Listener Questions Answered, pt. 4

Chris Grace, Tim Muehlhoff - August 16, 2017

How do you handle financial stress in marriage? How do you set boundaries in a blended marriage? What do you do if only one person in the marriage wants to stay in it? These are all questions that are asked within marriages. Today, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff answer your questions about marriage. Tune in to find out more, on the Art of Relationships. 


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

Tim Muehlhoff:    I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:    We're going to talk to you a little bit more about some things related to marriage. Tim, we get questions every time we go out and talk to churches and couples at retreat centers and do a conference. These questions are amazing because they really do hit at the heart of some of our deepest needs, deepest issues and we have a number of them. What about tackling some of them, what do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Let me make one general point real quick. This is the importance of being in community because you can tend to think with questions you have, "We're the only couple who struggles with this, we're the only couple who struggles with that." The great thing about tackling questions like this, to me, Chris, is it just shows we're all struggling with the same sort of things and so it's great to get outside perspective but to know, boy, you're in this with a lot of people's struggle.

Here's the first one. I bet you we're going to have a lot of spouses shaking their heads yes when it comes to this question. A husband says he loves his wife of 30 years but she says he loves his remote more than her. He likes to come home from work everyday and sit in front of the TV until it's time to go to bed, same thing every single day.

Chris Grace:    It's the same thing, my husband or wife comes home and they're in front of the computer, they're in front of their cellphone, they can't get off the TV. That's how they unwind, I appreciate and understand that but every day for hours.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Let me just tackle this from one aspect which might seem like I'm giving the husband a little bit of an out but my dad was this. My parents were married for 48 years. I remember my dad would come home, he'd sit in front of the TV, Chris, he'd fall asleep and just wake himself up and he just go to bed. He literally ate dinner in front of the TV set and just ticks my mom off. We shook our heads in judgment until one summer, I went and work daddy's factory. Chris, it was the most backbreaking, exhausting, tiring thing I've ever done in my life other than this podcast with you so it gave me just a little bit of empathy.

I'm not saying it's okay to do that but one thing a spouse might want to do is to step back and say, "Okay, I wonder what is going on at work, I wonder how stressful work is, I wonder how tiring work is and maybe he does need this unwind time." Now, every night is too much, of course, but the very first step might be to check my attitude as I'm confronting my spouse because of social media, the remote or whatever and I wonder if I'm seeing life through that person's eyes to see how busy, tiring or stressful work may be. Now once that's done, what do we suggest?

Chris Grace:    Yeah. Another question to start with is this, some people really do process difficulties, emotions, work days by talking about it. External processors can visit and talk and they want to share and they go through the details. Others really need some space, there might be internal processors. It takes a little bit of time when conflict is there or you're debriefing from a day, you just have to unwind.

One of our very first conflicts ever in marriage happened around the third or fourth month. I came home from school working and teaching a class. We are newly married and Alisa was just excited to see me, you know, I come in the door, we'd hug, kiss. Then I could tell that I wanted and needed to get away just for half an hour, just an hour to process, think, unwind and get ready for the evening. She misinterpreted that early on that I was maybe rejecting her, not wanting to be with her. I really had to own up to the fact that I wasn't really communicating, that I just needed the space and time.

One of the things that we did, one of the best things we did was have that conversation about when I go and do this, it feels like it helps me to engage better, it's done to help me reengage with you but I really wasn't very good at that. What was happening was I was just spending more time debriefing and trying to recharge and she was feeling more and more rejected. Ultimately, at the end, what we had to do is we had to talk about timeframes and time commitments and that's really what helped us out. Now today, it's even the same way now after all these years of marriage, I come home, she greets me, we say hi, interact briefly and then I take about 20 to 30 minutes and she always gives me that space. I usually find that I'm better and I can come back out and reengage. Now, that's not getting at the heart of this question, what happens when someone overwhelms the time and spends too much on social media and never comes back and reengages?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah. It sounds like from this question, this woman would take that in a heartbeat, 30 minutes of debrief time, hey, fine, but this sounds like all night every night and then he just goes to bed. I think two things. Again, this is a Christian marriage so you don't punish him. I'm mad at you for sitting in front of the TV with the remote so guess what, I'm going to make life miserable for you, I'm going to withhold the affection, we don't want to go that route.

