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Is Marriage Worth Choosing?

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


Mandy Catto: Welcome to another Art of Relationships episode. If you could survey 1,000 single individuals on what they think marriage looks like, what would they say? Would their answers match the answers married people might share? In today's podcast, we continue talking with Debra Fileta, author of True Love Dates and Choosing Marriage. For the second book, she interviewed 1,000 singles and 1,000 married individuals. Curious about what she found? Let's listen.

Chris Grace: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. Tim, we get a chance as we mentioned a number of times to talk about some awesome topics related to relationships. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: We love to speak on this issue, so we always are mindful of people that also speak on this issue. So our guest today, Debra Fileta, is one of our favorites. She's an author, she does a podcast, travels all across the country, she's amazing, she homeschools, she stays alive in Pennsylvania during the winter vortex. So we just love the fact that we're having her right back on. There's so many more questions we'd love to ask. So Debra, thank you for joining us again.

Debra Fileta: Yes, thank you. I'm surviving here in Pennsylvania while you're in California and having the time of your lives.

Tim Muehlhoff: Can you speak up a little louder? The jacuzzi is making a bit of a noise. Can you... Sorry about that, well.

Debra Fileta: Oh, brother.

Chris Grace: Hey Debra, you spend a lot of time traveling at colleges and universities, speaking to students. But your new book out on Choosing Marriage came out a couple of months ago and it has really had a great impact out there. Talk about it real quickly and give a quick overview maybe for our listeners. Why Choosing Marriage and what led you to work on that?

Debra Fileta: Yeah, well, Choosing Marriage is kind of a play on words. It applies to singles because a lot of singles are wondering like, is marriage even worth choosing and how do we know that we've chosen the right person? How do you navigate the process of choosing the right person to commit the rest of your life to? But for any of us who are married out there, we know that the process of choosing marriage is something that we've got to do every single day, like you've got to choose this relationship and your spouse and the commitment you have every single day. So choosing marriage is basically the eight choices that you need to make as you're moving from me to we, and learning to see the relationship as greater than yourself and the process of doing that.

I think the most interesting thing about this book is the surveys that I took to gather data for this book. I surveyed a thousand singles asking them about their expectations of marriage and all these different topics like hot topics like conflict and sex, communication. Then I surveyed a thousand married people to get their answers to the same question. It was so interesting because there was such a drastic difference between what singles thought marriage would look like, the expectations of marriage, and then the reality of marriage. I think, if we can start learning and getting our expectations in the right place, it would prepare us to have a healthy marriage going into it without the expectations. So it was a really fun project.

Chris Grace: Which one stood out to you as the greatest difference when it comes to expectations or anything surprise you?

Debra Fileta: Hands down, I would say the amount of communication and conversation that singles think happens in a marriage.

Chris Grace: Interesting. So what did they think?

Debra Fileta: I mean, you ask singles how many hours a week do you think that married couples engage in quality conversation? Single were like, "For sure, off the charts, at least seven hours a week." I mean, they're thinking at least an hour a day, like when you're dating, you talk like four hours on the phone so why wouldn't it be at least an hour a day? But the majority of married people reported less than 30 minutes a week of quality talk.

Tim Muehlhoff: A week.

Debra Fileta: A week.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Debra Fileta: And most of these people were Christian couples. I'm not just surveying people random people on the street. So it was just a really interesting eye-opening thing and everything from sex and intimacy to conflict, how many times people fight to how they fight. It was just really interesting to see we've set up ourselves to have these insanely high expectations of what something even like sex is going to look like in marriage, all the things you dream about when you're in college and then when you get there, it's just different than what you expect. I think those expectations can be really dangerous.

Tim Muehlhoff: There's a very famous study that's out that says most married couples have roughly interpersonal communication roughly three to five minutes, like three minutes a day. People are like, "I absolutely talk to my spouse more than that." Yeah, but that's not interpersonal. That's organizational, which is, "Tommy's got Taekwondo. Hey, don't forget this. Don't forget that, that, that, that." So talking to a woman who has small kids like yourself, you'd probably bare out that communication is hard when you're just tired, frazzled, and life's moving at light speed. It's really hard to have meaningful conversation with your spouse and you never would've thought that as a single.

