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Does It Really Matter How You Say it?

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

Chris Grace: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast here with Tim. I'm Chris and we've been talking about, Tim, everything related to relationships. For the last couple of sessions, we've just had some great conversations with guests and others. But, Tim, I think one thing that stands out and continues to be a theme is this. That theme is people are in relationships that are primarily going well. I mean, you know, we usually handle these pretty well, and we're going along okay. And then it reaches a place where a conversation needs to be had.

There's a change in the relationship that's clearly known, and there must be a conversation. I think relationships are hard enough, but when there's new areas that come about, or a conversation that needs to take place and we're aware of it, Tim, this is fraught with danger, isn't it? Because we can really take the wrong approach to some of these things and proceed down some paths that could do some damage to the relationship. We've been talking a little bit about how do you navigate difficult conversations, and do them in a way that's edifying or that builds the relationship and doesn't draw you apart.

Tim Muehlhoff: How you say it is everything. Even the Book of Proverbs says, "A word spoken in the right circumstances is compared to fine jewelry." I think that's wise. Conversely, a word spoken in the wrong way, the ancient writers say, can actually break a bone. So how you say it is incredibly important. We've thought of a couple of different categories today. Let me start with this one, Chris, tell me what you think about this. There are some listeners in marriages or relationships who just hate conflict. You hate it. It makes your stomach turn, you get that pit in your stomach. Like, oh, I know I need to talk to my spouse about this. I don't want to. I just don't want to.

So a lot of us don't. I grew up watching my parents argue, and I just made a note to self when I get married, we're not having conflict. We're just not doing it, because I'm not going to be like my parents. So I would wait to talk to Noreen about things. Well, here's the problem with waiting. You finally say, okay, I just can't keep this in any longer. Now you sit down with your spouse, and now you do what we call kitchen sinking. It means not just one issue, but in the time that you've waited between when that one issue happened, now another one happened, another one happened, another.

And now you're like, "Okay, we're sitting down. We're going to nip this in the bud." The conflict thing, because I hate this. I hate having to talk about this, so I've waited. There are now six things. I've put them in alphabetical order. I have an acrostic. I got charts at Kinko's. We are ready to go because we're going to have that conflict talk right now, and that causes problems.

Chris Grace: Yeah. The biggest problem, just even as you're talking, I could even feel my heart rate go up. Because you're like, oh my goodness, I can barely deal with the pain of a disconnected conflicted relationship in general. Clearly the person already knows that they're in trouble, and that there's something that is now not right. But then, Tim, the concept for a lot of people in a relationship like this as the idea of being flooded, overwhelmed. Physiologically almost this heart rate starts to go up, respiration goes up. You feel, we'll use the word flooded, right?

You're overwhelmed with this hormonal change that is like a fight or flight. People who get kitchen sinked, or who are told, we need to talk about this, this, this, and this, now can really start to deal with this in unhealthy ways because that's, I need to protect myself. So I'm going to just tune out, or I'm going to protect myself by running. Or I'm going to put up a false front of maybe listening to you, but I am not in a place to do that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Wasn't it Gottman who said that men get more flooded easily than women do?

Chris Grace: Yeah, I think he would say, he found probably 80% of the time, the spouse or the partner that's flooding tends to be the male. But I don't know if that number's changed over time. I think all of us can feel that way, but nonetheless, it's not a healthy way to start a conversation by really starting with, let's talk about everything that bugs me and I've got a list.

Tim Muehlhoff: And sometimes you go in, honestly, a kitchen sinking can happen unintendedly. In other words, we start to talk about one thing and you start to spiral. It's like, "Hey, not only are you late to dinner, by the way, you never help clean up with dinner." So it's not that you're just late. Now, you don't even clean up. And to be honest, I can't think of the last time you asked me out for dinner. Right?

