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Before Things Go From Bad To Worse

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 Tim Muehlhoff. I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's great to be here.

Chris Grace: It's good to be here, Tim, again, and just be able to talk about things that are all things relationships. You've been doing this for a while now. I think there are topics that come about and questions that people have. Today, Tim, I think is going to be a really interesting one. It's this.

We've been talking about when you have a conversation or a topic maybe in your relationships that causes conflict, but your conversation actually makes it worse, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: Or you go in with the best intentions, but you come out the other side going, "I'll never do that again!," or, "What happened?" You kind of get blind sided, a little bit, and then things don't turn out the way you expect.

So Tim, I think in your area of communication and your expertise in this, you have some thoughts and some insights into how do you have a good conversation that doesn't make it worse? Let's talk about it.

Tim Muehlhoff: Sometimes couples come up to us at are conferences, the ones we do at the Center for Marriage and Relationships, and they say, "Yeah, we just need to talk it out." So tonight, we're gonna talk it out. I'll say to them, "Listen, that could be the worst thing you could do, is talk it out, if you don't have a strategy."

Remember the book of Proverbs, 18:21 says, "Life and death is in the power of the tongue." These conversations we have, they can either produce life or they can produce death. Sometimes, the way we approach a totally legitimate topic in a marriage or a relationship, but we approach it in such a way that it actually makes it worse. What we thought would be interesting in this podcast, let's talk about some of those great topics you need to talk about. But it's how you're doing it that's actually causing problems, then you and I would throw our two cents in on how to do it. How do have a productive conversation.

Chris Grace: I want to start with this question, you don't know what's coming next, but it's kind of in this area. It's a little bit of a surprise..

Tim Muehlhoff: Chris, I never know what's coming next with you. It's like, "I don't know what he means."

Chris Grace: I had this conversation with a student yesterday. Here's what I thought they did wrong. There's a new way people are having conversations. That is, I asked him about this conflict, and that they talked it out, and it really went south. I said, "Repeat back for me or tell me how it went."

He said, "Oh, I'll just show it to you."

I go, "What do you mean, show it to me?"

Well, it was by text message.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh!

Chris Grace: I said, "Okay, I think I got a problem right here." This was a very serious conversation about a very deep issue. And they did it over texting. Do you have any quick thoughts on that? As that really sets us up for, I think, as a communication expert, to read a person's nonverbal, to see my heart, to know what I'm doing, by texting? It's wrought with danger. Am I right?

Tim Muehlhoff: That's good, Chris. You know, Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian communications scholar. He had a very famous phrase. Even if you don't know who McLuhan is, you've probably heard the phrase, "The medium is the message."

So when I teach a communications class, I'll say to girls in my class, "How many of you have been broken up with?" And they raise their hand. And I say, "What if a good did a great job. What if he was sympathetic. What if he was empathetic. What if he talked about what was good about the relationship and then owned what had gone south, and he did it almost perfectly. But he did it via text."

You should see my students, Chris. They're like, "What? He did what?"

But he did it, he did a great job through Twitter. It was awesome. And they just said, "No. You can't break up with a person via text or Twitter."

See what's happening? The medium, Twitter, is the message. I didn't even deserve a face-to-face conversation. Thus, I don't care how good you are at texting. The medium was the message. In today's climate, I think some people would say, "You spoke volumes to me when I learned that I was fired from this organization through a Tweet."

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right?

Chris Grace: So Tim, what happens then when somebody has a relationship in which that medium is the primary mode by which we communicate? I'm used to it, I'm comfortable with this. I guess, maybe we're old fashioned.

Tim Muehlhoff: But let me say this though, Chris, let me say this. In a communication culture between two individuals, they determine what the norms are. So I would like to say, showing that I'm hip, cool, and progressive, I'm also bald. You are not. That I do think, now maybe you can push back on this. I do think you can have the breakup conversation via Tweets. I do think you can do it through texting. If both people subscribe a certain amount of value, to texting. If they both feel like this is a totally legitimate way to communicate with each other ...

Now that's not my relationship, and I suspect that's not yours. In my marriage that'd be horrible. But if a couple feels like there's great value assigned to texting, then I think they actually can have a significant conversation via texting. It's the value you subscribe to a medium, right?

I'm not great at phone conversations. But I know a lot of couples that have great phone conversations and can talk about things on the phone. So I want to say, in my marriage, texting, I put a cap on it, what it can communicate. But I wanna argue that in some couples, I think they could actually subscribe a fair bit to texting and have deep conversations.

