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The Power of Influence in Marriage

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

Continuing their discussion of influence and it's role in relationships, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff turn their focus to marriage. In marriage, what role does influence play? How much influence should there be in decision making? How does your spouse express their opinions and desires? Do you have the chance to express yours? Listen as they discuss influence. Does it spark any thoughts on your own relationship? Share with us!


Chris Grace: Well welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace: And we get an opportunity to come to you with some insights and some perspective, Tim, that take advantage of your communication background, with your Ph.D. in that area.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.

And your background in psychology.

Chris Grace: In psychology. And to apply that to this area about the art of relationships gives us this amazing opportunity I think to be part of a world in which we get to explore and look at from a scientific perspective, but also from one in which we just look at relationships and talk about these things.

And it's really fun to do this together.

Tim Muehlhoff: And everybody's talking about it. If you were to poll the average American he or she would say the top of my list, above career success, would be to have a family. And so everybody wants to know "Man, what's the key to having a good relationship? A good family? Resolving conflict?". That's why we started this podcast is these are conversations that people want to talk about.

Chris Grace: Yeah, and second on that list is our podcast is the second most popular thing in America.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, I want to be on Muehlhoff/Grace's podcast, as we refer to it often.

Chris Grace: So Tim, as you think about relationships like this, and as we talk about them, let's do this, we've been talking about influence. We've been talking about ways in which people navigate and influence each other. Things that we're impacted by. Last time we talked about ways in which we can point to people that have had huge impacts on us simply because of how they live their lives.

Let's talk about the role of influence in marriage. Let me just start off with something that a researcher Jon Gattman has said and done. And what he did is they did a study, it took them about, I think they followed individuals who had been married, they'd followed them for almost nine years. It was a long-term study. They took 130 newlywed couples.

As they followed these ... I think it was about nine or 10 years. In the first few months, they began to see something very interesting. There were some men who allowed their wives to influence them. And we'll describe that in just a minute, but they had happier relationships and they were less likely to eventually divorce than those who resisted their wife's influence.

Now when they talked about statistically speaking, what they were looking at was "When a man is not willing to share power," he wrote, this is Jon Gattman, "When they're not willing to share power with their partners there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct."

Tim Muehlhoff: Wow.

Chris Grace: Now, I know they're big numbers. It's a great ... Anytime you do a long-term study and you look at, and follow young couples for that period of time, you know they're landing on some things that rise to the top. So what comes to mind when you think about that? And what do you hear? This idea of accepting influence really means that many of these men just simply allowed and talked with their spouses, right? They allowed them, when they made a big decision, they talked about it. And then they would make this decision, and often together. But, in cases in which they rejected that, or resisted that influence they started to run into problems. So, what's your thought?

Tim Muehlhoff: You know my immediate thought is this is generational. If you go back to my dad, a sign of power was he didn't need anybody's opinion. He knew what to do. And I remember sometimes my mom would try to interject and he would literally say "Nan, I got it". I mean think about that? That's totally against what Gottman's saying.

Now I would hope that this generation, like I cannot imagine heading into marriage, my generation with that kind of attitude. It's like what's the point of getting married and not being a team where we have equal influence with each other? And we can talk later about how you influence a spouse. But, that really struck me. My first thought was "Man, that's a generational issue," where power was "Hey, fall behind Dad. We're all going to go this direction and I'm not having one minute waver that this is what we should do." And I just don't see that in my own marriage, what about you?

Chris Grace: You know I think what ... No, I don't see it either. It feels as if it becomes an issue for some couples, especially the idea of the emotionally-intelligent person, or the emotionally-intelligent husband comes into play that we tend to see fewer and fewer cases, I think generationally, of men who approach the marriage as "This is the way it goes. I'm not going to listen to you. I have to make the decisions." However, I mean there are still times in which this idea of the way conflict is resolved can lead to some of these issues.

So, I think what Gattman had earlier studied was remember the four horsemen that he talked about at the apocalypse, right? This idea of contempt, and criticism, and defensiveness, and stonewalling. Those four horsemen, we've talked about them on another podcast before, but then in arguments and in times of disagreements it was often times the men that resorted to using the four horsemen as a way to resist the influence, and so it was more a problem, at that time, with husbands than with wives. And it seemed as if that was mainly what he was pointing to in this study of these newlyweds. The ones that navigated it well didn't rely on much, especially for the men, on the four horsemen.

