Monday, April 14, 2014

The Statistician's Approach to Improving Home Teaching (Part 1 of 2)

Go ahead, roll your eyes. Groan. Dread what is about to come. If you're sane, the question you are hopefully asking yourself is "how can you possibly use statistics to improve home teaching1?" Allow me to answer that question for you:

You can't.

Statistics by themselves cannot -- and will not ever -- be a useful tool for improving home teaching.

That is my official and educated position as a professional statistician. So please, for the love of all that is holy, let's stop talking about home teaching statistics2.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, by and large, when someone talks about home teaching statistics, they are referring to "the percentage of families who received a visit from their home teachers in the last calendar month."  I blame ward clerks for this.  Clerks are tasked with the ever-unpleasant task of reporting this percentage to the higher-ups once a quarter, and so they routinely ask those in charge of the home teaching program to provide this percentage.  The problem is that the clerks are the only people in the world who are asked to have this kind of information.  Those who are in charge of home teaching are required to, "give the bishop monthly home teaching reports. Each report includes a list of those who were not contacted."

From my own experience as a clerk, getting a list of names was nearly impossible.  Almost every time I asked for it, I was given the home teaching percentage instead.  I'm sure that my insistence on being given a list of names was not well received.  I can only imagine that it was a frustrating request because the list of families not visited was so long, and people hated typing out all those names3.

So, of course, since the monthly percentage is so convenient to report, that's what gets reported.  It's also the metric by which congregations often evaluate the quality of their home teaching program.  So here's a hint from a statistician: any time you try to boil any issue down to a single statistic, you're doing it wrong.

Statistics is the art of allowing data to tell its story (not to be confused with using data to make up your own story).  As with all good stories, there needs to be context and depth.  You have to be able to relate to the story, and if your statistics don't help you do that, they are worthless.

The monthly home teaching percentage is a worthless statistic.

Have I harped on that enough yet?  I think I've made my point.  So let's talk about how, as a statistician, I would recommend evaluating the quality of a home teaching program.  Rather than focusing on a single statistic, we're going to look at a combination of three key pieces of information4.  One piece is superficial, the second is contextual, and the third is personal.

The Superficial
First -- and this one is going to make you scratch your head -- calculate your monthly home teaching percentage (go ahead, take a moment to scream at me).  But never look at a single percentage alone.  Instead, look at a graph of (at least) the past three months' home teaching percentages.  In my congregation, it would probably look something like this (yes, this makes us look pretty bad):

What's important about this graph, however, is not the height of the bars, but the height of the bars relative to each other.  What you want to see is consistent, constant effort from month to month.  If you 31% in January, 73% in February, and then 20% in March, it means that you managed to motivate people to get involved in home teaching for a month, but their energy and enthusiasm wasn't sustainable.  Ministering to individuals and families should, ideally, be integrated into our lives.  If we are successful in this integration, the height of the bars should be fairly consistent from month to month.

The Contextual
While the previous graph may give us insight into the consistency of the home teaching program, that insight is very limited.  Most notably, that previous graph could mean that nearly every family is being visited in a three month period (equal effort across all the home teachers) or it could mean that the same 30% of families are being visited each month (effort is only coming from a limited group of home teachers) or anything in between.  So we need another graph, and the way this graph appears will give a lot more context into what is actually happening.  In this graph, we want to show the percentage of families whose last visit from their home teachers was one month ago, two months ago, and three or more months ago.  I provide two examples below and will discuss the interpretation of each.


This graph actually shows the percentage of families that haven't been visited.  In each case, 31% of the families were visited last month, so for 69%, it's been over a month since their last visit.  If there is a balanced level of effort from the home teachers, we would expect the percentage of families without a visit to decline  as we get two and three months out.  This would indicate that, although not every family is being visited every month, they have been visited sometime within recent memory.  On the bottom, we see what happens if only a portion of the home teachers are participating--the percentage of families who haven't been seen in recent memory keeps climbing.  Obviously, the goal should be to keep the bar on the left as small as possible.

