jasonbwatson

December 2, 2014

Scientific evidence

Business Insider recently posted an article by Emily Esfahani Smith that originally appeared in The Atlantic. The article was entitled, “Science Says Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits.” Interestingly, the two basic traits the article highlighted were kindness and generosity. “There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. … [A]mong couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.”

It is always fascinating to me how science continues to affirm what the Bible teaches. Scripture makes it clear that we are to be kind to each other and to consider others above ourselves. Ephesians 4:32 says “Be kind to one another” (ESV) and Philippians 2:3 says, “be humble and consider others more important than yourselves” (CEV). Those passages are referring to how believers are to behave generally–they are not specific to marriage. If, however, God has called us to that kind of behavior with anyone, how much more so must He expect it of spouses?

The article quotes Ty Tashiro, psychologist and author of The Science of Happily Ever After, as reporting that only three in every ten people who get married “remain in healthy, happy marriages.” As a result of the high divorce rate and the concerns about the impact that these divorces would have on children, psychologists began to study couples in an effort to “determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were.” John Gottman is one of those psychologists, and he has been studying couples for four decades. For a 1990 study he designed a lab at the University of Washington that resembles a bed and breakfast and set about inviting couples to spend the day at his lab so he could observe them. During that time, Gottman made what Smith calls “a critical discovery.”

His discovery was that as they interacted throughout the day the couples Gottman was observing would make what he calls “bids,” which are invitations for the spouse to engage. How the recipient of the bid responds goes a long way in determining how healthy the relationship will be. The example bid in the article is, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” Obviously no relationship is going to thrive or fail on the basis of a mutual interest in bird watching, or lack thereof. The reason the response to the bids is so important is that the response is really to the one offering the bid, not the actual subject of the bid. In other words, if my wife were to say something about a beautiful bird outside (an entirely plausible scenario, in my case), my response–good or bad–is really to my wife. The bird itself is tangential. Responding favorably, either by getting up to look at the bird or, at a minimum, asking her to tell me about it, indicates that what matters to her matters to me–which really indicates that she matters to me.

Gottman found that those couples who had divorced when he conducted a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” one one-third of the time, whereas the couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87% of the time! In other words, nearly nine times out of ten, the recipient of the bid had affirmed his or her spouse through the response to the bid. No wonder these couples were still together.

Smith’s article goes on to explore further what kindness is. Interestingly, she observes that there are two ways of looking at kindness: as a fixed trait or as a muscle. If you view kindness as a fixes trait, your position is that you (or anyone) either have kindness or you do not, and that’s just the way it is. If you view it as a muscle, however, you recognize that while some people may naturally have more of it than others, it is a trait that can be developed in and by anyone, and the more it is exercised the stronger it will become. Of those who see kindness as a muscle, Smith comments, “They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.” The article further examines the fact that kindness includes generosity–the generosity of actual gifts, sure, but more importantly a generosity towards your spouse’s intentions. Do I give my wife the benefit of the doubt, do I seek to understand her perspective or the circumstances surrounding whatever it is that happened–or do I simply get upset when things do not go the way I wanted them to go?

Smith also touches on the fact that while “being there” for your spouse when circumstances are difficult and when trials come, just as important, if not more so, is the reaction when your spouse shares good news. “How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.” The article highlights four possible types of response, called passive destructive, passive constructive, active destructive and active constructive. The best response, of course, is the active constructive one, because it focuses attention on the spouse delivering the good news, celebrates the news and takes a genuine and active interest in it.

I could go on at length in examining biblical passages that are supported by all of this scientific evidence, but I suspect you are familiar with most of it anyway. Once again, science provides support–evidence, if you will–for exactly what God has said all along.

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