Tim Muehlhoff: And let me just speak for a quick tangent, so listeners who are single who are thinking "Well how will I know that my spouse takes my influence? How will I know this?". Hello! It's called dating! Right? So as you're dating, if the person that you're slowly getting more and more committed to doesn't take your advice easily, or resists it always, man, that's a huge red flag. You've just seen your marriage.

So, in a dating relationship, you want this ebb and flow. Sometimes you're right, sometimes the other person's right. Sometimes, and it's okay to have passion, it's okay to have convictions, but if I have a conviction Noreen cannot speak into, man, that's a tough place to be in a marriage. So dating is incredibly important to see what your future marriage is going to look like.

Chris Grace: What would you look for? I mean here's a couple, they're dating, they're getting serious, and they're kind of thinking to themselves "Wait, I want to predict this or see this". I would suggest maybe one thing they're looking for is do you feel honored and respected-

Tim Muehlhoff: And acknowledged.

Chris Grace: And acknowledged. Okay, let's start with acknowledged. Do you feel acknowledged? Do you feel respected? And then even do you feel honored? I mean you could take it up each level.

Tim Muehlhoff: If, so we're talking to people who are dating what to be looking for.

Chris Grace: That's right.

Tim Muehlhoff: Very first thing you're looking in the person that you're dating, do they know who Steve Yzerman is? Steve Yzerman is one of the most famous captains of the Detroit Red Wings, the best team in hockey ever. Chris likes the Anaheim Ducks, they won the Stanley Cup once. Detroit has won it 11 times. This is probably a little bit of a tangent, but I think that's a nice qualifying thing about dating. But besides that-

Chris Grace: Wow, I'm waiting to see how you draw this one back in.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let's drop the puck on, no, acknowledgment, when we talk about a healthy communication climate, acknowledgment is really important. And let's be clear, acknowledgment doesn't mean you have to agree with my perspective or I have to agree with your perspective. It simply means do I recognize it and do I give it a certain amount of weight even if I don't go with what you're saying? I can at least consider it and deeply consider it. That's what we want in a dating relationship, and that's what you'd want in a marriage.

Chris Grace: Yeah, so I guess, so some of the advice we would give is if you're approaching, let's say you're engaged or your newly married and you're watching this, it would be to continue to work on this ability to not only recognize the other person and acknowledge their perspective, you take it seriously. Even if at the end of the day you have a marriage in which you decide, let's say "Okay, at the end of the day in our marriage one of us is going to have to make this decision and take responsibility for the decision".

What we're saying, I think, and that this study seems to point out is for the couples who can come to a point of agreement, talk about, rather than just a unilateral decision that's being made. So, in other words, there's this coming together of "Tell me what you think. Here's what I'm thinking. We can process and talk about this". And "I know you have a different opinion and I have one here", but how do you learn to take and accept influence from one another, accept responsibility at one point, but then we make decisions based upon that acknowledgment, that respect, and that honor.

Tim Muehlhoff: And let me add one thing to the acknowledgment factor. So it's good that that other person acknowledges your perspective. And it's good that they recognize the weight of it. But, it never changes them. Right? You wouldn't want to be in a relationship like that. I mean after a while you're like "So, let me just get this straight. In the last five years of our friendship, I have never once changed your mind about anything?". And I think in a dating relationship you'd want to see that. Not just do you recognize my opinion, but do you ever change your opinion, or modify it based on that? Otherwise, man, that's going to be a pretty frustrating ... and then after a while you're going to think this acknowledgment is just token because there's no chance of me changing you.

And again, with my father, there was really no chance of changing his perspective, right? So it's not just acknowledgment, but do you have the ability to influence your spouse I think is really important.

Chris Grace: Yeah, and I would imagine in a relationship, Tim, that maybe is in the seriously dating realm, or they are engaged, I think that if this isn't occurring there would be a growing, gnawing sense of "Hold on here. We talk a lot about this, but I'm not seeing this happen. Or this isn't really part of our relationship". I think a person could probably predict that's what's going to happen. And what's going to happen in their marriage is going to continue this way, rather than hoping that maybe when we get married this will change and will be considered different.

