I’ve been reading a new book, an empirical study of marriages, what works, what doesn’t. Every night I mark it up, so eventually my wife says to me, “so how we doing?” I pushed my glasses down my nose and replied, “Good news and bad news… the Good news is that it says men make more money who are happily married and that we live an average of 8 years longer life, generally more healthy as well. But the bad news is we don’t have enough retirement savings to cover those extra years, so I may have to cut you loose.” Too much of a good thing.
As I’ve said before, the insights from these books are not just for married people. As it turns out almost all of the same dynamic are present in gay and lesbian marriages too. And the qualities that make you a good spouse make you a better family member, a better close friend, a better team player at work. Having said that, I thought I’d say something positive and uplifting about romance in advance of Valentine’s Day, as there is a beauty to love.
The Author and Physician Dean Ornish put it: “Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick, and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing. If a new drug had the same impact, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it for their patients.”[i]
We’d all like to have deeper love in our lives, keep our romance alive and avoid divorce. Today, there is no stigma around divorce, it is an unfortunate fact of life. But have also done longitudinal studies and we can measure the negative effect that divorce has on our families. I was moved by one study that showed that if you get divorced and your children get divorced, the effects on your grandchildren are sufficient that you wouldn’t wish this upon them if there were any way to avoid it.
First, I pass on two pieces of anecdotal insight, each specific to gender. It turns out that 80% of the time, women initiate the conversation that wants to review ‘how we are doing in our relationship’. Why this is so, the researchers didn’t say and what that means in gay and lesbian relationships is not clear either. But I thought it was an interesting observation. And most of the time, it would appear, men are resistant to this conversation. Sometimes it is just helpful to know that you are not alone in your experience.
Second, our empirical researchers are loathe to actually give advice but over thirty years, Professor Gottman has seen one issue over and over so often that he comes quite close to issuing a maxim to the men in our generation. In general, the single thing that men can do to improve the overall quality of their love life and their romance as well, is to let women have more influence over them. Despite all the changes in our society that have made women and men more equal in the workplace and in the social arena, apparently a preponderance of our marriages have not translated those societal changes enough at home.
I love the example that they used, that of the late actor Paul Newman who was married to Joanne Woodward for over 50 years. I lived not far from the Newman’s in High School and you would see them around town at restaurants. By all accounts from neighbors and those who knew the well, they had a great marriage.
People asked Paul if we was ever tempted to have an affair, since he was one of Hollywood’s most handsome stars, and no doubt, occasions presented themselves in that world. His response? “Why should I go out for a hamburger when I can get steak at home?” He cherished his wife.
One time he was on Letterman, promoting a play that he was doing on Broadway. Letterman asked him why he decided to do the harder work on Broadway and leave the comfort of film where he was established. He answered that his wife wanted him to do it.
Letterman, the known adulterer, was incredulous that a woman would have such influence said, “So do you always do what your wife asks you do to?”[ii]
Newman answered, “Pretty much”… And then he added “I don’t know what that woman puts in my food.” Guys like Letterman never get it. And our researchers say that they also don’t know how to access the fuller potential that their spouses have to offer, despite all their swagger and independence. Like a lot of men, they get stuck in this adolescent view of passion that is principally about physical appeal, power, and charisma- not that there is anything wrong with them. They just aren’t enough to get to the deeper level.
When Professor Bernie Zilbergeld did a study on sexual satisfaction, he went into the study thinking that he would catalogue technique. So he took 50 couples that said they had a great sex life and 50 couples that said they had a poor sex life. All of them had to be 45 or older to get in the study. After examining in detail what they did, how they did it, how often they did it, what did he conclude?
There are two basic metrics that predicted whether couples were fulfilled or not. 1) The couples had maintained a close, connected, and trusting friendship and 2) they made romance a priority in their lives. In other words, you have to translate your life towards the emotional and spiritual plane to keep vital.
As I’ve mentioned before, our empirical researchers studied actual couples in a lab by having them live in an apartment for a weekend, recording their life everywhere except the bathroom and the bedroom. Thousands of couples over decades. Eventually, they came to see a certain structural paradigm for our interactions with each other.
Professor Gottman says that in the course of an ordinary day, we make emotional bids towards each other, most of them low key and innocuous, like choosing what television show to watch, others more emotionally packed, like reviewing a particularly bad day with your spouse to unpack an altercation you had at work that is really important to you.
They came to see these bids as significant for the relationship as they were opportunities for ‘attachment’. Attachment is that sense that someone is ‘there for you’. They have your back. They want to protect you, look out for you, treat you as special.