So now we've got three, and the spouse is sitting there going, okay, so I'm a loser here, here, here, here, here. So that can lead to what Gottman calls stonewalling, which is, I'm not even going to listen to you anymore, because I feel like dirt. That can be unintended, but we're saying it makes it worse when you come at your spouse with like three, four, five, six, seven things. We really need to try to address that.

Chris Grace: So, Tim, here's another one too. Let's talk about the possibility that not only are you doing this conversation maybe wrong by adding too much. There's another problem that you could be having a conversation much too early. For example, I'm thinking about couples that are in a dating relationship, and one of them is like, "I want to define the relationship, and I'm feeling very close and attached to you. And I want to do this now." It's just not the right timing. So not only is it done the wrong way, but even the context and timing is off. Let's talk about both of those. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Let's even add a third one, Chris. Let's really mix it up. Let's talk about the sex talk, the talk that every parent hates, every parent dreads, and so some parents don't have them, and then some have them in a way that makes it worse. So listeners, just stay tuned. We talked a little bit about the kitchen sinking thing, overwhelming a person. Now we're going to talk a little bit about the DTR, define relationships, then the sex talk. We promise we're going to come back and just give some thoughts about how we can maybe have more productive conversations. That's great, Chris. So the defining the relationship talk. That's great.

Chris Grace: Okay. So there are certain ways that you would suggest, in your background and experience with this, Tim, to have this conversation with somebody.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We call them escalators. An escalator by definition is it propels, just like an escalator, it propels you forward in a direction. Sometimes that's good, but what I see in most dating relationships, it just comes too early. And I think it comes too early because people hate ambiguity. I need to know are we an item, are we exclusive? Are we this, that, this and that? I get that there's ambiguity, but don't rush past it. In other words, you're just getting to know each other. You're realizing you have commonalities, you realize you're having fun with each other. You have core compatibility. These are all great signs, but it's been a month. It's been two months, it's been three months.

What is to be gained by sitting down and having the defining the relationship talk? What could happen is it propels the relationship forward way too quickly, and now there's nowhere for the relationship to go. It's going to literally flame out. By the way, there aren't just verbal escalators. There are physical escalators, right? You kiss a person, it changes the dynamic. You move forward physically, it just rushes the relationship on. And what we're saying is, man, be careful because you can't go backwards in a relationship. You can't put the toothpaste back into the tube. So that's what we mean is, be careful when you have this talk. Not that you shouldn't have it, but man, don't have a too quickly.

Chris Grace: And I would suggest, Tim, too that there will be an eagerness on many people's parts, on a person who is in a relationship that really feels good, that feels like they're connecting very well. They're anticipating this is a really good relationship, and they're excited about it.

Tim Muehlhoff: And they're excited, yeah.

Chris Grace: In their excitement, you can sometimes miss or overlook maybe the patient side or the carefulness side. There has to be a way in which you also temper a little bit of this instead of rushing in.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and again, the fun thing about teaching at Biola University, where our center is housed, and in this podcast we actually record on campus, is we get to teach a great class called the Christian Relationships class. I teach it with my wife, Noreen. Chris teaches it with Alisa, the co-director of the center, and then we rotate theologians. There's a couple that came up to me, Chris, this was the last time we taught the class. They come up, they're holding hands. Chris, I honestly thought, having just listened to us lecture, they were joking with me. They're kind of punking me, right?

This is what they said to me. They said, "Oh, you know, we have just really hit it off, and man, we really care deeply for each other. We're both going to graduate in a year. We're even talking about maybe where should we get jobs in the same city and stuff like that," and blah blah blah. And I said, "Oh man, that's great, that's awesome." I'm thinking, okay, you've been dating a year, I don't know, a year and a half. I go, "How long have you been dating?" Chris? Chris? Three weeks. I literally laughed. I laughed. I thought they were punking me, and I looked at, and they weren't laughing. And I said, "Oh guys, I'm sorry for being insensitive, but you're crazy." No, I did not say that. I did not say that.

