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What Makes a Good Relationship?

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

We often focus on negative aspects to avoid when evaluating a relationship. But what makes a good relationship? How do you know if somebody is good to be with? In this episode, Tim and Chris discuss a few indicators of healthy relationships.

Speaker 1: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. We are grateful for listeners like you. Let's get right into it.

Chris Grace: Well again, Tim, it's good to be here with you and we just get to talk about different kinds of relationships and things that are going on and ways in which we can figure out how to make our relationships thrive and it's fun to do a podcast.

Tim Muehlhoff: Everybody wants that.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's kind of like everybody wants to be in shape and everybody wants to eat well and everybody wants to ... right? But then you ask them, "Okay, what's your plan? Give me your plan," and most people are hit and miss. It's a little bit of this, little bit of that. That's what's cool about research is we begin to identify what a healthy, thriving relationship looks like.

Chris Grace: Do you think some people just think, "Oh, it'll happen naturally or easily or I get married and the love that I'm going to have for this person is just going to carry me through?" Or let's Christianize that. Being at Biola University, the mere fact that you self-identify as a Christian, I think we're going to be okay because it's two Christians that are going to get married or we're going to date and it's like, "Yeah, but even that, there's a bunch of stuff you just have to work on."

Tim Muehlhoff: I couldn't imagine not going into a marriage or an engagement or a serious relationship without a plan and without talking about it, just assuming that love is going to carry us. In your marriage, how long before you realized, "Uh oh, this is going to take work?"

Chris Grace: I'll tell you, it was probably within the first month and a half of marriage that I realized how selfish I really was. I woke up thinking, "But I want to do this or I want this and here's this other person that has interests and desires to go." I remember, "Oh my goodness, the selfishness in me really stands out."

Tim Muehlhoff: So let me tell you about the biggest difference between you and me. I was equally selfish, but completely unaware. It wasn't until we had kids. When we had kids, I realized the anger I had that was under the surface, kids brought it out. It was like I couldn't get them to do what I wanted them to do. My time was deeply infringed upon, especially when you have young kids, and then Noreen and I had different parenting philosophies. So I was equally selfish. I just was under this illusion that I really, I was a pretty darn good husband. Then the kids come and even I started to realize, "Oh geez, I got some issues to work on because I'm tired, frustrated, and hacked off."

Chris Grace: Here's the thing. You guys did premarital counseling. You guys knew what to expect. One of our big worries and why this podcast, I think, is something that we'd like to focus on relationships, Tim, is because people need as much exposure to ideas and plans and ways of doing things that they can to prepare for the inevitable conflicts that are just going to be part of any marriage and they're going to come, right? We are going to be ... In any relationship, there's going to be times that we have conflict. That's just a given and if you're not ready for that ... I think people who get married with this idealized view of marriage that says, "Oh, it'll carry you forever. Oh, you'll be in love. You'll hold down to this." The day they wake up not feeling that anymore is the day they think "I made a mistake" and they get out. We've seen that happen in marriages and Hollywood is a perfect example, right? How long do marriages last there with people who have this false view of what love is?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. It's like saying, "I want to run a marathon, but where do I start?" Well, read a book about running a marathon would be a great place to start, hang out with people who have already run marathons to find out how information the book actually gets applied when you're hitting mile 13, but so marriage is the exact same thing, man. The more information you can have heading into it, more tools in the toolbox, and that's what this podcast is about, is say, listen, get information from psych and com and what the scriptures have to say, and then actually try to do it. You're going to come into bumps, but more information is better.

Chris Grace: And it's why, six years ago, you and I, our spouses, and some others decided to teach a class for students on how do you identify that which is both going to come, how do you deal with conflict? But also, what are some of the ways you can prepare to see or change your perspective or be prepared for things that will come? So-

Tim Muehlhoff: And you might be listening saying, "Ah, where do I get this information? I want this information." Well, go to our website, right, Chris?

Chris Grace: Yeah, and we've got-

Tim Muehlhoff: We've got podcasts, we've got blogs, we've got ask the expert, we have interviews. Man, it's just a treasure trove because here's the bad thing. Chris, let me say this and then we'll jump into our topic for today. So, the internet is good and crazy at the exact same time. If you want to see the craziness of it, just type into the search engine, "How to lose weight." You'll get craziness. Like, you want to lose 10 pounds over the weekend, cut off your arm, you know what I mean? Then you get stuff from the Mayo clinic that has been researched. So, we want to be a clearing house, our website, of here's the stuff you can trust. Whether you agree with it or not, it's been vetted by us. That's the beauty of a website like our website.