Tim Muehlhoff: Boy that's a key thing you just said, Chris. Hoping this is going to change when we get married is a dangerous thing. Remember the one actress, I forget what she said, she said "The only time you ever change a man is when he's a baby". I think there's something right from her generation. So you want to know heading in I have verifiable evidence that I can make an impact on this person I'm dating and about to commit the next 60, 70 years of my life to this person. I want to know I can change this person's mind. And not all the time, but at least have some influence in that person's life.

Chris Grace: So in a marriage then how do you see, or where would you see ways in which people can work or think through, or better accept influence? Some people would say even beyond accepting influence it's sharing power let's say. How do you go about doing that in a relationship, let's say you want to work on this. Let's say you kind of tend to during conflict you both, you kind of dig in a little bit here. And there are times in which I really don't want to share power, but there has to be something that motivates and draws me to do that.

We could point to scripture, would talk about Philippians 2,3 and 4, right? "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit." But it becomes hard to sometimes do that where you're entrenched or you dig in, or there's really strong differences to be able to, with humility of mind, do this.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well I would say it's got to be the art of compromise. There's going to be times where you're absolutely entrenched this is what you need to do. And your significant other is absolutely entrenched, this is what he or she thinks needs to happen.

Okay, that's not going to go away. And pretending that this doesn't matter to you isn't going to help. This matters to you and you absolutely feel like we need to do this, and your spouse feels like you need to do that. That's where I want to see evidence of compromise. Compromise means I'm not going to be fully happy and you're not going to be fully happy. Because again, often I can say "Listen, if I was running the marriage this is what we do". And Noreen can say "Well if I was running it, this is what we do". Okay, now we're both running it. So, what's the thing we both can feel good about the compromise?

And again this is the power dynamic in relationships. If it always seems like this compromise is skewed, this was a 70/30 compromise. "This was 70% got what you wanted, I feel like I got 30%." That's eventually going to damage the marriage. And again I think there are times when a compromise is 70/30, right okay? I'm going to yield you 70% of this compromise, I feel like I'm only getting 30. But if that's continually happening, that power dynamic gets skewed and you start to grow increasingly dissatisfied with the marriage. Because hey, every compromise seems to work against me in major ways.

Chris Grace: How then do we avoid this idea of keeping points? Or how do we avoid, in a marriage, where we keep a tally of the times I gave in. Now listen, I gave in here. And now it's your "I made dinner, it's your turn to clean up" or when we keep a count like that. That could end up being pretty damaging. Because we're now seeing the world from our own perspective. I believe I give more than the other and pretty soon I think I'm in an unequal relationship where I'm always giving, or at least when the relationship starts to go bad or we start to have too much conflict, I'm now seeing my perspective.

They asked couples one time to do this. They asked them "Hey, guesstimate the amount of time that you, with housework, that you do housework and then guess for your spouse, the percentage of time you're involved". Well, the number always came back above 100. That is each, they asked the husband and then they asked the wife, and each of them had a number above 50, or at least one said 90 and the other said: "I do 40". So, whatever it was, they were both overestimating the amount that they did.

So how do you avoid this idea? Because certainly, we don't want couples going out there and tallying up all the times that they gave in, all the times that they compromised, or all the times they're doing something and their spouse isn't.

Tim Muehlhoff: See and this is why I think it's good that you mentioned the Philippian passage. To me Chris, at the end of the day, this has got to be a hard issue. Because you're right, I can say I'm not keeping score, but in the back of my head, I'm sort of, kind of keeping score on this. "And doggone if it doesn't feel like again we compromised and it felt really skewed in your direction."

So, I think this is a heart issue. Where you say "You know what, we need to do what's best for the marriage, we need to do what's best for the kids," and if that means that the last three compromises were more what my wife was saying and I honestly feel like it's good for the marriage, and good for the family to do it this way than I'm okay with that because it really was good. And now that we've talked more I kind of do see that your view is better has more implication than my view, so this is a heart attitude.

But keep the lines of communication open. It is fair to say "Listen, I do kind of feel like every time we land the plane it's on your runway more than it's on my runway". I think that's a fair and legitimate conversation to say "So I'm starting to feel a little bit taken advantage of".

