Listener Questions Answered, pt. 3
How do you handle conflict with your spouse? What do you do when your spouse has a significant illness? And the biggest question of all, what is the purpose of marriage? In today's podcast, Dr. Christ Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff answer your questions about marriage with humor and common sense advice. Tune in to hear your questions and more answered, on the Art of Relationships.
Chris Grace: Welcome to the Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.
Chris Grace: And one of the cool things we get to do here is just be able to come to you and talk about issues related to all things relationships. Tim, we did a podcast recently on talking with singles about different kinds of relationships they might be in, roommates, engaged couples, dating couples, and I just answered questions and that was really fun to do. What if we tackle now marriage and different questions that we've received, and we get so many. You speak nationwide a number of different times each month at different places and locations and you and I have spoken together in places and I think we still find that all the questions kind of coalesce around some issues related to things like conflict and communication but the deeper purposes of marriage and they have questions.
Tim Muehlhoff: Which I think people should take comfort in, that basically, people are asking the same general kind of questions when it comes to marriage. It doesn't necessarily mean that people are different in different geographical locations. It really does seem like, there's just a set of questions that everybody wrestles with. So we thought we'd take some of these and just jump in and give them our thoughts. So here's the first one. If marriage is designed to be missional, how do we go about pursuing that call together? How do we know we are effectively engaging with this in our marriage?
That's a great question. One, let me just affirm the question. A marriage is healthy when it's not just about the marriage. When there really is some principle that's far beyond the marriage. I think about what Jesus said, Chris when he said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you," and I think that applies to marriage. If there's something bigger that's driving you that's great motivation to care about taking care of your business, taking care of your credibility as a couple. Now, the question though, goes a little bit deeper is one how do we pursue this together and how do we know that we are actually making it a part of our marriage?
Chris Grace: Tim I think this is getting at a question that I think a lot of academicians, theologians, and others go for and that is what's the end? The telos? If you can come up with your purpose, what's your? Some have even tried to make it about a purpose but it helps to even think about this, what's our calling? What's our purpose? What did God call us to do? And so if you start with this end goal in mind, what is the ultimate end of marriage? The ultimate telos? And I think you can start with something like this as a couple if you believe that the end goal is to bring God glory. So what did some researchers talk about that did study in marriage? Remember a guy named Gary Thomas who wrote a book. Its marriage is not designed-
Tim Muehlhoff: Sacred marriage.
Chris Grace: What if marriage wasn't designed to make you happy, but to make you holy? It's a great start. I think that's what he was getting at. There must be an end or a purpose and one of those has got to be that we not only grow closer to God but we in so doing, in our relationship, we bring others to God. We use our marriage to help bring out God's glory to people and they see how we handle disagreements and conflict and a model is, "Wow they still love each other, they still support each other even in the midst of difficult times. They're doing this because they're pursuing a deeper purpose."
Tim Muehlhoff: And C.S. Lewis had a great quote that, "Life is made up of first things and second things. Get the first thing's in place," Lewis said, "and the second things follow." So I think the first place is what Gary Thomas is talking about, a theology of marriage. The second things Lewis was talking about I think with the latter part of this question is getting at like, "Okay so once we make this philosophical decision-"
Chris Grace: How do we do it together?
Tim Muehlhoff: And I would say things like, what comes to mind is, we regularly look at our checkbook. Where's our money going? I think we regularly look at our time. Are we involved in the ministry at church? We say we are a missional marriage but have we joined a ministry at church? Do we support people? Even something as simple as prayer. How much time do we take praying for our neighbors, for their relationship with Christ, or praying for couples that we know are hitting, there's a chance of divorce? So again, that kind of checklist I think is wise.
Chris Grace: I love that and I also think another way to do this, Tim, might be to figure out even at a even more basic level where do you feel most connected with God? And so it could differ. No, I'll give you an example for us. Whenever I'm reading some great new insight or thought from a book, it really challenges me most of the time and yet there are many times when it leaves me empty and not, but when I do find something that's really fun or really exciting, I want to share that. I feel like God has sent me.