Chris Grace: Good call out. Tim, let me just say that if you were to evaluate ... If someone were to come to you and say, "I'm in this dating relationship" or one of your sons says, "I've met somebody and we're really having a fun time and we've been dating." ... You would begin to, and if they were to ask you, "Dad, I really love this person" or "I like hanging out with them" or "I just feel like we share so much in common." What are some signs they should be looking for that are positive signs? "Yeah, do you have an abundance of this?" Because we could tell them, of course, if you don't fight well, if you have a lot of conflict, if there's all these other kinds of negative traits, I think we can identify them. In fact, we had a whole podcast on negativity bias. We can be prepared for that, but let's try the opposite. A researcher wrote about these positive interpersonal processes. Susan [inaudible 00:06:15] out of, well, there you go. UNC Chapel Hill.

Tim Muehlhoff: UN, baby.

Chris Grace: She's a psychologist there in neuroscience. She recently began to say good relationships are characterized when there's a lot of ... or what we call frequent, positive social interactions. Right? So Tim, what would you point out when someone says, "We have so many positive things, and is that a good sign?" I think we would say "Yes and here they are." What are some of them? She would say people that have fun together. If this person makes you laugh, if you look forward to hanging out with them, and if the fun is there, obviously you're starting off well. She says good. Number one quality.

Tim Muehlhoff: So that would be common interests.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Enjoying each other's company.

Chris Grace: Sharing similar sense of humor, things that you laugh at.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right, I think it's incredibly important.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Good. Another one, I think, Tim, that we would begin to say if that's there, those positive emotions, we would begin to say, "Ah, what is it that ... " So for you and Noreen, you guys no doubt have similar senses of humor and you guys laugh at the same things, but can you recall knowing, "Gosh, I like that because we just have fun doing the same things." That's this idea that she would say is a positive interpersonal process that signifies good relationships. You have fun together.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's the value of dating, Chris, because I remember dating in college, perfectly fine, godly women. If you take a look at their resume of godliness, they're leading Bible studies, they're discipling women, they're sharing their faith. They're awesome, but what was missing was, you would make a joke and they sort of kind of wouldn't get the joke or they would ask for the joke to be explained. Or I remember one woman was saying, "I kind of feel like that's coarse jesting." I want to say, "Oh no, let me share with you what coarse jesting sounds like, right?" That was not coarse ... and it was a joke. Right? But that's where dating just helps to say, "Okay, I need somebody that our humor and our viewpoint kind of meshes without a ton of work."

Chris Grace: Good. So if you're thinking about this and you're in a dating relationship and you want to know if you're similar, here's one way. If you're watching something, listening to something, maybe you're listening to a comedian or watching a Netflix movie. If you tend to synchronize your laughing, your laughing continues at the same time. You start at the same thing, you laugh at the same thing, you're more likely to probably share these things, a similar sense of humor with them. Now, we always laugh at different weird, unique things, right? I sometimes laugh at something and Elisa goes, but most of the time it's in sync. That's a great gauge as to whether or not your humors are similar.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let's not just limit it to humor for a second. Let me ... we were going to go off. I know you and Elise have gone to the Soviet Union. We were heading off to live in Lithuania for a year and Campus Crusade for Christ thought it'd be a great idea, last night in the States, let's all go see a musical. The musical, Chris, was Le Mis. I had no idea what Le Mis was, none whatsoever. I even copped a little bit of a bad attitude with Noreen as we're driving to the theater, saying, "This is what?" She said, "Honey, it's the French revolution and it's all singing." I'm like, "Seriously? This is our last night and we're going to ... " Chris, we walked out of there singing Les Mis songs and Noreen and I were so blown away we bought the CDs, right? Our friend, our dear friend John, that we love to death, literally looked at us and said, "There were no words." We just looked at him like, "Are you kidding me? That was brilliant." He was like, "Yeah, eh." Well, okay, it's one thing. He's your friend. So let's say you were dating. I think you would take that. I think you would file that away just a little bit to say, "Listen, I think this was the best thing I've ever seen in my life and you were like, 'Eh?" What else does that apply to, by the way?

Chris Grace: Good.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's important.

