In the 1980s, marriage researcher John Gottman sought to develop a predictive model for assessing the quality of marriages, and for determining the likelihood of divorce. His research resulted in what we call the Gottman Ratio, which maintains that in a healthy relationship, there are 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. When the ratio becomes skewed toward more negativity—say, 2 positive interactions for every 3 negative—that is a good indicator that the relationship is in trouble. When interactions are skewed toward negativity even more—say, 1 positive interaction for every 5 negative ones—that ratio indicates the relationship is broken.
Gottman further identified what he called the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—that serve as reliable indicators that a marriage relationship is headed for divorce. In particular, Gottman was emphatic that contempt is the best predictor of divorce.
Gottman’s insights and those of other relationship researchers are valuable touchstones for a life of faith, which centers on relationships: vertical faith in relationship with God, and horizontal faith in relationship with the community of believers. Both kinds of relationships can be healthy, broken, or somewhere in between—either nurtured and fortified by healthy attitudes, or poisoned by erroneous expectations.
Another model that applies to our faith is a general five-stage map of relationships: honeymoon, power struggle, crisis, decision, and commitment. According to this widely used conception, couples most often begin in a stage of infatuation, unwilling or unable to see the flaws in their partner. They then tend to develop an increasing honesty about their partner’s (sometimes perceived, sometimes real) flaws, before expending substantial mental and emotional effort in a frustrating power struggle to change their partner’s behavior. What naturally follows that futile power struggle is a period of crisis and disillusionment, followed ideally by some kind of decision, where partners decide to at least peacefully coexist. Some relationships are able to then move into more of a flourishing phase of commitment, where, with full awareness of each other’s personal characteristics, the couple commits to move in the direction of deeper love together. A good measure of the value of anyone’s influence is the degree to which they point people to God.
A good measure of the value of anyone’s influence is the degree to which they point people to God.
- Are they in a perpetual power struggle?
- Do they voice loathing contempt toward God or the Church?
- Do they lack awareness of their own toxic expectations?
- Is their ratio of positive to negative communications about God and the Church a healthy 5 to 1, or is it an inverse ratio indicating that their relationship with the Church is broken?
In all these ways, we can begin to see where people are headed, whether toward healthy and loving eyes-wide-open relationships with both God and fellow church members or toward strained and bitter connections on both fronts.
Along with these indicators of faith trajectory, I would suggest another indicator that we refer to in modern relationship terms as the emotional affair. An emotional affair differs from a sexual affair in the sense that it is not physically consummated but can be just as devastating to a relationship. In an emotional affair, a relationship partner is still in their professed commitment to a spouse physically, but mentally and emotionally they have moved on: their thoughts and feelings and yearnings are with another individual.
A married man in an emotional affair will show signs of his extramarital commitment, spending inordinate amounts of time with the other woman, and then voicing all kinds of criticism and discontent toward his once-beloved spouse and home: Why don’t you dress differently? Did you know that other women like football? Did you know that other women like to dine out more often? Without a full return to commitment that includes a complete severing of the new relationship, the original relationship becomes poisoned, drop by comparing-and-criticizing drop.
Emotional affairs have been common through the ages among people who are in covenant relationships with God and community—reflecting a seeking and craving for fulfillment outside of the covenant. The Lord spoke through Isaiah of people who drew near to Him with their lips, while their hearts were far from him. In Ezekiel’s ministry, the people accused God of inequality (sometimes translated as unfairness), and their idolatry was condemned as analogous to promiscuity, an emotional departure from their first love. Jeremiah spoke of people who, disillusioned with Jehovah and the religious system He ordained through the prophets, turned to worship of a female deity. Jesus would later teach of people whose seed of faith was choked by thorns, which he explained to be rival loves, cares, and commitments.
Just like ancient Israel, I believe we are facing as a people an epidemic of emotional affairs with a variety of extra-covenantal influences that are poisoning our vertical and horizontal covenant faith commitments, leading many church members to adopt the compare-and-criticize behaviors that are fatal to covenant joy.
Politics has long been a seductive partner for emotional affairs among people in a covenant relationship with God, and wide swaths of right-wing American Christianity have in recent decades turned from God’s quiet and patient influence—what Isaiah called “the waters of Shiloah that go softly”—in favor of aspirations to political power allowing them to impose what amounts to a delusional and unscriptural vision of Christian dominion upon the world.
In doing this, right-wing Christians have allowed themselves to be sucked into the very premises that animate their Marxist adversaries on the left, representing another seductive emotional affair for believers (hence the need to be cautious about the dangers of both liberal and conservative religion). Those who have embraced this conspiratorial (and academically popular) worldview come to believe that elements of society exist to develop and maintain systems of oppression that are so deeply rooted that they can only be vanquished through relentless criticism, conflict, and revolution.
In yielding to either of these directions, Latter-day Saints follow patterns that are found in other faiths, where during the transition away from personal faith to a new political, social, or other religious conviction, professions of faith are replaced with professions of activist devotion, coupled with messages of moral grandstanding to increase one’s status in their new community. Like the emotionally wandering husband, the activist turns to criticism of the Church, its leaders, and members in a steady stream of commentary about how those sorry believers are woefully deficient and lacking, unlike this my other love.
A healthy faith includes a strong vertical orientation, a connection to God that results in the gifts of the spirit, which are then used in our horizontal blessing of God’s children in our spheres of influence. A good measure of the value of anyone’s influence is the degree to which they point people to God (as Jesus Himself did). But cultivating stillness and discerning God’s voice are challenging spiritual disciplines, and the attendant struggle can create openings for the voices of influencers who lack their own connection to God. In our moment of need— precisely when we need God the most—they can essentially say: Come talk with me instead! All that inner work is too hard, too unrealistic … have you considered what I have to say?
The deconversion process is too often led and encouraged by these influencers who, having forsaken the still waters of God’s influence in their own souls, have come to prefer loud public activism over quiet, private Christian ministry—drinking in the intoxicating but ultimately insatiable quest for ever more “likes” and followers.
In law enforcement, there is a disturbing phrase, “suicide by cop.” It describes situations where a person has lost the will to live and attempt to end their life by provoking police officers to kill them in a dramatic public spectacle. This has been the modus operandi of several high-profile apostasies in recent years. Typically in this scenario, an attention-craving influencer who has mentally and emotionally disengaged from belief in the restoration and/or the Church’s divinely-ordained leadership seeks to use a church disciplinary council as an opportunity for a public ecclesiastical martyrdom. Sadly, in each instance, some of the unconverted are persuaded by the performance. “Come talk with me instead! All that inner work is too hard, too unrealistic … have you considered what I have to say?”
“Come talk with me instead! All that inner work is too hard, too unrealistic … have you considered what I have to say?”
Christianity has always maintained that the severing of spiritually destructive influences is both painful and necessary; Jesus taught that removing our sources of stumbling might even feel like severing an eye or limb. The Joseph Smith Translation of these teachings in Mark describes this process with a specificity that carries special urgency in our age of online influencers (emphasis mine):
And again, if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; for he that is thy standard, by whom thou walkest, if he become a transgressor, he shall be cut off. It is better for thee, to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell; into the fire that never shall be quenched. Therefore, let every man stand or fall, by himself, and not for another; or not trusting another.
Those words might sting. And cutting off a misguided standard might hurt even more. But failing to do so will surely hurt even more in the end.
Let’s have the courage to do what we need to do.