Now Alisa on the other hand loves and feels God's pleasure, His presence whenever she is taking a walk on a beach or in the mountains, or in nature and experiencing God's beauty in that way and so what we've learned is if we're going to learn and pursue God together, one of the things we start with is, "Oh let's both encourage each other in our walks and then begin to see how we can do that together as a couple by enhancing those opportunities." So we'll go to the beach oftentimes which she loves and I'll take a book.
Tim Muehlhoff: Which I hate, do you understand what I'm saying, Chris? I sit down and it's the sun and the sand in my book page.
Chris Grace: And it's all dirty.
Tim Muehlhoff: But it's for your wife and that's awesome.
Chris Grace: That could be missional, right? Because that way we're both feeling that we can then talk about some cool things as we sit there and how can we use our marriage together or what God might be calling us to? I'll start with another question, Tim. How do we move past some of our fears of intimacy with a spouse? That's another one. It could be spiritual intimacy, emotional intimacy, but probably or possibly this idea of even physical intimacy. There are some times in which we just have, especially with some newer younger couples, this fear of intimacy almost like vulnerability and feeling a little bit of shame at times. Somebody now when we are first married begins to see this side of us that we've never shown anybody before and we are worried that we will be rejected, not accepted, and some people worry about this a little bit more than others. What do you think? How do you go about it?
Tim Muehlhoff: It's not even young marriages Chris. I'm thinking of some really good friends of ours who are mature Christian couple and they really struggle praying together and it's taken them years to get. That's interesting to think about why and I think it must be the intimacy factor. Prayer is a deeply intimate thing before we get married and now we're married and now we're joining in. I think my quick answer to that question would be one you have to understand what's driving the fear. You can't just put a Band-Aid on it and say, "Well okay we will pray together," but I would want to find out what's fueling this sense of fear when it comes to, and you're right it could be sexual intimacy, it could be vulnerability, it could praying together. So from a psychological standpoint, how do we go back and start to take a look at what might be fueling this kind of fear?
Chris Grace: And this is where I believe a deeper understanding that marriage is actually an amazing place where we've made a commitment to somebody, we've done it publicly and in so expressing that commitment, we sometimes have to remind each other and even ourselves of that very deep commitment because that engenders trust with couples and it's that trust that can overcome some of these things that we bring in where we're bringing in vulnerability. So I would say we move past this fear when we start with the place of trust and acceptance, and acknowledgment and we admit, like you were saying, some of those deeper things that underlie our fears. We are afraid of maybe being seen as not acceptable or someone who has too many problems that can't be fixed or we just don't like something about ourselves and we feel judged. And it's those kinds of things that we need to start processing and dealing with.
Tim Muehlhoff: And even attachment styles Chris, right? I think we should do a whole podcast by the way on attachment styles. I think it's fascinating. In other words how you attach to your parents, particularly your mother, kind of set the template of how you're going to attach to people in the future. So, it's really good to go back and analyze what was my relationship with my parents or primary caregiver? That did set the template whether you're trusting, whether you're anxious, whether you avoid intimacy. So if you're interested, just go ahead and Google attachment styles and I think we'll do a whole podcast on that.
Chris Grace: That will be great. There's so much on this with intimacy. Let's try another question.
Tim Muehlhoff: And this is a great one. By the way, I can't wait to hear your answer to this one.
Chris Grace: Okay.
Tim Muehlhoff: How do you receive criticism in a productive way without becoming defensive or taking it personally?
Chris Grace: I have a lot of practice with you so I think the way I see it is practice makes perfect because sometimes you just,
Tim Muehlhoff: We're laughing because this is tough and this is hard for everybody.
