People who are married do much better financially than single, divorced or cohabiting couples. The principle difference?
Married people are both in and if they are wise will compare notes and help each other NOT spend foolishly and save a bit here and there and if they do so, over time, it adds up. A bunch. A lot. A ton. (Obviously there are foolish married people when it comes to money. But that doesn’t mean they can’t stop being foolish and turn the corner and start being wise.)
Single people have no one to save for so they tend to just spend everything. A wise single person has an accountability partner to talk to about money issues so the single person doesn’t just go spend money on a whim. Married people have each other to talk to (HOPEFULLY! If you don’t come see us!). It’s difficult for single people because they don’t have a built in accountability person to talk to about money.
Divorce is the number one cause of poverty in our country so that’s a bust financially, more than most people who fantasize about divorce realize. It’s not just cutting your income in half or whatever your spouse made or dividing up the retirement. It’s taking an atom bomb and blowing the whole thing up. Most divorcees end up in ungodly amounts of debt that can take years (decades?) to dig out of.
Cohabiting couples nearly all (I haven’t seen an exception. It’s a question I ask if the couple doesn’t say) keep their money separate so they live financially as single roommates (one of the key reasons cohabiting sucks to high heaven. The next biggest reason is they are setting their patterns for life when they cohabit and when they marry most will still keep their money separate, living as single people even though they are called “married” now. This is a sad, sad, deal.).
I came across the article below about compound interest this morning and thought I’d share it with you. Take a look, be encouraged, and have a chat with your spouse how you can spur each other on to kick that debt out the window and start building your savings. ASAP!!
Your mom might care, but it’s your life and if you want to drink yourself silly or stay out all hours of the night or play video games til your fingers are sore or spend all your money and the money from next year and the decade after that on purses or 4-wheelers, or buy lotto tickets or sleep all hours of the day or live in a trash heap, nobody gives a crap.
If you are married a secret equals a lie. What? That’s right. There is no room for a secret in marriage. Period. Why’s that? When you get married (you know, a wedding where you publically declare your fidelity to each other til death us do part and you tell that to God, to the Church, to the State, to your relatives, to your friends, to the dog (a dog snuck in the church when Mary Sue and I got married 36 years ago and slept under a pew), to each other and to your very self and later when you literally become one sexually, at that moment God unites you into a new family, a new social organism with a skin around the both of you called a boundary and this boundary is primarily a boundary of protection and He instills in you the Mother Bear Instinct, whereby you protect each other because you are both:
That’s right. You might not agree on everything, but you let each other know what’s going on, where you are, what you are spending or thinking of spending, how work went, how you are feeling about your life, your future, your dreams, worries, and concerns.
YOU LET EACH OTHER KNOW.
BECAUSE YOU ARE BOTH IN.
AND WHAT YOU DO AFFECTS WHAT YOUR PARTNER DOES OR THINKS OR WORRIES ABOUT OR HOPES OR FEARS. AND LIKEWISE FOR YOUR SPOUSE, SO YOU
LET EACH OTHER KNOW.
It’s a little worrisome for some at first, because, you know, these newly married folk may have lived single-y for a decade or more and they are used to doing whatever whenever and not answering to anybody so marriage might seem a tad cumbersome. It might take a while to get used to. It can be irritating to hear one’s spouse say, “What’s the deal with that?” Over time, you learn how to say these things, how to bring them up, what to bring up, what to let slide, how to express it so your husband or wife can actually hear it. It would be good to figure that out. It takes about 15 years. Minimum. Some people need help figuring that out, so they come see me and we talk about how to actually be a husband and a wife. A lot of people have no idea.
The average divorce is at 7.2 years, so most people never even ever discover the major reason they got married, which was to help them both grow up. It takes a little humility to be married.
Humility would be good. You don’t know everything. Some of your habits are bad, even destructive, and if you keep doing them you are literally going to die, get fired, get arrested or eventually live under a bridge (“The rats were particularly friendly today.”).
Your husband or wife has an opinion about you systematically destroying yourself so more than likely your spouse might say something about it here and there and if you are wife or a husband, over time, the seeds your spouse planted will bear fruit and you will slowly overcome these little “foxes” (as the Song of Song calls them) and become a better person and couple.