Chris Grace: Yeah, I think that's good, Tim. I think we would, and I know you would agree, recommending that some of these conversations need to take place in a quiet, neutral, non-emotional heavy moment in time where you can talk about this. Not in the heat of the argument, or the heat of the decision being made, or the consequences that sometimes couples, if they share their heart and burden about feeling maybe that this is inequitable, this isn't the way, to do that in a way that doesn't feel attacking and maybe it's just like "We need to maybe go on a date night. And can we talk about this? Because I'm feeling a little bit as if I'm giving too much here and I just want to hear your opinion". So that kind of thing.

Tim Muehlhoff: And let me just say to the couples who feel like "My goodness we've done this over and over. We've had this conversation over and over and nothing seems to change," that's the value of counseling. That's the value of maybe a third party needs to sit in and not referee, but just give input. And we have friends of ours who are marriage family therapists and I'm going to use an analogy of snow here. And I get that we're going to use a lot of Southern California listeners.

But they said it's kind of like your car being stuck in the snow. Sometimes it takes one push and you're out, and other times you're really stuck and we're going to have to dig a little bit, put down salt and stuff like that. So sometimes, couples, you're stuck and it takes one person to give one little push, one meeting to say "Hey maybe try this. Think about this". Other times you are banging your head against the wall saying "Man, I feel like we've had this conversation over, and over, and over and we're not making any progress".

Remember Gottman says 67% of your marital problems are going to be perpetual. These things are coming back. But if you never feel like you're gaining ground that's when it might be good to add a third party. It could be a friend, it could be a pastor, it could be a trained marriage and family therapist.

Chris Grace: I think, Tim, the outcome of that could also be the hope that now instead of going at each other now all of a sudden you're on the same team. The ability to take, to be thought of as team members.

Tim Muehlhoff: Equal team members.

Chris Grace: Right, to attack this particular issue. And I think what we've seen is an attitude ... This is what you're talking about, that heart change. When you see this in couples, when their heart goes from competing against or fighting each other over particular stuff, I'll tell you what, we're on the same team. Let's see if we can tackle this problem together. Let's get a win-win out of this. Where you feel good, I feel good.

But that takes some time to do. And you have to be willing to do that. And I think that's kind of what accepting influence means. It's the ability to say "Listen, I want you to win. I want to look out for your interest and I know you want the same for me. So, let's see how we could do this together, unified, and attack this issue".

Tim Muehlhoff: And the book of Proverbs has a lot to say about this. It contrasts humility with arrogance. And arrogance is you close yourself off. Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is being open to perspectives. And we're not saying that you have to agree with everything your spouse says, but is there an openness to it? And again, I think that gets back to the fact that this is a bit of a hard issue.

Hey, we could talk about really quickly about how influence actually happens. Because you might just assume it, right? Of course I'm your spouse, of course, you listen to me, of course, I'm the biggest influence in your life. And a lot of couples we come across that's just not the case. So interesting from your realm of psychology we understand that identities, how we think about ourselves, is actually pretty firmed up when we're young. It's called cognitive conservatism. I become convinced that this is true about myself and it's really hard to change my opinion.

So, for a message to be received by another person there are three criteria that must be met. Number one: the message must be about you, and it has to be personal rather than general. If I say "All Biola professors are great, and great writers, and great researchers" that may not encourage you at all Chris, even though you're Biola faculty, because it was too general. I have to say "You know Chris, I really think your research is really good and commendable". So sometimes our comments are too general. They need to be much more specific.

Next area is that the person giving the appraisal has to be judged competent. Now this is really interesting. So you might look at your spouse ... So this is what often happens, your spouse does something and they say "Honey, what do you think?" And we say "Oh it was great! It was awesome!" And it does nothing for our spouse. Why? Because that person might be thinking "Well you're my spouse, you're going to say you love it no matter what".

So I have to judge that you're competent in this area to give me influence. Now that's a mixed package. I don't doubt that Noreen looks at me and thinks that I'm competent to speak in some areas, but not others. Right? I was a theater major. She was a business major. I was pre-unemployment, she was pre-law.

So when I talk about finances or "Honey, I think we oughta build a deck!" Noreen's like "Okay, slow down just a little bit, honey. How much do you know about decks? And what do you know about finances?" Right? So I think we're judged competent in different areas.

Then the last one is this, you have to judge it to be reasonable. In other words, if our spouse says "Honey, that was the best meal I've ever eaten in my life". You'd be like "Wow, really? I just don't think it was that good". So it has to be kind of reasonable what you're saying. So again, I've heard spouses say "You're the most beautiful woman in the world" and it doesn't do anything to the spouse because she's like "See you're just saying that because I know, and you know, I'm not the most beautiful woman in the world".

