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How Can I Stay Invested In The Relationship?

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

Chris Grace: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.


Tim Muehlhoff: And Dr. Chris Grace.


Chris Grace: We are here with our guest, Dr. Bradford Wilcox and Dr. Wilcox, thank you for joining us all the way from Virginia, where you're a professor of Sociology out there. What's the weather like out there?


Bradford Wilcox: It's cool and rainy so it's great to be out here in Southern California today.


Chris Grace: Yeah, it's always nice weather out here and Brad, one of your expertise areas is in relationships, primarily in marriage. And we are just so glad to have you join us. If guests haven't heard any of our previous podcasts, Brad has got such an amazing background in this. He's director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Professor of Sociology there. You're a Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. And quite an impressive background. You got a new book out, I know, Soul Mates, about a couple years old now but might want to look that as well.


And so, we're just so glad to have you with us. We have a lot of questions about marriage and relationships. Tim, I know you've got something you're thinking about, you'd love to ask him, and so let's get started.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Brad, one of the things we did when we started the Center is we thought what are the big needs that are out there and we took a look at communities that seem to just be struggling economically, which puts so much stress on a family unit. So, a couple years ago we went to Detroit, Michigan. I'm from Detroit. And so we went back to Detroit, Michigan and gave away a conference, in essence for free working with local pastors, and the response was overwhelming, that people really felt like we need this. We need tools.


And so, your research is really centered on the fact that when it comes to marriage, it's not necessarily a level playing field, for a multitude of reason. Some people have more resources than others and we wonder if you could just kind of unpack the economic realities of marriage.


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah, that's a great point. Great question. You know fifty years ago if we were sitting in this room doing a radio show on this subject, there weren't really big marriage divides by class, or by race, or by ethnicity. You know the vast majority of rich, poor, middle class kids grew up in a married two parent family. The vast majority of black, white and Hispanic kids did the same thing. Unfortunately, we live in a world today now, where that's not true anymore; where college educated more affluent Americans get married and they stay married and have their kids in marriage.


In fact what's striking is that since the 1990s, it looks like kids who are being raised in the upper middle class are more likely to have stable two parents in the background. So there's be a kind of a learning among the middle class that marriage, at least practically prudentially is a good thing for them, for their 401k, for their house, for their kids, and their kids' ability to go to a school. You know, quality college and all that kind of thing.


Unfortunate, same kind of insight, same kind of orientation, same kind of experience is not so much the case for working class and poor men, women and their kids. We're seeing more non-marital child bearing. We're seeing high divorce and lots of family instability kind of among Americans who don't have that college degree, especially working class and poor Americans. So, that's what's happening when it comes to sort of marriage in America today. And so there's kind of a marital privilege. You know, where people who are already kind of more privileged in terms of their education, income, are also privileged in the fact that their more likely to be getting married and to be staying married. So, it's a family stability privilege that they're enjoying and their kids are enjoying as well that only makes them, you know, that much better off in this United States.


Tim Muehlhoff: So we're at Biola University. Explain for our listeners just a little bit the role education plays because in one of your quote that you have that's so well put is that the United States is devolving into a separate and unequal family regime where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy and unworkable ones. But what role does education play? Why would that be a huge factor?


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah. That's a great question. I think the college degree is important for at least, I think, three reasons. Number one is it tends to connect people to decent paying stable jobs. And that's really important for marriage, especially for guys. Women are still looking for guys who are stably employed, you know who bring in a decent income. And they may earn more than their husband, you know, but sort of the basic standard of kind of acceptability is a husband for most women is he's gainfully employed. He's got a decent job.


Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.


Bradford Wilcox: And he's got his life together. And so having a college degree makes it easier to get a good paying stable job. So, that's one key point about a college education.


A second point I think is just there is a kind of what we call a selection of fact in the social sciences, where the kinds of people, I think especially the kinds of guys, who are cable of, you know delay gratification, of homework, of kind of just following a planner. You know just doing all the things that are required to get into a college and then to graduate from a college are the kinds of traits that are gonna help you be a better spouse on average. You know? So that's an important part of the story as well.