If you have enough humility to realize you don’t know everything. If you have the finesse to convey your insights to your spouse without a club.
Those are two big IFS.
Since nobody wants to be told what to do (when they are 13) and nobody has any people skills (when they are 13), most people who divorce do so at the emotional maturity of a 13-year old and since divorce is so traumatic they stay at this same emotional level the rest of their lives.
If you aren’t open to some input in your first marriage you more than likely won’t be open to input on your second (or third, etc.)
If you don’t know how to convey your opinion without a little suger in your first marriage you more than likely won’t have clue in your second.
Divorce does NOT enhance either of these maturing, life-enhancing skills. If anything it makes a person more self-absorbed and self-protective and angry and offputting and defensive and guarded and suspicious because who wants to be hurt again?
My prayer for you, if you divorced or your spouse divorced you, is that you will bow before the Father and pray He will take away your bitterness of heart and that he would instill in you a forgiving and humble spirit, so that someday you may actually be able to put aside childish things.
That would be a good thing.
If you think about it, people who divorce at 7.2 years (the average marriage length at divorce) are newlyweds, if you consider you are supposed to be married to that one person the rest of your life.
Let’s see: 7.2 divided by 62 years (how long my mom and dad are currently married and still counting) equals: 11.6 percent.
I am totally convinced that the vast majority (all?) of folk who divorce do so without ever discovering the art of being a husband or wife and are basically divorcing their roommate. They divorce still not knowing how to be a husband or a wife so then they do the roommate thing all over again in the next marriage or they tire of marriage altogether (so they think), see it as a burden and a snare, and live serially with a number of other would be partners, roommates with benefits, if you know what I mean.
NOT friends with benefits. There’s no way you can be friends with someone you are sexual with if they are not your husband or wife. This so-called “partner” (what should this person be called?) will slowly become a stench and you will eventually end up hating him, and the hatred with which you hate him will be stronger than the love with which you loved him, to quote a verse in the Bible that tells a similar story from 3000 years ago, I kid you not. I’m not making this stuff up.
Which brings us to secrets in cohabiting. If there are no secrets if you are single and therefore no lies, because you have no one to lie to and if in marriage if your secrets equal a lie, because you both depend upon each other for your present, your future and your well being, than in cohabiting secrets equal? What?
I’ll tell you how a secret feels in cohabiting: It feels like a lie. But the problem is this other person is not your husband or wife and you have no claim upon her and she has no claim upon you. Technically you are both single. Even though you are living with each other, bought a house together, even had a kid or two together, if you are not married, you are at most business partners.
Which is the same relationship divorced people have. Their relationship is strictly business. In cohabiting your relationship is strictly business. You both pay half of the rent, right? That’s a business relationship. Roommates.
I had a roommate from college. I never told him where I was going, who I was with, what I was thinking, fearing, worried or concerned about. Neither did he. He could care less. Roommates. And with roommates, that’s fine.
But with cohabitation how can you ever be more than roommates or a business relationship? Sex just makes you in bondage to each other. It’s, ahhh, immoral, for one thing. But you tell each other it’s fine and wipe your mouths and tell yourselves you’ve done nothing wrong. You can tell yourself whatever you want. It means nothing. You aren’t married. No one made a public pronouncement you are both in. You are both using each other. Love does not seek it’s own and that’s all both of you do: seek your own. Sex outside of marriage is not only immoral, it’s an act of selfishness and self-promotion and soon the whole business will grow wearisome and after a while you will grow tired of each other, kids or no kids, and you will break up and go your separate ways because he was so this or that or she was so this or that and everyone will understand and you will do it again because you are lonely and the next person will have an opinion one day and you will scoff at him, too, because you ain’t gonna take no crap. You ain’t gonna settle. You don’t want no one telling you what to do. That’s why you never married in the first place, right?
Cohabiting people don’t make very good husbands and wives because it takes a little humility and honesty and integrity to be a wife or a husband and these two cohabiting people are just getting what both of them want from each other right now for nothing and screw integrity (no pun intended), I can do what I want, propriety be damned. And now all of a sudden you marry and now all of a sudden you are going to be humble enough to tell the truth and be honest and make right decisions going forward? How is your new spouse that you just sucked the life out of while you were living together without marriage supposed to ever trust you in that?