Chris Grace: Taking criticism personally when someone shares it with you, and I'm thinking this in a context of a marriage when someone shares, "Hey this really bugs me here." I think it becomes almost related to the other question. Intimacy starts to lead us to places where we have some things that we need to fix and get right and those can be unsettling. Those can be hard and that's why I think defensiveness starts to rear its head and go, "Wait a minute, you do this too. I'm not the only one." And I think the way you do that, Alisa always says one of the best ways to do this is she has that thing of the 4P. She talks about you pause during this time and when someone shares something that maybe raises up your defenses, makes you feel critical, or makes you feel like they're criticizing you-
Tim Muehlhoff: And Seneca once said the best remedy for anger is delay.
Chris Grace: That's the pause.
Tim Muehlhoff: The pause is huge.
Chris Grace: I think that's it, Tim. I think you just simply pause. During that time, what you can do during the pause maybe it's 5 minutes, maybe it's 10 minutes, maybe it's an hour but what you do is you take time to figure out, "Alright, God. What's going on in my heart? I need to settle down, right?" And then learn a little bit about what's going on and what this might help me to see from God.
Tim Muehlhoff: See and that right there Chris, what you do during the pause, is what separates Christian and nonchristian marriages. So if you're in a nonchristian marriage, we still would advocate the pause, Seneca wasn't a believer, but it's good advice but what you do during that pause shows what power you're relying on. So I agree with the pause as well but I'm not just pausing and saying, "Tim come on. Don't be defensive. Don't be defensive." I'm saying, "God I am getting defensive and I really ask that you help me to understand that my spouse is believing, wanting to help me. Help me not to be defensive. Help me to hear what she has to say." What you do during that pause is huge.
Chris Grace: I think it's really hard to make that prayer and to say, "Alright Lord. What am I doing wrong?I'm not, I do see things from a biased, you know, my own perspective. I know, you know, she has a point. I know that my partner loves me and cares for me so what can you be teaching me in here? Search me." And the Psalmist says in 139, "Search me oh God. Know my heart. Try me and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there's any hurtful way in me and then lead me in the everlasting way." That takes some time and that takes a little bit of effort but once you do that, you don't have to have all the answers but what you can do, that pausing usually calms your heart.
Tim Muehlhoff: Now 4Ps, so the first one was pause.
Chris Grace: Pause, second one was pray, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay and then?
Chris Grace: And then as you do the Psalm 139, I think you begin to process what you're hearing with God, "God okay this bugs me. I am defensive. I am angry. What's going on? What are my anxious ways? What are you teaching me about this? What about the issue or the situation?" And then I think the fourth one is something you're really good at and you've talked a lot about and that's perspective. Taking the perspective during that time, "What Lord? Give me insight into what my spouse is feeling right now. Help me see it from her side. What might her angle be?" And I think this is your idea about perspective taking that you talk a lot about.
Tim Muehlhoff: And Chris this is, we should probably do a whole podcast on perspective taking, but listen. Nothing is easier than doing all this during a podcast. Know what I mean? I should do the 4Ps when I get home but I'm ticked. I'm hurt. I'm tired. I'm mad. There's lingering conflict. So that's why this is a spiritual endeavor and let me tackle one other aspect of this that we haven't touched yet. I do think it would be wise to say, "Okay is there something my spouse is doing that's provoking defensiveness?" Another way, I do think it's a two-way street so there might be something your spouse is doing like sarcasm, using the whole classic thing of I and you statements.
So I think it is fair to say, "Hey let's, obviously let me address me. I need to be open to what you have to say," but at a later date, it could be good to sit down and say, "but, hey, it does ... it is hard when you make these sweeping generalizations. It is hard for me when you ... it sounds like you're accusatory when you. " That kind of stuff could be good but not initially. Initially, I think we need to be open to what our spouse has to say even if he or she has not said it in the best possible way. Sometimes we use that as a cop-out, "You used you statement so I don't have to listen to you."
Chris Grace: That was good. So pause at what we do, pray, process what you're learning from God and talking to Him about the situation, and then you take the perspective of. It's perspective taking.