Debra Fileta: You never would've. It takes work. You've got to build it into your schedule. My husband has a timer that goes off on his iPhone every Sunday night at 9 PM and that is our talk time. That's it. Our couch time, we sit and we talk and we touch base and we check in. Who would've ever thought that I'd have to put a timer on just to make sure that we are making this a priority, and I'm grateful. John and I have a lot of great conversations but I'll tell you what, if you're not careful, that can easily get pushed to the back burner of life.

Tim Muehlhoff: You know what else is like that, Debra, is who would've thought you'd have to do that with sex?

Debra Fileta: Right.

Tim Muehlhoff: Like hey, like okay, looking at our schedule. We need this and no, that's bad and what about this and that. You're thinking, a girl got engaged in one of my classes, I still think about this, and she was going to go on her honeymoon during the semester and I said, "Hey, what are you guys doing?" She goes, "Oh, Dr. Muelhoff, we've got a cabin out in the woods, no electricity, no WiFi, just me, him, and our love for 10 days." I was like, "You know, I might bring Scrabble."

Debra Fileta: You might want to bring a book along.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, my word! Right?

Debra Fileta: That's hilarious.

Tim Muehlhoff: It was Chris and Alisa, but that's probably too personal. But you know what I mean? I love that you're doing those interviews and I think that's the expectation part that's brilliant about this book, is you need to adjust your expectation and how much-

Debra Fileta: Yes. You need to adjust them.

Tim Muehlhoff: And how much Hollywood has fueled those expectations. There's another study done in University of London that talked about let's analyze American romantic comedies. The lead researcher said, I think this is really hurting Americans' view of what love is like because what they're seeing on the screen just cannot be produced regularly in a day to day, flesh and blood relationship. So I love the fact that you're dealing with these expectations.

Debra Fileta: Yeah. It was just interesting and again, I think if singles start downloading this information even as college students, as singles, you're ahead of the game when you think this stuff before you get there.

Chris Grace: So Debra, when you began thinking through, for example, some of the biggest expectations that are off in this... I loved your idea in the title for Choosing Marriage, what has been for you something that's been most eye-opening? There are a lot of young couples that are listening to this podcast, some that had been married for a while and they're trying to find the thing that can take the relationship to the next level when it comes to some of these areas. What have you found in some of the survey work that you're doing and as you wrote this book that has been reported back to you as this was so helpful for us? What was it? What was the one concept or idea that some people seem to be latching on to, to help their relationships move from let's say good to great?

Debra Fileta: One thing that I would say I'm known for in my work is being very individual minded when it comes to the process of counseling and healing and growing in a relationship. So when you ask me, what's the number one thing someone can do for their relationship, I always turn it in. It's not what you can do for your relationship, but it's the choices that you're making in your own life to get healthy, obey God, honor him, and deal with your own junk. Because when you start dealing with your junk, your selfishness, your insecurities, your fear of vulnerability, your walls, the walls you bring in to marriage that impact your ability to communicate well... When you start dealing with your stuff, it automatically impacts your marriage. It automatically impacts that relationship.

This woman just sent me a message the other day on Instagram who had just finished reading Choosing Marriage and she said the most life-changing thing about it was that it opened her eyes to her junk rather than her eyes to her husband's junk which is what she had been focused on for most of their marriage. So to me, that was the best feedback I could've received because that's the goal here is okay, how can you work on you? How can I get myself to a better place so that I prioritize "we" in the big picture here of our relationship? So I'm hoping, as people go through this, in each chapter, it opens their eyes to the things that they have brought into the marriage, things they need to work on that are ultimately going to help them have a better relationship in the end.

Tim Muehlhoff: And the positive role of conflict. I think people look at conflict and often want to minimize it or get rid of it but Gottman would say, "Show me a couple that argues and I can save the marriage. Show me a couple that doesn't argue anymore and I'm not sure I can save the marriage because there's nothing there to fight for." So I think sometimes, Christians have this bizarre view. I think it's changing in this generation.

My dad and mom, they wanted to hide conflict, like this facade that we're not... But I think people need to know that conflict can be really healthy. I think anger isn't always wrong, certainly, it can bleed into... But to be angry means that you can evoke change. The Greek philosopher said, "Anger was the moral emotion." It actually was an emotion that can move you along to actually change different things. So I think those concepts are really important to get there out for students is you need to review some of these things.