And now your cohabiting person (what do you call this person? Roommate? Potential wife or husband? Likely engagee? Girlfriend or boyfriend would be insulting. You just had a kid with this person. The father of my child? The body on the other side of the bed?) tells you a lie and you freak and he says to you, “You are not my wife. I can do what I want. It’s none of your business,” and other insulting things and you realize you have NO SAY. She’s not your wife, buddy. Your opinion ain’t worth squat.
So in cohabiting: secrets =????
No wonder cohabiting folk break up in spades. Romantic feelings of love, so strong in the beginning, quickly wane without the structure of marriage to protect it and nurture it.
One time I asked a young couple who lived together what prevented them from getting married. They both laughed and slapped their knees while both of them said in near unison:
Check out all of these materials (here) to get a better grasp of the Model.
The Development of the Model:
The Model arose after hearing from clients the stories of thousands of individuals and adults about their relationships. Most of these were married. Many were cohabiting or had cohabited before. Others were single or divorced, some several times. These people would tell me, often without prompting, the key elements that were missing in their marital or romantic relationships or the types of things they felt were important to making a marital relationship worthwhile. The six elements of the Model are the six things these people brought up in sessions, over and over again.
While some researchers might question the wisdom of creating a Modelof Marriage from people who are hurting, I would counter, that people who are hurting know instinctively what is missing and can articulate very convincingly the things they need. A person in the desert knows he needs water to survive. A person who just finished a 32-ounce Coke may be upset because his iPhone doesn’t have reception. They both need water to survive, but the person in the desert is much more aware.
Priorities in the Model:
As you look at the graphic of the Model, note that it is built from the ground up. The item lower on the graphic trumps the items above it. This is a very helpful way to understand, as a couple and a therapist, what priorities are needed to improve the marriage.
For example, Commitment trumps Trust: it won’t matter if you are having an affair, if you are going to leave me. Trust trumps Communication: I won’t believe a word you are saying if I think you are lying to me! Communication trumps Sexuality: Why would I want to be sexual with you if you never talk to me, or all you do is criticize me?
The Elements of the Model:
The Model has six layers with two concepts in each layer. The two concepts at each layer are complementary to each other and necessary to the complete understanding of that area. For example, we can’t just communicate. We also need to be able to solve our problems. In addition, you’ll note that all of the concepts at each level are interactive and dependent on the teamwork of both spouses. You don’t communicate alone or you aren’t affectionate alone. This helps couples see the character of their Marriage depends upon both of them working for the common good of the family the two of them started.
Marriage and Commitment:
When I use the word Marriage I’m referring to a husband and wife who have made a public pledge to leave their father and mother and start a new family. In my view, Marriage is NOT about loving, romantic relationships. Defining marriage as simply a romantic relationship has reduced marriage to feelings, leading to our horrendous divorce and cohabiting rates and encouraging anyone to be “married.” This watered-down view has taken away from Marriage its intrinsic worth, and devalued it to the point where 50% of our married people throw theirs away. Marriage has historically meant the complementary of a man and a woman, who are one in their uniquely, sexually, monogamous relationship, who promise in a public way their mutual commitment to each other in their new family. Their family has the potential to be intergenerational, forming the safest and most tender place for the next generation to be raised. Anything less reduces marriage to a loaf of bread: buy a new one if you feel like it.
Commitment is the idea that the vows of Marriage are continually reinforced throughout their lives together, because they’ve formed a new family. Neither partner does or says things to call their Commitment or their new family into question.
Cohabitation does NOT offer the security of Marriedfor Life and because the couple doesn’t know if either is in or out for sure, insecurity lurks beneath the scene. Married couples who threaten the Marriage by saying things like “I can’t take this any more” or “I deserve to be happy,” also create insecurity and if either party thinks the other might leave, they start protecting themselves from the other spouse. Either scenario (cohabitation or threats to leave) causes people to see their partner as their roommate instead of a husband or a wife, leading to marital problems and chaos and, for many, divorce or breaking up.
