologists say, ‘become emotionally attuned to each other’. And then he tells us what that means, like the passage we read earlier in Ephesians, “put away anger, bitterness, wrath, slander, malice”. Instead, “be kind to one another. Practice forgiveness. Become tender hearted and empathetic.” This is how you live like God. It is what Jesus showed us.
Our scientists try to avoid speaking prescriptively like preachers. They try not to tell you what to do, except at this point because it is so important. If you are having an argument, if you are in negative space, and your spouse or your sister or your best friend makes a bid for you to turn towards them, turn towards them. Read the cues. If someone is telegraphing that they want to end or a break, take it. If they try to make some genuine humor or signal that they want to reconcile rather than carry this further, accept the reconciliation and regroup.
I find it a relief to know that you can break most of the rules of marriage occasionally, if and only if, you are really good at repair tactics and your spouse accepts them. Repair tactics are really important to develop and it is equally important to actively look for ways to deploy them.
And the negative emotions that St. Paul described as spiritually destructive, we now can measure and explain with a lot more neuro-physiology than we previously. Anger, wrath, contempt, slander- they really are damaging. And once you start down that path, it becomes harder and harder to stop because we are accessing different parts of our brain.
We can measure it. When you get into a heated argument. When you start raising your voice and screaming to make your point. When you give full vent to your anger, watch out. This is dangerous territory likely to become more dangerous. Our brain flips into a different mode, a more elementary mode of self-defense that releases adrenaline. We don’t “process information very well. We lose access to our sense of humor and our creativity. We repeat ourselves and become aggressive or we run away and stone wall.
We are turning away from our spouse and we can now show that even venting our anger, which therapists thought might be productive for a while, generally doesn’t have the benefits that we thought it might. Watch out because it generally escalates the negativity and puts you in a mind set that is less able to make a constructive resolution.
This what was easiest for our psychologists to document. They could predict couples that would get divorced because they manifest what Professor Gottman calls ‘the four horses of the Apocalypse’. Criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling in both partners. We’ve all seen it, almost all of us have engaged in it. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton won Oscars acting it in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
They escalate the negativity mutually and have the effect of emotionally disengaging us from each other. Left unchecked, you can turn your partner into an adversary where you start to see their interests as a threat to yours. When you get to this point, our researchers say that we have really ‘betrayed’ each other. We are no longer a team working together, but rivals in very close proximity. Miserable, frustrated, sad- after a few months or years of this, you finally call it quits and it is the right call, sad as that might be.
The boys at the lab had a couple of insights that I pass on. The first is that we all have these negative fights but people that have strong relationships are able to tap the brakes when things are escalating negatively with some positive emotion. They acknowledge their partners when they have a valid point, they interject humor that they both can laugh at, they interject empathy. They know when they are flooded and they take a break.
We now know that the breaks need to last about twenty minutes for the adrenaline and other neurophyisological changes that have kicked in to subside. But it puts a break on the negativity and controls it, allows your rational mind to engage again so that you can work towards something constructive.
And the other insight that they had is that boring is good. Boring is an underrated virtue. They use four quadrants to define our behaviors. Both of you are fulfilled (really good stuff). He is fulfilled, she is less so. She is fulfilled, he is less so. Both of you are frustrated. The two, so-called boring quadrants are actually in stasis or equilibrium and that is good. And there is a lot more good going on there that probably needs to be described more articulately.
Positive relationships, as you know from your experience, seed each other with positive emotions. The masters in these studies are the people that are warm towards other people. They express visible affection which releases oxytocin that binds us to each other. There is a species of prarie dog that has high oxcytocin and psychologists use it to exemplify this point. They mate for life and spend a lot of time sitting right next to each other, just happily viewing the prarie side by side.
Masters in these studies show interest in their spouse. They want to know about their hopes and dreams, about their fears and anxieties. They make their spouses feel safe. They are understanding and empathic. They share humor and re-frame tough stuff so that you can both come at it from a different angle. Not surprisingly, they keep their romantic life lively because all these qualities allow us to be intimate. [iv]
They ask questions. They are actively interested in their spouse. They communicate excitement when they see them. They are quick to find joy. They support their spouses.
The Masters of relationships express positivity towards each other far more often than negativity. They corral their anger, their hostility, insults, sarcasm (The New Yorker’s disease), contempt, belittling, disgust, and emotional withdrawl. We all do these things and some of us are in business environments where we have to turn this stuff off when we cross the threshold of our house because so many people are practicing these negative emotions all day at work where we are trying to do in the enemy.
We now know that expressing negative emotions shortens our life and they make life less fulfilling to live. And we all want to become more than just adequate with our relationships. We’d like to become masters in relating well with our families and our friends. We want to love and we want to become genuinely lovable. We are all a work in progress, helping each other to become stronger, hopefully accessing our positive energy more than our negative energy. As St. Paul says, “God has given us the ministry of reconciliation and entrusted to us this ministry of reconciliation” that we might become imitators of God, as beloved children to one another. May you be so blessed. Amen.
[i] Dan Wile, “After the Honeymoon” p. 12 and 13; my thanks to John Gottman’s research in “The Science of Trust” published recently who quoted Wile on pl. 34 and 35. I recommend Gottman’s work in general as he is presently the Doktor Vater in the field. His earlier work “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” is probably a better introduction to his research.
[ii] “The Science of Trust” chapter 6, p. 177.
[iii] This is one of Gottman’s salient theses, p. 11.
[iv] “The Science of Trust”, p. 16 and 17 summarizing his observations.