The Personal
The last piece of information you need is feedback from those being home taught and is where you actually learn if your home teaching program is working.  This feedback should be received during the regular meetings the leaders of the men's organizations are supposed to have with the men.  During these meetings, the leaders should ask a couple of tough questions.  Questions like:

  • Do you have a friend in the ward you would feel comfortable going to for advice if you were having marital/relationship problems?
  • Do you have a friend in the ward you would feel comfortable talking to about your concerns of paying for heat this coming winter5?  
  • Do you have a friend in the ward you feel comfortable asking for advice about your home improvement projects?
  • Do you have a friend in the ward you feel you can safely talk to if you had concerns or doubts with respect to church doctrine?
If you're getting a lot of 'No' responses, you're home teaching program isn't working and you should probably work on building friendships within the group.

If you're only getting a few 'No' responses, congratulations!  Your home teaching program is a success6.  You will also know which people feel the most socially disconnected and are probably in need of additional friendship.

A quick note on this piece of information: First, don't ever publicize a percentage of 'No' responses.  When you make a display of this information -- and especially if you make it a common goal to reduce the number of 'No' responses -- you inadvertently put pressure on people to give the answer they think you want to receive.  The only answer you can be interested in with these questions is the honest answer.  Remember that the focus of these questions is not to demonstrate how good your home teaching program is.  The purpose is to gain the insight necessary to take steps that may improve the lives of those being home taught.

One more caveat on this:  if you're going to buy into this kind of an approach to evaluating the quality of your home teaching program, you may want to consider (partially) abandoning the expectation that home teachers visit every family every month.  It would be nice if it happened at all, and it would be fantastic if it happened consistently.  But only if it's happening because people are getting together in friendship.  If your 100% home teaching is accomplished through a sense of duty instead of friendship, I would argue that you've lost a lot of the strength of the home teaching program.

The home teaching program has infinite potential as a power for good.  I worry that by boiling it down to monthly percentages, we've put artificial limits on its potential.  We need to talk less about metrics and more about relationships, friendships, trust, and ministry.  We need to stop caring so much about the numbers and motivate ourselves to care about the people the those numbers represent.  We need to stop using improvement in numbers as a motivation to do good and start using our motivation to do good as a way to improve our numbers.



For Part 2, I'll discuss some strategies and concepts for organizing home teaching that, in my opinion, have the potential to enhance the process of building relationships between people.

1 The home teaching program in the Church is a kind of internal tool for evaluating the spiritual and physical needs of families within a congregation. Each family is assigned a pair of home teachers from among the men who are expected to come visit the family periodically, get to know the family, and be their first line of spiritual and temporal support.  For an extremely sterile description of home teaching, you can read what the Church has written in its administrative handbook.

2 Everything I'm about to say could be applied to visiting teaching as well. But I'm male and ego centric and am not directly affected by visiting teaching.  So I'll talk about home teaching and you can call me sexist.  Deal?  Okay, moving on.


3 Now would be a good time to point out the the Church's computer software has the ability to generate this list automatically if people would use it. But people don't use it. I can't really blame them for that, because the software isn't particularly user friendly, and is only available on the lone administrative computer given to the congregation which is always in high demand. So what I'm really trying to say is that if the Church would finally go about making home teaching reporting available online, you'd get much better usage, much better reporting, and much better tools for improving home teaching (assuming we stopped talking about it in terms of monthly percentages). 

4 You may be curious about the difference between a statistic and a piece of information. If I were to state it simply, the statistic is the number. The information is what that statistic tells us about what we are trying to measure. The numbers I'm about to address aren't what's really important, but what they tell us about the home teaching program.

5 By this I mean, minor financial worries. I'm not advocating that we should feel comfortable borrowing large sums of money from each other, but perhaps it isn't all that bad to be comfortable saying things like, "money is tight right now and I'm worried about the cold weather" or the car breaking down. Some of these things can be repaired or alleviated if you can find someone with the right skills, and it would be good if we had relationships in which we were comfortable letting down the barriers that prevent us from talking about these things with strangers.

6 Well, maybe. It's possible you're getting a lot of yes responses, but the friendships involved aren't between home teachers and home teachees. But I don't know that it is important to know if the friendships involved are related to home teaching. If you're getting a lot of yes responses, it means a lot of people have a support network within the ward, and that really isn't something you need to bother tweaking. Instead, your home teaching program will hopefully support and expand those relationships while allowing you to focus on building networks for those people who say no. But I wouldn't investigate any further than a yes or no answer here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cast Away Your False Idols: Use Mine Instead

"So this Sunday I've been asked to teach Relief Society on one of my two least favorite talks from this past conference.....the Dallin Oaks talk entitled 'No Other Gods'."