Trust and Accountability:
Trust is the idea that what spouses say matches what they do and they both keep appropriate boundaries with others. There is an invisible boundary around their marital relationship and neither does anything to call that into question. In Accountability both partners willingly tell each other what is going on because they each want the other in his or her life! They do this because they want to compare notes and pool their wisdom and look out for one another. They can’t protect each other, unless they both know where the other is.
Couples that don’t practice this end up keeping secrets from each other and not telling each other what they need to, which introduces insecurity into the relationship and makes one or the other feel controlled or totally unimportant. This also leads to couples living as roommates. Roommates DON’T tell each other what is going on! Married people do, or at least should!
Communication and Problem Solving:
Wise couples will BOTH Communicate their concerns with each other and they BOTH will work together to solve both their concerns. No relationship is perfect and will need to be tweaked now and then. The relationship will not improve, if one or the other or both cannot or will not share their concerns or every time differences are brought up, anger, fighting, or shutting down are a threat. Couples who are not able to resolve their differences or at least work them through to a satisfactory level will find their relationship deteriorating over time. Couples who can’t work through their differences become roommates and either fight or become indifferent. If the relationship can’t get better it will get worse. Over time this can lead to Trust and Commitment issues.
Fun and Friendship:
Couples that enjoy their marriages enjoy each other’s company and they enjoy each other’s company because they spend time alone together and have a relationship on their own accord, apart from their children and/or friend or other family members. This is difficult to do in modern society due to our busy lives, but Thriving Couples understand this and will make special efforts to spend time alone as a couple, enjoying each other’s company and developing their common interests throughout their lives together. Couples, who end up as roommates, develop their own individual private interests only and invest in their careers and children, putting each other on hold. Over time they will grow distant and, if they are not careful, will just pass each other in the hall. This lack of time and effort on both parties’ part will be interpreted as an affront or indifference by each other and will bleed into other areas of the marriage, creating other, more serious problems. For example, why be married to someone who won’t spend any time with me having fun?
Warmth and Affection:
Couples need Warmth and tenderness and one of the easiest ways to convey that is through Affection. By Affection I mean non-sexual, non-demand touching. There is a public and private aspect to this. The public aspect conveys to the children and society at large and to each other that the two of them are an item. The children see mom and dad holding hands on the couch and giving each other a hug and a meaningful kiss at the end of the day. Privately the couple is close in the privacy of their own bed. Their bedroom is a sanctuary with a lock on the door. The couple cuddles, again, without sexual overtones, on a regular basis, keeping the relationship Warm.
Couples, who end up as roommates, avoid Affection and use excuses to keep from doing it. If one is more affectionate, that spouse may give up pursing it because it doesn’t seem reciprocal. Or one may say, I’m just not the affectionate type, leading to neither touching each other, publically or privately. Affection that is one-sided feels forced and lacks Warmth for both. The couple may rarely touch each other in bed (or anywhere else!), have a child or dog in the bed between them in bed or not sleep in the same bed at all! Without Warmth and Affection the relationship grows cold and it is not long before they are both living as roommates and the couple is dealing with many other problems as well.
Intimacy and Sexuality:
There are four purposes for Sexuality: 1) to bring the next generation; 2) to ensure the spiritual connection between a husband and wife; 3) as a creative force in our lives to be a blessing to our families and the wider community (e.g. work, art, service, giving, volunteering); 4) as spiritual energy directed toward God in worship. In any other contexts sexuality becomes a force of chaos, abuse, perversion and death.
The wise couple understands this and makes sure that the Sexuality between them has Intimacy, by which I mean it is mutual and meaningful. Without these two elements Sexuality feels forced or inappropriate or hurtful or selfish. On the flip side couples that ignore sexuality end up losing their love for each other as the spiritual energy between them leaks away. Still other roommate scenarios include one or the other or both getting their sexual needs meant elsewhere or the introduction of other people (e.g. swinging) or things (e.g. pornography) into the sacred marriage bed that is just meant for the husband and the wife. These extremes (coercion, indifference or perversion) cause couples to become roommates, raise marital problems in other areas and may lead to divorce.
