There is a memorable cartoon from the New Yorker that features a scowling husband at the dinner table at an uptown restaurant in Manhattan with his crabby wife. The waiter has just lugged this ginormous bottle of wine over to the table for their approval. And the husband says to the waiter, “That will be fine. We have a lot to talk about.” Just about this time of year, if you aren’t able to escape the frozen piles, you too just might have enough frustration built up in your life that you’d like to just get it off your chest.
Of course the literature will tell you, don’t do it. But then the literature would also tell you not to let these resentments build up either, which can be challenging if you work in a field with a lot of angry aggression all around you and then you commute and get home to children that require extra attention shall we say.
Today, our researchers have actually studied couples over many years, describing those who are happy and fulfilled, cataloging those that are not happy, recording tens of thousands of arguments and disagreements, looking for the clues as to how they get solved productively and making a record of the relatively few ways that people don’t resolve them, get stuck, and slowly find that their negative quadrant of their relationship becomes easier and easier for them to enter, harder and harder for them to escape. Interestingly, as I said last week, they observe very few differences between heterosexual couples and homosexual couples. And the part of these relationships that they’ve studied yield important confirmation on how to have not just a good marriage but also better relationships with your family members. It turns out that the qualities that make us good spouses are the same qualities that make us constructive people, better family members, better team members at work, just better people…
And on this point, we now have research that shows that storing up a lot of negative things that you are upset about until you have a briny stew of bitterness big enough to warrant a sit down where you can just have it all out with your loved ones, doesn’t work too well. It is a recipe for trouble long term.
I’m reading a book on this research and I could imagine our team of psychologists commending Jesus with his admonition that if you are headed to worship to re-fuel your sense of meaning and purpose in the world and you remember that you have an issue with someone, turn around and go see them, work it through towards reconciliation, and then return to worship. That is how you actually maintain real meaning in your life.[i] Stop and deal with it.
First a couple observations that our empirical researchers discovered that were significant. One of them is the ideal of trust. Last week, I said that trust is sufficiently grounding for humans that it is a kind of spiritual foundation upon which our fuller meaning is built. Trust releases oxytocin in our brains that makes us content. Researchers use a couple of prairie dogs that have high oxytocin levels and they are content to sit side by side most of the day, watching the world go by.
Humans are a little more sophisticated and volatile but our researchers found something quite similar when they actually put monitors on couples, observed them for a weekend. What they found was something of an ideal for trust and it was this. “When a woman is happily married and her husband is holding her hand, there is almost a total shutdown of the physiological pattern signaling alarm and danger in the brain.”[ii]
If a stranger is holding her hand, the centers are activated completely. If she is unhappily married, they are activated somewhat. By the way, the same is true for gay and lesbian couples. It is a beautiful image and it strikes me as right. I know when I went in for surgery, the nurses came around to pat me on the head and the chaplains offered to pray for me and the hot shot doctor came to offer his assurance that everything was under control. But I didn’t want to see my kids or anyone else, just my wife Kate.
Our researchers have just found empirical evidence to support the Bible. We say, ‘We can be the face of the Christ for each other, we can be the love and strength of God.” And what a cool thing that we can be that kind of trusting assurance for each other in the midst of real anxiety. It is a pretty powerful thing. And it apparently has measurable benefits. Epidemiologists have done studies and discovered that on the whole, you live longer and healthier when you have trusting support around you. Looking at immigrants to the United States, they have noticed that when you hold other factors constant, immigrants with strong families and a tight knit community, with a lot of interlocking friends was a significant indicator of overall health and longevity.[iii]
Conversely, professor James House reported that around the planet, the group that reliably die young are lonely, socially isolated, disconnected people, the vast majority of whom are men. Trust and tight knit relationships are a very strong foundation. As St. Paul observed, Faith, Hope, and Love, the three keys. Faith and love are foundational.
And they can become powerful in close relationships because we have the power to actually “co-regulate” each other. We can calm each other down, make each other non-anxious, and soothe each other. I love the medical community. They call this process, “mutually synchronizing exchange limbic regulation”. It means that we can reciprocally make each other calmer in the midst of a storm, strong in the face of a threat, and visionary in the midst of banality. We can express complimentarity and make each other better. It is the strength of love in action.[iv] It is the strength of God in action.
Of course this same capability allows us to also ramp up negative emotion, escalate the tension mutually, increase our misery and drive us to fury and isolated stone-walling. And when that becomes a pattern of relating, conflict becomes something of an absorbing state that is easy for us to enter as a couple and hard for us to leave. Left unchecked, it moves towards independence, isolation, and ultimately divorce.
Of course, conflict is part of our life, we can’t escape it. You may love the people in your family but they can get on your nerves from time to time. How we deal with conflict is critical. And our researchers made another elementary discovery about how not to do it, by observing tens of thousands of arguments.