This was the first e-mail I saw that day. It came from a friend who, as she would later explain, felt like her Relief Society presidency had chosen this talk for the basis of a lesson and asked her to teach this lesson specifically because of how my friend feels about gender issues and same sex marriage1. Her request was that I help her 1) reconcile how she feels politically with how she feels religiously with the things Church leaders say on the topics, and 2) organize a lesson around this talk that wouldn't leave her fuming and unedified after teaching it.

Challenge accepted!

(For the remainder of this post, I'll be addressing my friend. It's just easier to write the post this way)

One aspect of Elder Oaks' talk that was discomforting was that it didn't seem to have much to do with putting God first in our lives except in the context of marrying earlier, having more kids, and rejecting same sex relationships. I remember feeling the same way when I first heard the talk. When I heard it, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, "oh here goes Elder Oaks again." And then I tuned him out.

Reading the talk again now, it seems less grating to me (though parts of it still make me roll my eyes). Having removed myself from the context of the current events at the time it was given, I am a little better able to see some of the principles outside of the application. This talk was given at the first General Conference after the US Supreme Court issued a decision that upheld the overturn of Prop 8 in California. It was also during the first protest by Ordain Women. Elder Oaks' talk took clear swings at each of those events. It also took up one of his hobby horses from past talks as he spoke against the societal trends of later marriage and fewer children.

So how do you make a lesson out of this kind of material? You don't. In fact, my advice is to ignore all these things in your lesson. They're too controversial and too emotionally charged to lead to any kind of productive conversation in a large group discussion (by large group, I mean larger than 4-5). So just don't do it. Go find some other talks on the same principle of false gods and work from those. You might find such resources here, here, and here.

There's the answer to one question. Now you can go write your lesson. Let me know how it goes.
The harder question is how to reconcile how you feel politically, religiously, and the things Church leaders say on these topics. It's a hard place to be in. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was that, during the height of the 2012 election season, I started to feel that the spaces at church and among the saints were no longer safe spaces for me, or for anyone who felt that US social policy shouldn't mirror LDS moral codes. It's a really scary feeling to walk into church -- a place that should feel safe, and a place where one should be able to open their heart to the Lord and their peers -- and feel fear of ostracism. Especially when you've employed the same processes of exploration and confirmation for your political beliefs as you have over religious truths.

Eventually, all this anxiety over-boiled, and so I started writing. I started speaking out 2.

What gave me the confidence to speak out was a combination of a few things.  An important epiphany I had was that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an organized implementation of eternal principles.  It is an entity that exists in a temporal world and has to deal with temporal issues.  The Church, therefore, lobbies for social policies that are consistent with its mission.  It can and should do that.  I recognize that legalized same sex marriage, and broader acceptance of homosexual couples as part of society, will make it harder for the Church to convert and retain members.  I get it.  The earthly organization has to get involved in politics sometimes.  That doesn't really bother me.

It bothers me more when leaders try to make it seem that spiritual worthiness is dependent on conformity to the political priorities of the temporal body of the Church.  And I feel like Elder Oaks was attempting to do exactly that.  It worked, too.  I had seen people on Facebook commenting prior to conference that they were changing their opinions on legalized same sex marriage because of discomfort with imposing their religious preferences on others.  Then after this talk, some of them reversed course because they felt that Elder Oaks had accused them of not living up to their covenants.  I'm convinced this was the outcome Elder Oaks wanted.

So how do I maintain my faith when I feel like Church leaders are manipulating the members into policy positions that aren't essential to living the Gospel?  With a lot of reading, I've come to the conclusion that even the highest leaders of the Church have opinions and biases that manifest in the way they interpret the Gospel.  Some of those interpretations I agree with, some of them I don't.  What's comforting to me is that, in some cases, not even all of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve agree with each other.