Importance of the Model:
All the elements of the Model are necessary for a Marriage to be strong. Weakness in one area can quickly trickle into other areas. Just like a house wouldn’t be much of a house if it is missing a roof or a furnace or a kitchen or windows, so, too, marriage without all the elements will suffer. The Model suggests starting with the most basic foundational area before working on the areas above it (looking at the graphic of the Model: work on Trust before Communication, etc.). Knowing what the weaknesses are helps couples set their own goals as they seek to improve their marriages and can give them tangible places to start going forward. Marital therapists can use the Model to assess the couple and create therapy goals.
Other Issues and the Model:
Money and Children:
Most other issues (e.g. money and children) can be subsumed under the Communication and Problem Solving section. Nevertheless, any issue can become a Marriage andCommitment issue, if the couple can’t work it through, one or the other makes threats to leave or, in frustration, either makes unilateral decisions. For example, quite often in cohabiting couples and step-family situations, money and children become Commitment issues! For example, in a step-family situation, if you don’t warm up to my birth-child, I’ll divorce you! YIKES! Unilateral decisions and threats to break up or divorce in these kinds of settings are common. The major concern here is “how” a couple handles their problems.
When I was first thinking through the Model I considered having protection as one of the major components: safety first, right? After some reflection, I decided that protection is one of the assumptions and purposes of the family and it is germane to each level of the Model. We could speak of protection at each level. Protection is one of the key reasons the family exists in the first place. Protection will be a theme at each level as I write about and develop the Model.
The Thriving Couples Model can help you as a couple determine areas that need work for you to make the most of your Marriage or your relationship. If you are a potential marital therapy client or marital therapist the Model will help you focus on priorities. The Thriving Couples Model provides a philosophy and a structure for improving your Marriage, when both parties realize you exist in the Marriage, not to make each other or yourselves happy, but to sacrifice for the benefit of your new family. Your family is bigger than either of you, is worth sacrificing for, and both of you are key players in making it all it can be.
This blog Copyright by Dr. Bing Wall, Heart to Heart Communication, LC, 2011
To listen to the one hour podcast explaining the Thriving Couples Model in more detail, click here.
To check out the Graphic of the Model, the Chart Contrasting Living as Roommates vs. Husbands and Wives or to download a PDF of this blog today click here.
Communication is occurring in spades, but it might not be the message you intend to send. For the first blog on communication click here. For the entire series click here.
My husband won’t communicate with me. He just sits there and won’t talk.
A Common Comment From Wives
I don’t want to fight.
A Common Comment From Husbands
I get a kick out of these people who say they don’t communicate when they are communicating fine.Everything you do communicates.Like we said in our last blog, cows and flies don’t communicate, but people do.All the time.Even when you aren’t saying anything you are communicating.
Let’s say you and your spouse had an argument (which is communicating that you are both stubborn and you both want your own way and I’m smarter than you and you are stupid) and then you got mad enough to quit talking.You are still communicating.You’re just not using words.What is your silence communicating?
It depends how long it goes.
If you won’t talk for a half an hour or so and this is a recurring pattern, your partner might cut you some slack and say to herself that you just needed to calm down. And after the half hour if you say something to open the lines of verbal communication then you may be able to clear the air. As long as we have a good habit of reconnecting verbally and KINDLY we’ll probably be fine. Going forward, though, it’d be much better if you said you needed some time to pull yourself together than to just shut down. The total shut down is pretty rude, but if you are able to re-engage soon enough, the two of you will be Okay.
But if, after a half hour of silence, the two of you get into a verbal sparing match again, that wouldn’t be good, especially if this is the recurring pattern of choice. Then the half hour is going to be interpreted as the lull before the storm and your spouse will be working up her defenses and you will be working up yours and then BOOM! We’ve got another battle on your hands.
But what if you don’t talk for the rest of the day and you go to bed without a kiss goodnight or cuddling or pillow-talk or love-yous or chatting about your day or chatting about tomorrow or chatting it up about your kids or the news or the sports or the phone call you got from your mom or the car that needs repaired or the bill that needs to be paid tomorrow or which one of us is going to stay home to meet the stupid cable guy (again!) tomorrow? Nothing. All of a sudden you just disappear and your wife looks around and you are gone. And she goes to the bedroom and you are rolled over on your side looking away from her and she quietly slips into bed and tries to snuggle against you and you pull away, making it clear that you do NOT want her touching you.