The maxim is this regarding arguments. How you begin a discussion in the first 3 minutes determines how the remainder of a discussion will go for the rest of it, not all the time, just 96% of the time. 96% of the time should get your attention.
So if you blow into the kitchen, start raving and bloviating, as my wife likes to call it, that discussion will end with more raving and ranting by your spouse or one or both of you walking out of the room 96% of the time. You may be able to salvage your criticism but probably not. People think this will make them feel better but all it actually does is communicate “I’m angry” which is met by “I’m defensive that your angry”. “Bye” “Bye”. I’d like to meet the 4% of us who are Houdini that can make a different ending out of these bombasts because I’m not one of them.[v]
What we have done is tap our center for threat and danger and attacked, accessing our most basic part of our brain and we’ve stricken our spouse or friend with that same ‘fight or flight’ syndrome that mother nature has built into our remedial emotional make up for our survival.
We think it gets our spouses attention, which is surely does, but at the expense of rational thought, empathy for others, humor, and an ability to reframe the context precluding the likelihood of working things through constructively.
And what we need is to soothe each other. Take a break and calm each other down, reassure one another through touch so that we can regain trust and safety and engage in reconciling mode to actually understand what the complaint is and actually figure out a way to mutually meet it.
But what we actually do, more often than we would like, is not deal with one issue, not deal with another issue, not deal with a third issue, and then periodically blow up at each other because this pile of issues has become too frustrating.
Stop and deal with it. And I loved one researchers observation that it will probably take up an hour of your week, processing some area of conflict with your spouse. Really? Sounds like a lot of time and intentionality… but then so is going to the gym if you want to stay healthy.
Part of the reason is the way our memory works in humans, a subject about which we are making rapid strides in our understanding in the past couple decades. One piece of this is called the ‘Zeigarnik effect'[vi]
Professor Zeigarnik was in a café in Vienna watching the waiters attend to very large parties. She noticed that they had the ability to take orders from a big table without writing anything down. And they did an amazing job of delivering those orders correctly. But when she went to interview them after the table had been served and asked the waiters to recall again what the people at the table had ordered, their memory was very poor. As soon as the orders were filled, they were forgotten.
It turns out that once we could study the brain in real time, we could substantiate Professor Zeigarnik’s theory. Indeed, “we have much better recall for events that are not entirely processed.”[vii] Some researchers have even speculated that our brains do most of their work dreaming about issues that we have not entirely processed during the day.
What does this mean for dealing with conflict in an intimate setting? It means that we tend to remember much more vividly, and we tend to recall much more quickly issues that we haven’t resolved, things that are still sources of frustration for us. And the more we review them, the more likely they are to become areas where we fester and stew, making us more and more sour.
And the positive corollary? When we work things through and they reach a constructive solution, when conflict gets resolved by both of us coming to a mutual understanding of the issue, how it affects us differently, hearing what each of us needs, and committing to change in the future, guess what? We tend to forget about these things. A big part of happiness is not having much to stew about, to fester about. It is probably part of the reason that our researchers now think that a lot of what we think of as boring in marriage or good family relationships is actually more good than we realize.
Because here is another insight about how memory actually works in our life versus how you might naively think it works and here I speak in broad summary. We don’t actually store a set of tapes from the past that we can pull off the shelf of our memory bank whenever we want for a quick review. It is a little more complicated than that, particularly our emotional memories from the past with our families and loved ones.
We have the original event that leaves a memory for us. Later we recall that event, but in the telling of that event, we give it a context and a narrative that is laden with meaning. “I remember she stepped off the boat with those Italian boots and I was so flummoxed I couldn’t remember my greeting in Italian because she so beautifully reminded me of home.” That is a very different meaning from “I remember she stepped off the boat but I couldn’t remember what to say to her and she had to translate my line for me like she always does”.
Once we tell that story, we don’t simply remember the original event, our mind records the re-telling of the story with the meaning that we attached to it. So that over time, our memories actually change quite a lot because the meaning that we attach to these events evolves as we mature in life and recall these events in different ways for different occasions to meet different challenges.
It turns out that the way you tell the story, what details you remember or omit, tells us far more about how you are feeling in the present than you might imagine. Again, our researchers have followed tens of thousands of couples and in the intake interview, they ask them the story about how they met. Then they went back and correlated those stories with how the marriages were doing. The results were revealing.
Of course, most all couples who tell these stories tell about the interesting and romantic parts of the tale. But the researchers noticed the details in the telling that stood out a bit more in marriages that weren’t doing well. Their stories included more details that portrayed their spouse in a bad light. They forgot to bring money on the first date or they fumbled an introduction. They had little awkward episodes that were recounted. And sometimes the stories were just sort of terse, bereft of much emotional meaning. “Um we met at a party, a friend of a friend introduced us, and then we started going out and got together.” Not much to it.
