Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why God is a Hard Friend

Lately, I've been immersed in the relationship research of John Gottman. 

If you've ever read Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," you'll recognize Gottman as the researcher who can very accurately predict whether a married couple will divorce in the future, based on analyzing the dynamics of a brief, recorded interaction between the two.

Great stuff; and Gottman's books are highly recommended. But this focus on what makes human relationships strong, and what makes them weak, has also got me thinking about a common phrase:

A relationship with God (or, a relationship with Jesus)

It's easy to be a Pharisee... Just memorize a bunch or rules, or scripture passages, and quote them at people (or yourself).  But when I talk to people who have honestly tried to build a relationship with the Divine (or read honest memoirs of those who have), I hear words and phrases like this:

Drift. Lost the fire. Left your first love. Backslidden. Doubts.

Gottman's research has helped me understand (at least one reason) why.

In human relationships (friends, partners, co-workers, etc) people make "bids" all the time. Little gestures of reaching-out to the Other. In essence, these are "requests" for connection.  In healthy relationships, Gottman found that these bids are met by "turning towards" over 80 percent of the time. For example, if I'm reading in bed, and my wife sighs deeply while she's over working on the computer, that's a bid. I have three basic choices: I can turn towards ("Something wrong, honey?"); I can turn away (by saying nothing); or I can turn against ("Why is it always a dramatic sigh with you? Grow up.")

Unhappy couples have a much higher incidence of turning away, or turning against, and over time this feeds the lost of trust ("I make a bid for connection, and you're not there for me.") Which leads to the breakdown of relationship.

See the connection?

A relationship with God means that we trust, deeply, that God is "there for us."  Not that we mouth platitudes and say that this is true, but that He has proven it (and continues to prove it).

So what happens when God lets us down? When we come up against that "betrayal barrier" (Dr. James Dobson) or we feel "Disappointment with God" (Philip Yancey)...?

Gottman found that if couples can "attune" these inevitable "attachment injuries" over and come to some resolution, then the hurts are forgotten and forgiven, and the relationship continues strong. But if the couple nurses unresolved angers and disappointments, over time trust erodes, and faith in the relationship dissolves.

I'm thinking here of the person who's been kicked around by life...maybe in their 20's, but more likely in their 40's and 50's... and gradually over time have come to believe, through experience, that "God's not there for me the way I used to feel."

Unresolved disappointments. Unanswered prayers. Questions without satisfying answers.

I think Gottman's work shows us part of the process by which a relationship with God can weaken over time.