But the third thing I think too is that the experience of college, I think does give people an opportunity develop some skills and to acquire some knowledge that then can spill over in positive ways into their relationships. So, you know I think just the experience of speaking up in a lecture hall, of engaging in a seminar discussion with a professor with a student who disagrees with you. You know you can learn some communication skills...


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. That's right.


Bradford Wilcox: That are gonna serve well, not just maybe I your workplace or in your neighborhood, but also in your relationship and your marriage. So, I think that college does give people, you know, a set of cultural skills, social skills, that can help them interact with a spouse down the road.


And we do find too that a substantial minority of Americans end up marrying someone from their college or university. It may not be even that they met in those four years, but that they connect with two or three or four or five years after they graduate, but they have this common background as an alumni or alumna of Biola or of UVA or some other school.


Chris Grace: Brad, there's even some talk that some of the most difficult marriages, and Tim, I know you've talked about this a little bit as well, is sometimes the most marital relationships that seem not to exist as much are those that are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. That those relationships are almost falling away because it's such a deeply held value. Are you finding anything related in research in your studies of marriage and divorce that kind of show there are just some areas that are not bridgeable, some chasm. So, know one is, one isn't. Anything like that that stands out to you?


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah, I've seen kind of more suggestive evidence that political polarization is inhibiting, you know, bipartisan marriages so to speak these days, which is unfortunate. But yeah, we do see them as you well know that couples who share more in terms of their most profound commitments, and even sort of hobbies, you know tend to do better than couples who have less. The idea here is obviously is that friendship is an important foundation for a strong and stable marriage. And if you have similar commitments about your values but even about how you kind of want to handle work in the family, where you'd like to live, the kinds of things you like to do together or not on the weekend...the more you have in common in terms of hobbies and interests and deeper commitments, the more likely you are to enjoy that communion that leads to a higher quality more stable marriage.


Chris Grace: And so for you, what drew you to your wife? Obviously there was a lot of connection there. You were both at the University of Virginia and...


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah well, I think she is a pretty blonde. And that was her main point of connection but as I said I think to you guys, I saw her reading First Things at the university library before I had gotten to know her and that's a good journal that addresses questions of religion public life. And so I was intrigued and wanted to kind of get to know this person who I've seen around UVA's campus. We had taken a course together on Nietzsche and I just...


Chris Grace: You knew right then.


Bradford Wilcox: I could tell that she was an intelligent engaging person. Wanted to find out more about this person, so that was the initial point of attraction. And once we got together, yeah I was very impressed by her intelligence. She read widely and had lots of interesting things to say. In fact, I'm not going to get into the issue that but I posted an op-ed on my room at the University of Virginia. I lived on the center of the central quad at UVA and unbeknownst to me, Danielle kind of wrote a note in opposition to my note that I had posted on my door. So she's a very opinionated person, a very strong willed person and you know, I've appreciated the fact that she' know we don't always agree on things and she's willing to tell me what she thinks. And she has strong views.


Chris Grace: And how do you continue to cultivate that now? In friendship and marriage, there's a lot that goes on that attracted you to each other and those kinds of things, but over the years, you've been married for 20+ years and you continue to invest in that. And so what are the things our listeners would like to hear from you about that? What have you learned that is important in terms of investments with that?


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah. We have got a lot of kids at home and we have a mix of adoptive and biological kids.


Chris Grace: How many are there?


Bradford Wilcox: We have nine kids, five adoptive and four...


Tim Muehlhoff: What? I could have sworn you said nine!


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah, I've got nine kids. Yeah. So I think one thing, we're kind of in the phase of our lives, you know, and have been for a while where we're not kind of... I think some people want to have sort of like this peak view of marriage, like everything is like a peak experience and you know these long conversations and you know really great outings. And we're not at the point right now where we can do a lot of that, you know, but I also frankly we don't think that's the most important thing. We have a lot of kids with a lot of different needs and so, you know, that sort of like that intense romantic relationship is sort of a little bit more muted right now for us at this stage in our lives. But having said that, we also really do make a point of getting out I would say at least every week for a date night.


Chris Grace: Oh that's awesome.