Chris Grace: I think it's really important. Tim, here's another one. If you're in a relationship and you want to know one of the positive qualities or traits that's associated with longevity, with health, it's what happens when something good happens, when you get good news? So my wife, if I were to share something good that happened to me today, I could tell you what she is going to do. Her response is going to be joy. She's going to be excited for me, like, "Oh Chris, that's so cool. Tell me about what happened." So if you're in a relationship in which they share a joy with you and you share something good about your day, and they respond, they pay attention, they listen, and then they say, "That is so cool," you're in a good, healthy relationship.

Tim Muehlhoff: Even if that's sort of kind of isn't their thing, I still share the joy. Let me give you an illustration because you know how much I love hockey. I'm from Detroit, Hockey Town, right? So you're from Colorado, okay? So you know that the Colorado Avalanche playing the Detroit Redwings back in the day was insanity. Patrick-

Chris Grace: Patrick Roy.

Tim Muehlhoff: Patrick Roy, we hated. We despised that man. He was so good. He was so good.

Chris Grace: He was the goalie for a long time for the Avalanche.

Tim Muehlhoff: We hated him. So I could not wait for that man to retire. He was the thorn in our side. We literally would lose ... we wouldn't make the Stanley cup because of Patrick Roy. He retired. I went and stopped at Kroger grocery store. I went and got a cake and I had on the cake, "Patrick Roy retired today." I brought home a cake and Noreen goes, "Honey, what's with the cake?" I opened the cake and it said, "Patrick R. Retired." She looks at me and goes, "Honey, I'm just so happy for you." Imagine her saying, "How much did you spend on this cake? Tim, come on, that's ridiculous," right? No. She said, "All right, honey, this is utterly ridiculous, but because you're happy, I'm going to be ... " That is a huge sign of a good relationship. You just say, "Honey, I'm glad that makes you happy and I'm happy because you're happy."

Chris Grace: That, Tim, is a signal of love.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.

Chris Grace: And support and help, and I think that sense of security there that says, "And if I know ... if in the future something doesn't go well, they'll be there to support." In other words, that support in positive also correlates to the support when things maybe don't go well and you're like, "I can trust this person and I have security that way." So those are really good positive signs, but what's another one? How about one that you and I, we've even had a podcast on this, the whole podcast, and that is people ... when we do something for another person, right? You help your friend do something that is stressing them out. Maybe you need to proofread a paper, Susan wrote in this article, or a friend is really struggling with stress because there's time pressures and you step in and say, "Let me do your laundry for you, or let me help you in this way." Right? That action towards you can go a long way, especially if you notice it and have ... I like to talk about gratitude. So, that idea, Tim, of how kindness begets kindness, says Susan [inaudible 00:13:38] in this paper. What do you think about that and this idea of gratitude?

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, it makes me think of the inverse. Remember Gottman said the first thing to die in a relationship is gratitude as we start to take each other for granted and, man, there is nothing like a well-timed compliment. I have a friend of mine who says there's certain compliments you can live off of for weeks. Again, this is back to what we said in previous podcasts, life and death is in the power of the tongue, and to just make sure that you intentionally express your gratitude.

Tim Muehlhoff: So I became a Christian through Michael Crane's Karate for Christ Ministry when I was 13, never went to church, and I lost track of them. I literally just was at an event that he preached the gospel and I accepted Jesus and then went on to be a leader with Campus Crusade for Christ, go on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, then now I'm at Biola University, a Christian university. He doesn't know any of that. I'm speaking at a marriage conference, Chris, and I mentioned my testimony. I mentioned Michael Crane's Karate for Christ. A guy walks up to me and he goes, "Hey, I actually know the Cranes." I go, "You do?" He goes, "I got their phone. I got his cell number." I called him, Chris, and I said, "Hey, listen, I don't know if you ever know the fruits of your labor. I just want you to say that you put me on a path that is still impacting people today." I sent him every one of my books. I had InterVarsity send them all my books. He said to me at the very end of the conversation, I'll never forget this, he goes, "I've had a stroke. I can't do karate anymore. I've often wondered if it was worth it." I said, "Michael, this is living testimony that it was worth it." He goes, "This really made my day."

Chris Grace: Isn't that something?

Tim Muehlhoff: That we have the power to do that and not to assume that somebody knows it but to say, "Hey, I just wanted you to know, you're a great student."

Chris Grace: Yeah, and Tim, I think what it communicates to the other person is, when you do something for them, you get coffee the way they like it or you thought about putting gas in their car or ...

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.

