In the past few weeks, I’ve seen families fill up their Insta-stories about how they will use the 40 days before Easter as a challenge to give up screens, sugar, or sandwiches. Now that we are just over two weeks in, some of these families are wondering whose bright idea it was to schedule Lent during spring break. Saying no to Fortnite is really hard without the eight-hour school-day buffer.
It’s true that some treat Lent like a New Year’s resolution redo. But many evangelical Protestant believers are starting to rediscover liturgical traditions and ancient Christian disciplines like fasting. Lent brings an opportunity for believers to exercise their “no muscles” and say “yes” to seeking God.
For many of us, we end up using Lent as a way to get a fasting merit badge rather than an opportunity to experience the divine. Usually during Lent, we give up one thing we love—say, donuts—and theoretically use that time to do devotions. Unfortunately, since it takes me so little time to plow through a half dozen donuts, especially hot Krispy Kremes, Lent may shrink my waistline, but I’m not sure it grows my soul.
The perfect antidote for couples sliding toward isolation
So for any of us who have lapsed this Lent—whether in spirit or commitment—I was inspired by a podcast from John Stonestreet: “Give up Contempt for Lent.” The title intrigued me because generally we think of Lent as giving up one thing to draw closer vertically to God. Stonestreet, inspired by an op-ed from Arthur Brooks, challenged listeners to give up one thing that would help us draw closer to our fellow man.
While Stonestreet applied this as an antidote to our rather contentious culture, where disagreement almost always leads to disparagement, it’s also the perfect antidote for couples sliding toward isolation. If you wanted to give up one thing that would help you draw closer to your spouse, put your money on giving up contempt.
Don’t trust me, but trust marriage guru John Gottman. Made popular by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, Gottman can watch a couple have a conversation for five minutes and predict whether or not they will get a divorce within 10 years … with a 91 percent accuracy rate.
I’m no statistician, but that means he’s right nine out of 10 times. How does he do it? He looks for one thing: contempt.
Contempt can be defined as the highest form of disgust. Classic signs of contempt are eye-rolling, name-calling, sneering, mockery, and biting sarcasm. A five-minute sound bite with any of these signals tells the spouse and everyone watching:
- I care little for you.
- I’m more important than you.
- I don’t just reject what you are saying, I reject you.
- Our relationship feels hopeless.
Togetherness is virtually impossible if one or both partners feel disgust toward each other. But contempt doesn’t just show up overnight. It’s usually built up when unresolved conflicts are compounded over time. Little sarcastic quips turn into verbal barrages, and one spouse spends all their energy trying to change a stubbornly unchanging spouse.
Hoping for change
Through his research, Gottman found that 69 percent of a couple’s problems are perpetual, because couples spend so much time trying to change each other’s mind. “But it can’t be done,” Gottman says. “This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.”
After two decades of marriage, I’ve done a terrible job of changing the way my wife, Jen, sees and processes the world. That’s probably a good thing. She’s overly concerned about punctuality, following the rules, and keeping a budget. In other words, if we were exactly alike, we’d be perpetually late, in trouble with the law, and deep in debt. Truth be told, accepting that about each other doesn’t always feel right, but experts would say it’s exactly what separates isolated couples from intimate ones.
Contempt in relationships has far more to say about me than my partner. I vainly imagine my marriage would be far easier if Jen was more like me.
A coping strategy
These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them.
Psychologist Dan Wile said it best in his book After the Honeymoon: “When choosing a long-term partner … you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.”
Listen, I’m no dummy. I’ll never make the mistake of comparing life with my bride to living with irritable bowel syndrome. But there’s wisdom in expecting I won’t be in step with my spouse on plenty of issues.
So how do we get along, then? The advice was to develop a strategy to better cope. Much like you would if you had a trick knee or an irritable bowel. In other words, you avoid certain terrain and eat what’s best for you.
One of the most prolific writers of the New Testament wrote to a young church with members nitpicking each other from across the pews. He gave them a strategy on giving up a few things and putting the right things in their relationship: “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you … you must put them all way: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Colossians 3:5,8).
He told them to give up contempt. All of those things he listed were tell-tale signs of disgust.
Put on love instead
But you can’t take something away without putting something back. It’s not enough to say, “Stop being so contemptible!” and quit any eye-rolling, sighing, and sarcastic rants. Negative space begs to be filled. Paul goes on to say, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Feed your relationship with the right stuff. I like that phrase, “bearing with one another.” He’s saying choose to live with what feels unbearable. He admits we will have “complaints” against one another. We won’t always like each other, but we don’t have to act like we don’t like each other.
Colossians 3:14 tells us, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.” We all long for harmony in our relationships. Paul says the only way to insure that is to actively “Put on love.” There’s the rub. Our culture preaches that love is a feeling—a high—that magically appears when you’ve found the perfect person. Paul pops that fairy tale. Instead, he encourages us to “put on” love like you would a coat or a pair of shoes.
Gottman has also identified one thing that marks successful couples. He calls it the “magic ratio.”
For every one negative interaction (sign of contempt), successful couples share five positive interactions. As long as you didn’t marry a clone of yourself, you will feel a measure of contempt, probably daily. But counterbalance those negative moments with five positive ones—a hug, a squeeze of the hand, a compliment, a surprise romantic text, a morning prayer. Then those five overpower the one.
Successful couples don’t wait for the feeling before they show affection for their spouse. Like Lent, it takes discipline.
Ask your significant other today, “What’s our ratio?” And if it’s off, maybe you pick the one thing you can give up that will guarantee you will draw close to your partner. Give up contempt and put on love.
It may be easier than giving up donuts … and far more rewarding in the long run.
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