In a blink.
Welcome to wedding season, where one-third of today’s smiling couples will be crying in a few years. That’s one-third of all marriages, since the divorce rate of Christians and mainstream culture is statistically identical: 32% versus 33%, respectively.1 Why is it that believers who spend weeks and months in pre-marital counseling fare no better than those who don’t prepare at all? The answer is because we give couples the whole loaf while John Gottman only needs a thin slice to predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple will make it. In a blink, he sees what Jesus warned about 2,000 years ago.
Gottman is a University of Washington psychologist who has brought more than 3,000 couples into his “love lab” near the university campus. Rather than relying on tests and inventories, Gottman can watch a husband and wife talking for an hour and then predict with 95 percent accuracy whether they will remain married.2 The trick is to get the couple to talk about something mundane (like a pet) rather than the momentous (like marriage).
Malcolm Gladwell calls this process “thin slicing.” It’s based on intuitive responses – what Gladwell terms the “blink” – very often proving to be correct. By looking for telltale facial expressions, body language patterns, and gestures, Gottman’s team discovered that one emotion led to many deep-seated problems and points of contention in marriage. It’s the same emotion Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount.
“I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment,” Jesus said (Matt. 5:22). Slow down – anger is not the emotion. Christ never taught that anger is essentially a bad thing. It’s “a spontaneous response that has a vital function in life. It is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life,” Dallas Willard said.3 Have you ever been cut off in traffic? What do you do? I get angry because they thwarted my will and interfered with my life! “And if that were all there was to anger, all would be well. Anger in this sense is no sin, even though it is still better avoided where possible,” writes Willard.4 It’s what I do next that Gottman is looking for and Jesus warned against.
“Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22). Raca is an Aramaic term for contempt. It’s calling someone a fool, an idiot, or any another filthy name. It’s lecturing, patronizing, rolling the eyes, disgust, sarcasm, or muttering “Whatever.” This is why Gottman opts for the thin slice. “If you can measure contempt, then all of a sudden you don’t need to know every detail of the couple’s relationship.”5
It’s sobering to recognize that we all get angry with our spouses. Our son Mark is getting married in a few weeks. I told Mark and Christy that they are not twenty-four year olds coming together. They are a combined half-century of having their wills rarely thwarted or interfered with. This means anger is inevitable. But what happens next is critical, as Diane Vaughn discovered. After her twenty year marriage came apart, Vaughn observed that they had begun to “uncouple” ten years earlier by not recognizing discontentment decaying into disgust.6 Malcolm Gladwell says that when “Gottman observes one or both parties in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.”7 “Some go up, some go down,” Gottman says. “But once they start going down, toward negative emotions, ninety-four percent will continue going down. They start on a course and they can’t correct it. I don’t think of this as a slice in time. It’s an indication of how they view their whole relationship.”8
In most cases, a problem well defined is a problem half solved. But that might not apply to contempt. As C. S. Lewis noted, pride (or contempt) is the last thing we ever imagine ourselves to be guilty of.9 Asking a couple if they feel contempt toward the other only produces denials. Yet fifteen years later, a third of those couples will agree that contempt was their undoing. It’s grievous to learn that the divorce rate of Christians and mainstream culture is statistically identical. Yet our pre-marital counseling might be perfectly designed to yield this result. The ancient church stood out because it stood firm on divorce. “Fidelity, without divorce, was expected of every Christian,” wrote one church father.10 But my guess is that they didn’t hold seminars and distribute inventories to achieve this outstanding result. I bet they walked through the rooms of a couple’s world and watched how they negotiated the thin slices of pets and paint colors.
2 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Back Bay/Little, Brown and Company), p. 21.
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 147.
4 Willard, Divine, p. 148.
5 Gladwell, Blink, p. 33.
6 Diane Vaughn, Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (New York, NY: Vintage, 1990).
7 Gladwell, Blink, p. 32.
8 Gladwell, Blink, p. 30.
9 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 109.
10 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 104.