Chris Grace: So it's not fair to make a blanket statement, that to only, to use texting for significant, deep conversations, it's unfair to make that a blanket violation of communication principles. In other words, there are just some people who say this is the way we've always communicated. We understand each other and I understand the nonverbals and the hidden messages. And we're clear to call that out. So it's not always, then, wrong, to have this conversation that way.

Tim Muehlhoff: And just know that we have biases that are deeply cultural. Remember Plato? Plato argued that the polis, the community was being poisoned by one thing, poetry.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: And remember, when Nietzsche, a famous philosopher, first started to write on a typewriter, instead of handwriting it out, he said, "Oh, this typewriter will be the end of Western civilization."

I do want to say that each one of us has biases that are culturally driven. I do think that younger people listening will say, "No. I love media. I love my Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. I love that kind of stuff." But I do it with a suspicious eye, like you do. I wanna say that a virtual community can actually be a community. It can be a vibrant community. I wanna say that online classes can ... this is gonna be heresy, can accomplish virtually everything that an in-person class can do. I wanna hold that out for technology. If people buy into the medium, then I think you can ... but obviously, if you don't buy into the medium, then getting broken up via text is horrible because of what I subscribe to getting a text.

I do think that people make the wrong rules.

Chris Grace: So why did your students react so negatively to that?

Tim Muehlhoff: It kinda surprised me. It really did surprise me that they would react that way. Maybe they're not as Millennial as they want to be. I think all of us could say, "Yeah, I'm hip, cool, young, and relevant. But I have an old fashioned streak in me when it comes to certain things."

Maybe I just got an interesting batch of students. In academia, we say, "How big was your sample size?" My sample size was pretty small. It was about a class of 25 people. So yeah, Chris, I'm not anti technology, but a couple needs to determine what is the appropriate means of communication. I can't have a serious conversation with the TV on in the background. I just can't. Noreen I think could. She could stay focused. For me, inherently, when the TV's on in the background, I say, "Well this is a serious conversation. We need to turn that off. We need to sit looking at each other. Now I'm showing you my communication biases, right?

Chris Grace: Okay. So then there must be, regardless then of the medium, there are certain things that are not good and not appropriate or are signs or indicators that it's not going well. For example, let's say in this particular student, in a text message, they're probably going to be able to read the hidden, deeper issues, because we're probably now getting into something called events issues. The words are the event. You're breaking up with me or we're talking about something deep. But there's deeper meaning that all of us need ... I need to read your heart. I need to see your emotions. I need to know where you're at. I will sometimes, then, use certain ways, whatever medium, to communicate those to you. My facial expressions for one, in a typewriter or in a text, I might use all caps. Right?

There are rules that we now know come with certain mediums. So let's ... go ahead.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. I could teach, i think I could teach a couple a certain skill set. Like ask clarifying questions, paraphrase the answer. If you're confused, ask for elaboration. Make sure to do perception checking, what do you hear me saying at this point in the conversation?

Chris, I think I could teach people that skill set. Then I would say I think that skillset could be used in a ton of mediums.

Chris Grace: Right.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that skillset can be used in email. I think it can be used on the phone. I think it can be used via Twitter or through a text message.

Chris Grace: Tim, is there any different ... I agree, it's a weird and new kind of world for some people that aren't familiar with certain mediums, others that would say, "This is just natural. This is perfect the way I do it."

I want to talk about relationships like this and dive into some specific topics, but let me, just one last question on this, do you think it's ever appropriate in a parent-child relationship when this kid is of a certain age, to use their text, because they like talking that way? Would you say, then, parents could maybe learn how the rules are? Or would you say you need to be very careful in that world, if you're not as comfortable as your kid is. Is there something about parenting that requires face to face?

Tim Muehlhoff: Chris, yes. I would say face to face, there's so many benefits to it. But I wrote a book called, "I Beg to Differ: Navigating Relationships with Truth and Love." In section three of the book, I actually picked four different scenarios that applied what I was talking about in the book, a four-step communication model I had tried to create. One of the scenarios was a single mom with a son who was a gamer, who was playing a ton of video games. She was starting to get concerned.

In that, i said to this fictional woman, "You can either make the choice of saying, listen, he's done with video games. He's not playing that video game in my house. And I'm certainly not gonna enter his world, right? He can play those, but I'm not gonna give that the time of day." I said to the woman, "What have achieved?" I would actually go and find out about the video game that he's playing, learn about it, try it, and use that as a focal point to speak his language.

