BE NICE

Dr. John Gottman’s off-quoted four decades of research on marriage, from which he has compiled reliable predictors of divorce and trustworthy principles for marital success, can be summarized in this advice: “Be nice.” Amazing. Decades of scientific research has discovered that people prefer to be married to someone who is nice to them. Whodathunk?  In fact, his data from observing 4,000 couples shows that satisfied couples make each other feel good twenty times more than they make each other feel bad. Even during conflict, they maintain a ratio of 5:1, making each other feel good five times more than they make each other feel bad during disagreements. Such a mathematical approach invites the simple self-check of identifying one’s planned actions and verbiage as a plus or minus on the “feel good“ scale. That is, is it going to make our partner feel good? If not, then how is unkind look, comment, or act worth it, if the goal is a happy marriage? 

Marriage counselors are often faced with the initial task of getting partners to quit blaming each other for marital problems, and to begin focusing instead on their interactive patterns that have pit them against one another. These uncaring patterns fraught with misunderstanding have not “felt nice,“ and thus have served as a rationalization to each “victim” to not be nice in return. That is, rudeness, inconsideration, and failure  on the part of one’s spouse to “be there“ in a supportive way leaves a person defensive, or self – protective, thus justifying behavior that is not protective of the other. The relationship is thus  cannibalized. As a result, “communication” becomes a toxic swirl of harshness, criticism, blame, and defensiveness. In this toxic swirl, one or both partners is more interested in communicating how they feel than in protecting the other’s feelings by how they communicate.

What need happen is the recognition that instead of being torn asunder by in-fighting, the two can instead be drawn together by mutual protection in pursuit of a mutual mission (“Shared Meaning” in Gottman terminology). This Recognition results in a shift from “me” to “we.” Partners switch from protection of self to protection of other, and protection of “us.”Marriage is a union; the two are one. To wound one’s partner is to wound “us.’  Not worth it. To defend the other with the same level of interest as protecting oneself is vulnerable; it comes without guarantee that the other half of the union will be equally protective. The apostle Paul – ironically a bachelor – summed it up well in Romans 12:18 when he admonished, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with others.“ This removes the rationalization for self-protective, self–centered behavior… “Well s/he was mean, first.” That justification might have worked on the playground, but it will destroy a marriage. Adults go first.

This is not easy, of course; no easier than when warring countries call a cease-fire and sit together together at table to work out a peace accord. Nothing about restoring peace can be easy after so many wounds have been inflicted. But it is done. Peace and reconciliation are worth it. Trust between former enemies is thereafter built, safe interaction by safe interaction. One comes to experience a former enemy as one’s present and future friend through now kind, protective words and deeds. 

If a person cannot be nice to the person they profess to love—even with the help of a counselor trained in couples therapy—then there are a couple of things potentially going on. One possibility is that this person has no reason to think that past injuries won’t continue. Perhaps there has been no meaningful conversation where the hurt partner has felt understood, and their wounded emotions validated. Perhaps there has been no apology (one without excuses or rationalizations). Or perhaps that partner needs individual counseling. for, if one can’t love and protect others, then there is a need help and healing. If one can’t stop blaming their partner for all of the marital problems, then intervention is needed. Ideally, the partner will recognize this for themselves. All relationships have interactive patterns that exist on a spectrum of health. Most could be healthier; that means changes on both sides of the patterned equation. Best to begin with oneself. Rarely (never?) does it work well when the victimized partner suggests the other’s need for counseling – or worse – proceeds to diagnose the other as a narcissist or having bipolar or borderline personality traits. That may be the case, but better to hear it from a professional who can offer support  and tools for change. 

Only then will the harsh, critical, blaming, defensive cycle change through humble mutual focus on the interactive patterns. Only then will friendship and mutual protection replace reciprocal volleys of criticism, blame, and defensiveness. Only then will the nice-to-nasty ratio rise, such that the marriage is each partner’s safest place on earth. 

HOME AS ATTACHMENT HAVEN

Home should be a place where everyone experiences safety, security, acceptance, nurture, comfort, care, love, and respect. Emotionally healthy people are relationally healthy toward others. Hurt people hurt people and loved people love people. It starts in the home. Home should be the healthiest emotional environment we have; the place where we are most loved, respected, honored, celebrated, and protected. Home is to be a refueling station; a retreat center; a MASH unit where we receive repair after being beat up by the world, infused with renewed strength and confidence to be sent out for the next round. Parents, of course, can’t expect to always receive these from children; it is the place of children to receive them from adults, such that they can supply the same to their own children, in time. That leaves the  adults in the house to unselfishly provide for each other safety, security, acceptance, nurture, comfort, care, love, and respect. This ensures a healthy supply for both parents to drawn upon as they dispense such other-centered attachment needs to their children.
Some adults enter parenthood with attachment wounds—deficits from childhood in these areas. It is harder for them to give what they did not receive. They reach into their experiential “bag” and it’s relatively empty of these experiences. In fact, the opposites might have been the norm. Mom or dad (or both) might’ve been physically gone for emotionally absent, due to work or educational demands, deployment, distractions, ill health, or mental illness. Or, abuse of a physical or emotional nature may have been normative. Whatever the case, the hardwiring of childhood safety, security, love, and nurture were only loosely wired, if at all. Many of these disadvantaged parents do their best to give their children what they themselves were not given. In doing so, they guess at what is normal. They model their behavior on someone other than their parents. They reach into someone else’s experiential bag and emulate what they find. This is the best that can be done, short of reparative experiences of safety, security, acceptance, nurture, comfort, care, love, and respect, post-childhood.
Parents with attachment wounds should not criticize themselves, nor be criticized. Rather, need to give themselves grace, and be patiently shown it by others, along with reparative attachment experiences by those fortunate enough to have received them. Attachment–disadvantaged must resolve to not repeat the negative patterns they experienced from their parents and caregivers, but to recognize what they lacked, and learn what they and their children need. Attachment wounds become a motivator to investigate how to provide it better than our own parents provided. Reparative experiences can be provided by an other-centered spouse with a healthier childhood attachment history. Reparative experiences can also be provided by God, the perfect Parent, who fully accepts us in our sin, loves us unconditionally, nurtures us constantly, and provides an eternal safe place of secure belonging. In the arms of this Father, many have been “born again,” with a new “childhood” in relation to a perfect Parent. As God faithfully provides every attachment need, they come to find a wealth of experiences from which to draw as they love, protect, respect and nurture their own children, and others.