Tim Muehlhoff: To say, "So let me stop for a second and see this from my spouse's perspective. I might not totally agree with it but let me try to see the world through her eyes to understand the emotions it's fueling." And many of us just simply don't have the patience for that, "I'm jumping in. I'm gonna check your, facts. I'm gonna disagree with your facts. You're attacking me? Well, I'm attacking you." Man, that kind of stuff just short circuits good intimacy and communication.
Chris Grace: Good. Let's try another question. There's so much we can talk about with this one that is there. There are different things that couples struggle with like for example maybe even, one question was this, how should relatively minor things like even cleanliness for example, why does that affect a relationship and a marriage so much? Are there actually ways in which our marriages can be harmed by these little kinds of things that add up over time? Go ahead.
Tim Muehlhoff: And the answer is yes. So general rule of thumb, communication theory, big things are big if they are big to you. Now I might look at it and think it's ridiculous. I might say, "All right. So what? I let the dinner dishes in the sink. I was gonna get to 'em in the morning," and you say, "No no no. We need to clean these things tonight because it drives me crazy." At that moment you have a decision to make, "Okay we are either gonna dig in our trenches. We're going to have a stalemate, "Cause I think it's ridiculous. I think that that bothers you is just silliness."
But if it's a big deal to your spouse, then I think generally speaking this is a big deal. Now with one little caveat, they all can't be big deals, you know what I mean? That's where the negotiation part kind of comes in and you have to say, "Okay because you care about this, I care about it but at the same time we're doing this together." So compromise comes from the Latin middle way. I love that. With a lot of these issues, you are going to have to find a middle way, "Okay I won't leave the dishes overnight but honey we don't need to do it right after dinner, right?" There's got to be a compromise.
Chris Grace: I think that idea of compromise, of finding a win-win, something that takes into account the other. You start a win-win, the other person feels heard, that you understand, you have their perspective. You can say, "Honey I realize that the dishes, you know, or the house cleanliness bothers you a lot, and I really, I want to respect and honor that you like it clean. And what I'd like to be able to do is can we find a way to do this so that right now we can get some good sleep and I can get up even early and get them done?" Or whatever it might be. Some sort of win-win and that begins just that brainstorming idea and looking out for each other's perspective. What do you think?
Tim Muehlhoff: And I do like that idea of a win-win. I also think but it won't always be win-win. In other words, let's say you do have something that is just like timeliness. We're not going to be late. I think there could be certain situations where it's like, "Okay, I just don't agree with this but I'm gonna let you. Yeah honey this is important to you. We're gonna do it. I still don't think it's a big deal but I'm gonna, yeah I'm gonna give on this." Now the way that that doesn't work is I start to keep track, "Excuse me, based on my color chart that I did at Kinko's, I've given on five issues. You've only given on two." Boy that can lead to, "Right now we're keeping track. We're judging each other." So again, all of this is attitude-based and this is where Paul does say, "I want you to learn to put the other person's preference above your own preference," and that's hard. That's a hard issue.
Like this next question I think is, maybe you and I are going to disagree with this, I don't know but here's my answer to this question, is it okay to sleep on the couch when you are angry with your spouse? I want to say it depends. If the reason you're sleeping on your couch is, "I'm gonna punish her, right? I'm ticked off and I'm gonna punish her," then yeah you don't sleep on the couch. If you're so angry, "I don't trust what I'm gonna say. I really don't. I'm that upset," it might be good to take that break we said and it might not be bad every once in a while to go sleep on the couch because "I don't, I'm really mad and I don't trust what I'm gonna say if I get back into that bed." So I want to say it's kind of situational. I don't think it's a great habit overall. I could see some times when it might not be a bad idea to spend the night on the couch. You're kind of smiling. What do you think?