But here's the funny thing, Chris, you know what's funny? One guy, I'm being discreet, one guy wasn't actually taking the class, he was auditing the class. Chris, it was after midterms, midterms, and I see her sitting by herself. I noted that, the next week he's not there again. I walked up to her and I said, "Hey, how are things going?" She looked at me and she said, "Uh, yeah, it didn't work out." And I was like because you killed it. It was three weeks. It was great to be excited, right? But to be talking about a future? That's what we call an escalator, too quick.

Chris Grace: Yeah, I think that overall, Tim, I think it's a great principle regardless of the conversation or the talk, sometimes it takes discernment and prayer and wisdom to know when, as much as how to have this conversation, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's great.

Chris Grace: And that pausing and pondering and praying can sometimes come in with the way God can direct us. So that's in that relationship, you have to be very careful to temper the excitement, the joy, the anticipation.

Tim Muehlhoff: Remember Song of Solomon, "Do not arouse desire too quickly." It has a life of its own. Noreen was so wise when we started dating. I wanted to kiss her right out of the gate, Chris, I just wanted to kiss her. She's an amazingly attractive woman. Great taste in men. So I went to kiss her and, Chris, she literally said to me, this was kind of embarrassing. We were both on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. I go in for the kiss. This was early, man, we're talking, this might've been the second date. I just go in for the kiss. And she goes, "Tim, I really think we need to pray about this, because once we kiss, things will really change. And I just feel like we need to bring this before the Lord." I was embarrassed. I said, "Oh yeah, and we should fast. We should fast for 40 days." But how wise was that? Because we would have kissed then, where's there to go?

Chris Grace: Yeah, and let's point the listeners back to some of our other podcasts, Tim, when we talked about this. How the physical relationship, even a spiritual and emotional relationship, how they in tandem grow together. So too quickly in one area can lead to deeper intimacy in another.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, Rene Yasenak, she's a writer on relationships, she said this, I love this quote. "Kissing is a means of bringing two people so close together they can't see each other anymore."

Chris Grace: Yeah, that's good.

Tim Muehlhoff: Isn't it good?

Chris Grace: Yeah, that's really good.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's really good.

Chris Grace: So let's talk about some other conversations that can be maybe approached a certain way that we can do better and avoid some potential pain.

Tim Muehlhoff: I was speaking at a marriage conference, and I did this spontaneously. I think this was one of the larger conferences Family Life does. It was about a thousand people, so roughly 500 men. "Men, how many of you, your dad had the sex talk with you? Had the sex talk? Brought it up, you could ask questions." Chris, 500 men. I could count them, eight, eight. The women gasped audibly. Right? Now let me ask you this, did your dad have the sex talk with you?

Chris Grace: Yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, he did.

Chris Grace: Yes, and I guess it was a difficult conversation. He brought in the three boys that were old enough, and sat us down. It was done uniquely, I'll say that. It was memorable.

Tim Muehlhoff: Which isn't necessarily good.

Chris Grace: Yeah, but actually, there was a little bit of wisdom in the way he did it.

Tim Muehlhoff: My dad never did. Everything I learned about sex, I learned from my dad's porn habit, as well as the collective wisdom of the high school football team. Most parents just don't want to do this. I asked for the women, but I can still count them, Chris, it was 25. I'll never forget this. I've done it every single conference since, because the results just scared everybody. I think parents just get guilt ridden. I honestly do. We feel the angst of this. We're in the most sexualized age in the history of humanity via technology. So Chris, this is how I did our first sex talk. This is so embarrassing. I realized I just hadn't done it.

I heard it a Dennis Rainey sermon on this. I sat the three kids down, Noreen is next to me. And come on, Chris, I'm doing a Master's in communication. Come on, get out of here. I can do this. I said to all of them, I just looked at my three boys, and I said, "Dad has a penis. Mom a, um, a special area." And it went downhill. Noreen is rubbing my hand. The three boys are just looking at me like, what? Literally my sex talk ended very quickly. You know how did it ended? "Let's go to Chuck E. Cheese." That's how it ended. I think parents are just mortified at the idea of messing our kids up. So they either have it awkwardly, or they don't have it at all.

