Call a "Relational Truce" to Your Conflict

Establishing and cultivating a healthy "relationship climate" can be hard work, especially in the midst of a disagreement. When couples get caught up in the heat of the moment, they can make mistakes that hurt the climate of their relationship. In today's podcast, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff explore Proverbs to discuss the concept of a "relational truce" and how to apply it when working through conflict within a marriage. 


Transcript

Chris Grace:

Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff:

And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:

We're just excited to have you join us for another opportunity to talk about all things relationships. Go to our website, cmr.biola.edu. Check out all of the things we have. We have blogs, we have events, we have helpful videos and these podcasts as well. Tim, let's continue talking about relationships. One of the things that we find out there or that people tend to make a lot of mistakes in relationships, especially during times of high conflict.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah.

Chris Grace:

As we're talking about all relationships, conflict is just going to be a natural part of it simply because we're made differently, right? Two people have different approaches to the world. They see things differently but in saying that, what ends up happening is, as we go through conflict, we can really do it well and navigate it well but there are some common mistakes people make. What do you think? Let's talk about some of the mistakes people make in this. What do you have for us?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Well one we want to talk about is the natural inclination for many couples when there's a problem is, "Hey, we just gotta talk about it. This is killing us. The finances, the kid's schedule, our schedule so let's just talk this thing out." I think that's a good inclination but sometimes it can be the absolute worst thing to do. If the climate isn't strong enough, if you don't have a strategy of how to talk about an issue or what we want to talk about today is, you've been talking about this thing and it is literally getting you nowhere. It's actually making things worse. We want to advocate something we call a relational truce, which means you've just got to take a break from it.

Chris Grace:

Tell me then, before we get into this, tell me what you mean by climate. I think most people recognize that but how do you know that? This isn't for every relationship that you need to gauge this but for the most part, each relationship has its own climate, I would imagine is how you'd put it.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's right. And a climate is made up of roughly the amount of commitment between two individuals, the amount of affection between two individuals, the amount of acknowledgement, do we trust each other? If those things are low, then talking about an issue is just not going to work.

Chris Grace:

I see.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It'd be like going on a picnic and the heat index is 110. Well, can you go out and have a picnic in 110?

Chris Grace:

It's not going to be very fun.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It's not going to be very fun and it'll be counterproductive. A general climate and again, we'll probably do a podcast or two on this but I have a book called, "Marriage Forecasting" that kind of lays out what a climate is. Generally speaking, every marriage, every relationship, roommate relationship, whatever, has this climate. If the climate is bad, then talking about it just isn't going to work.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, okay.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It's like going on that picnic in 110 degree heat index.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We need to call a truce of talking about the issue because it's just not getting anywhere.

Chris Grace:

Okay.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It kind of reminds me of one of my favorite truces that I read about. Remember World War I? You have what they call trench warfare.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

You have two groups that are absolutely in intractable positions and in World War I, it actually happened. The British and the Germans were stuck in these trenches and yet Christmas came and the very famous story, a totally true story is that this German officer puts down his gun, gets up and starts to walk across no man's land. You can imagine every British gun is on him. Everybody's wondering, "What in the world is this guy doing?" Well a British soldier decides, "You know what, I'm putting down my gun, I'm walking out there and meeting him." They meet literally halfway in no man's land and the German soldier says, "Look, it's Christmas. We can keep shooting at each other but let's take a break."

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It actually became what is called the Christmas truce and it actually lasted upwards to a month that they just took a break from fighting with each other and allowed relationships to build a little bit. That's what we're advocating is, there just comes a time you've been taking pot shots at each other in the relationship, you've been talking about this issue all the time and it might be good just to step back and take a relational truce. This is how I define it. It's the decision to temporarily, boy that's a key word, avoid controversial issues and overlook the offensive actions of each other as you seek to strengthen the overall climate of the relationship.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, there's another kind of model of taking a pause, just hitting this pause button and it just ... that pause button is not only will we take a brief respite, but I need to do some things during this pause when I'm taking this respite. Let me real quickly go back to the story of the Christmas Truce. It sounds like that takes a lot of trust.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yes.