Chris Grace: I think you're right. It does come down to context. If this is a pattern though, and this is what you're getting at, if this is something that there's arguments, you both separate for a time and you pause but you just really have a hard time calling back in and you can't get out of the timeout and get back together and talk about this and so the pattern is, "Okay I'm just going to sleep on the couch, you know, and do this for a couple of nights or every time we fight we tend to do this," I think to me you're starting to see signs of unhealth that would point to maybe even what could be stonewalling or hiding or avoiding. So I think like you, I would want to look at this situation. Every once in a while it probably is fine. I think just so long as it's not indicating that you're really kind of running away from something, avoiding it, just not wanting to talk about it. Then it becomes a stronger issue.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we've all experienced that man. That marriage bed, and you've got back against back, and you're just laying there man.
Chris Grace: It's hard.
Tim Muehlhoff: Remember Sara Groves, she had this great song called Roll To The Middle. She said, "We just had world war three and this is when one of us has to roll to the middle," and I think God would say to each spouse, "Hey this is on you. Both of you. " And there comes a time where only one spouse can do that. One spouse can roll to the middle and it may not always be met with a positive response but this is where God is saying I think, "Hey don't tire in what's doing good. You do what's good and the Holy Spirit is gonna affirm what you have to say." But we've all been there. That could be some penetrating silence man.
Chris Grace: It can be. By the way, you can find that song on YouTube. Just put in her name and you could find it there.
Tim Muehlhoff: There just came a time. We just had to say to Alisa, "You have to go home. We want our couch back."
Chris Grace: You can do this. Thanks for doing that. Thanks for encouraging her to come back and deal with the issues because she was,
Tim Muehlhoff: Three months is enough. Go back.
Chris Grace: All right. Let's try this. One of the questions that we get is for people who are struggling in the areas, sometimes it's physical or sometimes it's mental issues that might be struggling with and how do you do this when your partner or spouse is dealing with significant illnesses? How do you manage a marriage when one spouse suffers from a mental illness or a physical illness that's happening, that's been severe? And I think Tim on this one, it really does call us to fall back on our deepest commitments and understanding in a relationship and that is, "You know I've made a commitment to you in sickness and in health."
And it's hard and so to do this is going to take some time, for you to process, get some maybe even some help, from outside from a support group who are in the same place dealing with a spouse with these issues because you can't, ultimately I think you could do this best in partnership with some other people, whether it's counseling resources or whether it's just a support group to help you with people who find themselves in a similar situation. It is hard and difficult when our spouse is hurting and it exceeds our level of expertise. We just don't know what to do, especially when it comes to mental illness. I really do think we need to get professional help.
Tim Muehlhoff: Absolutely. I'm thinking of a couple of good friends of ours spoke with FamilyLife. They were on a vacation and he got hit by a drunk driver and had severe brain trauma and he's back to functioning now. He can go back to work but here's what she said, "I have a totally different husband." He had a complete personality change, Chris, can you imagine this?
Chris Grace: No.
Tim Muehlhoff: So he went from being a really lighthearted guy with a great sense of humor to now a guy who's super serious and everything kind of bugs him. So I think we just kind of just bookended this session because the very first thing we talked about was having the theology of marriage, Sacred Marriage go to Thomas. That's the only thing I can say in addition to everything you just said about getting help. Absolutely but also reminding yourself what's the purpose of marriage? It is to give God glory and we have seen in the hardest of marriages that in fact they do give God glory because they are going through this dark night of the soul and they are giving God glory. But everything you said is true man. You can't do that by yourself. You need a support system.
Chris Grace: That's great Tim and thanks for bringing it back around to that question of ultimate purpose and the ultimate telos and this is about ultimately finding hope but because God doesn't give up on us, He surrounds us and protects us, and I think in so doing when we take that perspective that God isn't through, He's using this in some way to bring us closer together, bring us closer to Him, then at the end we can handle a lot of these things that are really almost feel like too overwhelming. so it's good. Tim, we should probably, there's about a bunch more questions. let's do another podcast on even additional questions in marriage that we can help with. Thanks for tuning in and if you want more information there's a number of different blogs, podcasts, events, and other things with videos on our website cmr.biola.edu and check it out.
Tim Muehlhoff: Sounds good. Hey, thank you all for listening. We'll talk to you soon.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.