Insights from a Renowned Psychologist That Could Transform Your Relationship with the Church


The following is republished with permission from

Years ago, we discovered that our good friends’ marriage was on the rocks. To protect the innocent (and also because it would totally make sense if you knew them), let’s call them Barbie and Ken.

When we first met them, things looked great. A sharp, handsome couple with a pack of fun kids and a good life. But as we spent more time with them, it became quite obvious that Ken really couldn’t stand Barbie. Everything about her annoyed him. And Barbie had little love for Ken. She had come to deeply resent him and his frequent sniping.

As their marriage began to unravel, they decided to give marriage counseling a shot. After a few sessions, the therapist reluctantly concluded that he could not help them, and the marriage ended soon after.

We were shocked. These were good people. Why couldn’t this marriage be saved? What did this therapist see that we didn’t?

The answer: He saw the grim math of the “Gottman Ratio” at work.

John Gottman is a psychologist and clinician, who made a name for himself for his research at the University of Washington on the reasons for marriage success and failure.

He and his team conducted longitudinal studies of thousands of couples during the 1980s and '90s.

Among their findings:

  • In healthy, happy relationships there was a pattern of at least five positive interactions to each negative interaction. Interactions can include everything from conversations to simple remarks and gestures. This 5:1 ratio came to be known as the “Magic Ratio.”
  • Relationships in which the Gottman Ratio fell below 1:1 had become toxic and usually ended in divorce.

When our friends sat down at their first marriage therapy session, Ken was ready to air his grievances and expose Barbie for who she was. He was ready to tell his story of living for years with a woman who would drive a lesser man to drink, or worse. And he brought documented evidence, in the form of a journal he had been keeping for some time listing all of the things Barbie did wrong (yeah, he actually did that).
Surely the therapist would see how flawed Barbie was and would prescribe a corrective course for her.  Ken was rather disappointed to realize no such prescription was forthcoming.

Here’s the problem: Like many of us, Ken entered marriage on a false premise. He had “fallen in love” not with an actual person, but with his ideal of a person (a doll of his own making). As he learned all the ways in which Barbie fell short of his expectations, he tried to control and change her to conform to that ideal. When he finally figured out that wasn’t going to work, he got increasingly frustrated and eventually gave up on the marriage.

His expectations for Barbie were ultimately more important to him than a flesh-and blood human being he had covenanted to cherish. The truth is, Ken was more interested in being right than in facing reality, especially the reality of his own stubborn ego. This precluded him from seeing a “pearl of great price” hidden in plain sight in front of him. He opted not to make himself vulnerable to a real, sometimes painful, but potentially very rewarding partnership. He was out.

Ken failed to love Barbie. His words, his gestures and his thoughts toward Barbie carried a subtle judgement. He parceled out compliments as if they each cost him dearly. His “Gottman Ratio” had fallen into the toxic range, and he was not interested in stepping back and looking at his own role in it. He was “right,” after all. The evidence was all right there . . . in his list.

So let’s get to what all this has to do with the title of this article.

I know more than a few people who have fallen out of love with the church. In one way or another, it somehow fell short of their ideals and their expectations. There turned out to be lots of problems. It was hard. Over time, it started feeling like a bad relationship. Like my buddy “Ken”, some of them have even made lists (actual or mental) of these problems. When they think of the church, their minds don’t naturally go to its positive aspects, but instead seemingly always go to that “list”–the stuff that needs fixing before they can give their heart to it.

At some point in the lives of my disaffected friends, “the church” became something to be examined and critiqued. At some point it ceased to feel like a relationship that needed to be nourished.  At some point they had been hurt or disappointed (or just plain bored) and decided it wasn’t worth investing in the relationship anymore. 

I get it. There was a time years ago that I dealt with these same questions.

Our wedding day in 1978 — we had met four months earlier.

I have come to look at my relationship with the church the way I look at my relationship with my wife Susan. Like most of us, I didn’t really know my spouse  when I married her. I was “in love” partly with my own idea of who she was—i.e. I was in love with my expectations. It took a while for me to fully understand that those expectations were not reality, and they were not healthy. They were a false lens of my own making, and prevented me from fully seeing the “pearl of great price” in front of me.

Ultimately, I had to give up my ideas and expectations of Susan before I could truly see her and be in deep relationship with her.  I had to create a pattern of positive interactions–complimenting her, acknowledging her gifts, avoiding judgement or criticism. As I let go of expectations and got my “Gottman Ratio” in line,  I created space and soil for a real relationship to bloom. And it did.

40 years later.

Unexpected, even miraculous things can emerge from a real relationship. Relationship is a crucible (“a container in which different elements interact under intense heat, leading to the creation of something new”).

This applies to our relationship with the church as much as to our other intimate relationships. These relationships can bless and nurture us immensely, but can also disappoint and hurt us at times. We need to remember the good times. Negativity bias is a powerful reality of neurobiology. It can take control of us if we let it.

The important thing to remember is that we are responsible for the “energy” that we bring to our relationships—including our relationship to the church. We need to realize that thoughts are energy. When we think a thought, we are quite literally creating new energy in the world. Thoughts are real things and have real effects. Think how the energy of a thought (positive or negative) can rapidly cascade through the systems of the body. That same energy can be transmitted to others. In that sense, our communications (words and gestures) are also forms of new energy that ripple out and have real effects in the world.

Jesus liked the metaphor of yeast—a powerful little form of energy. Used in the right way with good intent, yeast is “the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 13:33) But there is also the toxic “yeast of the Pharisees”—the people who were so busy making lists and criticizing that they missed all kinds of miracles hidden in plain site before them. (Mark 8:15)

So it’s well worth asking: What is our Gottman Ratio with the church—both with the larger institution and with our local ward community? What is the ratio of generous and hopeful thoughts and comments vs. critical or cynical thoughts and comments?

If that ratio is at least 5:1, the “magic ration.” Gottman says we are cultivating a healthy relationship and there is great happiness and growth to be found. If it dips toward 1:1 or below, we are in the toxic zone. The relationship is in trouble and both parties in the relationship will be the worse for it.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean we need to live in denial of problems in the church. Of course not. We need to face them. It just means we’re almost guaranteed to be missing something really miraculous by letting the problems become our focus. Miracles and grace flow when we bring good energy to the community (faith, hope, charity, humility… that kind of energy.)

There is no perfect relationship. Even God (at least our ideas and expectations of God) may disappoint us. Jesus himself was not immune. What were his last perplexed words on the cross? 

So this can be a rough journey at times. But if we’re paying attention, we’ll see how Christ is very much present in the church,  particularly in the lives of our fellow church members. He is quietly and patiently doing His work in them.

A friend who has emerged from a sort of crisis of faith, largely by inverting her Gottman Ratio, said to me recently, “I don’t view the world quite the same way many of my fellow believers do. But I finally learned I don’t have to agree with people to love them and have a relationship with them.  I’ve learned that God expects me to connect with Him through my relationships with them. Sometimes that can be hard, but if that’s what it takes, I’m in.”

Lead image from Getty Images


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