In 1994, Howard Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Denver and director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies, and Clifford Notarius, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and director of the Center for Family Psychology, published a book titled “We Can Work it Out: Making Sense of Marital Conflict.” The book was written based on 20 years of scientific investigations of several married couples.
Later, in 2016, a prominent psychology magazine published an article written by the professors titled “Six Truths for Couples.” In this article, the renowned scholars attempted to summarize six important conclusions found during their two decades of study. Their discovery is somewhat bewildering. Factors which one would usually associate with the end of a marriage were not mentioned in their conclusions.
According to their research, it doesn’t matter how in love the couples say they are, or how much affection they show to each other. The durability of a marriage is also not determined by how much couples do or do not fight. In fact, the professors concluded that the beginning of the relationships were very similar between couples who remained happily together after many years and those whose marriage ended in divorce.
One particular conclusion highlighted in their studies jumped out of the page: the poisonous, erosive effect of negative words and criticism.
The difference in the quality of words between couples who ultimately stayed together and couples who later divorced was staggering. According to the research, among couples who stayed together, 5 out of 100 comments were criticism. The number doubled for couples who later divorced: 10 out of 100 comments were negative for those couples.
As the years progressed, the statistics were even more eye opening. Couples who later divorced used as much as five times more negative comments when talking to each other as those who remained happily married. Notarius noted: “Hostile putdowns act as cancerous cells that, if unchecked, erode the relationship over time. In the end, relentless unremitting negativity takes control and the couple can’t get through a week without major blow ups.”
The professors’ research and conclusions gave me pause. I could not help but think of couples I’ve known through the years and the stark difference between their relationships. Those couples that I’ve witnessed lovingly holding each other’s hands through their golden years indeed were kind to each other throughout their married life. Conversely, those whose words and attitudes showed constant disrespect or contempt either stayed together and miserable, or ended up going separate ways.
In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul lists nine traits that compose what is known as “The Fruit of the Spirit”: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In that same chapter, the apostle highlights the blunt difference between those who act in the flesh and those who allow God to shape their character and attitudes.
As I read that chapter in my Bible, I realize that, in our flesh, it is simply impossible to always display the traits of the fruit of the spirit in a marriage. Or in any close relationship, for that matter. Fights will sometimes happen. We will allow anger to silence patience, and selfishness to master over kindness from time to time. When we are tired, or someone wrongs us; when we feel attacked or someone has a bad attitude, our fleshly tendency is to respond with the same type of attitude that we’ve received. Sometimes we are the ones who initiate the bad attitude.
Naturally, there will always be those days when our flesh takes over. But I firmly believe that the secret to a healthy relationship is to make those bad days the exception, not the rule.
It doesn’t magically happen — it’s a deliberate pursuit. It takes surrendering our shortcoming to God, asking him to take over, and silence your flesh. It takes pausing before speaking, or leaving the room before patience runs out, thus choosing a better time to talk. It’s putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes before saying a harsh word. They are seemingly small attitudes, which in truth become giant contributors to the growth of a love that lasts. The type of love which, in its essence, bears fruit — the very fruits of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Patricia Holbrook is a Christian author, blogger and international speaker. Her ministry’s popular women’s conference “She Soars” will take place Oct. 14 in Jonesboro. Visit her website www.soaringwithHim.com for more information. For speaking engagements and comments, email pholbrook@soaringwithHim.com.