Chris Grace: It's as if you know they thought about you. Sometimes, knowing that ... There's a researcher who also examines how men and women respond to to things like this. [inaudible 00:15:36] just did some research saying that, for men, they would oftentimes rather hear words like, "Thank you" than "I love you." Now, they wanted to hear "I love you" from their wives, from their spouses, but the very fact that something that they did was acknowledged, like, "You work so hard for the family. Can I just say thank you?" that that right there, expressions of gratitude, did more for them oftentimes than someone just saying, "Hey, I love you." I think it's interesting because there's this mix-

Tim Muehlhoff: That's interesting, yeah.

Chris Grace: That it would be in there and it shows the power of thinking about another person, kindness and gratitude. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, I think it's huge. Again, what we're saying, it doesn't just apply to relationships. This is organizational communication. This is ... if managers are listening. So we were at Miami of Ohio University and I sat in on a philosophy class and this was an atheist philosopher and, Chris, he was not a good speaker. He was one of those painful guys. You just sat there and you're like, "Why am I doing this?" But now I feel weird to leave the class, but he gave a lecture on Descartes that was really, really good, so afterwards I went up with a couple of students and I just said to him, I said, "Hey, I just want you to know, that was really good. I really enjoyed that and that was very insightful." He gets emotional in front of me and the students and says, "You know what? We don't get a whole lot of compliments." I was like, "Dude, that was great." So, to know that you have that kind of power to walk up to your pastor who maybe only hears complaints, to walk up to a boss who just is overwhelmed and doesn't have resources, middle management, and you go up and say, "Hey, I just want you to know, you do a great job."

Chris Grace: You know, Tim, I just think of something like that, small kindnesses right? Where you just think about something. It's kind of funny, just as we're talking about this, as we started this podcast, students ... We're on the university. They walk by and they hold up a sign just now that said, "We're big fans," right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: That idea of just sharing, "We love what you do," because we're sitting here in a room, you know?

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: With no one else in this room, and we're just sitting here talking and we don't know the impact, but to hear those stories, it just shows that, again, this, like we talked about in the last podcast or a previous one, about the power of life and death is in the tongue. That really there's something pretty powerful about just simply saying words like that to people. I wonder, why do people have a hard time with gratitude or saying thank you? Is it something that ... do you think we do it well? And young couples, is it something we start taking for granted? How do you encourage them to stay in that? Why is it so simple, to be maybe more critical as a relationship starts?

Tim Muehlhoff: Remember the old joke, a guy said to his wife, "Hey, listen, I told you I loved you when we got married and if anything changes, I'll let you know." Right? So I wonder if, with our pastor or our spouse-

Chris Grace: Or kids.

Tim Muehlhoff: Or kids, I just wonder if we think, "Well, they know I love him. Come on. My wife knows I love her. My kids know I'm proud of them. They just know that." It's like, "Dude, make that explicit." Bob Emmons wrote a great book on gratitude, and he talks about writing people letters and hand delivering letters. You know what I did? You know what I did? This was a while back. I started to realize, all my friendships, I have like five that we've been friends for 20 years or more. I took one day and called each one of them and the response was overwhelming. They were like, "Man, thanks for that." Again, we've been friends for 20 ... Some, Tim Downs, 30 plus years, Bill Radford, 30 plus years, but to say, "Hey, I just want you to know, our friendship, man, has endured over time. It is one of the most important things," but to take what we've been friends, why do I have to articulate this? But man, the power it had on them was huge.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think two things. Let me just say this. One, so when I made that decision to do that, the first call was by far the hardest because it was like, "Okay, is this going to be weird?" Is this just ... I don't know, do I really need to say this? Maybe I'm being sappy and is this even masculine to do this? I think there was that and I just wrote a book on spiritual battle in marriage and I don't doubt, Chris, that Satan steps in and goes, "Oh, come on, you don't need to do this. Come on. It will be weird. Why make it weird?" Right? I don't doubt that that happens. So man, Bob Emmons says write that letter and send it, send that email, send that text.

Chris Grace: I love that. Even if you simply have done that and you want to try something else, we've talked about this on the program before, Tim, it's writing down things you're grateful for on a regular basis. Right? Just do that couple of times a day and keep the list. Man, how awesome is that? So good relationships, Tim, are characterized by these frequent, what she calls positive social interactions, right? Having fun together, sharing laughs, doing kind things for one another, and then expressing the gratitude.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's only three. That's not a whole lot to work on.

Chris Grace: It's not. You could do these pretty quickly. By the way, the power of what this can accomplish in your own life, just simply by being more grateful. It's just like expressing and seeking and granting forgiveness. The quality of life changes because it has physical, psychological, emotional, and relational impacts. So all of these things come into play and there're such strong relationships and links between good relationships like these and health.