So I think we have to be careful not to over exaggerate our praise. So, what do you think of those three criteria? Any thoughts about those?

Chris Grace: No, I think, well you know you keep thinking through ways in which this conversations you've had, and things that have ... So I think of this, what ministers or is for me something that I find or I hold onto as deep words that bring either ... That make me feel alive or that make me-

Tim Muehlhoff: And it sticks. It sticks.

Chris Grace: Yeah, and what are those? And so when I look through that I realize that there are certain things that Elisa can say or do that seem to be more powerful and I think she knows that as well. So, in other words, sometimes she'll make a comment that's just general. "Wow, way to go to avoid that traffic accident." And I'm thinking "Okay, anybody could have done that".

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh that's good.

Chris Grace: But there are other ways in which she will then say certain words to me. And I think she knows the power of that and has thought through it because sometimes her praise, or her insight, or the way she views, or even gives compliments, can really have a big impact. So I think what happens is we have to learn each other's love language in some respects and sometimes it's words, and sometimes it's something that is done, and sometimes we accept the influence of that other person based upon how well they know us. And then their ability to speak into some areas where maybe we really need that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and I just thought of an illustration of what I was trying to say with this competent thing. I think it's important. So I was finishing grad school, right? Working a full-time job like most of us did. It was craziness. And the very last class I took at UNC Chapel Hill was you had to submit your resume. We call it a vitae, but it's a resume. And so you had to just come up with it. Well, we're sending it to each other. So here I am at my computer and I get the very first one. It's from a guy named Ted, Chris. This guy not only presented papers at major conferences as a Ph.D. student, he started his own academic journal that still exists today. So under publications, I have nothing. I'm putting something I wrote in elementary school like "Our Friend the Beaver", you know what I mean?

So Noreen's reading them as well, and I'll never, now if she would have said to me at that moment looking at my resume, if she would have said "Honey, that's the best resume I've ever seen", right? Then I would have said "Then you just haven't read Ted's". So here's what she said to me, that I'll never forget to this day, she put her hand on my shoulder and she said "Listen, you are a great father. You're a great husband. And at all of that you're doing a Ph.D. and I think that's an incredible package". See? It was reasonable, right? She couldn't have said "Well Tim, you can start your own academic journal". No, I could not! So that's what I mean by the reasonable part. And I think that helped me. And I still remember it. That was like 28 years ago.

Chris Grace: You know Tim, it just makes me also realize that what Noreen did, and what some spouses have landed on is this ability to express even something as powerful as gratitude in a way that really can speak. So sometimes just saying "You're great. I love you," means one thing, but for many others to be able to say something like ... I think even recognizing that you know "Honey, you work so hard and I so value that you get up, you don't miss work, you come home, and you put in that much time. And I'm deeply appreciative of that." Or "Honey, when you go and you're spending all of this time, and I know you'd rather be with the kids, or I know you'd rather be doing this, but you instead are doing this, I just want to say I deeply value that".

Tim Muehlhoff: That's so good, Chris. Because we even shorten it like "Hey, love ya". "Hey, thanks!" Kind of stuff like that. So, hey, in wrapping this up let me just say to you applying what we've just learned, you are the second best podcast host I know. And I mean that.

Chris Grace: I can tell you mean it. In fact that's what bothers me so much, is that you do mean that.

Tim Muehlhoff: And my mind will not be swayed.

Chris Grace: If I thought at any level you were joking then I would probably be able to accept that more. Well, I'll tell you what. Let's do this, let's keep talking about this idea. Because I think in marriages, Tim, and the idea of how we let somebody else in, and what we share, our words, there's so much power to them because people can impact and influence us in ways that shape us, and we do that with each other. We shape and get the spouse we want because we're actively kind of creating that with our words and gratitude. So, well.

Tim Muehlhoff: Man, that's great.

Chris Grace: Let's do this.

Tim Muehlhoff: Best podcast I've done today.

Chris Grace: Hey come and visit us at cmr.biola.ed, we've got all kinds of events, and blogs, and things going on and come check it out. We're just glad to have you with us, talk to you next time.

Tim Muehlhoff: Great to be with you guys.