Tim Muehlhoff: Even in the midst of all the kids?


Bradford Wilcox: Oh yeah, totally.


Tim Muehlhoff: That is great!


Bradford Wilcox: And we're fortunate enough to have my in-laws in Charlottesville and so they really help with babysitting and ferrying kids to soccer games and all that kind of stuff or gymnastics. Keeping our kids connected to some different activities.


Chris Grace: What's the age range of your children?


Bradford Wilcox: Our oldest is 18 and our youngest is four.


Tim Muehlhoff: 18 to four. Wow.


Chris Grace: Brad, that's awesome.


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah, we have twins who are eight.


Tim Muehlhoff: Would you like to take a nap during this interview? Feel free just to catch a quick power nap.


But I love that you said that. And I think that sometimes this surprises undergrad students that marriage really are those seasons. Dating is often filled with passion and it should be right, but expect seasons of life to happen. And I was so judgemental when I was single. I mean the things I said to my wife before we got married is that we will never do this. I will always be enraptured by...and then you get tired, and kids and so I think that seasons of life things is very wise.


But you are known for promoting what is called the "Date Night Opportunity" that you're very pro. So you actually practice what you preach and you've written extensively about the positive quality of a date night. And again, could you define date night for us cause I don't want people to just think economics here, like well we obviously can't have a robust date night cause finances are really strapped. But what would constitute a good date night and would be some of the benefits of that?


Chris Grace: And if you could speak in any way positively that a date night can have a drive-thru window. I'm trying to convince my wife that it's okay. If they have a dollar menu, it still counts, but she...


Tim Muehlhoff: Haha. Yes. Supersize it baby. Come on.


Chris Grace: But she's actually very flexible but some people don't like this, so what do you think?


Bradford Wilcox: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. When I think about date nights I'm thinking of really just an opportunity for couples to get out and do something different. You know, something that's outside the house, out of their routine. And it could be, you know, yeah you could go to Chipotle, if you want to do it on the cheap. You know you could go to a movie, you could go...


Tim Muehlhoff: For a walk.


Bradford Wilcox: Dancing. You could go for a walk, certainly. But to kind of do something that is punctuating your week or punctuating that two week period that's clearly kind of different than the normal routine. And in so doing, you're putting aside planning for your kids' activities. You're putting aside, you know, financial concerns. You're putting aside kind of the more prosaic dimensions of family life and really spending time doing things that are fun or doing things like a serious but enriching conversation, or doing things that are somehow unusual or spending time with good friends, you know and building your friendships with other people as well. Would be kind of my sort of view of what a date night could look like.


Tim Muehlhoff: What's your go to date night? With nine kids, what's your go to?


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah. There's just a good Italian restaurant in town that we like to go. We usually go there and it's just a long kind of dinner Friday night kind of thing usually.


Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.


Bradford Wilcox: That's probably our most common.


Tim Muehlhoff: I remember when our kids were really young and I'm in grad school and there's not much money, is we would say to the kids, "Hey, go upstairs, we're gonna pop in a video. Do not come down unless you've seen Jesus bodily. Do not!" And Norine and I would make coffee and sit and have all of our electronics off, t.v. off and we would just sit and talk. So, I love the idea of getting outside of the house, but sometimes it's like hey let's just carve a time and sit and just do something different that's special. Yeah I really like that.


You mentioned a couple of different things about dating that I thought was good is focusing on communication during a date night. You mentioned that commitment aspect where you review your commitment and recommit to each other and say hey this relationship is important enough for us to carve out time. And you say it's a time to de-stress as well. I think that's great.


What has been the results of couples who regularly...and by the way I want to just, I kid Chris a lot and rightfully so, but him and Alisa are my heroes when it comes to date nights. You guys have been married how long?


Chris Grace: Well, 30+. Coming on 31.


Tim Muehlhoff: If I remember this correctly, you started this really early in the marriage...


Chris Grace: Yeah.


Tim Muehlhoff: And you almost weekly...


Chris Grace: Yeah.


Tim Muehlhoff: Go on a date night.


Chris Grace: Yeah. We were challenged early on in pre-marital counseling to have a regular...