Remember when we talked about love languages? We've talked about this, Gary Chapman, all the time. Well, maybe for a person, their love language is technology. Now, let me give you one big caveat. This comes what you've taught me, Chris, here's my one big caveat, one technology at a time. In other words, you've convinced me and research has, that multi-tasking just causes a multitude of problems.

Again, I'm talking about people that are texting people in different locations, but they're not also watching TV. Their computer's open, they're responding to email. I'm saying one medium at a time, I think we can make some hay on this. I don't want to glorify face-to-face interaction. Why? You may not be able to say certain things to me face to face. It's too painful. I can never say this. I might muster up the courage to say it to you via an email or text message. I don't want to over glorify face to fac.e sometimes face to face is too much for people and it actually shuts them down.

Chris Grace: Yeah. That's helpful. I think in many respects, Tim, this is something that our listeners face quite a bit, right? I would even go so far as saying, not just multiple screens, and I love the way, this idea of a single screen, but even multiple conversations going on. I've seen people, including my children, who are talking to four or five people at the same time.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: They go back and forth. I believe even limiting that, especially in harder conversations, is to turn off the distractions somewhere else. Because multi tasking really comes with switch costs. If you're switching back and forth between conversations, you're gonna lose the theme and the feel.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So we lay the groundwork, right Chris? We're saying sometimes the way we approach a conversation is the problem. The way we're doing it, it's a great topic. You need to talk about it as a couple, roommates, family members. So let me give you what I'm thinking of. We would agree, and you and I have done many podcasts on the issue of pornography. You would have to wildly misinterpret us to say that in any way, shape or form we think pornography's okay. We've called it a sin, rightfully so. It's wrong. It does great damage to a marriage.

But here's how we approach pornography that makes it worse, not better. I think a couple should have a porn talk if that's happening in their marriage or relationship. But when we attach it as the sin that is worse than any other sin, you have so deeply portrayed my marriage, that there is no way for the husband or the wife to return after they've stumbled.

And you and I know the statistics, Chris, porn is out there. To say that a person's not seen porn, it's pretty hard not to come across it.

I want to read to you, I will not mention the name of the website. Okay? I won't do that. But listen to how this website, in talking to men, frames pornography. Okay, Chris, here it is, word for word:

"Men look out at pornography out of an arrogant desire to see women in a way that God does not allow. They show arrogant defiance of God's commands, rejecting to delight of sexual intimacy in marriage, and deciding what they believe for themselves is better. Looking at naked women in porn, they show arrogant disregard for God's call to selfless marital love. They show arrogant derision for the female actresses whom they should be seeking to respect as women, who need to hear good news of Jesus. They show arrogant disdain for their own children by hiding their sin and inviting the enemy into their home and into their marriage. They show arrogant disrespect toward all those who would be scandalized if their sin were to be known. The root problem with men who look at porn, is not neediness, it's arrogance."

So think about that for a second, Chris. You're a man who's struggling with porn, right? And now, if this paragraph is true, what's true of you? You're an arrogant, self-serving person, you have defied God's commands, you've trampled selfless marital love, you've shown disdain for your children. Let's say you are struggling with porn, I guess the one thing I can never come clean with my wife is, "I'm struggling with porn." Why? Because I don't want to be known as an arrogant who's betrayed my kids, my wife, and betrayed God. It's like I'm the ultimate prodigal and I can never come home.

Listen, should a man feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit because he's looking at porn? Yes. But if it's such a harsh message, then when the man sins, I can never admit this, because I'm gonna come across as this arrogant person. I think the shame, if this is how it's presented, will drive the man towards isolation. It's gonna further damage the marriage, because of how the issue of porn was brought up. Make sense?

Chris Grace: Yeah. It does. And I think now, we're diving into something that's going to be one of those conversations, Tim, that really depends and can turn on a person's heart or approach or attitude, right? If you're going to have that conversation with your boyfriend or your girlfriend, and this is an issue that you know has come between the two of you, or you are struggling with it, I think what you're saying is this, words like that, in that website, do not help the situation, do not help the other person, because they drive them away from a loving God. It points out a sin, rightly so, we would say. Yet, it does so in a way that doesn't feel either helpful, developmental, or it doesn't feel loving.

Tim Muehlhoff: And Grace.