I do like what you're saying. I think it'll be good to sit down and have a conversation to say, "Listen, I get that you're tired when you come home and I certainly understand the need to decompress but what if Wednesday nights was our date night, what if the weekends were different." Again, having some kind of conversation about our routine is really good but just be prepared that it might not go well, he might become defensive. That's why we don't withhold our love and affection towards our spouses in a Christian marriage just because we're not getting the answer or the results so love that person and God's going to use your love to actually work in that person to maybe soften that person up. Yeah, this is a hard one.

Chris Grace:    I think it's even harder, Tim, when both spouses are working. It's kind of more of a reality than it ever has been and so both are dealing with this at different times, different time schedules. What it really oftentimes goes down to is scheduling a time, finding out what's appropriate. If you come home from your job and you just need two hours to catch up, then you find that time somewhere but you also need to schedule in us time and I think that's where you make some agreements. If you're both working or even if just one is working and that can be very critical with the kids, you got kids into the mess, and now you have to find time to maybe get off of any kind of technology. We sometimes talk about it, 9:00, all technology turns off. Now, we don't do it all the time but it really can be helpful sometimes to set perimeters.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Obviously, one caveat to everything we're saying. This does not apply to sporting events, this is God's exemption.

Chris Grace:    The final four is on in the weekend.

Tim Muehlhoff:    NCAA tournament or let's even say hockey playoffs two months, that's just the rhythm of life from our perspective. I think we just lost some,

Chris Grace:    Yeah, we lost some listeners.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Another question, this is a great one, how does a couple properly manage financial stress? Let me just say this right off the bat, don't assume that everybody feels that stress equally. Noreen was a business major, University of Connecticut. I was a theater major, Eastern Michigan University. She was pre-law, I was pre-unemployment. I'm fine with certain levels of financial stress that Noreen is not fine with. I mean, she really does do a great job paying attention to the budget. Me, I'm like, "My goodness, Amazon Prime is God's gift to people." First, recognize that maybe both of you have different levels of stress tolerance, I think, is good. But this is where, again, Paul comes back into play, give preference to the other person. I think you have to adopt each other's stress levels. Chris, what are some great basic steps people can take when it comes to how do we manage the stress of the financial pressures we're facing?

Chris Grace:    I think one of the best things we did was we started to approach the situation of our spending, our finances and the stress we are under by getting a better understanding of how we each viewed money. That really just started by asking the question, honey, tell me about money growing up, what was it like for you? How do you see it today? If you were to come into a large amount of money right now, what will be your dream about spending it or saving it? Where did that come from? That was really helpful for me because I realized that I saw it a lot differently than Alisa did.

We learned early on the best way that we overcame a lot of our financial stressors and the conflict that we had over money was simply beginning to hear the other story and then take that into account. It's really hard because I still want to save, she still felt like saving was, ultimately, to spend somewhere. At the end of the day, we had to compromise and go, "Alright, I really want to search out your best interest and seek that out. If you're more comfortable saving in order to save up to buy something, I need to be okay with that," and then come up with certain limits and certain ways to do that. That really helped us is getting a deeper understanding of how we each viewed money and what it meant to us. Then Alisa would say, "One of the best things was taking some financial courses or at least reading different books."

Tim Muehlhoff:    Crown Ministries.

Chris Grace:    Crown Ministries, you have Dave Ramsey's material. There's all kinds of things out there that could help a couple.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Because we know we have diverse listeners, that we recognize not all these situations are the same. Some couples are experiencing stress because their discretionary spending is out of whack. There's other listeners who's saying, "Hey, we don't have any discretionary spending, we are at our wits' end. We're looking at not being able to pay the rent, we live paycheck to paycheck." Understand all stress is not the same. For those of you who are just, by your fingernails, hanging on, one, God deeply applauds to the fact that you are taking care of your family and that might mean working two jobs and both of you are working. Those are hard situations and there's no end in sight. I mean, you've cut everything you can possibly cut.