Chris Grace:

I mean, one person walking out there, my guess is if you don't trust that other person, you are walking out there thinking, "What am I doing? I'm not going to go out there because this could be a ploy. This could be a trick. I could be manipulated, whatever."

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. That's really good, Chris. No doubt in the beginning, there was little trust.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I mean, this German officer-

Chris Grace:

They were just shooting each other.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah and this British officer, I don't think they trusted each other at all. They say, "Okay, we're going to do this." By the way, originally, it just started Christmas Day. That's all they were going to do is stop shooting at each other for Christmas Day and then it turned into the day after Christmas and another day and eventually a week after Christmas and the truce actually continued.

Chris Grace:

Tim, I would imagine the reason it continued is the humanizing fact of the forces that come into play. When I see somebody and when ... in our relationship, when we begin to see that other person as an enemy, we have now started to work against them.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yes.

Chris Grace:

Then our trust is low. But instead, to lay down your weapon is a pretty powerful visual illustration of what it means. Lay down a weapon in trust and see this person as on my side or if not on my side, at least as trustworthy. That's a big first step.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It is a huge first step and I would actually break it down into three steps.

Chris Grace:

Okay.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Of how you actually do this. Let's say it's your roommate or it's your spouse or a child, right, to take a break. First step is this. You have to overlook an offense when it happens.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

You better believe in the Christmas Truce. We actually know it happened through journals of soldiers so during the Christmas Truce, every once in a while a nervous German or a nervous Brit would take a shot, a pot shot and then you'd just wonder, okay, is the truce over?

Chris Grace:

Is it going to break?

Tim Muehlhoff:

And it didn't. It help for almost a month. The same needs to be true in a relationship. The book of Proverbs has much to say about overlooking an offense. Consider these verses from the Book of Proverbs: "A fool shows his annoyance at once but a prudent man overlooks an insult." Here's another one. "A man's wisdom gives him patience. It is to his glory to overlook an offense." I like this one. "Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him." There is no doubt in this truce, with the person that you've been having this disagreement with, sarcasm's going to slip.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

Or a person's going to take a pot shot, a verbal pot shot. At that moment, you have a choice just like the Brits and the Germans had. All right, is this all out war now? You opened the door, right? I thought, "Hey, we said we weren't going to talk about this and you did."

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

There was kind of a snarky comment. Gloves off? Are we back? Is it World War I all over again? A wise man, suggests the book of Proverbs, is you have to just be careful and overlook the insult. Man, that's hard to do, isn't it, Chris?

Chris Grace:

Yeah. It is. I think because the emotions are so raw and oftentimes so real that even though we feel like they've been buried for a while and maybe there's a little bit of built up resentment over time, none the less it's easy to get to that point. I think that's where the Book of Proverbs gives us some models and some wise ways of approaching this. It reminds me also of even Psalm 139 where David says, "During that time," he said, "Search me oh God and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there's any hurtful way in me." Maybe that notion of pausing and overlooking something ought to be an opportunity for us to also search our own hearts, check our own anxious thoughts, what's going on. That's step one. You have another step.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Step two, you actually alluded to it when we were talking about the Christmas Truce is the German and the Brit, the two officers, it humanized them.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

No doubt there were horrible German stereotypes that the British had and the Germans had of the Brits. But then when you actually meet a person and they start to break some of those stereotypes, step number two in a truce, a relational truce, I like what you said about searching your own heart but also to say, "Lord, help me to remember the positive qualities of this person."

Chris Grace:

Yeah, interesting.

Tim Muehlhoff:

You know what I mean? The roommate, you're roommates because you like each other. We chose to be roommates. We chose to get married.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Sometimes when Noreen and I have found that we've been in this ... just lingering disagreements, all this kind of stuff, that's okay, Noreen’s growing, she's maturing, you know, but to remember the good things. Noreen and I will often say, "We're not going to let the day end without complimenting each other."

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think that's really good. I think that's positive to say, "I remember this about you, and I think it's really good." Boy, to ask the Lord to review not only you but to reveal the goodness of that other person.

Chris Grace:

You know Tim, it reminds me of that you know, ratio, that a lot of people talked about that in good marriages and in good relationships, you're going to have a ratio of good, positive comments and thoughts toward somebody at a rate of even five to one and in doing so, we have to be prepared and willing to look at, I have really not thought of this person in the most healthy way or thought of my friend or my partner or spouse, and instead when you start to look at that, "Am I really being positive and saying something, sharing something much ..." It's called positive sentiment override.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Oh, yeah.