Best Christmas Gift: Extending Unconditional Love

 

Togetherness. It happens at Christmas. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Yes, it is. Togetherness means drawing close; but sometimes that feels like a collision. The trick is managing our togetherness with other-centeredness toward each others’ speed and direction.
If you’ve ever heard me speak or teach on relationships, you know that “other-centeredness” is how I define love. As an expert on the worlds of your loved ones, you know some of things that makes them feel good; you have knowledge of what they enjoy; you have experience in how words affect them; how decisions feel respectful and empowering or disregarding and defeating. You know some things they like and some things they hate. And you know what contributes to their sense of well-being and protection. In other words, you know how to love the people in your life in other-centered ways.
This Christmas, give the gift of other centeredness. Extend unconditional love without regard for reciprocation. Go first in offering respect, honor, kindness, gentleness, patience, and protection. Resist the temptation to even look for anything in return. Let the joy be in the giving, not in receiving. Love from the overflow of God’s love, who drew close to you in Christ despite it all, offering grace, forgiveness, and mercy that is new every morning.

All Relationships Come Down to This

There are people you count as friends. There are people whom you most decidedly do not count as friends. What’s the difference? Around your friends you feel good; accepted; nurtured, protected, maybe even loved. You trust your friends; you presume they’re there for you, as you’re there for them; that they’ve “got your back,” as you have theirs. “Enemies” by definition are not for you, but against you. They don’t have your back, they’re stabbing you in the back. And for those of us not in third grade, anymore, we probably don’t count anyone as an enemy, but there are people we don’t number as “friends,” either. We just don’t feel special around them; there’s not a connection or bond we’re going to seek out when we need nurture. There are others—friends—that we trust to meet those needs, or at least to wallow with us in our neediness.

That’s it. A friend doesn’t even have to be successful at meeting our needs; they just have to really, really want to, and feel really badly when they’re not able to. That feels great! We feel cared for; connected; nurtured; not alone. There are people in our corner. Friends.

Marriage is more about friendship than about romance. In essence, we get married because we feel good around this person. They make us feel better than does anyone on the planet. In fact, they make us feel so good that we want to make that feeling permanent. Sure, there’s romance, but romance without friendship is just sensual. It’s emotional and maybe physical, but as enjoyable as those are, they won’t sustain a marriage. Marriage is sustained at the level of attachment needs. And attachment needs have more in common with friendship than with passion.

What are attachment needs? They are identified in Attachment Theory as “the bottom line” of human relationships; even of human formation. Ideally, our attachment needs are met by our parents or primary caregivers. They include acceptance, safety, belonging, nurture, comfort, love, and respect. That is, we don’t have to “be more like our brother” in order to be loved by mom; we are accepted for who we are and who we aren’t. We have a  secure sense of belonging the family; we’re not threatened with abandonment, or cut lose to fend for ourselves. Our primary protectors actually keep us safe; they don’t endanger us. We find nurture and encouragement to become who we’re wired to be. When we’re hurt, or sad we find comfort in these human relationships. It is in such emotionally and physically safe relationships that we discover love and respect as a human being. From this base of human attachment, we have a place from which to launch and replicate other healthy relationships.

That’s where relationships live. All relationships—parents and children, spouses, friendships, neighbors, co-workers. All relationships come down to this… feeling good. Do we make them feel good? Do they make us feel good? “Feeling good” comes down to feeling attached to someone who is safe to be attached to; someone who is there for us, not against us; someone who accepts us, nurtures us, comforts us, loves us; someone who will be there in our time of need. A friend.

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has observed couples in relationship for forty years and concluded that if there is one thing that holds together a marriage more than anything else, it’s friendship. That’s not very sexy; it’s not filled with “romantical” images. But a lover who isn’t a friend is a dangerous playmate.  If we’re going to superglue ourselves to someone for life, better that someone be friendly than merely sexy. Attachment will soon become more important than attraction. In fact, attraction will grow stronger with attachment, as what could be more attractive than someone who is safe, nurturing, accepting, and comforting? Relationships come down to that.