Chris Grace: And Grace. Okay. So we're diving into this idea of truth and grace, a little bit. This idea of how do you call out something that is wrong in somebody else's, is that your job? In this relationship, for me to call out you and your arrogance, and your sin, that's harming so many other people, or is it my job, and how do you know the difference between when do I play that role? When do I take this voice on?

Are you implying or saying, maybe, is that in a marriage or in a dating relationship, that's not your role. Because we can't blanketly say that, it's never my role to call out something, but I think what you're assuming is we all agree that this sin is wrong-

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.

Chris Grace: So you don't need to remind the person.

Tim Muehlhoff: And you should have the conversation with this person. If your spouse is looking at porn, you should have the porn conversation. But don't violate some really key principles. One, don't assign motive to the person. This website just did. It said you're looking at porn because you're an arrogant man and you don't care about the needs of your kids. You don't care about your wife's needs. I'm saying, man, I know a lot of guys who struggle with porn. I'm not sure that any of those apply to why they're looking at porn.

Chris Grace: Okay.

Tim Muehlhoff: Second, what got me thinking about this, Chris, was I have a good friend of mine, James, he's a trained Christian counselor. He heard me speak at a conference. I've told you that my dad has struggled with porn. I have huge boundaries when it comes to porn, especially when it comes to my kids, my three boys.

He said to me, he heard me speaking on this one time, he grabbed me afterwards and said, "Hey. I have a suggestion for you." And Chris, this suggestion knocked me off my feet. He said, "I think you need to stop talking about porn so much with your kids."

I was like, "What? What?"

He goes, "Tim, what I heard up front, your kids have heard. They know porn is the number one you want to keep your kids from. I get the feeling that your kids could get arrested for selling methamphetamine and you would say to them at the police station, 'But you haven't been looking at porn, have you?'" Right?

So he's saying, "Tim, if your kids have looked at porn, and by the way, they have," is what he said to me, "Do you think they would ever, ever, come to you, knowing how strongly you feel against it? You've shut 'em out."

That's what I'm saying, Chris in this marital relationship. If the wife says, "You look at porn, this relationships over," right? "You look at porn, I'm out of this door." Guess what? He's never gonna tell it to you. Why? Because if I say it to you, I've ended the marriage. And where is God's Grace on this? Right? We need to say to men, "Listen, Jesus already answered this question. He did the prodigal son parable. A Jewish son, acting as worse as you could act, and yet there's always the door open from the Father in Jesus's story. That when you come back, I run to you."

Let's not talk about porn in such a way that we isolate people and have they have a feeling like, "I can never come back to the marriage because I'm so deeply rooted in shame."

Chris Grace: So then give us your advice and suggestion to that husband, who finds out his wife is struggling in this area, or the girlfriend who finds out her boyfriend is. They know, maybe had some conversation like this, or even a parent to the child. What then is the heart attitude? How then, I mean, obviously, Tim, it's going to start with a prayerful, humble spirit and heart.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: If anybody's going to have a conversation like this with somebody else, it's always going to start with the need to identify that they too can be possibly under attack in this area and need to be careful that with God, they are walking humbly with him, prayerfully, and thoughtfully, carefully, as I approach this topic. I express that in a way that says, "Listen."

Right? So you're talking about their heart in their approach. What is the suggestion?

Tim Muehlhoff: I mentioned before on this podcast that in addition to speaking for the CMR, the Center for Marriage and Relationships, I also speak for Family Life Ministries. Well, we tackle this Sunday morning. We break up men and women, separate sessions, and we do talk to men about pornography and the biblical standard.

Chris, afterwards, the men come up to me who are looking at porn, they can't even look you in the eye. They just can't even do it. The shame is amazing. And some of them are crying as they walk up to you. Now, I'm told, by the Apostle Paul, I'm to speak truth and love. Right?

At that moment, what does that guy need? Does he need me to look at him and say, "Bro, look at me. What kind of leader are you in this family? What kind of father are you to your kids that you're looking at porn? Really? Seriously. Look me in the eye, man to man, and you tell me that you're marriage is more important than looking at porn."

I'm gonna say that to this guy? Oh, it would literally kill him. I look at this guy and I say, "Hey, bro, look at me. Look at me. Jesus loves you. His love for you did not diminish one bit because you're looking at porn. Right? Look at me, do you believe that? God loves you. Now listen. Are there things that need to change? Absolutely. But God's love for you has never ended. Paul gives you lavish Grace." And that's what I said to him.