And each of these emotional bids, they noticed, present our spouse with an opportunity to either turn towards you or to turn away from you. Turning towards you is when you say “What a cruddy day at work” and your spouse says, “I’m sorry you are upset, let me make you a cup of tea and let’s talk about it.” Let’s be clear, I don’t think I’ve ever actually used those words myself, but they would be the ideal of someone ‘being there’ for you.
Or your spouse might turn away from you by saying, ‘really? I’ve got to answer this text right now’ or ‘any chance you could get me a beer and move to one side so I can see the game.’ In both cases, you feel like you are on your own with your issue, which sometimes is not such a big deal, but other times you feel like you are left hanging.
Each of these bids give your spouse (or your brother or your very close friend) the chance to build loyalty and trust with you by demonstrating that they are ‘there for you’ or they turn away from you which feels not loyal, not trustworthy, not there for you.
Trust and attachment are pretty foundational for humans. It turns out that our emotional and spiritual psyche is pretty critical for our total functioning. When we did the studies on it with infants and their mothers, ‘attachment turned out to be the basis through which babies learned to master their own fear, connected effectively with their parents, explored the world, and built confidence in their abilities with other people.” It is how we develop emotional availability and responsiveness towards others.[iii]
What our researchers noticed, particularly studying couples that haven’t been together for very long, is that a lot of their interaction revolved around how much they could trust each other. Can I trust you to do what you say? Can I trust that you are pretty much the same person that you think you are when you describe yourself to me? Can I trust that you will keep my secrets or stuff that I’m sensitive about? Can I trust that you will treat me more special than your other friends?
Trust and commitment are related to each other. So when we are just dating, we have more of a conditional commitment to each other, which our children understand. One of our college kids described the three kinds of relationships in college. Some guys were single (and looking), others were dating, and a small group at the fraternity were ‘wifed-up’. They were falling head over heels.
What a great thing that is. We rightly lift it up because it is a wonderful time of life. Professor Gottman reminds us that when we are falling in love, flush with all that joy and lust, we are also making a bigger commitment that leads pretty quickly to our biggest commitment in our lives, we trust someone else with our heart. He reminds us that we are a lot like Alice in Wonderland. She followed the white rabbit down the hole without hesitation. “She didn’t peer down the rabbit hole suspended between action and doubt. She jumped in with both feet, falling into the wonders and horrors of Wonderland.”[iv]
There are great wonders, but you have to be committed. And it always takes a leap of faith because you don’t know everything about this person. You have to make a judgment that they are trustworthy and that they will be there for you in the future when you find out more about them.
And the way that we humans build that trust and loyalty to each other is that we willingly make sacrifices for each other. We start to build some walls around our relationships, to cordon the off from other relationships. All our epic tales are expressions of this when Romeo comes after Juliet and keeps the feud between their families from undermining the loyalty to each other. Or, in one of my favorite movies, ‘Ever After’, which reverses the gender roles, and Cinderella breaks down the class walls and the gender stereotypes, so that the love she has with the Prince is not undone by the class strictures of France.
But in great commitment, we find mutual trust and loyalty, and we reciprocate love. Professor Gottman says that we make sacrifices for each other and he reminds us that the word ‘sacrifice’ is related to the word ‘sacred’. Because in the ideal, we make sacrifices for each other and we are happy to make sacrifices for each other. It makes our Beloved sacred. What beautiful dignity. As the Gospel of John puts it so eloquently. “Greater love hath no one than that they lay down their life for another.” And that is the sentiment that the best love stories so poignantly recount, how the hero is willing to risk life and all security to rescue his beloved or die trying. Go get her man. It is worth it because that is how you will find the deeper love.
And we know how that glowing ember of passion starts to fade in the marriages we actually have to live, once the movie drama of passion is over and we have to get in the car, pay the baby sitter and return to the suburbs. “It comes from two busy people leading busy and separate lives”, so often one spouse involved more and more with children, the other working longer and harder. So that they slowly, almost imperceptibly evolve from sharing a life together towards sharing an ever expanding ‘to do’ list, where “the partners rarely talk, rarely play, rarely get to be listened to, rarely dream together, rarely share adventures.”[v]
I just read the review of a book in the Wall Street Journal, written by a young mother, detailing this phenomenon for people in their 30’s right now, entitled “All Joy and No Fun”. I love my kids but they come at the expense of my romance. It happens to just about everyone.
And this is where one other gender difference comes into play, that probably plays out differently in gay and lesbian relationships. “Generally most women want to have sex when they already feel emotionally close, but for men, sex is a way of becoming emotionally close.” And this difference shows up at the end of the day when both of you are tired and not real creative.
I can’t resolve that impasse today but I was struck that if you zoom out of your life, the way through this difficult period is to cultivate intimate conversation with each other. You have to show interest and understanding of your partner’s inner world.