Tim Muehlhoff: Chris, so was I. So was I in my marriage. And I love my wife, Norine. And I dedicate this whole show to you. I'm so sorry. But I think that's really admirable. Chris, what are the benefits that you've seen from a regular date night and then what does the research say, Brad?


Chris Grace: Yeah. The benefits for us have been just this idea. Thanks, Tim. The idea of feeling that we are in this together, almost more unified and surprises don't come up as often. You know where a person is going, you know, in their heart or thoughts. But I think for us it's just that we're feeling that strongly connectedness and sometimes just being able to share on a regular basis that you value as a friend and as an intimate partner. So yeah, again it can get expensive so we have actually found some of the most cheapest place when we had young children. Man, we would go to Taco Bell and have a date night for three bucks. You know and be like okay this counts. We got older now and our tastes have...maybe Chipotle now is much better.


Tim Muehlhoff: But Brad, you've researched this. You've actually found that there are benefits.


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah, so we find the couples colleague Jeff Dew and I have found that couples who spend at least kind of once a week having some kind of date night...


Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, we're down with that.


Bradford Wilcox: Are about three times more likely say they're very happy in their marriages. And then couples are reporting more couple time together in this big national survey called the [inaudible 00:17:24] of Age. It doesn't precisely what they're doing but asking them to kind of talk about time they're spending away just as a couple together. So it approximates a date night of some sort. The more that they are do that, the less likely they are to be getting divorced a number of years later in this longitudinal survey. So the research suggests here that couples who are spending more time together in a kind of a way to cultivate the arrows, the romance, the friendship in their relationship are more likely to be flourishing both in the moment and more likely to be avoiding divorce down the road.


Now, I think skeptics would say, "Well, you know if you're enjoying a high quality relationship, you're probably more likely to be inclined to go in these kind of regular dates." And so I don't want to sort of contend that a date is the cure all. But I do think, this is true for parents and kids as well, you know, and friendships. The mark of a good relationship in part, is that people spend time together in intentional ways. And that's true for spouses, parents, friends.


Chris Grace: So this brings to mind, of course, John Gottman, and others' findings. He calls it the Magic of Five Hours and I know you know his research and study out. What did you think about that? I mean that's literally what he's saying right? That couples who are struggling, he took these couples, tracked them over time and some of these longitudinal studies, found the difference between three, four years later. There were a group of these couples that were thriving and a group that were continuing to strive. And the main difference between them was about five hours and he called it The Magic of Five Hours so...


Tim Muehlhoff: Five hours what, a week or...


Chris Grace: Well, five hours a week.


Bradford Wilcox: Okay.


Chris Grace: The couples that were thriving simply found a way to find five more hours in the course of one week to spend time together. You could imagine. You could do date night for three hours, that counts. A dinner one night. Just more time than what they were doing and that was one of the key separators between couples that were doing well and not.


So, that's kind of what you're...


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah. And that makes sense to me. I think the challenge there for all of us is that we have to limit Netflix. Limit Instagram. Limit Facebook. Limit Twitter for me. You know, all these things that can distract us from spending time with our spouse or our kids or our friends. You know, so people say well I'm so busy. I'm dadadada...then you look at their social media feed and like well, maybe you're not so busy.


Chris Grace: So then Brad, define two things...


a.) what is a date, in general? You've kind of talked about what a date is. It can be almost anything that takes you away from what you might be spending time on individually. And that happens to be, I know as a Sociologist over the course of many years in this country, one of the key problems has been, whatever it is has been television that's been a very big problem because it take people away from that engagements. So today, in this tech sophisticated connected world, what's some advice for couples on how to disengage in that, whether it is t.v. or Netflix or the latest variations of social media?


Tim Muehlhoff: Can I interject? Brad, I want you opinion on this. But couldn't we argue that a couple sitting together watching their favorite Netflix show and engaging about it, that could work couldn't it?


Bradford Wilcox: Yes. I think that's right. But it's in terms about the moderation right. I mean my wife and I just binged on Bosch, this Amazon detective set here in Los Angeles.