Chris Grace:

That positive sentiment override can really determine how healthy a relationship is, especially when times of conflict and so watching for that. That was a good two first steps. What ...

Tim Muehlhoff:

Let me just say about point number two, what you just mentioned is good. What I hear you saying is this truce also has to be an internal truce.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, I think that's right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

The self talk is that ... don't mistake what we're saying. In one had, you've stopped arguing with that person outwardly but you could think well, inwardly, "It's fine. I'm just going to let it rip and I'm going to think negative thoughts and say negative things in my head." No, I think that's going to bleed out into the relationship. This truce is also as Paul would say, "I want you to learn to take every thought captive."

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Again, this is what we said. It's going to take prayer, it's going to take asking God to give me self-control to overlook things. Hey, the third thing is this. When that World War I truce happened, it wasn't that they just stopped taking shots at each other but we know from journals of soldiers, they actually played soccer games. They exchanged gifts. They sang Christmas carols with each other so it wasn't the stopping of just the negative it was also the cultivating of the positive that they did with each other.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, what ends up happening in that story for me, is you can just imagine it. You can envision... you can imagine yourself being there, that you're laying a groundwork of a way to make this person almost like you. I think we can dehumanize to a point where we think they must eat their young, they must kill ... whatever we believe, these horrible, rotten things about somebody and then to realize, "Wait, they like soccer? Wait, they have Christmas trees? Wait, they have a wife and a child back home that they care about?" All of a sudden, my guess is it just begins a whole new way of thinking about somebody, which is really our job, right? It's to change the way we think about somebody.

Tim Muehlhoff:

The third point of the truce is try to find fun things to do together and I know that's hard because you have these hard feelings towards this person or you feel like we need to talk about this but one of the best things you might do is watch your favorite television show together and just laugh.

Chris Grace:

Right, right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

When you get up to get ice cream, just turn to your spouse and say, "Would you like some ice cream?" Or turn to your roommate, "Would you like some ice cream?" There's a great jazz song called, "Slow Dance" where John Legend imagines this couple having an argument and the guy says, "Listen, we have two options. We can fuss and fight and argue all night," the song says, "Or we can slow dance."

Chris Grace:

Oh, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think that's great to say, "Hey I know we're in the midst of this tension but is there something we can do that would be fun or be a release valve that we can actually do?" Remember, the soldiers played soccer together. They just didn't stop shooting at each other.

Chris Grace:

You know, one researcher, we've talked about him before on these podcasts, is John Gottman who has studied a little bit of this, talks about repair attempts and that notion that when we disagree or when we're in conflict, to be able to have what's called a repair attempt. Any statement, any action, silly or otherwise, that prevents this negativity from escalating out of control, right? It really has been called sometimes the secret weapon of emotionally intelligent couples because what it means is they have this ability to kind of not only in the moment of calling a truce, but has a way of blunting some of this emotional difficult pain and it reminds them of the strong friendship that they have and the fun that they shared together and they found that a good, successful repair attempt is one of the primary factors as to whether a relationship or a marriage flourishes. How good we are at doing those repairs, how good we are at finding something fun like you said.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, I can think of an illustration of that, Chris. You know, in addition to speaking at the Center for Marriage and Relationship's Marriage Conferences Going Deeper, Noreen and I speak at Family Life Marriage Conferences, Dennis Rainey's group.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We've been doing that for 20 years so you can imagine couples having arguments on the way to the conference. Imagine having an argument on the way to speaking at the conference. Of course that's going to happen over 20 years. There was a time, Noreen and I aren't yellers but we just weren't talking to each other and we were miffed, right? Well, guess what? It's 7 o'clock, Friday night. You need to be in the ballroom. There's like 800 people waiting for you and Family Life doesn't care that the Muehlhoff's aren't particularly doing well. Get down there and speak about marriage. Noreen and I are both looking at the clock and so as we're walking out of the hotel room, I try a repair initiative. I looked at her and I said, "Hey, hold my hand. It's our job." You know what? I wouldn't say she laughed but she smiled and she held my hand and you know what? She did a repair thing in reply and she held my hand but squeezed it really hard. Which is exactly what you're saying.