This is where I do think getting some help. There's a lot of resources out there, I would do some web searches. More importantly than anything else, be in community. You can't handle the stress of this, just you and your spouse and family, this is where a good local church can even help you financially as well as just give you support, prayers. Don't be in this by yourself, you must be in community as you're really tackling hard issues.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. Well, Tim, let's transition now to another question and there are some that are really important. Maybe the idea of blended families. Wherever we go, this issue of blended families comes up. One person just wrote this and ask this question, my wife has three adult children and she oftentimes struggles with boundaries and we both do and then prioritizing our marriage over their issues, how do we go about doing that in a way that's healthy and good?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, I have a brother, and he's given me permission to share this. My middle brother got divorced and married a woman who also got divorced. Both of them wanted to work on the marriages but their spouses want nothing to do with it so now they're divorced. Ken marries Betsy and she has an adult daughter who's probably 16, 17. Of course, Ken wants to win her over. Of course, he does. He went through a little bit of a phase where he's putting that goal over his relationship with this wife. Now, I get that, I totally understand that. Ken had to reorientated and he had to eventually say to his daughter, "Listen, I love your mom and that has to be the primary relationship, it just has to be."

We'd go back. I think you and I would agree that, boy, if kids perceive that the primary relationship is stable, that mom and dad are stable, that that really will bleed into your relationship with them. I get that this person asking the question says, "Hey, there's boundary issues." Of course, you're going to struggle with putting your kids above your new husband or new wife. Just remember, what the scripture say that husbands, you're called to love your wife as Christ love the church, ladies, you're called to respect your husbands as you respect the Savior himself. If you take care of that, make that a priority, I do think the kids are going to notice that, I think it's going to bleed into your relationship with them. Hard situation.

Chris Grace:    Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Here's another one. Boy, these are some serious questions but this is the type of culture we live in. What if, in a marriage, only one person truly wants to stay in the marriage and is working and fighting for the marriage? Boy, we hear this a lot. Let me just say this, this is the difference that being a Christian marriage makes, this is the difference when you say, "You know what? God is in charge of this marriage." Because I think God would say to you, the person who's fighting for the marriage, "You keep doing what's right. You keep pursuing that person. You keep loving that person with God's love," and God says, "You know what? I'm going to take that love and I'm going to use it in the heart of your spouse even if it doesn't look like anything is happening."

Paul had a really interesting metaphor he used, he said, "When those people who are your enemies or they hate you, when they're hungry," Paul said, "don't withhold food from them, give them food. In doing so, the Holy Spirit will use burning coals," this powerful metaphor. Again, you keep loving your spouse and God's going to use that kindness to work in the heart of that spouse and that's all you can do. At the end of the day, God is applauding your efforts. Again, this is why you need to be in community, this is hard to do on a day-to-day basis. Chris, anything that you would add?

Chris Grace:    Well, I think you're hitting the right point that, oftentimes, one of the things that we can control if not our other spouse, we can control ourselves. You need to ask hard questions, am I truly loving and fighting the right way? If I'm fighting for this marriage and I'm truly working on this, am I doing it in a way that is working at reconciliation, that's working at the things that I might be struggling with or dealing with? When I fight for this marriage, am I doing it in a way that's prayerful, thoughtful, kind? I think you can get help from people and ask them, is there something that I could be doing better, something I could be working on? We can ask God that, "God, help me to see some of the ways that I can reach out in this very difficult situation to somebody who may not be responding to me but help me grow me, teach me and be with my partner or my spouse and bring them to us, bring us back in a way." I think it starts with some hard self-questions.

Tim Muehlhoff:    I love that, Chris. Let's paint the scenario, you do all the introspection you can and it comes out that you're doing everything you can, your heart is in the right place and it still doesn't keep your spouse from leaving. That free will thing is important.