Chris, for me, it's timing. Now does that guy need to hear a talk about how to get out of porn? Yeah. But what do we lead with? Do I heap more shame on to him? That's what I would say to a spouse is. I get feelings of betrayal, because your spouse is looking at porn. But man, when you talk to that person, we need to start with love. Unless the spouse is just defiant, right?

Chris Grace: And will argue against that it's not wrong or it doesn't have harmful consequences. We should enjoy this.

Tim Muehlhoff: Or look at it like, "What's the big deal? You just be quiet and it's none of your business." Alright, then I have a different tack for that guy. Those aren't the guys who come up to me at Family Life Marriage Conferences. Right, Chris? So I'm saying let's start with love.

I think a spouse could say, "Look, I want you to know I love you. I'm committed to you, for the best for you and for our marriage. That means we gotta deal with this issue."

Chris Grace: Yeah. The wisest man that ever existed, Tim, that wrote a number of places-

Tim Muehlhoff: Are you talking me? I thank you.

Chris Grace: Yeah, King Solomon. Let's talk-

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. My bad.

Chris Grace: About this man who prayed for wisdom and understanding.

Tim Muehlhoff: I call him a wannabe, but go ahead.

Chris Grace: As he talked, I just love some of the prayers that he used to give for the people. Whenever he would pray for people, I kept thinking, "He's the one that asked for wisdom and understanding in leading people who struggle just in general." He said this, he would pray this, when God, he would say this, "When they sin against you, for there is no man who does not sin, and you are angry with them and you deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near. If they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive and repent, and make supplication to you, in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, 'We have sinned and committed inequity and we have acted wickedly. If they return to you with all their heart and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, who have taken them captive, and pray to you, toward their land which you have given their fathers, the city which you have chosen, then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven your dwelling place. And maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you all their transgressions which they have transgressed against you. And make them objects of compassion before those who have taken.'"

That's in Kings eight.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's great.

Chris Grace: Here's what he's saying, "Listen. When you have sinned, when you have done this, we all have. God, you know that. But make, when they have turned, when their heart is to turn," Solomon prays, because he knows that God will make them objects of compassion. How much more so in my conversation with somebody in this hard area. I would begin to pray then, to Him, like what I think you're saying, that my heart would be open and compassionate towards a person, because I too can find myself there. That is one way, and the best way to have this conversation.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And it's okay to be hurt. Right? If your spouse sits down with you and says, "Yeah. I've been looking at porn." It's okay to be hurt, and even feel betrayed. So maybe you do need to spend time with the Lord. That's not the time to have the porn talk, but the way, when you're hurt and you're reeling in it.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: The time to have the porn talk I think is later. What I'm saying is, let's lead off with Grace.

We have a good friend of ours, Clint, he's a theologian, he actually, I interviewed him for my book, "Defending your Marriage: the Reality of Spiritual Battle," he was dealing with a guy who had kicked the porn habit. He kicked it. He had won. Ten years later, he falls back into the porn habit. Chris, you can imagine how devastating that is for him and for his wife.

Clint is talking to him, in his office here on [Biola's] Campus. He says, "Bro, look at me." And the guy looks up. He says, "Jesus walks through that door, right now, right now he walks through that door. What's his reaction to you, knowing you just fell back into a porn habit?"

And the guy says, "He wouldn't even want to look at me."

And Clint got up, put a huge bear hug on this guy, and said, "That's what Jesus would do. He'd give you a bear hug. His love for you isn't wavered at all."

Chris, I think that's what people need to hear first. Then, let's talk about, maybe we need to get you a filter on your computer. Maybe you need to get help from a trained counselor. But let's start with love and grace. Otherwise, I think we're tackling porn, and we're actually doing more damage if we go by what this website said, right? That you're an arrogant, self-serving man who hates God's intention for women and you've betrayed your kids. Wow! I think, maybe some men need to hear that, some arrogant men who just don't care what God says anymore about porn. But I'm thinking of the 95 percent of the people I know, who are just riddled in shame. We can't add to it.

Chris Grace: Well, Tim, I think it's great. I think that's good advice and it's a good perspective. We'll just continue to have this conversation. In fact, here's what I want to do. Let's take another podcast and let's talk about other ways, in other situations, that we are making matters worse when we have conversations with people. We do that, maybe, with how we define the relationship in the dating one-

Tim Muehlhoff: The sex talk.

Chris Grace: The sex talk.

Tim Muehlhoff: The kids. Oh my gosh.

Chris Grace: Let's do that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Kids have never recovered from those sex talks.

Chris Grace: Alright. Let's talk about it next time.