And I would argue most don't have it at all. So not having the talk fits in our theme, because that's horrible. You've got to, with your kids. But having it, it's like, okay, we're just going to do this once. I never want to bring up this topic ever again. I'd rather talk about conflict. So I'm going to sit the kids down, and we're just gonna talk. And I'm going to hope they have no questions. And we never have to talk about this again. Another mistake we make is we wait way too long to have the sex talk. And it's not one talk, it's talks, sex talks.

Chris Grace: I think that's also, Tim, a point to talk about is the idea of, when we put all of this hope and anticipation and desire to impart something, even though it's difficult, we just think about this as a one time talk.

Tim Muehlhoff: A one time deal.

Chris Grace: Then we really are missing something else. And I think that's probably this idea too about how to have a good conversation. It's a continual topic of conversation, because A, you want this child who is going to grow in their understanding year-by-year an awareness to feel a couple of things from you. And I think parents will do, especially men, can make a couple of changes to the way they think about this. If they can think about making the relationship a safe one, a place where their child could come in and talk with them. Making it safe is that you have this more than once. You know, it's just one talk and we're done, so I don't have to talk about this again. Instead, it's kind of a pattern with them. It's not just about this issue, it's about other issues. And I'm willing to sit down and I open up this line of conversation by listening and talking and making myself available.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's such a good point. It's not the conflict talk, it's conflict talks. It's not the porn talk, it's talks about pornography. It's not the sex talk, it's multiple talks. That's what gets us in trouble is, okay, I want to resolve this conflict in about 30 minutes, 45 minutes. Very few conflicts really can be handled that way. So we promised our listeners that we were going to offer ideas. So let's offer an idea. We'll start with the one that maybe has the most angst out there, and that is the sex talk. Here's some ideas, and I think we can just kick around one, and I hope parents don't, I hope they're not driving when they're listening to this, because cars are going to go off the road.

When should you start to have your sex talk? Well, let me say from a communication perspective, and then you can dive in. It's right around age six, because we know developmentally that's when gender constancy happens. That's when kids are beginning to understand their bodies. Now again, age appropriate, right? At six, you're not talking about orgasm and masturbation and stuff like that. You're talking about Adam and Eve, and they didn't have clothes on, and that was okay. So age specific. Then as they get older, obviously you're in junior high, guess what?

It's another, it's time to talk more. And high school, right? And even going off to college. So I like what you said. These are a bunch of talks, but we know from research that the sex talk, you want to be ahead of not reacting to it. The kids watch a sexual scene. Now you've got to react to it. They see porn, now you've got to react to it. We want to be ahead of it, presenting God's perspective of sex all along the way. And this isn't some really freaked out, oh my gosh, my parents are going to give me the sex talk.

Chris Grace: Yeah. I think that's right. The age appropriateness is really where I would suggest is good there. And the conversations, the terminology I'm using is going to vary, and it's also going to vary by gender. Right? So men having this conversation with their sons, and moms having the conversation with their daughters. But, there's also wisdom in being involved as a family and age appropriateness in, this is something that we don't hide from and run from hard conversations. But we also want to show you, you guys are part of this family.

So the age appropriateness, and then doing this in a context that shows there's continued to be open dialogue, and our family is able to have conversations that are relevant and important. Because the opposite, Tim, is if they're hearing this, as you said, from friends, or from movies, from culture, then their natural tendency is to probably run and hide when this comes up as an idea, as a thought, as a question. And then shame can easily start to come into play.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and I would say, Chris, or our listeners, your kids are getting the sex talk right now. They're getting it. The only question is from whom. You can't shield your kids. Even if you homeschool, even if you send them to a Christian high school or junior high or college like Biola, they're going to get it. Culture is everywhere. And via the internet, you can't hide them. So here's one practical thing that was suggested to me. I'm so glad I did it. When my kids were transitioning from junior high to high school, I took them on a father-son trip. They could pick the trip within reason, but the cost of admission to the trip was they had to read a book.