There have been deep disputes over matters of doctrine and policy in the history of the Church.  Hugh B. Brown and Ezra Taft Benson were worlds apart on the priesthood ban (Elder Brown wanting to rescind the ban in the fifties, and Elder Benson being a staunch opponent of Elder Brown's attempts to do so).  And even today, it seems that there is disagreement among the top leaders about how much members are expected to conform their political positions to the Church's.

Take for example, Elder Uchtdorf's talk from April of 2013.  It was praised by members of all sorts.  And one of the most inspiring messages he gave in that talk was "we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences...[and]...The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples."

If the Apostles don't agree with each other in every respect, how on earth am I supposed to agree and conform to every opinion and message given by every one of them?  Simply put, I can't.  But it's comforting to know that I don't have to.  I can disagree with them on some matters and still have absolute faith that the eternal principles they are trying to teach me are true and applicable to my life.

I feel like the notion that we have to obtain perfect alignment of our cultural and social beliefs with every statement the Church leaders make to be a false god in and of itself.  Let's try to keep some perspective3, 4.



1 So far as I know, she mostly shares my opinions on these matters.  If you feel like I haven't been clear enough on my stances in the past, I wholly accept the Church's teachings that marriage between man and woman was ordained of God and that sexual activity outside of such a marriage runs contrary to His will.  And I also wholly accept the Eleventh Article of Faith.  Which is part of why I believe same sex marriage should be legal.  If you want my opinions on gender issues in the Church, you can read up on those here.

2 And since I know someone will want to bring up that if I'm feeling anxiety, perhaps I should change my views. The problem with that idea is that I've never felt guilty for having my views. I've never felt anxiety over my views. I've only ever felt anxiety at the way other members treat me for having my views. That's a pretty substantial difference.

3If you're writing lengthy blog posts about how Disney's Frozen is indoctrinating children to the homosexual agenda, you may want to consider the possibility that you've adopted a false god

4Likewise, if you're repeatedly writing lengthy blog posts about how Mormon culture has it all wrong, you may want to consider the possibility that you've adopted a false god.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Now Is the Time to Repent ... But Not Necessarily of Everything

Those of you who think I'm a raving lunatic would have loved to see my Elders' quorum meeting this week.  We talked about faith and repentance and we discussed the following passage from the manual:

Repentance is a gift of God. … It is not so easy for some people to repent, but the gift of repentance and faith will be given to every man who will seek for it. (Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, p. 89)
 After reading this, I chose to speak about the difficulty of repenting; to acknowledge that it really isn't always an easy thing.  I made reference to a message from Elder Richard G. Scott to abuse victims in 2008 and used his comments to claim that we didn't have to repent of all of our sins right now.  If there was a sin we really struggled with, or one we just weren't prepared to give up yet, that was okay. We can work on other things until we are ready to repent.

The very next thing we read was "The time to repent is now."  Followed by "do not procrastinate
the day of your repentance until the end" (Alma 34:33).  If you think I need to be put in my place every now and again, you probably would have enjoyed that.

But I'm not yielding (I'm not that humble).  I still believe that it's okay not to repent right now.

Sort of.  To see why I claim this, we're going to have to look a little further than the sound bites.

The relevant portion from Elder Scott's talk is this:
As impossible as it may seem to you now, in time the healing you can receive from the Savior will allow you to truly forgive the abuser and even have feelings of sorrow for him or her. When you can forgive the offense, you will be relieved of the pain and heartache that Satan wants in your life by encouraging you to hate the abuser. As a result, you will enjoy greater peace. While an important part of healing, if the thought of forgiveness causes you yet more pain, set that step aside until you have more experience with the Savior’s healing power in your own life.
At the time I heard this, I was struck by both the challenge and the compassion in this one segment.  I have no doubt that forgiving one's abuser is a difficulty that I will never comprehend.  For some (perhaps for most) in may seem an impossible task.  And what is Elder Scott's advice if this is the case?  "set that step aside."

The Atonement has an infinite capacity to heal, but it doesn't heal all at once.  It doesn't haphazardly pick up the shards of a broken heart and tape them all together all rough at the seams.  Instead, it carefully gathers each piece and carefully, deliberately helps each piece and nurses the pieces to grow together, both minimizing the scars and restoring the original function.