Chris Grace: And Stranger Things for us.


Tim Muehlhoff: Oh...


Bradford Wilcox: There's so much you could watch, right. You could spend hours and hours and you actually never really end up communicating with your spouse, your kids or your neighbors or your friends. So I think, in moderation, yes. And the same thing is true for our smart phones. So we have like a little charging station in our kitchen. And you know the challenge to the adults and the teenagers is look when you come in, and of course, that rule so to speak is not always followed but the aspiration is to kind of keep the phones in the charging station. And yeah, if you've got to call a friend, you know whatever, check on your homework, message from a colleague, that's fine but the idea is that you're not carrying this device all over the house with you at all times cause that's when it becomes a real distraction.


Tim Muehlhoff: I would love to see the size of your charging station with nine children.


Chris Grace: Haha. [crosstalk 00:22:08]


Bradford Wilcox: We only have the oldest...


Chris Grace: Only the oldest have phones.


Tim Muehlhoff: Is that sponsored by NASA?


So what we get at marriage conference we speak at is, when people think of an affair they always tend to think of an extramarital affair, but what I've noticed over the years that the number one affair it seems like people are having is a family affair. In other words, the kids get all the time, attention, energy, so that magical five hours, Chris. There's not five hours; it's all the kids. So, we get couples coming to a Family Life Marriage Conference who say this is the first time in five years we've been away together. And, you're shaking your head. So, that's what we're talking about is, we all strive to be good parents. And I think sometimes we overdo it a little bit...


Chris Grace: Yeah. That's right.


Tim Muehlhoff: In the fact that there's nothing left for my spouse because I'm just wiped out from work, kids, projects, all those different kind of things.


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah. My mother-in-law would tell my wife when she was growing up that she and her dad were going to be together after the kids had gone away from the house. She was clearly telling Danielle that you're really important to me, but you know what you know my husband is still and he's my primary kind of concern. So I think there's not enough about it in enough households, particularly among the middle class who spend a lot of time on things like soccer and piano, violin and you know all that gymnastics. And not really recognizing that you've got to also reserve time for your spouse and for your church community and everything else. And I think for a lot of kids too, we know in at least athletically for instance, that being exposed to a wide range of sports until you're like 13, 14, 15 is a great thing. You don't really need to do the intensive maniacal training in one sport, you know. And that people who kind of are broadly exposed to a variety of sports, they can kind of figure out in adolescence, which one is best for them and then specialize more.


Tim Muehlhoff: But that's gonna take raw courage to do.


Bradford Wilcox: Sure.


Tim Muehlhoff: Pull that trigger and you're going to have to be part of a community that supports that kind of decision. I'll never forget, Brad. We were invited to speak at a family camp in Texas, but our kids made the All-Star team in baseball. And it was during family camp. And I remember making that phone call to the coach saying, "I'm sorry. Take the two Muehlhoff boys off the list cause we'll be at family camp." He said, "You know, I've been doing this for a long time, there's never been a parent call me saying take the kids off. Can't your kids stay" I said, "Well, it's called family camp. We would like to have them at family camp."


Bradford Wilcox: Sure right.


Tim Muehlhoff: But that's gonna take a community where my friends said good for you. And guess what, your kids are gonna recover. By the way, they never have. They hate me to this day. But you know what I mean, your thing about community, that's where it comes into play is we're gonna have to have people who fight against some of these powerful cultural riptides that we're experiencing today.


Bradford Wilcox: Yep. That's right.


Tim Muehlhoff: And you got to make time for it.


Bradford Wilcox: Yeah you do.


Tim Muehlhoff: If there's not time, you're just not gonna have community. So yeah.


Chris Grace: Well, let's do this. There's a number of questions that we have for you as well. Thanks for being such a great guest...


Tim Muehlhoff: And we really appreciate what you do, Brad. It's such a benefit to us as our Center, to be able to know that we have trusted researchers out there and that we can pull from your information. Your balanced. I love how you qualify what you're saying when it talks about people living together and single parents. It's just really the nice tone and the quality research. We thank you.


Chris Grace: So thanks for being a guest and we'll talk to you guys again next time.