I think the book was called, "So You're Becoming a Teenager," and one chapter was on masturbation. So we would have a great time, Chris. My kids picked really cool things, skydiving, whale watching while you hand glide, and then one picked a football game in a different state. So we're doing that. I'd bring up parts of the book, and then the masturbation chapter. We'd be driving in the car, and I'd say, "Hey, read chapter six?" And they're like, "Yeah." "Okay. Hey, let me just say a couple things about chapter six."

They'd be looking out the window of the car, maybe praying for the rapture, I don't know. But to me, that was a way to do it. Right? There's a bunch of ideas out there. And let me recommend a great book by Stanley O. Jones, "How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex." It's a great book, it's won a bunch of awards. It could give you some great ideas.

Chris Grace: He's a psychologist, he was at Wheaton for a while, anyway, he's good.

Tim Muehlhoff: Awesome. Now let's talk about defining the relationship. What would be some suggestions we might want to give people?

Chris Grace: I think I would start with this. Know that in a great relationship in which you are feeling like, man, this could really be a good, solid, fun, friendship and relationship that could turn into something more, that the best approach you can do is to carefully, thoughtfully proceed. And to have the conversation about defining the relationship is great, but also know that there are certain times in certain ways that speaking too deeply, too emotionally intimate can be misunderstood. Here's what I would suggest.

Make sure you're talking to somebody else that knows you both or knows you, who can say, like if this student that you talked about that came up and said, for three weeks we'd been dating. A friend would say, "Brother, that's just much too early. You barely know this person. Why would you have this conversation now? And you're doing more damage possibly to the relationship by having this." But a friend is somebody who, you need to make sure that you're in some sort of place in a relationship with somebody who can help you navigate appropriate timing.

Tim Muehlhoff: And I think it's age specific, I do. For our older listeners who are single or divorced or whatever, if you're in your 30's, you have more self-awareness. So here's what I would say. If you're dating a person and you're excited about it, I want to put a time on it. I'm going to say if you're talking and want to define the relationship, and it's only been five months, I think it's too early. Enjoy each other. Why put that external pressure on it? You're spending time, you're enjoying each other, you're getting to know each other. That's all great stuff. I would say the number one reason people have the define the relationship talk is immaturity. I can't lose this person. So somehow, if you say we're a boyfriend, girlfriend, now you're stuck with me, which is just not the case. So I would say, go slow on this one, and I would say five months is probably a good test run.

Chris Grace: Yeah. And Tim, I'm not certain that even older people have the advantage in this situation now.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's true. Yeah, you're right.

Chris Grace: And here's why. I have just seen a couple of people make bad decisions, get into second marriages, because they felt like they knew right away. They knew themselves, they knew what they wanted. And in two cases I think of right now, I think both of them feel a lot of regret because they probably moved too quickly. And maybe because there's a false sense of security.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, that's good, Chris.

Chris Grace: There's always balance. And I don't know about, if there's a specific timeframe. But I do believe you're onto something that says it's better to be cautious in this. If this relationship is of God, it'll work, and you can wait.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, I agree with Chris. That's good. I could see how even being older could be a negative, and the fact that I don't want to be alone anymore.

Chris Grace: That's right.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's scary, yeah, that's good.

Chris Grace: If loneliness is driving this, that's something that maybe time can help with, because it's not your friend, and it's going to cause you maybe to make a bad decision.

Tim Muehlhoff: What's going on today? You have been right a ton. The producer's looking at me right now, shaking his head. It's like, this is craziness.