Chris Grace:

That is, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's kind of risky. Humor is always a little bit risky when there's tension but now that's become a running joke with us.

Chris Grace:

That's great.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Hold my hand, it's our job.

Chris Grace:

That's awesome.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I love the idea of those repair techniques. Now let's talk about one objection to this and the objection would be, "Okay, I want to call a truce. My spouse doesn't."

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I'm up for calling the truce but my roommate won't.

Chris Grace:

Okay.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Well the good news from marital research is there's actually a lot of things you can do all by yourself that your spouse or your roommate doesn't have to join you in. It's interesting when the Apostle Paul talks about this in Romans. He says, "Listen, evil can be overcome but it's overcome with goodness." Then he says, "Hey, when you're cursed, I want you to actually bless that person." In the Greek, the word bless means speaking well of a person. You can actually enter into a truce with your roommate even if your roommate isn't agreeing to it.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

In other words, I can say, "You know what? I'm not going to speak ill of my roommate today. I'm not going to do it." Even if your roommate is snarky with you or sarcastic, and there's a dig, I can still apply the book of Proverbs and overlook the offense and Paul's actually saying, "Hey, just don't overlook it, I want you to actually bless that person." I can say, "Hey, thanks for cleaning up dishes."

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

"Thanks for this or that," and the other person can say, "Well, somebody had to do something in this apartment." And you just don't bite on it. It takes two people to quarrel. It really does and one of us can just abstain, as you try to do these repair mechanisms and increase the overall climate of the relationship.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. You know, one of the things related to taking this pause, might be that when couples are not in conflict, in a healthy part of a relationship and especially as it gets a little bit stronger, and let's say it's moved now beyond a friendship. Now maybe we're talking about let's say a marriage relationship, to have these kind of conversations before the conflict, that is, you say something like, "You know, whenever we're in conflict, one of the things that helps me is to be able to pause. To be able to take time, to be able to take a day or 24 hours." To set that up ahead of time can be extremely helpful for couples because it reminds them during the heat of the argument to say, "Wait a minute. Do you remember when we said we were going to get on to this point, we would agree that we would take 48 hours to pause, pray, and then proceed." Then what we would do during that time so that's another way you can do this is set up these rules almost of engagement ahead of time before the conflict overwhelms you.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We have a fancy word for that in Comm Theory. We call that meta-communication.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Which simply is communication about your communication. I love that, laying the ground rules long before the conflict is happening. Again, you're wise to say, you can't do that in the middle of the argument. You can't just stop and say, "Oh, by the way, I have a new rule. This rule is ..."

Chris Grace:

Right, right, right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

You have to wait but I do love the idea of saying after an argument is over, to say, "Hey, you know, what might have been better? Or at least for me, this might have been better if we could have take a break or if we could have bracket, keep the focus on just one issue and not add in everything else."

Chris Grace:

We really have learned, like you, just going to conferences, talking with couples and a lot of them share some of the things that have been very helpful to then and one couple I remember saying that they agreed ahead of time that they would work at she was a very good external processor. She could just process these things on the fly. He really had a hard time just talking about ... he felt overwhelmed a lot. In fact, he almost felt like he was getting emotionally, physiologically flooded and so in so doing, he needed time. Well they agreed, any time one of these issues came up, she would go ahead and email him one or two issues that she was most interested in talking about and he would take that 48 hours to think through his answer, pause, pray about it, but have the space and the time and that's kind of one of the rules they came up with, was very helpful. Then they both agreed and knew how to proceed at this point next.

 

Tim, during a time in which you take this pause, let me ask, what are some helpful things that you have seen in couples as they process this? Here's the specific question. We've had people say, "Oh, I'd love to take a pause because I can avoid it. I don't want to have this issue come up as much but mostly I need this pause for positive reasons because it gives me this ability to get my thoughts together. Is it true, do you think that some mean just get over whelmed with this, that they're maybe not as good verbally processing this. Again, I'm not talking about all men and I'm not talking about all women because frankly, my relationship is a little bit different. In my marriage, Alisa needs a little bit of time to get her thoughts together. She likes to wait, pause, think and I like to just talk right away. I've had to agree to say, "Yeah, Alisa, let's do this. Take some time. Go think about it."