And lets say you do this withdrawal thing for a day or so.What are you communicating now?You think you are NOT communicating just because you aren’t saying anything?You are NOT a cow.If you are a cow and not saying anything the other cow isn’t going to get ticked or be hurt or anything because cows don’t have feelings to get hurt.A cow will go months without talking and won’t have any hurt feelings at all.But your spouse?
And, if you are so cruel as to avoid your spouse for a day, like I just described, what will be going on in your heart, if you are so stubborn and self-absorbed as to not talk to your spouse for 24 hours?How mean do you have to be to do this?What kind of bad habits are you learning?And what are you teaching your spouse?And what are you teaching your kids if you treat them the same way or if you won’t talk to mommy, but you’ll be all grins with the kids?
You don’t need a degree in family dynamics to know that if you talk to your kids or not and you don’t talk to your wife, your kids are going to be messed up. And so is your wife. And so are you.
So don’t tell me you aren’t communicating. Lots of messages are being shared here. It might not be the message that you are intending to send. You are probably just trying to convey that you have hurt feelings or you don’t want to fight or you’d like someone else to apologize for a change and that you are NOT going to be the one who apologizes first. You’ll just wait it out. You’ll test her. That’ll get your point across.
Well, like I said in my last blog, we can be really off base when it comes to reading minds and only God can do that and if you want your spouse to read your mind you better tell her what is on your mind, so she can read the words you say and see if the words you say match your mood, and over time, if the words you say match the mood you convey, she might have a clue as to your desire for her to apologize, for example, (‘cuz you’ve said it before), but if you’ve never told her that, there’s no way she’ll know that and you know what she’s going to think, while you are sitting or laying there totally ignoring her existence? You know what you are communicating?
Put yourself in her shoes. Have you ever had someone purposely and willingly NOT talk you for hours and hours, even though you were in the same room and you loved that person and like this person was your spouse, the person you said you were going to be faithful to till death us do part through sickness and health and all that? Ever had that done to you? What did you go through? What did you feel?
So don’t tell me you don’t communicate.
You communicate fine.
When we teach communication skills in marital therapy, what we are teaching is how to convey what you intend to convey. How to convey what you intend to convey so your spouse really does know what you are trying to say and what you are thinking because if you don’t say what you are thinking or you tell her what you are thinking and your spouse doesn’t believe you and fills in the blanks herself, we’ll have a bunch of negative messages in there if we’re not careful and over time that can wear people out.
And then you’ll divorce each other and marry someone else and you’ll do fine communicating with that spouse, too, only you still won’t be conveying what you intend to convey and your next wife will also fill in the blanks, and if you are not getting along particularly well she will fill in the blanks with negativity and pretty soon you’ll be looking at divorce number two or even divorce number three, or you’ll just throw out marriage altogether, thinking marriage is the problem, but marriage is what gives us dependability and protection and safety and reliability and if you just cohabit your intended messages will be even more skewed toward hurt, because your cohabitee will think why would he just live with me for nothing and what’s in it for him and intended messages won’t be believed, much.Cohabiting couples have a terrible time with intended messages because without the marriage vow to seal the deal everybody’s intentions are suspect: You say one thing (“I love you”) and do another (“marriage is just a piece of paper”) and these cross messages play with people’s brains.It’s communication loud and clear.
And if you decide to really get your point across and not talk to your spouse for a month or more and not say a word and not even acknowledge your spouse’s presence, like she doesn’t exist, if you do that ‘cuz you are testing her or trying to convey that you are hurt or that you don’t want to fight or it takes you that long to get your courage up to even talk to her or to say something teasing or funny to break the ice and you don’t have the courage to do that, then you will be communicating very well, thank you very much, that she is a complete waste of your time and you do NOT need her and you may as well fall off the face of the earth as far as I’m concerned and you don’t mean anything to me as well and maybe I’m getting my needs met elsewhere, and you can’t influence me in any positive OR negative way, and you may as well cease to exist. Well, if you do that to her and you are communicating very well, loud and clear, these messages of continual disdain, well then, you shouldn’t be surprised, that if you do this to her a couple of times, that she communicates to you with the sheriff serving you some papers that convey to you in no uncertain terms how the communication that you were giving her without words was being interpreted and you can spend the rest of your days telling everyone what a complete crazy person your X wife was. Just make sure you leave out the part that you don’t have the fortitude to resist the temptation to not talk for a month or more. It takes are real moron to be able to do that. If you could package that little trick we wouldn’t have to worry about over populating the earth because mankind or humankind, or whatever is politically correct, would cease to exist, as we know it.