Debra Fileta: Yeah, absolutely.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Debra Fileta: Absolutely. One thing that I talked about in the conflict chapter is that if you're not fighting in a relationship, then someone's lying. Someone's not telling the truth because you're taking a passive stance. One thing that I will comment on here is in the beginning of the book, I talk about that there is a huge difference between selflessness and passivity. A lot of times in the name of selflessness, we're just like, "Well, I'm not going to bring it up. I'm not going to say what I need. I'm not going to talk through this." That's not selflessness, that's conflict avoiding. That's passivity, and that does damage to relationships.

So yeah, having a healthy view of conflict and understanding our tendencies. "What are the ways I tend to do conflict and why are they not good and how can I better this area of my life, become an assertive person, recognize my tendencies to be passive and to avoid conflict ?" and it just challenges, ruffles a little feathers and challenges you to take a deeper look at what you're bringing to the table.

Tim Muehlhoff: We do premarital counseling. We just met with a couple for the very first time to lay out the ground rules. We said, "Here's your assignment. We want you to come back next week with describing two arguments that you've had and let's discuss those arguments and how you argue and your style." Now, we've had couples come back and say, "Yeah, we've never really had an argument. So I love what you're saying is like, "How long you've been dating?" "It's like a year." "And you've not had any arguments?" That to me is not a positive. To me, that's a negative.

Debra Fileta: It's not.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's passivity. That's good, Debra. I like that.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Chris Grace: Debra, do you have then something in your talks around and research that you've been doing that you would say when it comes to marriage, that Christian marriages may very well hold both the key to how to have successful, more healthy relationships but also can set yourself up a little bit. So I wonder if there is something about even the spiritual battle that can take place during a marriage. Some of that is this idea that we can oftentimes fail to see that we have an enemy out there or there's a bigger picture or purpose to marriage. How do you address that with couples that buy into that idea that marriage has a deeper, bigger purpose. There's both some good and bad to that. If you don't recognize it, it seems like sometimes you might fall victim to maybe being under attack and not even knowing it.

Debra Fileta: You know, there's two sides to this spectrum, I would say, in how I view things. There's the overspiritual side where every single thing is an attack from the enemy and we end up just blaming Satan for everything and not taking responsibility for anything in our own life, like this is Satan and he's causing all these issues and we just need to pray and push through, rather than see our responsibility here and what we're doing that needs to be changed.

But then, there's the other extreme where we're just so focused on the relationship and what's going on between us and the back and forth, what my husband's doing wrong, what my wife's doing wrong, and we're not opening our eyes to the fact that the enemy is trying to destroy our marriage because marriage is this incredible union created by God to reflect his image and his glory. So I think there's a proper balance of just having our hearts and minds open to the spiritual aspect just as much as the relational aspect when we're looking at marriage.

Tim Muehlhoff: So Debra, I love that. We mentioned during the break, I have a book out called "Defending Your Marriage: The Reality of Spiritual Battle." I agree with that, that those two choices, it reminds me of a CS Lewis quote that very much is in the same vein that you just talked about. But as I look at the western church, I don't think we're in danger of overspiritualizing this issue. I don't meet couples who I think just have an unhealthy view of spiritual battle and they're associating everything with Satan.

When I was researching my book, I would say the vast majority of couples would say, "Yeah, we don't experience spiritual battle at all," because they're expecting the Hollywood version of it, these big dramatic moments. So I'm really concerned that couples are... This isn't even a blip on their screen. Like if you were to ask them about a conflict, what role do you think perhaps spiritual opposition had to play, they'd be like, "Yeah, I'm not so sure it had any room." That's one of the big concerns I have that we need to at least make this a viable option for couples, especially Christian couples, that there may be something afoot within the marriage that has spiritual opposition at the root of it.

Debra Fileta: Yeah. You know what it is, Tim, I think you're right in saying that the western church in general definitely errs more on the side of neglecting spiritual truth. But I think it also depends too on the Christian circle you come from.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good. Yes.

Debra Fileta: In some Christian circles, this is like the spiritual realm is all that's ever talked about in certain Christian circles. So it really depends, I think, on the culture, the cultural Christian background that you're coming from but you're absolutely right in that I think in general, this is something that we tend to neglect.

