I’ve been married for twenty-five years and I’ve never figured out how. I don’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing, though that may also may be true. I mean I have never really tried to figure out how one is to be married – and certainly not married well. I suppose this is how we all do it. We look around at other marriages, primarily those of our parents, and (if we are trying to do it well) imitate what works and eschew what does not. Then there’s some trial and error. But we all seem to begin with the assumption that, if we are decent people, it will work itself out. Our conversation this week left me thinking that there must be more, not just in how we approach our own partnerships, but in what that might tell us about how we relate to the rest of the world.
Sometimes, people ask how we have made it so long. The only thing I have thought of to say is that, in the end, we are for each other. We want what’s best for each other. We want each other to be happy and fulfilled. We’re friends. In Just Good Friends, Elizabeth Stuart says, in questioning whether marriage should be held up as an ideal, “In my experience if you ask a happily married couple the secret of their relationship, nine times ouf of ten the answer will run along the lines of ‘we are friends first and foremost,’ or ‘she/he is my best friend.’ Science says we’re right.
John Gottman studies couples in his “love lab.” It’s not as skeezy as it sounds. The love lab is essentially a condo that’s bugged. Couples stay there and Gottman watches them interact as they go about their normal business. He also records some physiological data, such as heart rate and blood pressure. From this research, he has developed seven principles for a good relationship. Briefly, they are:
- Enhance your love maps. By this, he means simply knowing about your partner. It is hard to love someone that you don’t know anything about, so your knowledge of their day-to-day existence is a map to how you can love them well.
- Nurture your fondness and admiration. Spend time together creating positive memories. Think about the things you like about your partner. Experience your partner in environments where they thrive.
- Turn toward each other instead of away. You’re going to have conflict and it is tempting to avoid one another to avoid conflict. Don’t. Be on the same team. Be in it together. Don’t check out.
- Let your partner influence you. Mutually honor and respect one another and take seriously that your partner has their own views. Listen and allow them to shape what you think.
- Solve your solvable problems. Many problems are solvable with good conversation and a little compromise.
- Overcome gridlock. There are also some unsolvable problems. These are usually deeply held beliefs or the residual effects of our upbringing that most likely won’t change. This does not have to be the death of a relationship. By learning to see the problems for what they are, couples can develop coping strategies. We don’t fix the problem, but we learn to live with it, perhaps even laugh about it.
- Create shared meaning. This is not just about values, but shared, ritualized experiences and ways of remembering those values. This might be religious or cultural practice, such as holidays, but it could also be something more mundane, like a standing, weekly Friday night date.
There is much more in this book that is well worth reading, but at the heart of all of it is friendship. Friendship, as we’ve discussed, is a kind of love that requires mutuality. It is undertaken by equals.
This of course flies in the face of our inherited understandings of marriage. Men are told to be the head of the household. Consequently, men are less likely to let their wives influence them. Men are also more easily “flooded,” a condition where negative feelings overload our ability to process, which puts us in fight or flight mode and makes it impossible to have a productive conversation. When Gottman studied conservative couples who expressly stated that the man is in charge, he found that the happy couples did not actually function that way. One man said, “I woudn’t think about making a decision she disagreed with. That would be very disrespectful. We talk and talk about it till we both agree, and then I make the decision.” In happy families, it seems that male headship is just a pat on the head. Interestingly, when Gottman studied same-sex couples, he found that they are much better at de-escalating conflict and are more successful at what he calls “repair attempts,” the little peace offerings we make after a fight. Much of marital conflict is gender conflict born of socialization around proscribed gender roles. It turns out that smashing the patriarchy can save your marriage.
Richard Rohr says that marriage is learning to love just one person so that we might learn to love the world. There is an implied intentionality to this, an approch to a loving relationship as a spiritual practice that forms us into people who can have loving relationships. So how do we extend Gottman’s principles beyond our intimate partnerships to our other relationships?
I started thinking about our service in Gayle’s Kitchen at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church. These are fleeting, casual relationships and in the past, I have treated them as transactional. They need food; I give food. But having done it now for about ten years, I know that I see the same faces. Some people have been going there as long as I have. As we’ve gotten more volunteers, it frees us up to talk to the guests, so now I know things about them. I have love maps for what are essentially strangers. I have fond affection for them. Many have physical challenges with illness and lack of hygiene, but I turn toward them and not away. They share their perspective with me and it influences the way I see the world, the ways I might help them. In their lives there is an abundance of solvable and unsolvable problems and we try to work through them. We even create shared meaning because this service has become ritualized in a way. It means a lot to all of us. I say all this only to testify that Rohr is right; I have experienced it.
By practicing good relationships based on mutuality, equality, and respect – friendship – in our closest and most intimate relationships, we are able to practice those same things in other relationships, even fleeting ones. Charitable efforts have long failed to achieve meaningful change because they have been transactional. They are bandages on gaping wounds. Real change comes in going beyond charity and service to standing with and walking alongside those who are suffering. Being an ally is being a friend. Being friends first with those we are closest to nurtures a posture of friendship toward the world. Or, as the nuns might say, a personal, intimate relationship with everyone, a radically promiscuous relationship of continually falling in love with the world.