He probably lets his mind wander just a tad too much.
He thinks that I think that he’s a ______(fill in the blank, such as failure) and I don’t think that.
A frequent comment in marital therapy
Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain. I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.*
A recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times (March 31, 2010) explained the current brain research that is looking at “mental states” and how we can predict, pretty accurately it seems, what someone else is thinking. Literature scholars are taking this one step further and asking how many layers of complexity we can comprehend using brain scans of people reading various literature passages. A common example from our popular culture was given to illustrate the point:
To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”
(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.
As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”
This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.
Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?
The article goes on to say that modern literature authors frequently use narrative technique to bring the reader into the minds of the various characters, and that most of us can follow these “mental states” for three levels before getting confused.
Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.
Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.
You might be able to guess that all of this would interest a marital therapist like myself. It’s not uncommon for a wife to tell me what her mother-in-law was thinking and what her mother-in-law’s motives were and now the wife in my office is explaining to me her hurt and the husband then says that he knows his mother better than his wife and that his mother’s motives weren’t negative at all and that his wife shouldn’t feel hurt and then both of them look to me to be the arbiter of what someone else was thinking when I’ve never even met that other person and now they want my opinion on the motives of the mother-in-law! Whoa! Slow down.
About the time I read this NYT article I came across the passage in Jeremiah quoted above that predates Virginia Woolf by 2500 years and the NYT article by 2600 years.
I dare you to look this passage up (here or it’s included at the end of this blog today) and try to figure out who is saying what to whom. It’s a bit confusing. I’ve lost track of how many layers of complexity there are. The passage is in the book of Jeremiah, which was written by the Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah, who dictated it to his assistant, Baruch. The verse above at the beginning of this blog is a direct quote from God, who tells Jeremiah what Baruch is saying. So Baruch is writing words that Jeremiah told him God said that Baruch is saying. And now you are reading these words that I said God said to Jeremiah what Baruch said and then Baruch wrote them all down so you and I could benefit from the worries of Baruch, reported third or forth or fifth hand.
Then, as if this isn’t confusing enough, God goes on to tell Jeremiah to give a message from God to Baruch of what God is thinking about what Baruch is saying and thinking. God tells Jeremiah what that message is. Presumably, Jeremiah obeys God and tells Baruch that message. What we don’t know is if Jeremiah told Baruch that message so that Baruch could write it down and then he told Baruch that message or if he told Baruch that message and then Baruch wrote it down later. Regardless of the order, Baruch wrote down what Jeremiah told him God said that Baruch said and then God gave his opinion of what Baruch said to Jeremiah who was to tell Baruch God’s message of what God said about what Baruch said.
I’m making this more confusing than it is for a reason, so hang in here with me. I believe that the Bible is true and that God really did read Baruch’s mind accurately, whether Baruch said these words to himself, out loud to his wife or directly to Jeremiah or in a prayer to God. We really don’t know to whom Baruch said these words. Baruch wrote them in Hebrew around 600 BC and they were written down by scribes over the years, time and time again and then around 1973 some English scholars translated these ancient Masoretic Hebrew texts into English from some modern day copies of the ancient (around 1000 years old by this time) scrolls. And some printer prints it and a machine puts it all together and it’s boxed and shipped and unloaded and put on a shelf in a retail store by a number of different people and I buy the Bible 24 years ago this month and it’s sitting here by my side on my chair and hassock and I type it into Microsoft Word in my Apple MacBook and soon I’ll use my Apple Time Machine wireless router that will send the message to Mediacom’s RCA modem which, through an intricate cable network will send the message to WordPress’ computer servers in the San Francisco Bay area where it’ll be downloaded to my blog and then from there it will travel through the internet all over the world, but, specifically today and right now, you will look at it on your computer after it’s gone in reverse through the same process. And, I assume, that in the translation and the myriad changes that have gone on to the message, that you will be able to cogently understand the message of what God was saying to Jeremiah of what God said Baruch said and Jeremiah told this message to Baruch of what God said Baruch said and then Baruch wrote it down so that millennia latter you could read it and comprehend it.