Tim Muehlhoff: Debra, I love that qualifier. I think that's really well said, that there are certain communities, certain denominations that I think you're right, they overplay this issue. But let me take about your marriage for a second. You have such a prominent role, voice today in relationships that I had no doubt that Satan would want to derail what's happening with you and your husband. So what protections do you guys take? What do you guys do in the midst of an argument to stop and think hey, maybe this might have different origins than just the disagreements we have. Anything you want to share with listeners, maybe the steps you guys take?

Debra Fileta: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, I will say I'll speak for myself in saying that sometimes I feel like God has given me the gift of the prophetic, meaning I have this information, these truths and I speak them into our generation. I can recognize what's wrong and help people make it right and that's the gifting that I feel like God has given me. But sometimes, that can backfire in marriage because the other side of the sword is that you become a person who has a critical eye and always able to say, "Hey hon, I think you need to work on this, and I think we need to work on this, and maybe this is something we need to address," and almost having that attitude to a fault and not celebrating and rejoicing in the good but always looking, "Okay, how can we make this better? How can you become better? How can I become better? What do you need to work on, hon?" You know?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, yeah.

Debra Fileta: So I have really felt God just convicting me in my tendency to be more critical than I am affirming and encouraging and really having to work on that, I mean really having to make that a priority for me so that I don't give the enemy the opportunity to develop bitterness and resentment out of the work and calling that God is doing because that's... The thing he would want the most is for us to be struggling and when you are preaching and teaching healthy relationships and healthy marriages, you've got to be walking the talk. The responsibility there is heavy.

But I will say I'm so grateful. John and I have walked through a lot of difficult things in our marriage and in different ways over the past years, especially when we were early, newlyweds and we're still learning the ropes. But one thing I'm grateful is for the barriers that we put into place today. One thing I mentioned earlier is we meet every week and have a marriage meeting. It's not date night. Date night is separate and we go do fun stuff.

But this is our weekly conversation where we check in with each other and we actually talk through things like, keep each other accountable. "How are you doing Deb and what are you struggling with and how can I pray for you?" "How are you doing, John, and what are you struggling with and how are you doing with pornography? How are you doing with lust? How are you doing with your critical heart? How are you doing with anxiety?" Whatever it is that's on our list of struggles, the things that Satan could use to bring us down, we talk about it. We bring it out into the light because I think the most dangerous thing in a marriage and probably in any relationship is when we leave those secrets and those things hidden in the dark because that's when the enemy can really use them to mess us up.

So learning to be vulnerable with each other has been a process and it's awkward at times. It's been an awkward process at times, but man has it been freeing and just opened us up to a deeper level of intimacy and authenticity with each other and honestly makes me feel proud that I could share about that when I'm speaking on the road and teaching about marriage or relationships.

Tim Muehlhoff: I had two thoughts as you were sharing that. One is I hope my wife is not listening to this right now. That is too convicting, Debra. Clear that with me before you share something like that, okay, in the future?

Debra Fileta: You could edit it out.

Chris Grace: Actually, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: We'll edit it out.

Chris Grace: It's already [crosstalk].

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, I think it's once a year they get together, once a year they get together and they talk about... No, Debra. But here's what I love about that. So when Paul says do not let the sun go down on your anger as not to give the devil a foothold, you guys every week are addressing that, that if the sun is going down on your anger, that you guys are letting things build up, that this is a great time to air out those things and check in with each other how we're doing and I think that is wonderful. That reminds me of Sabbath rest almost like, within the rhythm of your marriage. Once a week, you're going to sit down with each other and-

Debra Fileta: It has been beautiful. James tells us confess your sins to one another so that you can be healed. If marriage is not that built-in accountability, then what is?

Tim Muehlhoff: That's good.

Debra Fileta: I'm not saying this happened overnight. This was a process and a process based on the fact that we messed up and we needed to come to terms with this stuff and bring stuff to the surface because I was battling internal things that I hadn't shared with him early on. He was battling internal things that he hadn't shared with me early on. So this isn't because we're perfect. This has really become a part of our lives because we've seen what the opposite can do when you're not being vulnerable and transparent and authentic in marriage.

Chris Grace: Debra, it reminds me of a lot of Brené Brown's research. She's out at Houston and you're probably familiar with some of her Ted Talks on vulnerability and shame. But she talked about some of the things that happened and I think that's what you and John talk about is when you hide, when things aren't going well, shame is what steps in and fills that gap. So unfortunately at that point, she talks about not letting our guard down. But when we do, we become more vulnerable, we let others see us and at that point, some amazing things begin to happen but shame drives us to distance and to hide and in a marriage, man, that could be one of the worst places couples find themselves, the inability to be vulnerable, the inability to trust just because of the negative impacts of shame. I love the way Brené Brown has powered that forward in some respects. What do you think?

