Marriage Advice That’s Practical…And Biblical

I love it when social science affirms what we find in the Bible if for no other reason than it gives me confidence that the Bible is God’s Word to us. If the Bible is true, and of course I believe it is, then we should expect to see it accurately describe the world we live in. So I was glad Charles passed on to me an article on marriage research that appeared in The Atlantic last year. The author, Emily Smith, writes about the research done by psychologists John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute in New York.

A team of researchers brought in thousands of couples to participate in a longitudinal study in which they initially measured physiological differences in couples while engaging in conversation with each other about their relationship. Six years later they checked back in with the couples to find out how their marriages were doing. Based on the data gathered, the Gottmans separated the couples into Masters and Disasters. The Masters were those couples in a self described happy marriage and the Disasters were the couples who were either no longer together or in chronically unhappy marriages.

When it comes to marriage, what determines whether you are a Master or a Disaster?

The core difference is that the Masters had “created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them [husband and wife] more emotionally and thus physically comfortable where for the Disasters’ conversations were more confrontational even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane issues.

1. Relational Connection. The team, led by the Gottman’s, wanted to learn more about how couples create the right kind of relational climate so they observed 130 couples as they interacted in normal life situations. Gottman noted that throughout the day husbands and wives would make small requests for relational connection with each other and the response to those requests is crucial. For example a husband might say to his wife, “I’m excited about the football game on Saturday. It will be good to see Drew Lock in action.” He’s not just talking football. He’s also looking to make a relational connection with his wife over the game.

The wife now has a choice in how she responds. Gottman says that she can either “turn toward” or “turn away” from her husband. “Turning toward” her husband might be as simple as asking, “Who’s Drew Lock?” or something more sophisticated such as “Corby Jones was the last freshman to start at quarterback for the Tigers.” “Turning away” is easy too. It might be as simple as continuing to scan Facebook or saying, “I wish we weren’t going to the game.”

One thing the research for sure reveals is that each spouse’s response to the other’s request for relational connection is very, very important. Couples who had divorced after six years and a “turn toward” rate of 33% meaning that only one out of three of their requests for relational connection were responded to favorably. The couples who after six years were together in a marriage they were happy with had a “turn toward” rate of 87% meaning almost nine out of ten requests for relational connection received positive responses.

2. What’s Your Focus? Another important finding in the research concerns whether a spouse focuses on the positive or the negative. Gottman says that Masters observe their spouse looking for things they can appreciate or things he/she is doing right while Disasters are quick to find things their spouse is doing wrong. But there’s even more to this point. People who begin to look for the negative miss the positive and end up seeing negative even when it’s not there.

Once spouses start looking for the negative in each other, once criticism and fault finding become the norm, it’s hard to hold on. Masters aren’t necessarily better people who commit fewer sins and mistakes. It’s their focus. They are willing to overlook their spouse’s flaws and appreciate their spouse’s good qualities.

1 Peter 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.


3. Be Generous About Your Spouse’s Intentions. Paul Tripp helped me a lot when he said, “We don’t live by the facts. We live by our interpretation of the facts.” Fact: Husband works late. That could be interpreted by the wife to mean that he prefers work over her or she could interpret his working late to mean that he’s trying hard to provide for their needs. The reality is that in a very average day we have to interpret many of our spouse’s intentions. Why was he late? Why did she say that? Why was he stressed? Why did she forget? We can either give them the benefit of the doubt or withhold it. Masters are generous toward their spouses intentions while Disasters rarely give their spouse the benefit of the doubt.

4. Celebrate Good News. You have heard that spouses need to support each other in the bad times but the research shows that it’s more important how we celebrate the good times. One study found 4 different ways couples responded to each other’s good news:

Let’s say that one partner had recently received the excellent news that she got into medical school. She would say something like “I got into my top choice med school!”

If her partner responded in a passive destructive manner, he would ignore the event. For example, he might say something like: “You wouldn’t believe the great news I got yesterday! I won a free t-shirt!”If her partner responded in a passive constructive way, he would acknowledge the good news, but in a half-hearted, understated way. A typical passive constructive response is saying “That’s great, babe” as he texts his buddy on his phone.

In the third kind of response, active destructive, the partner would diminish the good news his partner just got: “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”

Finally, there’s active constructive responding. If her partner responded in this way, he stopped what he was doing and engaged wholeheartedly with her: “That’s great! Congratulations! When did you find out? Did they call you? What classes will you take first semester?”

As Christians I think that it is important to learn techniques and skills to help our marriages. Those are good gifts from God that we benefit from. But I think that far more important than any skill or technique is husbands and wives walking with Christ and yielding to him as he shapes and molds their character.

The research shows that that a good marriage is characterized what we find in Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control.”


*Originally posted on Oct. 1, 2015

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