Likewise, when they identified marriages that were strong and happy and then went back to review the intake questions again, they noticed that in addition to just relating the facts of the story, these spouses would stop and interject something endearing about their spouse. “I’d forgotten my purse and he called a cab for me without me even knowing. He does those nice surprises for people that is just the way he is.” It is a little harder to see these because the majority of us like to tell the endearing story of how we met.
Our researchers called this tendency for our spouses to remember and say nice things about us, “positive sentiment override”. That is what you want to get going in your relationships. Conversely, you want to avoid “negative sentiment override”. The way that our memory actually works is that we have a kind of default disposition towards those closest to us that filters what we recall and how we recall it. That means that once you get a good reputation established with your spouse, they tend to give you the benefit of the doubt when you do something boneheaded and foolish, and minimize just how negative it is for your relationship. They will say, you are under stress or you’re having a bad day, but no significant meaning is attached to the aberrant behavior and it doesn’t alter how they view your essential character.
By contrast, when things are going poorly and trust is weak in your relationship, spouses tend to look for more evidence that you are not trustworthy, can’t be counted upon. They are much more likely to see each and every boneheaded move you make as confirmation that you have a character issue rather than simply a problem area that needs some attention and focus. It is the subject of legions of lectures from parents to their teenage sons who just don’t understand why the Coach and their Principal are riding them so hard for a seemingly innocuous incident. They are in the trough of ‘negative sentiment override’ and they don’t know how to get out of it.
And here is what is interesting about these negative cycles. Our research teams would assign a couple of experts to watch these couples having an argument to give it some objective frame of reference. And what they noticed is that when happy couples were having a disagreement, the couples observation of their partners attempts to do something nice or something positive during the conflict to make amends were about on a par with what the experts were seeing.
But for unhappy couples, it turns out that they miss about 50% of the positivity that their spouses were trying to communicate to them. The independent experts could see that the partners were trying to do nice things, trying to express some affection, but the spouses didn’t see it themselves.[viii] We are more subjective than even we realize.
The point is this. “If we engage in attuned processing of a negative emotional event or a regrettable incident with our partner…” and we resolve it…” we will only foggily remember it. The details will become hazy, and the event, insignificant. On the other hand, it we dismiss and avoid processing a negative event, it will not disappear. It will fester, ready to be triggered again.”[ix]
Processing these events is not complicated but it does require us to interiorize a certain discipline that is not entirely natural, learning to do some ‘active listening’. We have to let our partner describe their feelings about a negative event.
And we have to validate them, let them know that we understand that when we made this mistake, we understand why they had the feelings about it that they had. We need to demonstrate some empathy by putting ourselves in their position and trying to understand it from their point of view, recognizing that their view and ours might be quite different.
Both partners need to be able to explain calmly what they need from each other in the future when situations like this arise. “If your brother gets sarcastic at family gatherings and starts generalizing about women, I need you to not just let that go but stand up for me and show him that we don’t have that kind of relationship. I really feel put down by those asides.”
And both partners need to accept their responsibility for their part in allowing the regrettable incident from starting and unfolding in the manner that it did. And both parties need to commit to standing together to keep it from happening in the future, minimizing the consequences going forward.
A lot more could be said about the process of reconciliation and we will in the future. But, for the moment, it is enough to underscore the truth in Jesus’ insight that you are not likely to attain nirvana if you don’t attend to the transgressions that we make with those that we are trying to love. Not dealing with them comprehensively is guaranteed to eventually bring you misery. Dealing with them has the prospect of returning to stasis. More than that, when you build it into your life, your spouses ability to trust you deeply multiplies in manifold ways.
St. Paul was more right than he knew. “Let your love be genuine… Hold fast to the good, care for one another with brotherly affection… be patient, express empathy towards each other, live in harmony. Don’t just repay tit for tat, but strive towards what is noble (the best in each of you). And insofar as it depends on you, live in peace with those around you. Overcome the negative stuff with a positive good.” As my grandfather would say to me, “Now that dog will hunt.” Amen.
[i] I’m using research reported in John Gottman’s “The Science of Trust”, pps. 120-240 or so. What follows is completely my summary. Gottman’s book is accessible enough and ordinary people can read it. I’ve changed the order of his presentation somewhat and have a different take than his because he is committed to empirical research, where I am open to moving between spiritual adages taught by our tradition as well as his insights.
[ii] Ibid. p. 133. The research cited was done by James Coan at U. Va.
[iii] Ibid. 137.
[iv] Ibid. p. 143. The observation comes from another book that I’ve read which is also excellent called “A General Theory of Love”, neurologists explaining the neurophysiology of our emotional life.
[v] Ibid. p. 122
[vi] Ibid. p. 208
[viii] Ibid. 195.
[ix] Ibid. p. 211.