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.

April 17, 2014

The Uselessness of Stigma

An interesting article appeared recently on the web site of The Atlantic. The article, written by Conor Friedersdorf, was posted on the morning of April 10 and is entitled “Why Gay Marriage Opponents Should Not Be Treated Like Racists.” It was interesting both because of the way in which it addressed this issue and because of where it was published. I am not a regular reader of The Atlantic but I have certainly read its pages numerous times over the years and I have to confess I was a bit surprised–pleasantly–to find this article there.

Friedersdorf begins his article this way: “Liberals generally think of themselves as proponents of tolerance, pluralism, and diversity. Some liberals are also eager to stigmatize and punish opponents of gay marriage.” He then asks if this stigmatization is a betrayal of liberal values. Excellent question, that. In response, Friedersdorf writes that if it is a betrayal it is one that most liberals find justified, one that “is no more problematic than the decision to exclude white supremacists from polite society.”

In support of this position Friedersdorf cites an e-mail correspondent who said that objecting to a boycott of a company whose CEO gave financial support to California’s Proposition 8 (which defined marriage as between a man and a woman) was akin to finding the Montgomery bus boycott objectionable. Friedersdorf went on to cite Will Oremus who said, in Slate, “Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others.”

Interestingly, Friedersdorf agrees with Oremus that homosexuals should have the right to marry. He disagrees with him, however, in the comparison of gay and interracial marriage. Why? “Opposition to interracial marriage was all but synonymous with a belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another,” Friedersdorf writes. But, he continues, “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.” The end of that sentence is followed by an asterisk which refers to this footnote: “One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians—that is to say, they haven’t interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive.”

Now it will not come as surprise to anyone who has read my opinions on this issue before that I absolutely disagree with Friedersdorf on the matter of gay marriage. I am wholeheartedly opposed to allowing marriage to be defined as anything other than the union of one man and one woman. I appreciate Friedersdorf’s recognition, though, of the fact that homosexual marriage is not a civil rights issue and is certainly not akin to segregation of public buses in Montgomery or interracial marriage. Friedersdorf believes just as passionately as I do that I am wrong, as are those who think like I do. Refreshingly, though, he recognizes that we can disagree for legitimately held beliefs and we can disagree without calling each other names. Referring to those who believe as I do he writes, “But it’s not credible to argue that they’re in the same moral category as the bigots who sustained Jim Crow, or that the narrow right they’d withhold has done similar harm and thus warrants the same response (even if you believe, as I do, that withholding the name marriage is wrong and harmful).”

Friedersdorf–again, refreshingly–also makes the point that the idea “that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others” is a position held by many people based on many factors and characteristics yet somehow only those who oppose gay marriage seem to be vilified by the political left. Why?

As he wraps up his column Friedersdorf makes a couple of very astute observations about the use of stigma as a strategy in what should be intelligent debate. First, “What I think, in fact, is that stigma is an overrated tool for effecting change, because once you’ve gotten to a threshold within a community where lots of powerful people will stigmatize a behavior, the point had already been reached where it would be defeated without stigma.” I don’t know that I agree with him that the behavior in this case–the opposition to homosexual marriage–would be defeated without stigmatizing it but I certainly agree that stigmatizing is not an effective means of achieving meaningful change. What I think is that stigma tends to be used most often and most loudly when there is no legitimate and coherent argument to be made in opposition. Thumper famously said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Those who wield stigma tend to abide by a different adage, one that goes like this: “If you can’t say something logical and effective to counter their argument, call them names and compare them to horrible people of the past instead.”

Second, Friedersdorf writes, “Those who rely on stigma are tied to a tactic that is employed most when needed least, often against groups already marginalized within a community; no wonder stigma is correlated more strongly with signaling self-righteousness than effecting change. That isn’t to say stigma is never appropriate—just that engagement and persuasion is almost always the better option, as it is on gay marriage.” Again, I disagree with Friedersdorf that those who oppose gay marriage are “already marginalized” but I agree entirely that engagement and persuasion is the better option. Not just with gay marriage, either. You will see the stigma attack unleashed by liberals in the evolution versus creation debate, too, among other examples.

So…what’s the bottom line? Conor Friedersdorf and I completely disagree on the issue of gay marriage. But we disagree respectfully and without calling each other names or attaching stigma. We might even, if we had a sit-down face-to-face chat, find other areas in which we agree. One thing we definitely do agree on is this: stigma is a wimpy weapon, one that brings nothing valuable to any discussion and, in fact, does more to demean and belittle those who employ it than those again whom it is being employed.

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