And I even skipped many layers of human interaction and involvement and dependency in what it took to get all of these different layers together. It’s not a measly 6 layers. It’s thousands upon thousands: Just to get this bible by my lap we have the lumber man who cut down the tree from which the paper was made and the hundreds of inventions that were needed to put a chainsaw together, let alone a semi truck or a printing machine or the ink that was invented and manufactured and shipped or the box it was all stored in or the graphic artist that put the final flourishes on the cover of the bible or the typesetter that laid out the text or the lady that served the truck driver coffee in Nebraska as he drove across the country and the farmer that harvested the coffee beans in South America. And this is not even mentioning all the people involved across the world that were involved in the invention, production, transportation and sales of the chair and hassock I’m sitting on as I write this on a computer that took hundreds of inventions with collaboration and networking and tears and countless people from unnamed countries to develop and perfect or to credit the scientists that invented the medicine that I take every day that if I didn’t take I’d be dead by now and wouldn’t have these thoughts that I am actually conveying so that you can somehow, miraculously, comprehend and read my mind which you are reading today, but I wrote it the day before and thought about it for a long while before that.
Now one of the major points of the NYT’s article above is that our ability as humans to understand different layers of complexity in human communication is an evolutionary process, which I find a complete package of crazy nonsense.If you think about it, communication between people is a pretty amazing thing.How could we have evolved from a natural system with only one degree of communication (like from one fly to another) to this elaborate system of interlocking and interplaying mechanisms so we could comprehend the thoughts and feelings of a scared scribe 2600 years ago?Take any other animal you want.For example a cow is just a cow.It has no feelings to convey.There is only one degree of separation in communication between one cow and another cow at best and probably no degrees of separation from a cow to us.There is no memory and certainly no history.Cows don’t collaborate or read each other’s minds or contemplate each other’s mental states.They don’t invent anything or have libraries.The cow doesn’t covey anything to us, nor we to the cow, nor to each other, but with us and between us we have myriads and myriads of connections over great distances and different systems and companies and entities and over unimaginable epochs and even then the communication can be sent, understood and comprehended.How this “evolved” and is all just chance and has absolutely no meaning at all and then you even have the gall to ask me to believe it (!) is a complete collection of fantastical mythology.
All this to make this little point: While God might know what Baruch said and thought and felt, and was able to convey that to us through Baruch’s message from Jeremiah, you don’t know what your spouse thinks and feels unless you ask or he tells you. You will really get into a mess if you tell your spouse what she thinks and she tells you she doesn’t think that and then you say that she indeed did think that. Now God knows what Baruch said and thought and felt, but you are NOT God and you DO NOT know what your spouse thinks and feels. You have a hunch. You can test your hunch by asking your spouse if that is what he meant. That would be fine. But if you ask, you need to be prepared to believe it. What a complete waste of time for your spouse to tell you what he is thinking or feeling and then you tell him he’s not thinking and feeling that and then he says yes he is and then you argue about what you said he said and he argues that that is not what he meant and you say yes you did.
Folks, we’ve only got 2 degrees here.We should be able to get this.We’re not separated by centuries and cultures and languages and races and geography and technology and mediums.She’s standing right there.She just told you what she said and felt.STOP.LISTEN.SLOW DOWN.You should be able to get this.
I thought you meant this.
No, I meant that. I could see how you could think I thought this, but, no, I meant that.
Oh. Okay. Man, that freaked me out, because I thought you thought this. What a relief.
Yeah, sorry. No, I meant that. It would really be creepy if I meant this.
Yeah, no kidding.I’m glad you meant that.
Clearing the air.
Let’s leave the mind reading to God.
*The full passage from Jeremiah 45 is as follows (from the NIV and the website: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=jer%2045&version=NIV ): This is what Jeremiah the prophet told Baruch son of Neriah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, after Baruch had written on a scroll the words Jeremiah was then dictating: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, ‘Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ “
The LORD said, “Say this to him: ‘This is what the LORD says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’ “