Some pieces may not be ready to be grafted in yet.  Perhaps the heart isn't strong enough to mend in a certain part.  That's okay!  Mend in the pieces that the heart is strong enough to  mend.  Then, periodically, re-evaluate the heart and decide if it's strong enough to mend in that bigger piece.

When listening to Elder Scott speak I realized instantly that his advice didn't apply only to abuse survivors, but to all of us who struggle to repent.  We can piece together our repentance little by little.  There's no need to try to do it all at once (as nice as that would be).

Mostly, I think this principle applies: every time we rid ourselves of any one sin in our lives, we come closer to God.  Regardless of whatever other sins plague us.  It isn't like there is any one sin that is so grotesque that it prevents us from drawing nearer to God until it is resolved.  We can always draw nearer to God, in whatever little ways we choose.  The chasm that separates us from God is more like the sum total of our short comings than it is just the worst of our failings.

Having just put that last thought in writing, I realize that this notion is filled with both despair and hope.  This principle, if true, only widens the chasm between us and the Lord.  But I still think that is merciful.  Because it means that every little victory we accomplish--every small repentance--brings us a little bit closer to God.  And every time we get closer to God, we find more strength to vanquish the larger demons in our lives.

So if I were to put all of it into context, I would say this:

Now is the time to repent.....of something.  Anything.

Are you having trouble paying tithing?  Perhaps you can pay something less than 10%.  Sure, it won't satisfy the strict letter of the commandment, but it will bring you a little closer.  And perhaps a little closer is what you need to prepare yourself to go further.

Are you addicted to smoking/pornography/Facebook and can't find the strength to quit.  Fine.  Maybe you can focus on reading your scriptures, or controlling your temper, or paying more attention to those around you.  And by bringing yourself a little bit closer, you might find strength to kick your habit.

Do you find yourself frequently having unkind feelings toward your fellow saints and church leaders?  (hmmm...who does that sound like, I wonder).  And is your heart too callous to give them the benefit of the doubt, and try to help instead of quietly criticize?  (really, I know this reminds me of someone)  Try softening your  heart through other means first.

The key to this is to re-evaluate periodically.  When I say it's okay to delay your repentance of some sin for now, that grace has a shelf life.  And that grace expires if you neither reevaluate your preparedness to change nor strive to repent of something else in the meantime.  I can't think of anything worse than spoiled, rotting, unused grace.

So just do something.  And feel a little better.  And a little better. Before you know it, you'll feel a lot better.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Manrichment

Be forewarned: this is one of those posts where you get a more raw, unedited version of me.

In the past few months, I've been thinking a lot of friendships and relationships among men in the Church.  I wrote about an Epidemic of Loneliness in October.  I later came across a web article on the topic. A friend from my ward was kind enough to share with me a video he though was insightful.  And then a second friend recommended an indoor mountain biking park in the area that he thought would make a good men's activity.

I've put a lot of thought into it, and although it isn't exactly what I would envision as ideal, I think it's a good start.  Today, I showed up to church with a flyer to hand out for Man-richment (thank you, Just_A_Guy).

I've included a copy of the flyer below.  Now let me write out a few motivations that don't really go well on a flyer.

  1. I want to see more emotional intimacy among the men in my congregation.  I firmly believe this means doing more talking.
  2. Make opportunities for a variety of interests.  I felt movie nights were an easy way to appeal to a broad audience.  I chose to stick to the IMDB top 250 list because at least the movies on that list are likely to have good stories to talk about.  I definitely wanted to avoid movie nights where we watch man-boy classics like Meet the Fockers and then resort to giggling at each other whenever we say "Focker."  (Although, giggling amongst ourselves might be a good step towards emotional intimacy.)
  3. I want the men at church to open up about themselves.  I want to hear them talk about their strengths, their dreams, their insecurities, their fears and worries.  I want to know them.
Without question, the hardest goal I'm hoping to accomplish is to open up myself.  There aren't many people in my life that have seen deeper than my fa├žade, and almost none of them are people in my congregation.  This makes me as guilty of contributing to the epidemic of loneliness as anyone else. 

Some of that is introversion.  I'll tell you all of that is introversion, most days.  But really, it's fear.  I worry about how revealing my true feelings in public will change my social standing in groups.  When I'm in groups of people I don't know well, I worry constantly that I'm saying the wrong things, come across as extremely boring, overly quirky, and am just generally unpleasant or unenjoyable to be around.  To some extent, I know those are all true, but I fear that the brighter sides of my personality don't shine enough to make people willing to tolerate them, or possibly even enjoy them.