Tim Muehlhoff: Chris, I'm looking at these real quick and I'm wondering if we couldn't apply these to God, each one of these.

Chris Grace: Oh, let's try it.

Tim Muehlhoff: So, for example, remember Paul says, "I want you to exalt in the Lord. I want you to rejoice." To me, that's the sharing this laughter, this intimacy, this I am so overwhelmed by the truth of the gospel that literally I'm laughing.

Chris Grace: Look at David when he comes in and he dances and into the city as God's sign of love, and then God expressing joy, singing over us, right? That idea in, is it Zechariah or Zephaniah? There were three where he talks about he exalts over us with song. All right, so it applies. What about the next one?

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, my favorite definition of exalt, I had a student when I was at UNC Chapel Hill, she was my top student. She was a phenomenal student, incredibly responsible. She comes in one day or eyes are all blotchy before class. She grabs me and you could tell she's just really upset and she just goes, "Dr. Muehlhoff, I'm not prepared. I'm not prepared for the midterm. I'm so sorry. I didn't budget my time and I don't ever do this and I'm going to ask you for an extension." I just felt horrible for her and I just let her talk. I said to her, I'll call her Joy, I said, "Joy, it's next week." She let out a yell and hugged me. Hugged me. To me, that's exalt. That is, I so realized what I thought was incredibly bad news and I just blew it and I got a huge Mulligan.

Chris Grace: That's great.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's really cool. How about expressing joy? Disclosing good news? I think this is praising God and even saying to him, "Thank you for my salvation. I'm not going to take this for granted." Communion is a chance for us to bodily partake in disclosing good news. This is Christ' body given for you. His blood spilled for you.

Chris Grace: Yeah, and that's exactly what praise is, right? When we turn back and recognize and acknowledge the goodness of what we've received by a God who loves, by a God who is joy. So that one fits, and then of course the whole notion of thanksgiving.

Tim Muehlhoff: Gratitude is everywhere. Read Psalm 103. Hey, but let me make a point about Psalm 103. I actually preached a sermon on this. So David says, "I'm going to count the benefits before me." What's interesting is how he lists the benefits. If you were to go to an average American Christian and say, "Are you grateful to God?" I think many of us in a materialistic world would say, "Yeah, I'm thankful for my health. I'm thankful I have friends. I'm thankful for my family," right? David doesn't start there. He starts by saying, one, all your iniquities have been forgiven. Second, you will be redeemed from the pit, which means you'll be raised from the dead. Your transgressions are forgiven, your diseases will be healed, scatologically, right? In the kingdom, and then he says at the very, very bottom, and He fills your days with good things. I think as Americans we've flipped that. We judged God by the good things, health status, grade point, dating relationship. David says, "No, no, no, no. Start with the spiritual ones. Jesus died for you. Your sins are forgiven. You're redeemed." I think that's important to get the order right.

Chris Grace: That's really good. That's real insightful. Yeah, Tim, I think that's a great insight and it helps us as we recognize that even if we sometimes struggle with maybe being slightly more pessimistic or more negative or maybe not quite as joyful as some, that we can still express and sense and know who we are, what we've been given, this good news that we have, and that's why it's good news, right? And that joy that we can have? Even sometimes for those that hold down a little bit of their emotions, that are maybe a little bit less likely to show strong positive emotion, can still recognize and benefit by expressing these kinds of things like gratitude for another person by loving and joy for another person and looking out for them.

Tim Muehlhoff: So maybe make it your exercise for today to make a list of 10 things, five spiritual blessings and five material blessings, but start with the spiritual and then do the five blessing.

Chris Grace: I love that. Then, if you want, you can even have a different category of those friends in your life, kind of like you did. Keep a running list of things that you like about them, things that you value about them and ways that maybe they make you laugh or qualities that they have. What a great list to keep. That's awesome.

Tim Muehlhoff: Keep that thing.

Chris Grace: Number one on that list would be keep listening to this podcast, go to for other resources like this [crosstalk 00:26:08].

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, but seriously, we are grateful for our listeners. We get metrics on our podcasts and we don't take it for granted that this podcast has really grown and that we're international. We're up to 70 countries where people listen to us and we don't take that for granted. Thank you for listening to us. We really do appreciate that, for sharing it around.

Chris Grace: We appreciate it.

Tim Muehlhoff: All right.

Chris Grace: Tim, good talking.

Tim Muehlhoff: All right. Take care.

Speaker 1: 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.