Debra Fileta: Yeah, absolutely. Along the same lines, too, Tim, bringing it back to your point, when things are in the darkness, that's where the enemy wants them to be. All through scripture, when we see Jesus talking about freedom, he uses the analogy of the light. He is the light and bringing things to the light and he talks also about the other side, the darkness. The people who are doing things in the darkness, he talks about that and learning to bring things into the light.

I think there's some really important truths in that imagery of the beauty of bringing things into the light so that they can be healed, so they can lose their power over us, whether it be shame, whether it be sin, whatever. So yeah, it's absolutely true and a really important thing to practice.

Tim Muehlhoff: Debra, can you offer some qualifications on that. I'm envisioning a listener who says, "Okay, I'm going to now bring things into the light with my spouse," or even in a dating relationship where it just might not be the right time to... Here's what I'm thinking at these marriage conferences we speak at. Sometimes I say to couples, "Okay, so Friday night. This is a weekend-long conference. Some of you are thinking, 'Okay, finally we're going to be honest to each other and I'm going to share the things I've been wanting to say for 10 years.'" But sometimes I wonder if the communication climate is strong enough to do that at that point. So what might be some guidelines of yes, share things with your spouse but timing is so important in the book of Proverbs.

o I just wonder, I just don't want people to think okay, now I'm going to sit down with my spouse and just bring it all to bare, and it just might be too much for the other spouse.

Debra Fileta: Absolutely, and that's a big reality and something I talk about in chapter seven of Choosing Marriage. The chapter itself was called From Facade to Authenticity, and it's about real talk, getting real with your partner. But again, I talk about there's different secrets that you shouldn't keep in marriage. I actually talk through five secrets that you shouldn't keep but with that is the caveat that here's the thing. Your life, if your life is like a book, it's important to learn to explain the chapters to your spouse and not necessarily have to walk them through every single sentence.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good. That is good.

Debra Fileta: Because the details... For example, one of the secrets you shouldn't keep from your spouse is past secrets, past relationships. But does that mean you need to walk them through every single detail of your past relationships, names, dates, times, what you did, how far you went? No, I don't think that's healthy but they should have a general summary of each chapter of your life. Nothing should take them by surprise. But again, the process of vulnerability is exactly that, a process. It's not about dropping truth bombs. "Okay, let me just sit you down and bare my heart and soul for the past 30 years because I haven't."

It's about learning to ease into it and I think the best way to do that is to start with your present struggles and maybe even general struggles like "You know, I am struggling with lust right now." Maybe just taking that step to say that is your first step. What does it look like for you to take that first step into authenticity? Again, what is God convicting you to because sometimes we don't ask God and we just say what we think we need to say but really, it's like "Lord, what are you working on in my heart and how can I bring my spouse into this process?"

So this isn't about guilt and confessing out of guilt. This is confessing for the hope of freedom and accountability and deeper intimacy, and it's a process of learning to be vulnerable with each other. It's not a one-time act.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's great stuff. Not just what to say, how to say it, when to say it. Well, that's really good, Debra. The book is called Choosing Marriage, really encourage our listeners, take a look at it. It's an awesome book.

Chris Grace: Debra, it's good to have you on our program. You're welcome back any time because every time we have you on, listeners just love what you have to share. You ought to do this professionally. You're so good at it. It's something-

Debra Fileta: I'll think about it.

Chris Grace: ... you might want to consider doing.

Debra Fileta: We'll see what happens.

Chris Grace: Debra, tell your family hello in out in Pennsylvania and your ministry. We look forward to having you back out here in Southern California soon. I know you travel a lot, so let's get together then when you do. We so enjoy having you on our program.

Debra Fileta: Yeah, thank you guys so much and God bless your work at Biola.

Chris Grace: Yeah, blessings on you, too. Thanks.

Tim Muehlhoff: Thank you. Thank you, Debra.

Chris Grace: Bye.

Debra Fileta: Bye bye.

Mandy Catto: Thanks for listening to the Art of Relationships. This podcast is only made possible through generous donations from listeners just like you. If you like it and want to help keep the podcast going, visit our website at and make a donation today.