Chris Grace: So let's give them one more, one more suggestion.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let's do that. We talked about the harsh startup. I've got five things I want to say to you, maybe 10, depending on how the conversation goes. In communication theory, we simply talk about agenda setting, which is go in and set the agenda. And if the agenda is over two things normally, ish, then I just wouldn't do that. I would sit down and say, "Hey, we need to talk about finances." By the way, and there's a bunch of other things I think we need to talk about, saying it to yourself. But now, let's stick to finances. Let's just talk about our budget. And even finances might be too big a category, right?

Because you want to talk about credit card debt. You want to talk about the fact we don't have a budget. You want to talk about the fact that we feel overextended, we're not saving enough. Suddenly, that's like six things within one category. It's called agenda setting, book end it. And if something really legitimate comes up like, okay, by the way, I think you're also too busy outside the house. Okay. That's a very valid concern. We're going to bookmark that, bracket it, but we're going to tackle that later. That to me, agenda setting can be really helpful.

Chris Grace: Yeah. I like that, Tim. I would also add this little suggestion, and it would be, when you are thinking about these topics, one of you is probably more of an external processor, able to on-the-fly have this conversation. The other one needs a little bit more time. I would say you go at the pace of the internal processor in such a way that, I had a couple one time, they struggled with this because she wanted to talk about everything on a date night, and there were six, eight, to 10 things, whatever, that she was prepared and ready to talk about. Well, it overwhelmed him.

And we talked about the idea of flooding. And it just simply got to a point where he just couldn't engage, because he just felt like there's just too much there. So she, I think, came up with a very elegant solution. She decided to email him a couple of days ahead of time, the two topics or three that she really wanted to cover out of the 10. Then he got to pick the one or the two that they would talk about at their next date night.

Tim Muehlhoff: He got to pick it.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good.

Chris Grace: So he said, okay, I want to talk, and then it still gave him two to three days to prepare and to be ready. He said it just made all the difference in the world, knowing that they would limit this conversation to this one topic. That was going at the pace of the person who is least likely to do some of this processing and talking. Maybe it's not as comfortable for them.

Tim Muehlhoff: The Apostle Paul says, he says, "Give preference to one another." So I do think it's good. I think it's good that you said you've got to move at the pace of the person who needs more time, the internal processor. I know couples who, let me think out loud, so let me think about. And then the other person is dying as you're thinking out loud about these different kinds of things. So yeah, I think that's good. That's a good suggestion.

Chris Grace: Yeah, so in James 1:19, Tim, it talks about "Everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry." And if there's a verse I think that captures maybe an overarching philosophy going in, it's the wisdom that James has written there, that when we go in and have these conversations to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let me just say one last thing. We've mentioned this so many times, that you and I are both in a marriage group. Here's what's great about being in a marriage group. You listen to other couples say, "Oh, we struggle with that all the time. Oh, we tried to bring up the phone, we tried to bring up a parenting issue, our sexual intimacy. And oh my gosh, it went south so quickly." That's actually liberating, and one of the things Satan loves to do is isolation. You're the only loser couple who struggles with this. So it is great to be in community. Most of the New Testament was written not to individuals, but to community.

And that's what we hope we're creating here in the podcast, is we're a community of singles, marrieds, people dating, people not dating, people who care about communication and conflict. We want to be a resource to everybody, because remember, our podcast is The Art of Relationships, not the art of marriage, not the art of parenting, but the art of relationships. So we hope you find this helpful. We love when you guys text in questions, when you send in emails. We love to get to them. And we'd love for you to check out our website. Chris, why don't you direct them to our website.

Chris Grace: Yeah,, blogs, podcasts, but just some great videos as well, upcoming events. And we look forward to having you join us at some of these. So, Tim, it's been great.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's been great, Chris, and you've been right a lot. You're on a roll, man.

Chris Grace: Let's record that for posterity's sake, and replay that at the end of every podcast. All right, take care. Bye.