So there it is.  I feel alone when I go to church these days.  I don't want to feel that way anymore.  And I don't want any of my brothers in faith to feel that way either.  


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Debunking the Sound Bite Gospel: Selflessness is Not the Virtue You Think it Is

During the past couple of months I've been teaching the Communications merit badge to my boy scouts.  In the first lesson, we covered forms of communication.  One element of this lesson that produced a lot of conversation was the use of symbols.  What we learned is that symbols are a very efficient way of conveying a lot of meaning very quickly.  When used well, they can be extremely effective at communicating ideas, concepts, and principles.

The sound bite is really just a verbal symbol.  The purpose of the sound bite is to call back to memory broader ideas and themes than the simple words contained in the sound bite itself.  There is, however, a pesky little detail about effective use of symbols and sound bites: they only really work if the intended audience understands the context and agrees on its meaning.  The use of sound bites becomes even more problematic if the sound bite itself conveys bad or false information.

In earlier writing, I've alluded to the problems of what I'm beginning to call the Sound Bite Gospel.  That is, the collection of teaching and beliefs in Mormonism (or any religion for that matter) that relies on brief sound bites.  I specifically called out the "Doubt your doubts" sound bite because its use seemed to obscure the greater context of open inquiry into faith and doubt.  The sound bite, as it appeared, became nothing more than a bludgeon with which doubt and disagreement with orthodox Mormonism is to be suppressed.  Nothing could be further from the speaker's actual intent.  The sound bite, it turns out, failed to convey the full message of the teaching.

It probably doesn't take long to figure out why the Sound Bite Gospel concerns me so much.  Without mutual understanding of the meaning behind the sound bites--and it is nearly impossible to get millions of people to come to mutual understanding on a simple sound bite--the sound bites are wildly ineffective.  Sound bites also suffer from problems of recall bias.  As we get further removed temporally from the delivery of the message, the original context of the sound bite becomes more obscure.  The natural inclination is to take the sound bite as the full and complete message.

In a recent lesson at church, we discussed a talk from the April 2013 General Conference, and I was agitated that there were two sound bites in particular that got a lot of attention from the group.  The text that formed the basis of our discussion follows, and I've highlighted the two sound bites that got the most attention.

Before you go reading this lengthy excerpt (and, ironically, reading the full excerpt isn't really necessary to follow the discussion), let me just point out that there is a wealth of good information in this talk.  In this seven paragraph excerpt, I've highlighted all of two sentences.  Hardly seems like something to complain about, right?  Just remember that my complaint is not that the talk is lacking in good information--my complaint (well, one of the two) is that the sound bites that became the focus of the discussion barely scratch the surface of all of this information.

First, I have observed that in the happiest marriages both the husband and wife consider their relationship to be a pearl beyond price, a treasure of infinite worth. They both leave their fathers and mothers and set out together to build a marriage that will prosper for eternity. They understand that they walk a divinely ordained path. They know that no other relationship of any kind can bring as much joy, generate as much good, or produce as much personal refinement. Watch and learn: the best marriage partners regard their marriages as priceless.
Next, faith. Successful eternal marriages are built on the foundation of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and adherence to His teachings. I have observed that couples who have made their marriages priceless practice the patterns of faith: they attend sacrament and other meetings every week, hold family home evening, pray and study the scriptures together and as individuals, and pay an honest tithing. Their mutual quest is to be obedient and good. They do not consider the commandments to be a buffet from which they can pick and choose only the most appealing offerings.
Faith is the foundation of every virtue that strengthens marriage. Strengthening faith strengthens marriage. Faith grows as we keep the commandments, and so do the harmony and joy in marriage. Thus, keeping the commandments is fundamental to establishing strong eternal marriages. Watch and learn: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of happy eternal marriages.
Third, repentance. I have learned that happy marriages rely on the gift of repentance. It is an essential element in every good marital relationship. Spouses who regularly conduct honest self-examination and promptly take needed steps to repent and improve experience a healing balm in their marriages. Repentance helps restore and maintain harmony and peace. 
Humility is the essence of repentance. Humility is selfless, not selfish. It doesn’t demand its own way or speak with moral superiority. Instead, humility answers softly and listens kindly for understanding, not vindication. Humility recognizes that no one can change someone else, but with faith, effort, and the help of God, we can undergo our own mighty change of heart. Experiencing the mighty change of heart causes us to treat others, especially our spouses, with meekness. Humility means that both husbands and wives seek to bless, help, and lift each other, putting the other first in every decision. Watch and learn: repentance and humility build happy marriages. 
Fourth, respect. I have observed that in wonderful, happy marriages, husbands and wives treat each other as equal partners. Practices from any place or any time in which husbands have dominated wives or treated them in any way as second-class partners in marriage are not in keeping with divine law and should be replaced by correct principles and patterns of behavior.
Husbands and wives in great marriages make decisions unanimously, with each of them acting as a full participant and entitled to an equal voice and vote. They focus first on the home and on helping each other with their shared responsibilities. Their marriages are based on cooperation, not negotiation. ... 

