Sweet Nothings During Supper

Posted on 2, Nov

Today is my 36th wedding anniversary! Tonight I will take my wife Patti out to dinner and speak sweet nothings into her ear before during and after we dine. Why all this positive table talk? It’s because we really do try to practice what we’ve written about in our book Beyond the Bliss: Discovering Your Uniqueness in Marriage. In a chapter on communication we write: 

             Over the years we’ve discovered that how we communicate with one another is just as important as what we communicate. It’s not enough, says the Apostle Paul, for Christians to simply speak the truth to one another; we must do so with a loving motive and in a loving manner.

             And yet, when conflicts arise, it’s amazingly easy for two loving people to lapse into communication that is marked by hostility rather than loving concern for the other. Don’t you agree? Certainly there will be moments, perhaps even seasons, of conflict in the best of marriages. We’re all capable of irritating one another, and of becoming more than a little angry when we feel wronged. We’re suggesting, however, that we should proceed with caution regarding how we express our frustrations toward one another. The rule of thumb must be to always speak the truth in love because even a minor issue, if communicated in an angry, hostile, unloving manner, can easily escalate into a major brouhaha. Furthermore, the truth is that acting and reacting to each other angrily rather than responding to one another graciously can move from being episodic in nature, to habitual and then chronic. One angry encounter builds upon another until trust wanes and the couple begins to relate to each other more as sparring partners than best friends!   

             Marriage specialist John Gottman believes the foundation of a successful marriage must be earmarked not only by a shared sense of purpose and meaning, but also respect, fondness, and affection.[1] So, if the negative communication pattern referred to above seems to describe your marital relationship at present, it’s important that some mid-course corrections take place immediately. The evidence seems to suggest that when the emotion of anger (rather than fondness and affection) is allowed to color too many exchanges between a husband and wife, this negative emotion doesn’t normally dissipate; it builds, eventually turning into something much more insidious and poisonous to our marriages. According to Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, this accumulated build-up of unchecked and uncensored anger can easily turn into actual contempt—a palpable attitude of disdain for the other that is communicated between marital partners not only in the actual words they use but through their tone of voice and angry facial expressions.[2]

             How familiar does this sound? We need to be honest with ourselves here because it could be an indication that a marriage is in serious trouble. Gottman contends that an evidence of contempt is the tell-tale sign that allows him to assess within just a few minutes of observing a couple in conflict whether their marriage will make it or not.[3]  He believes the reason why the manifestation of contempt is so telling is that it conveys disgust (rather than love and respect). And, along with Goleman, he maintains that this attitude of disgust can be communicated in a variety of ways, such as “name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.”[4] It’s not just the words we use that can convey contempt to our marital partners, it’s the way we say them! Gottman  goes on to explain that when couples communicate contempt to one another it overrides everything else, ensuring that the result of such conversations will nearly always be more conflict rather than reconciliation.[5]

             Our experience over the years, as a married couple and as counselors to many other couples, resonates with the learned opinions of these relationship experts. It’s simply insane to think that we can maintain a fervent, transformative friendship with our mates when the primary earmarks of the relationship are contempt and criticism rather than love, respect, and mutual admiration.[6] Thus, we’re led to the conclusion that learning to speak the truth in love to our mates is not just nice, it’s absolutely necessary!

             So what is the antidote to these negative communication patterns that couples so easily fall into? This question is so important we feel we must devote some space to it. Many popular books that deal with communication issues in marriage offer their readers various techniques designed to improve their communication skills in general and their conflict resolution capabilities in particular (e.g., praying before you converse; holding hands while arguing; always using the first-person rather than second-person pronoun; never attacking the members of your mate’s family of origin; etc.). While there are some good ideas in these “technique-oriented” discussions, we’re not convinced that such an approach to the issue of communication in marriage sufficiently gets to the heart of the matter. What if the key to breaking out of a negative, hurtful, anger-driven communication pattern is not to learn how to better manage conflict in the relationship, but to intentionally focus on the relationship’s strengths?  

             John Gottman, widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost relationship experts, has an interesting though somewhat counterintuitive theory about how to assist conflict-riddled marriages. His studies have concluded that “marital therapies based on conflict resolution share a very high relapse rate … only 35 percent of couples see a meaningful improvement in their marriages as a result of the therapy.”[7] In other words, the key to helping a marriage is not simply to teach couples how to manage their conflicts. Most marital fights are not about issues such as how chores are divided or how money is spent, but about much deeper issues that are “rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values.”[8]  It’s these “hidden issues that fuel the superficial conflicts and make them far more intense and hurtful than they would otherwise be.[9] Much more important for the health of a marriage than learning a slew of conflict resolution techniques, says Gottman, is the capacity of the marital partners to understand how they differ from one another, and to respect and honor one another by actually celebrating those differences! Thus, he argues that the key to a successful marriage is not found in the way a couple handles disagreements but how the couple relates to each other when they’re not fighting. In other words, Gottman’s work is based on his studies of “what went right in happy marriages.”[10] 

             Gottman suggests that couples should intentionally focus their attention on the positive aspects of their relationship rather than allowing the negative ones to become all consuming. Accordingly, he believes that expressions of thanksgiving and praise for the marriage and one another are the “antidotes to the poison of criticism and its deadly cousin, contempt.”[11] As we begin to literally count our blessings, and develop the habit of speaking in loving and affirming ways to and about our marital partners whenever possible, it will help to us to focus less on the negative aspects of our marriages and our mates. In the process, the friendship which is at the heart of any marriage will be strengthened, and the sense of hope that is so vital to a thriving marriage can be continually reborn.