 

What she likes to say is she loves to go, "Pause, pray and then proceed." She gets her heart right. Sometimes that takes a day or sometimes it takes ... but each of us have to call, you know, time back in. You can't just take it that way. Do you think it's true that some people are just better at verbally processing those ... and they can do that on the fly and then what would you recommend for couples or people that are matched up like that where they might have a difference in the way they approach or see problems and especially dealing or talking about conflict or problems.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, I have a friend of mine, Tim Downs, who talks about two types of communicators. One is the journey is what's important, is let's journey together and talk about this and process and let's share ideas and let's work it out. Let's talk and work it out.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

The other group he calls the land-the-plane people, which is I want to land the plane and right now you're talking so much I can't even know what direction I'm flying in.

Chris Grace:

That's good.

Tim Muehlhoff:

What we have to say is that not one is better than the other and they're both preferences but those preferences have to work in harmony with each other so over time, the Apostle Paul does say, "I want you to give preference to one another." I would say, if I talk about me and Noreen, Noreen is a verbal processor so when we talk about an issue, she really does want to talk it out and sometimes she's working her thoughts out in real time.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

And I'm much more the stoic German who, "Let me think about this and I want to put my thoughts together and I'm not ready to talk about this right now."

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We gotta find a way to make it work for both people.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's kind of the art of relationships, that's why we call it this and so we have to think about it. What would you throw in? What would you kick in?

Chris Grace:

Well, I think one of the issues ... I think that's really important first of all is that we recognize these differences. One other thing I think that happens during this pause time and when I'm having these conversations, I really get distracted by other things or especially if the other person is distracted or doing two things. I'll often times say this, I'll bring up a topic and Alisa will be cleaning the kitchen and she's kind of cleaning the kitchen and I'm sitting there wanting to talk. She keeps cleaning and cleaning. She's talking, she's fully engaged with me, paying attention but I don't see her eyes or she's looking at something else so I just say, "Alisa, can I just ... we need to have a conversation where there's not distractions. Let's wait. I'll wait until you're done, then let's talk." She'll say, "Oh, no, Chris, you're right. Let me put this down here and then now we can engage."

 

I think sometimes another important pause that people in relationships can really start to put into play is minimizing distractions for somebody who really wants to focus and who can get distracted pretty easily. There is no way a pause can really take place if you're just going to say, "You know, I'm going to take a pause from the conflict. I'm going to go watch sports for a while." There's a good thing to that, a walk, you take your mind off of this but it's also a time for you to be able to set up a period of time in your heart, in your soul, in your mind as a wise person would, to pause and reflect and to think.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah and I think that's good, Chris. There is, in my mind, a difference between a pause and a truce. A pause can happen within a conversation as we're talking about something. We just know we need to release the pressure valve. A truce is more the decision, "Hey, this pause is going to last two days, three days, a week..."

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

because we just need time to work on the climate," and I think that's good. It also occurs to me that a truce may be more difficult for the verbal processors than it is for the people who just need time to reflect.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

They might say, "Shoot, give me two weeks to think about this issue? Done." Where they processors are like, "I need to talk about this. Now you've said we're not talking about it." Just know that that could be different and harder for different personality types but it's still a great idea, something to have in your repertoire as you approach conflict.

Chris Grace:

There's a lot more to talk about this so we need to continue with another podcast, Tim on ways in which we can go through calling a truce during a time of conflict and some of the pitfalls that come up because I think you've got some that are heading our way. We're going to call it a pause right now in fact. It's been a great talk, a great opportunity to talk about conflict so thanks for joining us on this art of relationship podcast with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. I'm Dr. Chris Grace. Come to our center's website, cmr.biola.edu and come check out some of the things we have there. Next time we'll continue this and look at some things related to pitfalls related to truces and times apart. Hey, Dr. Muehlhoff, good talking with you.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Good talking with you, Chris.

Chris Grace:

Alright, we'll talk to you next time. Bye.


The Art of Relationships Podcast

The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships  — family, friends, co-workers and others.

 

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