I like what [Dr. James] Dobson said about parenting, I think you can apply it in marriage. Dobson said this, "When your kids turn out good, don't take all the credit. When they turn out bad, don't take all the blame." If your spouse leaves, you can't look at that and say, "It was my fault, my fault, my fault." Hey, you might have done everything, you tried to be as biblical as possible and your spouse still said, "I'm sorry, I'm out of here." Well, you love him anyway. Then eventually, if they do leave, then you have serious conversations with the leadership of your church about, okay, now what do we do? My husband has basically abandoned me, my wife has abandoned me. Do what's right and God will applaud that and he will use it in the heart of your spouse but your spouse can reject it.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. I think that's where it becomes very hard. You want to fight for this and you want to bring it to a place where you're doing all that you possibly can and that involves things that you've said, Tim, it involves talking with friends, getting insights that you maybe haven't had before, it's praying over your partner, it's encouraging counseling and outside professional help. I think that can be extremely helpful if they're willing to go and do that, and that's some of the things you can do. Like you said, sometimes it comes down to I can only do so much and I've done the best I can and move forward.

Another question, what do you do when you have everything but all your husband does is work and you are so lonely or all your wife does is work and you are so lonely? This idea that you've done everything, yet, there're still this loneliness that exists and that's kind of this idea like, "I've done all this work, we're staying in this but the fighting is now, it's no longer, really, even fighting, it's just loneliness."

Tim Muehlhoff:    Let me focus in the front part of that question. This is at least how I'm interpreting it, what do you do when you have everything? See, Chris, one of the things we struggle with in America is this, we think of a certain lifestyle. We actually call it the American dream, it's a phrase that came out of the 1960s which is always bigger and better, upward, upward, upward which I get that. Us, living in Southern California, my goodness, we see this all the time. Hey, all of that comes with cost so you can't have everything and then have time for each other. Again, this isn't what he or she is dealing with, I apologize. I think for a lot of couples especially in Southern California, man, that vacation home comes with cost, those cars come with cost. Living at a certain level, somebody's got to pay that bill. Often, we do pay the bill and then we get the home but we're not happy living in the home. We get a certain kind of life and there's just nothing left.

This is where we need to make a distinction between wants and desires and needs. I don't doubt that there's certain needs that we got to have but, man, a lot of us have wants that have been really shaped by the American dream, this upward mobility. The first thing you do is sit down and say, "Hey, are we killing ourselves here?" We have some really good friends in North Carolina, their house was killing them, it was killing them, he was working 70 hours a week. They made a heroic decision to sell the house and they moved into a place right down the road that was a much lower income neighborhood. He said, "Listen, initially, it was really embarrassing." Because people would say, "Hey, new to the area?" "No. Actually, we move from this neighborhood and," "You lose your job?" "No, just decided to downsize." Hey, I applaud them for making that decision.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. It is a great decision too because it allows you to capture something. They did this survey of around 20,000 couples one time in Prepare and Enrich. What they did is these two groups of couples were struggling and they followed them over the next year and a half. As they follow these two different groups of couples, what stood out to them was they were about the same, lonely, dealing with some conflict, dealing with some struggles both at the same time.

A year and a half later, there was a set of couples that were actually doing better, they were thriving, they had started to take care of the relationship. Actually, they would say, "We're doing very well, our marriage quality is high." The other group was still about the same. They looked at the difference between these two couples to see what separated them out and the most interesting thing was the difference was about an average of five hours a week. That difference was that couples that were now learning, growing, thriving, even had high quality marriages had found kind of almost like a little way to cure some of this and that is they invested five more hours a week in their relationship, Gottman calls it the magic of five hours. Other people just say, "It's really an investment."

For this friend of yours that moved into this other location just to be able to afford it, if you can take that time capture, just an hour a day even, even less, I mean 45 minutes a day or sometimes a three-hour date night and then two more hours during the week and invest that time, you can find some significant help in a relationship that's lonely or a relationship that's struggling. Now, you plow back in just the smallest amount and it can do some amazing help and bring some amazing insight and help for couples. The magic of five hours, where can you find five hours a week? That's not that hard, that's 45 minutes a day. Turn off the TV, turn off the Facebook, turn off social media and invest in that little bit of time.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Noreen and I, I forgot which anniversary this was, but we asked each other, we were walking on the beach, we said, "What was the most stressful year of the marriage and what was the least stressful." What shocked us is we both picked the least stressful and it's when we lived in the former Soviet Union. Now, you would look at that and say, "Least stressful? How is that not the most stressful?" You know why it wasn't stressful, Chris? We didn't own a car so none of that upkeep. We rented, it wasn't our house. We walked everywhere, we had a limited amount of clothes. Then we moved back to United States, we walk in, we have a house, a yard, two cars, all that craziness. I think there is something to downsizing and mentally downsizing, even spiritually downsizing to say, "Lord, do we really need this?" Man, maybe sitting down as a couple and saying, "Let's take an inventory of everything. Maybe we don't need all of this, maybe we don't need this kind of pressure."

