In the Public Eye

Offering Hope for Healthy Relationships, Les and Leslie Parrott Become
National Media Sensations


Special article by the Parrotts:

Our Longing for Belonging













A year ago, Les and Leslie Parrott, co-directors of Seattle Pacific University's Center for Relationship Development, traveled to Washington, D.C., to address a conference on the topic of marriage. They had no reason to think the gathering would be different from similar ones they'd attended in the past. But unusual it was. In the audience was a reporter for USA Today.

Within two weeks of the conference, USA Today ran a feature on the Parrotts' proposal to blanket the country with marriage mentors and published a half-page review of Les Parrott's newest book, High Maintenance Relationships (Tyndale, 1997).

"I don't want to over-spiritualize what happened, but it had to be God's doing," says Les, an associate professor of psychology at SPU. "USA Today receives hundreds of books each day and selects only a very few for review. Their article was certainly the epicenter of the media attention that followed."

Calls poured in from high-profile morning and evening television news and talk shows, including CNN, Good Morning America, The Today Show, the Fox News Network, Oprah Winfrey, Prime Time, and 20/20 with Barbara Walters. There were national radio interviews and articles in other major print publications including Redbook, Family Circle and Bride's magazines, and the New York Times. Les and Leslie have had to battle a bulging mailbox, learn to speak in meaningful sound bytes, and negotiate a demanding travel schedule.

What is it that has turned their lives upside-down and created such a firestorm of publicity? In one word, say the Parrotts, it is "hope."

"What we're saying, and what people are starved to hear, is that there is hope for healthy relationships, especially in marriage," Les says. "And there are practical tools for making a good marriage great and a bad marriage better."

Among those tools is the Center for Relationship Development, an educational concept started six years ago at Seattle Pacific and now being replicated at other schools across the country. One of the innovations for which the Center is known is marriage mentoring, connecting seasoned married couples with newlyweds for advice and counsel. The Parrotts found that the old idea with a new twist made intuitive sense to popular commentators like Tom Brokaw, who sent the NBC Nightly News crew to Les and Leslie's relationship development class of 200-plus students.

"When the cameras shut off, many of the interviewers would talk about their own relationships," says Leslie, a marriage and family therapist. "That surprised me. Everything we discuss or write about is so church-based and explicitly Christian, yet people are hungry for what works."

And the news is spreading. More than 3,000 churches nationwide have begun programs in marriage mentoring based on a video curriculum produced by the Parrotts and published by Zondervan. With the help of the Murdock Charitable Trust and in partnership with the Washington Family Council, the Parrotts recently launched an effort to "cover the state" with marriage mentors.

The Parrotts have also enjoyed spreading the word about SPU to an audience of millions. Students like it too, and have appeared with the Parrotts on The Today Show and other programs. Says Les, "We feel so proud when they interview our students and see that this is a quality university on the cutting edge."

Our Longing for Belonging

by Les and Leslie Parrott

Alone in a Crowd

Recently, a pioneering group of researchers studied the age-old mystery of what makes people happy. Their answer is not what you might expect. What appears at the top of the charts is not success, wealth, achievement, good looks, or any of those enviable assets. The clear winner is relationships. Close ones.

Nothing reaches so deeply into the human personality, tugs so tightly, as relationship. Why? For one reason, it is only in the context of connection with others that our deepest needs can be met. Whether we like it or not, each of us has an unshakable dependence on others.

Not long ago, we spent a Saturday evening on a radio talk show in Chicago. The show was an open line to much of the nation. From 8:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m., we talked to strange voices coming from Anywhere, USA. The subject was relationships, and the calls ranged from questions and opinions about family and friends to sex and romance.

This wasn't so much an interview. We were simply facilitators of a large-scale discussion - adding our two cents' worth when the host wanted a professional sound bite. Having never done a radio show quite like this, we got the feeling that most people were more interested in hearing themselves talk than anything else. At least we felt that way before Tom, a desperate college student, phoned in.

"You're on the air, Tom, go ahead," the host said.

"I don't have a question or anything," Tom said very slowly and gave a deep sigh. "I'm just listening and I feelI don't know"

The host rolled his eyes at us and gave the phone operator on the other side of the glass partition nonverbal signs to get Tom off the line and go to the next caller.

