I have been married twice. The first time, wanting to make it succeed, I got a book that I’d heard about on the radio called ‘A Couples Guide to Communication.’ by John Gottman and Cliff Notarius. These two people researched successful married couples and unsuccessful couples. They developed a set of strategies for communication which were used by the successful couple. I tried to put these strategies into action with my partner, but this good intention and practice was not enough to keep us together. I was very disappointed. Who wants a failed marriage?
With this experience in mind I was interested to read recently that John Gottman has furthered his research, and refined the criteria for a successful marriage down to two things. He says that he can predict with more than 90% accuracy who will stay together and who will not by watching couples talk together and looking for just two things.
The first thing has to do with what he calls ‘bids’. The situation goes like this. A couple is watching television but as usual there are lots of other activities going on. One says to the other ‘Did you know what I was just thinking?’ The other says ‘Not now! I’m watching a show!’ The ‘bid’ for attention has been rebuffed. When the ‘bid’ for attention is accepted, the conversation goes ‘Did you know what I was just thinking?’ “No, what?’ “
Well, when I saw that thing on the TV it reminded me of something that happened at work today. My boss said that I was doing a good job.’ “That’s kool. You do a good job.’ The ‘bid’ for attention has been accepted.
That’s Gottman’s first criterion. Couples that are successful in relationship often accept the bids for attention of the other. The second criterion for staying together has to do with being appreciative. Here is a quote from a newspaper report about it.
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman said, the Atlantic reported. “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
The findings show the more someone witnesses kindness the more likely they will be to practice it themselves, leading to a loving and generous relationship.
“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
The thing about this second criterion is that the researchers noticed that successful couples were more relaxed, and less ‘hyper’ when they were discussing things, and this made the conversation go better than if both parties got worked up about an issue that they were discussing. About this second criterion, I remember being in a German class. I used to want to improve, so I would write something more often than the others. What I did not like was that, after having made myself vulnerable by putting my efforts ‘out there’ in writing, the other members of the class were just so eager to find the mistakes, rather than to discuss the idea or to appreciate the effort I had made.
So if these are the criteria for success, and we know that, left to our own devices 60% of marriages fail, what does that say about how most of us are as people?
I know for myself, that even before I could think and reason I was being talked about in our family for being a ‘sensitive weed.’ I have since read in a book called ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ that being ‘highly sensitive’ is a genetic, physiological thing. Does this mean that I should not be married because I cannot be relaxed in conversation about important issues?
Reflecting on this I must say that I like his research. Since having read about this research, as far as I am able to choose, I am committing myself to being the kind of person who recognises and accepts the ‘bids for attention’ of my partner. I will look for things that I can appreciate.
But there is one element which I think that John Gottman has neglected in his research, and that is the element of context. Let me give you an example. Doing Church on a Sunday morning begins with some anticipation. Lots of questions are floating in the air. Will there be any people? How will the relationships go? If I am ‘off side’ with one or two people, how will that go? Am I in a space where my inner sense of who I am as priest matches the outer self that my job requires to me (I can’t solemnly pronounce the forgiveness of people’s sins if I myself have not been forgiven, or am feeling full of guilt). So before church on Sunday mornings I like to be quiet so that I can do the job as best I can. The same happens after church. So much emption is flowing from the interactions I have had with others, and from how God has spoken to me, that I need a sleep. So on Sundays, my capacity to accept the ‘bids’ for attention from Robyn are not as great as they might be. This is not because I don’t want to be kind, but because the context of life, along with being a ‘sensitive weed’ makes me less capable at that time to do what John Gottman says makes for a lasting marriage. So the context within which a marriage is forged will affect how people work within it.
Another piece of research says that many people get divorced over unemployment and worries about money. This is a context issue.
Being a parish priest and being a husband are not easy vocations to put together because the context of being a parish priest sometimes makes it more difficult to be a good husband. (This of course leaves out how being a husband impinges on being a parish priest: I think that having Robyn for a partner makes me a better parish priest than I have been, but that is another reflection!)
Does being a Christian make a difference? Again, the research says ‘No’. Divorce rates and domestic violence are as prevalent in the ‘Bible belt’ of the U.S. as anywhere. But for me, I think that being a Christian does make a difference. When both of us are either succeeding or failing, the capacity to pray together about either situation puts us into a larger context: living before the face of God. Living before the face of God makes me accountable to God for how I am and makes me want to give my best. Bringing myself before God in prayer makes me aware of my character flaws and changes them over time, as I ask God to work with me. Being Christianly married makes me say ‘sorry’ as a normal response because I know about God’s forgiveness of those who repent. I can’t imagine myself married without the context of being a Christian as part of it.
So the research is helpful to guide my conscious choices. The context of being priest and Christian both make this easier and harder at different times. I continually ask the Spirit to work on me at the level that is ‘closer than hands and feet, closer than breathing