Chris Grace:    That's great. I think at the end, when we end up finding ways to reinvest into some things that we used to do, when we would date, when we were engaged, no doubt you spend time together, you went out on date nights, you went out on meals, you just simply found an hour to take a walk, a drive, those could be great ways of capturing some time.

Tim Muehlhoff:    When I stopped modeling ...

Chris Grace:    Yeah, that brought you all kinds of times.

Tim Muehlhoff:    I mean, it was the flight, I think about that. All of the personal trainers, the pressure of being objectified, it simplified.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, the tan in a can. Man, you have to spray that on all the time, that's very expensive to do.

Tim Muehlhoff:    I got rid of my hair, it helped.

Chris Grace:    All right, let's try one more question, ready?

Tim Muehlhoff:    One more.

Chris Grace:    My husband has an issue with me having, as she says, girl time. It has been 11 years and I never had a weekend with my girlfriends. He said I married him, not my girlfriends. I think this issue can come out in questions like this. Sometimes we have a hard time letting our partner or spouse have time alone with family or with girlfriends or other friends.

Talk about that Tim, how do you navigate this issue where you want your partner to have some fun time and enjoy but it's hard to give them up and maybe during stressful, busy times, it's hard to say, I remember Alisa would want to go see her sister and her mom. I would really want her to do that because I love the fact that she was connected to them and she enjoyed the time but it was so hard to leave me with the children at home, three hungry children and a crop in the field. I'm just going, "How long are you going for it?" She said, "Just a couple of days." To realize some of the benefits of that took a little bit of time. What do you do when there's an issue with that or people are struggling with that, taking time?

Tim Muehlhoff:    What concerns me a little bit is that it's been 11 years. This isn't a one to two-year marriage that's working on those transitions, that we all have to work. Again, you're not single anymore, you're not running off and playing basketball every Saturday morning or Sunday morning or something like that but this has been 11 years. It shows me that this is maybe a sign of something deeper than this, maybe it's a lack of trust, maybe feeling insecurity towards this. Or if we go far enough on the continuum, one of the signs of abuse is that you do isolate a spouse and you keep that spouse from friends. Who knows what a continuum is this.

I agree with you, Chris. I want Noreen spending time with her friends and I want to spend time with friends. Now, obviously, that has to be negotiated and it can be too much. Again, when kids are young, this gets really hard because if I make a decision to go spend time with friends. Guess what? Noreen is spending time with the small kids so that has been negotiated but this has been 11 years.

I would say, sit down and again, I get why you'll be defensive but perspective taking, I want to understand what's happening in my spouse's life that he feels threatened by this or doesn't think that there's a need. Does he not have friends? Maybe you're not encouraging him to cultivate friends as well. What's hard about this is all of these questions have massive context and we have to understand. I think, generally speaking, it's good to have friends and it's good to make those kind of friendships, that you get their perspective, you blow off steam, you laugh. I think, generally speaking, it's a good thing. With this particular person, I want to get to the root why he doesn't buy into this.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. I think you're right, Tim. I think, ultimately, getting at that issue and then encouraging his friendship with other guys. Then being able to just find time and just recognize that this really does help both people become even more committed and it helps our developmental growth to reach out to others, to be strongly connected to family and friends. It's a positive thing to look forward to.

Tim Muehlhoff:    I would think so. Hey, keep these questions coming. This is great. We will periodically do this, just tackle questions from a single's perspective as well as from a married perspective. We love it. Stay active, stay connected. One way you can do that is through our website.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, cmr.biola.edu. We have a lot of material out there and information on this so just keep checking with us. Tim, it's been enjoyable.

Tim Muehlhoff:    It's been great.

Chris Grace:      Alright, talk to you guys next time.


Chris Grace

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

Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. 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.


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