Practicing the Kindness of Attitudinal Loyalty

Annoyed womanIn a (brilliantly written) earlier post, I shared a helpful insight that researchers have uncovered that is key to marital happiness: kindness, and this displayed through gracious response in the midst of seemingly insignificant conversation.

The same study discovered another way in which kindness is demonstrated in a successful marriage. That is our attitude toward our spouse. Before your husband/wife ever opens their mouth, or walks through the door, have you already pre-judged them? Have you concluded the worst about them? Doubted their good intentions?

According to researchers, those marital relationships that are most likely to fail (here dubbed “disasters”) share this common feature: a poor attitude concerning one another’s intentions.

One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down.

Or say a wife is running late to dinner (again), and the husband assumes that she doesn’t value him enough to show up to their date on time after he took the trouble to make a reservation and leave work early so that they could spend a romantic evening together. But it turns out that the wife was running late because she stopped by a store to pick him up a gift for their special night out.

Imagine her joining him for dinner, excited to deliver her gift, only to realize that he’s in a sour mood because he misinterpreted what was motivating her behavior. The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.

“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

In other words, in successful marriages each spouse is likely to give their partner the benefit of the doubt. They are likely to think the best of their spouse, their intentions, their motivations. They are not in the habit of pre-judging them, assuming their maliciousness or carelessness.

R. Paul Stevens provides some helpful perspective along these lines in a terrific little book called Married for Good. There is a lot of gold here for a Christian couple seeking to faithfully live out the covenant of marriage, but among the most helpful sections of the book is a chapter entitled “The Six Loyalties.” A marriage is built on trust, faithfulness, loyalty. Stevens describes six aspects of this loyalty as he unpacks the meaning of the Hebrew term Hesed, usually translated as something like “steadfast love.” All six loyalties are tremendously helpful, but for our purposes here the loyalty of relevance is “Attitudinal Loyalty.”

Hesed involves cherishing our spouses, thinking the best of them. This is not a game of “let’s pretend.” It comes from choosing to see them with an attitude of respect rather than of withering criticism.

Sometimes attitudinal loyalty is not so much an “act of faith” as the result of faith, since it requires seeing our partners from Christ’s perspective.

Doris found herself constantly bogged down with her negative attitudes toward Bob. She had good reason. Bob was an overbearing husband who, largely unconsciously, tried to run his home the way he did the office. There was a lot of work to be done in their relationship, work which Bob was not ready to do. But there was something Doris could do.

She could change her attitude toward her husband. Instead of concentrating on his obvious faults, verbally criticizing him or falling into a sullen, depressed silence, Doris asked God to reveal his viewpoint on Bob….She began once again to see his good qualities, so easily forgotten. With the Lord’s grace she could foresee the possibility that even those troublesome qualities were areas where great character development could be experienced in Christ.

It is easy to see your spouse’s faults. It is easy to be negative. You don’t have to try to do so; you don’t need to be disciplined to do so. It is much harder to have a good attitude. It requires effort. And it requires a healthy dose of grace. It grows from the humility of recognizing that you’re no prize either, that you have plenty of faults. Despite your failings (sin!), God loves you in his Son, Jesus Christ. You are the recipient of grace. Your responsibility in all of your earthly relationships (particularly marriage) is to love as you have been loved. By being gracious. By having an attitude that is gracious. Attitudinal loyalty.

Paul was driving at this exactly when he says “love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Focus on your spouse’s positive qualities. Practice grace. Pray for a God’s eye view on your spouse. Be attitudinally loyal.