Most of us can recite all or some of the “Love Chapter” from 1st Corinthians 13, and I’ll be honest, I have always found it a bit intimidating. Mainly because when I do the old youth group exercise and put my name in the place where love is, I fall short! I believe part of that is because God is LOVE, so God is all those things, and I am not, which is why I need Jesus.
However, as a marriage counselor, I think the characteristics highlighted by Paul are lovely goals to aspire to, with the perspective that perfect love from another human is not a reasonable expectation. The ideas Paul talked about thousands of years ago can be seen in research as foundations of a healthy marriage.
One of the foremost researchers on marriage, The Gottman Institute (led by married couple John and Julie Gottman) have made some amazing discoveries through their study of married couples over long periods of time. For example, they found that four types of communication styles were significant predictors of marriage failure. The Gottmans call these the Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse. Believe it or not, the antidotes to the four horsemen are directly addressed by God through Paul, in his message to the Corinthians about love.
When our partner communicates an issue or concern, how we respond can significantly affect the trajectory of our marriage. If you want to focus on making your relationships stronger and resistant to failure, check to see if these four things are present in your marriage and replace them with the antidote:
Criticism happens when you verbally attack your partner’s character, place blame, or look for and point out faults. A criticism in conversation may look like, “because you were running late, you are selfish”. However, Paul said, “love does not dishonor others.” The Gottmans suggest that the antidote to criticism is a gentle start-up, which means instead of blame and attack, use “I” statements and express a positive need. This might sound like, “when you were late, I was scared and worried; it would help me if you could call next time to let me know what was going on.”
Contempt is the most serious and is the most highly correlated with divorce. You communicate contempt when you attack your partner’s sense of self in an attempt to convey disgust and make them feel bad about themselves. Paul said, “Love is patient and kind,” and it “does not delight in evil.” The Gottmans say that instead of focusing on the negative characteristics of our partner, we should instead focus on their positive qualities and be thankful for the positive actions.
Defensiveness is when everything your partner says sounds like an attack, which could be an interpretation problem. A person responding from a defensive position would say, “It’s not my fault,” or “I forgot to unload the dishes, but you forgot the day before.” Do you give your partner the benefit of the doubt? Do you accept that their perspective is valid? Paul said, “Love is not easily angered,” and “love is not proud.” So the antidote for defensiveness is to take responsibility for our own actions, which looks like “I’m sorry, you are right, I did forget to unload the dishes.”
Stonewalling is when you withdraw from your partner when things get uncomfortable. Do you respond with the silent treatment? An example of stonewalling is when your partner does something that makes you angry and when they try to apologize or talk to you, you ignore them. Paul said, “love keeps no record of wrongs,” and love “rejoices in the truth.” The antidote to stonewalling is recognizing and communicating, “I am upset because what happened hurt me. I do want to talk about this, but I need a few minutes to take a walk, calm myself down and get my thoughts together.”
Because God is love, he helps us to be loving, and it is the love of Jesus that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” It is HIS love that “never fails” so that when ours does fail, we can recognize our fault and continue to move forward in relationship with the one we have chosen to love. It is important to remember human love is a shadow of the love we will experience when we are with Jesus forever.
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)