Sorry, for the length of this excerpt, but it does explain why, during dinner tonight, Patti and I will focus on what’s right with our marriage.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be one’s anniversary before a husband or wife can sprinkle some sweet nothings into the dinnertime conversation. Right?

Something to think about.


[1] John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, (NewYork:  Three Rivers Press, 1999), 63.

[2] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), 135.

[3] Gottman, 27.

[4] Ibid, 29.

[5] Ibid, 29.

[6] As we noted in Chapter 4, Gottman maintains that successful marriages are distinctive in that they are based on a deep friendship which is characterized by mutual respect and enjoyment of each other and a shared sense of meaning for the marriage.

[7] Gottman, 10.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9]Ibid, 23.

[10] Ibid, 46.

[11] Ibid., 265.

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According to the news being reported this past week, President Obama and I have something in common: both of us have wives who are more popular than we are! 

I don’t know about the president, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that for a variety of reasons my wife Patti is always going to have more friends, make more of an impression, and draw more of a crowd than I. She is a lovely, lively and witty person who is simply fun to be around. I get it. 

What’s more, I love it! 

I not only love (and like) the person I’m married to, I love the fact that I’ve been privileged to be married to her. I love the difference she’s made in my life. What’s more, I love the difference that sharing life with her has made in me! (Hopefully, she feels much the same about being married to me!) 

This idea that a couple’s marriage can have a transformational effect upon the both of them is at the heart of a book that Patti and co-wrote entitled: Beyond the Bliss: Discovering Your Uniqueness in Marriage. In the introduction to this book we write: 

            To be sure, being married is a good thing; the Bible tells us so. Passages such as Genesis 2:18 and 2:24 teach us that God gave the institution of marriage to humankind in order to meet an innate need within each of us for a sense of intimate companionship. And yet, this doesn’t mean that just any experience of marriage will do. The Bible doesn’t encourage the practice of being married many times over the course of one’s life (see Matthew 19:9); neither should we think that simply being married a long time, by itself, guarantees that we are experiencing the good God intended the institution of marriage to produce in our lives. Unfortunately, nearly everyone knows of at least one couple whose long-lasting marriage was remarkably void of anything resembling real, genuine companionship. 

            So, at the very outset of this book, we want to make the bold assertion that it’s one thing to have a long marriage; it’s another to have a healthy one. Marriage has a purpose. Healthy marriages fulfill that purpose; unhealthy marriages don’t. 

The Purpose of Marriage

            So, what is the purpose of marriage? Knowing God to be a loving heavenly Father who desires our wholeness as well as our happiness, our hearts resonate with the purpose of marriage put forward by the Swiss medical doctor turned Christian turned psychiatrist—Paul Tournier—who said “That is what marriage really means: helping one another to reach the full status of being persons, responsible and autonomous beings who do not run away from life.”[1] In other words, the purpose of marriage is to help both partners in the relationship become fully human as God originally intended. 

            In a nutshell, this what this book is about: Our goal as authors is to help our readers cultivate truly healthy marriages that not only last a long time, but that serve to empower husbands and wives to become uniquely whole, responsible, spiritually mature human beings who do not run away from life. 

We go on in the book to talk about the inevitability of problems in life and how that the key to mental and spiritual growth is to lean into them instead of, in one way or another, always running away from them. Agreeing with M. Scott Peck that four life disciplines are the key to responding well to life’s inevitable problems, we endeavor to teach couples how they can use these biblically supported life disciplines to overcome the five big issues that cause many marriages to go off the rails: communication issues; division of responsibility issues, financial issues, in-law issues, and sexual intimacy issues. 

Though our marriage isn’t perfect, and I’m certainly not a perfectly whole, responsible, spiritually mature human being, I’m a much better man for having been married to Patti, and I’m not afraid to say so. 

I wonder if President Obama feels the same about his wife Michelle? If so, that’s two things we have in common!

How about you? Is your marriage transformational in character? Do you want it to be? It’s never, never, never too late (or too early) to start the cultivation of a marital relationship that can help both you and your spouse become better, more fully human, more Christlike people. 

Don’t settle for just being married a long time (as good a goal as this is). Shoot for a truly healthy marriage that fulfills the purpose God has invested in it. Then you too can have something in common with the president … and me.

Something to think about. 


[1] Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1957), 146.

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