And you are fascinated about that, even if you haven’t seemed interested in some time. What does that mean. It means that you can tell them what you are feeling and that you can ask them what they are feeling. It means that you ask open ended questions that let them become reflective. It means that you follow up those questions by probing for a deeper understanding of your partner’s thought and feelings. It means expressing compassion, empathy and understanding. You make them feel heard and that you are there for them. [vi] That makes intimacy, creates loyalty, so I still recommend a dinner out on Friday if it can facilitate bringing you closer together. That would be good.
And you know what you get once you start to build that into your life and you start coming together with more strength and depth. You start to ‘cherish’ each other. It is a great concept that could stand to be revived. Cherish is what you do when you are daydreaming on your commute and you remember the way your partner touched you and how endearing it is. It is thinking about something that made both of you laugh. Sometimes it is being at a conference at some great hotel with a beautiful view, taking it all in, and saying to yourself, “I wish he was here” because it just isn’t quite the same.
Cherishing each other is when you think of the things that are unique about your partner, the things that make them special, even when they are not around, probably especially when they are not around. Aretha, the Queen of soul, had that great song about “Each morning I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.” And on our best days, we are subliminally connected to our partner across time and space. It is the power of love in our lives, that we continue to cherish each other even in death. It a profound power.[vii]
And it’s opposite is so damaging, even though it happens in every relationship when we turn away from each other, when we get frustrated, when we don’t feel taken care of, when we are independent or feeling betrayed.
We can start to trash the relationship. We know each other’s secrets, our anxieties, and we can exploit them to hurt each other like no one else can. We let these people in our inner sanctum and if they abuse the trust, our vitriol can win the day and we lash out in words that lacerate and intentionally wound.
And when we do it over and over, we end up becoming independent of each other, resentful of each other, idealizing other people and how we might be more fulfilled somewhere else rather than here.
Everybody slides down this slippery slope at some point, feeling frustrated, unhappy, alone even though you are with another person, and like you are in a rut that the two of you can’t entirely escape.
I wish our psyches came with a warning signal that read this mountain has loose snow pack and is dangerous terrain to traverse, go back towards firmer ground’. Because the antidote to resentment is gratitude. You want to build on the part of you that is grateful for your spouse and grateful for the life you have built together. The happiest couples that we studied all share the common trait that when they stop and think about their relationship, they are not only grateful for it, they can say to themselves that ditching this relationship would be one of the worst decisions they could possibly imagine. It has become a cornerstone for them.
And with that as something of the ideal, that we want the us’ in our life, the we’ in our life to become a cornerstone foundation, what I hope for you is that you can find ways to increase the ratio of gratitude to resentment in your relationship. I hope for you that you can find three or four things that you are genuinely grateful for in your spouse for every characteristic that you resent in your partner. And there are no relationships that we have yet studied that do not have resentments or things that even the happiest people wouldn’t like to change in their spouse. But when that equation gets into a productive mode, when it is 3 or 4 to one, people have an endearing way of describing things they would like to change in their spouses but they’ve learned to live with them and figure out a way to work around them, even if they remain the subject of some humor at the appropriate time. As our researchers say, the things that you would like to change in them are still there but you have entered in to “positive sentiment override”. I love you, in spite of…
You can see that spiritually, when you are in this space, you are edging closer to the type of unconditional love that God has for each and every one of us. I want you to improve and I’m going to love you when you fail, hoping the best for you, encouraging it, but the love will stay committed.
And I hope you can go with that because we know what a powerful potential that it can unleash. And that powerful potential is when you start to complete your spouse just because you know what they would need to become fulfilled and you want to give them that just because you can. And when that is reciprocal, when both of you start to see the project of completing each other and developing potential and fulfillment in each other, understanding each other well enough that you not only know what they need but how to give it to them, that is a power, make no mistake a spiritual power, that is the promise of love in our lives. It is by nature quite intimate because each of us are unique.
And that kind of love makes us not just great romance partners, it makes us sturdy family people. It makes us deeper friends. It makes us positive community builders. It makes us children of God. Love is a beautiful thing. Make that your aim. As Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” You won’t regret it. Amen.
[i] Dean Ornish, “Love and Survival” p. 3.
[ii] I got this story from John Gottman’s “The Science of Trust”, p. 256. The reflections that follow are a compilation of insights from chapters 7-10. I take them out of context and order in this sermon
[iii] Ibid. p. 343 and 344. These studies by Harry Harlow were actually done on monkeys but the broad summary here also applies to humans.
[iv] Ibid. p. 343.
[v] Ibid. p. 257, 258.
[vi] Ibid. p. 259.
[vii] Ibid. p. 339.