"You called for a reason, Tom," I (Les) said. "What is it you are feeling?"

"Well, it's just that I haven't talked to anyone for so long."

"You haven't talked to anyone!" the host blurted out.

"I've talked to people, but not really talked in a way that means anything."

The host looked quizzical and nodded in our direction.

"So what is it you are feeling, Tom?" I asked.

There was an exceptionally long silence before Tom answered with a single word: "Lonely."

Something about this word and the way he said it - his frankness and his vulnerability - as well as the follow-up discussion, drastically changed the tone of the remaining minutes of the program. One caller after the next echoed Tom's emotion. If only for a few minutes, faceless people phoned in to share the experience of being alone. Even the cynical host warmed up a bit and wondered out loud, "Aren't all of us, even with people all around, susceptible to loneliness?"

The answer is yes. In a culture where we can pull money from a machine and never interact with a human bank teller, walk on a crowded sidewalk without meeting another's eyes, and call telephone assistance only to get information from a computerized voice, it's truly possible to be alone in a crowd.



A Life or Death Issue

Make no mistake, no one is too big, strong, talented or tough to go without belonging. The need to belong is not just about feeling warm and accepted, however. It's literally a matter of life and death.

During World War II, doctors identified a fatal and mysterious disease they called marasmus. It was discovered in a group of orphaned babies who were placed in a care facility with brightly colored toys, new furniture and good food. In spite of the pleasant accommodations, however, the health of these children rapidly deteriorated. They soon stopped playing with the new toys and gradually lost their appetites. Their tiny systems weakened, becoming lethargic and wearing down. Some children died.

When word got out, United Nations doctors were flown in to make a diagnosis and treat the children. After only a short time of investigation, the doctors made a simple prescription, curing the problem within days. For ten minutes each hour, all children were to be picked up by a nurse, hugged, kissed, played with, and talked to. With this simple prescription, the little ones brightened, their appetites returned and they once again played with their toys. Their "marasmus" was cured.

As infants, we do not know or understand the subtle dynamics of relating and love, but our need for connection is already so strong that its absence impairs natural growth and development, even bringing on death. This profound and deep human need for nurture does not change as we grow older. Not by a long shot. Adults who isolate themselves from the world, refusing so much as to own a pet, are likelier to die at a comparatively young age than those who cultivate companionship.

Two independent studies, one done at the University of California at Berkeley and the other at the University of Michigan, found that adults who do not cultivate nurturing relationships have death rates twice as high as those with frequent caring contact. James S. House of the University of Michigan said, "The data indicates that social isolation is as significant to mortality as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise."


The Complex Company We Keep

If our need to find intimacy with others is so universal, so vital to healthy lives, then why is it sometimes so difficult?

We wonder the same thing. Relationships can be downright complicated. For starters, our own family, the people we love the most, hold the potential for causing us the greatest pain. And who hasn't experienced the puzzle of a relationship where flourishing affections faded without warning? The friends we trust the most sometimes fail us the worst. Then there's the mystery of relating to the opposite sex. Need we say more?

You'd think that after all the time we as humans have had on this earth, we'd have made negotiating our relationships a little easier. It's not that we haven't tried. But even our folk wisdom on relationships raises more questions than it answers. Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Does absence make the heart grow fonder, or is out of sight out of mind?

No doubt about it, human relationships are rarely simple. But as a psychologist (Les) and marriage and family therapist (Leslie) who have studied many of the intricacies of human interaction, we know there's hope for modern relationships, despite the pervasive isolation in our society.

Colleges around the world offer instruction on nearly every conceivable topic, but try to find a course on how to have good relationships and you'll look for a long time. We wanted to change that. Since we had our hands on research, strategies and skills for nurturing healthy relationships, we offered those tools to students through Seattle Pacific University's Center for Relationship Development. Since then, we've shared the same insights with others around the country in ways we never expected.

Social scientists call our longing for belonging assimilation, affiliation or social webbing. Others call it fellowship, connecting or relating. Whatever it's called, everyone agrees that we're born with an insatiable inner need for meaningful interaction with others. It begins on the first day of our lives and continues until we take our last breath. Clearly, this need for relationship is all part of God's design.


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