Want to know what else really bothers me about these sound bites?  Too bad, I'm going to tell you anyway.

They're dead wrong. If you're trying to build a relationship, I can't see how you can possibly succeed and follow this counsel.

The first sound bite, "humility means...putting the other first in every decision" is a derivative of the belief that marital happiness is rooted in selflessness.  That philosophy looks good when cross-stitched onto pillows, but it fails miserably when translated into reality.  Taken to an absurd extreme, complete selflessness means a couple would just fight about making sure the other person has their needs met first rather than having their own needs met first--that is, in practice, this extreme wouldn't resolve any problems that existed under complete selfishness.

Avoiding that extreme, this sound bite still fails to recognize the idea of an equitable relationship.  Equitable relationships are those that balance the needs of every entity in the relationship over the long term.  That means that one entity in the relationship may be prioritized over the others for a period of time, but at other times, the prioritization will change.  As long as the priority time given to each of the entities is equal over a long period of time, the relationship is equitable.

At this point, I should probably back up.  I just threw in some odd relationship terminology.  Wouldn't 'partner' be a better term than 'entity?'  Not necessarily.  You see, in a relationship between two partners, there are three entities with needs that must be met1.  In the figure below, one partner is represented by the red circle, and the second partner is represented by the blue circle.  The third entity is the shared needs, or the relationship between the two partners, that is represented by the intersection.  The key to building a successful relationship is not complete selflessness (nor is it complete selfishness) but open and honest attempts by both partners to satisfy the needs of all three entities.  That means each partner should be displaying both selfishness and selflessness.
A relationship between two individuals involves three entities.
Not surprisingly, this takes a lot of talking and listening.  Inevitably, you're going to find that the needs and desires of these three entities come into conflict with one another.  According to the sound bite gospel, the resolution of these conflicts is achieved through cooperation and not through negotiation.  I object to that sound bite on the grounds that cooperation and negotiation are two sides of the same coin. 

Negotiation need not be entirely adversarial.  In a relationship, it probably shouldn't ever be adversarial.  Mutual and collaborative negotiation is the process by which cooperation takes shape.  If the partners can openly discuss their opinions and views on which entities needs should be prioritized, the partners can then negotiate a mutual agreement to how to prioritize those.  Something about persuasion and long suffering (look at that!  a sound bite2!) comes to mind when I think about this.

But let me get back to my point.  I've linked to a talk that has some great pointers on building relationships.  You should read the talk in its entirety, but scratch out the sound bites.  Enjoy the rich context and content of the message; not the narrow, bastardized version presented in the sound bites. 

And remember this: happy individuals make for happy relationships.  Happiness should not be measured instantaneously, but over periods of time (no shorter than a couple of months).  If you can balance the needs of all the entities in your relationships, you'll find better potential for happiness as an individual and in your relationships.  Really, it's okay to be a little bit selfish.





1 In more abstract terms, the formula for the number of entities involved in a relationship between any number of partners is: 
where 

 Clearly, this becomes very complex when you figure in family relationships. A relationship between three individuals has seven entities, for example. 

2 But please, go read up on the context of that sound bite. It should be illustrative on the negotiation/cooperation relationship.