Astonishing Secret of Marital Health Revealed!

handsome man apologizing after an argument with his girlfriendA marvelous new scientific discovery has unveiled a secret of relevance to most of our population – those who are or will be married. What is the secret you ask? What earth-shattering insight has been garnered that has never before been known to mankind? Some insight from genetics, perhaps? Nope. Some sort of radical new therapeutic methodology? No sir. A never before divined massage technique? By no means.

Secular social science has spoken and the key ingredient that one group of researchers has uncovered is….(insert dramatic drum roll here!)…kindness. That seems rather anti-climactic doesn’t it? Kindness. Here is the gist of the study. A fellow by the name of Gottman gathered 130 newlywed couples to a retreat and watched them do ordinary stuff that newlywed couples do. Well, not everything that newlywed couples do, but stuff like “cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out.” That led to the radical discovery: Kindness is the key to relational health. Kindness seen in how couples respond in everyday interactions. Emily Esfahani Smith writes about it in a fascinating article posted to

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t — those who turned away — would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

This is fascinating because the bid-moment seems so trivial. On the one hand, how important in the grand scheme of things is some dumb goldfinch? (It should be noted as a sidebar that I’m not widely regarded as a bird enthusiast). On the other hand, this is a huge deal because it isn’t just a meaningless avian observation; it is a “bid” to connect. The content isn’t really that important; the connection is. How many such “bids” pass between a husband and wife in any given 24 hour period? I don’t know, but I’m guessing the answer could be summed up with some version of the answer “a lot.” Each bid is an opportunity to connect, to show respect via a demonstration of basic kindness.

This may not seem very important – this whole “turning toward a bid” thing. But consider Smith’s summary of the impact of this:

These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.

In other words: this bid thing is a small thing that has a huge impact over time. By ignoring your spouse’s bids to connect you communicate disrespect. You basically say something like, “Yea, I really don’t care about your dumb goldfinches (or possibly insert here ‘sports thingummy’ or ‘work scuttlebutt’ or ‘uninteresting family matter’). I’m doing something more important (like staring at my smartphone).” This isn’t just received as disinterest, but as disrespect. And over time that takes a serious relational toll, making it roughly three times more likely you’ll be divorced in six years.

Marital relationships very rarely go bad in a violent explosion one day. More often they die a death by a thousand cuts. This is painfully evident to me when I sit down with a couple and hear a wife say, “I just don’t love him anymore,” while the fellow says some version of, “I thought things were great!” Sure, but you were clueless to the relational cost of turning away from a thousand and one seemingly insignificant bids. You were only looking at the big things, but a marriage is built on the capital of relational trust built by a thousand little investments of kindness, reaping long-term dividends.

As helpful as the social sciences and Dr. Gottman are at this point, we could have made this a much shorter article by beginning with a wiser teacher. The Apostle Paul wrote words that were likely read at your wedding: Love is kind.  Be kind in your response to the small stuff.  It might save your marriage.