Thin Slicing Marriage

Michael Metzger

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.

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1 www.barna.org
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.

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7 thoughts on “Thin Slicing Marriage”

  1. Excellent article on a MAJOR concern in many marriages (and has been in mine) insight and foresight may help others help themselves and others they love and know from becoming the next statistic.

    I stand firm in the belief that what we know and acknowledge we can release and defeat!
    (still married after all these years!)

  2. Thank you for such a timely and succinct article. I know of at least four people I am forwarding this to immediately.

    My husband and I are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year and thank God that his mercy and grace sustained us through those periods when we did feel contempt for each other.

    Jesus is the healer and delights in healing marriages. I know. He has healed ours more than once. The key is to submit ourselves to Him.

  3. Dallas Willard discusses the sin of contempt at some length in “The Divine Concspiracy.” I highly recommend this discussion and agree with Mike that pride and contempt are the top two ways that we defeat ourselves here below. You hear a lot about pride from the pulpit, but very little about contempt. This seems a dangerous omission, and perhaps part of the reason for the Church’s unimpressive divorce statistics.

  4. My wife and I married exactly 2mos to the day from when we met in the Summer of 1996. I mention this because I can assure you that there was no way we were able to analyze/observe each other enough to know if we really wanted that ‘bag of goods’; we both felt that the Lord had brought us together, from opposite sides of the planet[literally], to join ourselves together in the journey of marriage. We did not enter into our nuptials lightly, for we were both committed to our oath, unto death, before God.

    Sure, we have had our share of, ahem, calibrations that have revealed how we ‘really felt’ about things and each other… but alas, I know our commitment to our marriage and the total awesomeness of God’s love and mercy have helped us to grow through even those experiences… I learned some of the most important three words phrases in a marriage relationship early in our nearly 12 yrs of life together – “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry, dear”.

    The most important lesson that I have learned (and occasionally have refreshers on) is that “only I can make myself DO what I DON’T want to do” – she can’t make me – I can make myself do the things I don’t want to do because I want to have the things I’ve always wanted to have. I accept and admit that I am wrong when I am wrong and I have learned to accept responsibility even when we can’t agree whose it is to bear. If it’s what it takes to have peace in our home, I consider my pride to be a small price to pay to have a little ‘slice of heaven’ here on Earth.

  5. Good article. Gottman is well known in the counseling community and has been found quite effective in teaching marriage counselors who to counsel through such issues. He book, 7 Principles to Making a Marriage Work was helpful along with their journey with Christ towards. healing.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Considering that Jesus was not specifically addressing marriage in this text, I am intrigued instead with the idea of thinking about how Christians (specifically those in fellowship with each other)show contempt towards each other. To me, this can be a huge sin in the Church today. It poisons and spoils relationships and leaves behind broken relationships, much to the grief of the Spirit. How about doing a commentary about this?

  7. Contempt sneaks into our lives and attitudes much like any sin does – at first, we may not recognize it for what it is – but allowed to grow (again, like any sin), it’s only fruit is death and darkness: death to a marriage, livelihood, friendship, church, fill in the blank.

    I’ve been married for 16 glorious years – to say that we’ve both gone through all 16 years without feeling contempt for the other a time or two (or more) would be a lie. Contempt, marginalization, pride, egotism – all come easy, but as shown in this commentary… it’s what we do after that really matters.

    We’ve stayed happy and committed for 16 years not because we’ve had no issues, but because God has worked us through the issues and helped us recognize our own sin and reminded us just how desperately we need a Savior every moment of every day. Sin will continue to beset us in this fallen state – repentance and restoration by the power of the Spirit are what keep us on the path and the only way we can maintain any healthy relationship – especially a marriage.

    Thanks Mike for another great article.

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