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The Power of Perception Pt. I

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

Whether we like it or not, our reality is based on our perceptions. In this episode, Chris and Tim explore how perceptions shape our relationships and how to discern when they can help or hinder healthy connection with others.

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, welcome to another Art of Relationships Podcast. And Tim, it's been a little while since we've hit the topic of perception and conflict and the way in which we deal with conflict in relationships, but it's really a fun topic that a lot of people want to know about and it has a huge impact on the way in which we interact with other people, right? And so our views of them, our perception. Psychologists love the idea of perceptions and so do communication theorists.

Tim Muehlhoff: We do because your perception is your reality. I mean, how you perceive a person really takes on a life of its own. I was recently doing a meeting where I was talking about perception and I said, let me give you a for instance, just a spike, how quickly you can have different perceptions of something. I said, "How would you guys all define patriotism?" And I got a bunch of different answers. All I did was stuck a photograph up on PowerPoint of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem. Chris, it was electric. People are talking over each other. Every hand went up to comment on whether that was patriotic or not, but see, that's perception.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's not like there's a rule book that we go into the end of the rule book and say, "Okay, what is the actual definition of patriotism?" Because what Colin Kaepernick is doing could either be really patriotic or it could be seen as being really unpatriotic, well, welcome to the confusing world of perception and what shapes your perception.

Chris Grace: And I think for you in that experience and the audience out there that saw this and reacted, it's fascinating, Tim, from a psychological standpoint of relationships that the filters that we bring, when I see this, it goes through this filter that I have and I have to be very careful because I can see a lot of things that aren't there or I can interpret a lot of things that the other person might say simply because of my filter. And so we've talked a little bit about that at different times and there's a cool couple of studies that people are forced into filters, remember the Scar Study?

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, [crosstalk 00:02:13].

Chris Grace: We'll talk some about that, so Tim, then in a situation like that, what happens in close relationships if this was a common reaction that people have, these perceptions that we have and how they shape us?

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, we need to step back and understand, where did my perception come from? Right? I suspect if you have a military background, if your grandparents were in the military, if some of your siblings were in the military, then you would look at Colin Kaepernick kneeling for our flag that people literally have given their lives for, it wouldn't be hard to understand why I view that as being incredibly insensitive and unpatriotic. Yet you might have other people who say, "But I'm an African American in a community that I feel like police violence is just proportionate," which is the original reason why he knelt anyway, Colin Kaepernick. But all of that is based on your personal experience, your upbringing.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's what we call priming. That's from psychology as much as from communication studies, is we're primed to see certain things in different ways. Let me give you another illustration. So when I was in college at Eastern Michigan University, we liked to play pickup basketball. So we all learned that there was a huge sale at a place called the Finish Line. And so me and two of my other buddies, we go and we're right about to walk in and I stop as if a force field has stopped me dead in my tracks. I cannot walk into the store. My two friends have no problem. They walk right into the store, but they turn around, they look at me and they say, "Dude, come on." And I stopped, Chris. There was one person in the corner of the store holding a picket sign, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Just one employee saying, "We're trying to get better wages." Now, I stopped dead in my tracks. My two friends had no problems walking in. Why? Because my dad was a factory worker in Detroit. I remember two times the factory went on strike and we would wake up in the morning and there was food, a gift basket of food and milk that the union had provided. And I remember my dad looking at me and saying, "Son, you never cross another man's picket line." Well, I don't even know what I think about picket lines. Right? I don't even know what I think about unions to be honest with you. But that caused me to perceive it as something that I shouldn't do. With the other two guys, totally different background. They walked right through it, didn't think twice of it.

Chris Grace: I have a similar story growing up. My dad is a police officer and so I was taught to not just love my dad and honor and respect him, but when you had an interaction with a police officer, you did something, in my mind it was interacting with... You didn't lie, they were trustworthy. Or at least they were looking out for your best interest, trying to protect people and they weren't the kind that were out there to harm or to be biased or stereotypical or racist. And so whenever I interact with a cop, that's what comes to mind. And it's so interesting because even today in this culture, there are a whole lot of people who have very different experiences with the same kind of person.

Chris Grace: And that brings up a perception in me of a way in which, "Oh, here's a helpful person, here's a person I want to know, here's somebody that's here to protect and serve," and another person does not feel that. And so-

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, how does this impact marriage? And again, we're going to talk about marriage, but really perception is the backdrop of all human communication. It could be roommates, family members, it could be anybody. So let me just tell you a quick way that this could affect marriage, and then let's talk about how we actually can become aware of our perceptions and how those perceptions have taken root. Noreen and I are just married. We're barely making it, right? We're on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. We're raising our own support. We certainly don't have much supplemental income. So Noreen wakes up one day, because there're just some things that we need. She goes, "Oh Tim, there's a flea market. Let's go to the flea market."

Tim Muehlhoff: And I was like, "Oh no, I'm not going to a flea market." Noreen's like, "Honey, there could be some great deals." I said, "I don't go to flea markets." And she was like, "Okay, what's going on?" Well, growing up we just didn't have much money. My glasses, Chris, all three of my brothers, we got glasses like roughly in second grade, third grade, all of us. And when our glasses broke, there was no money to fix them. So I can't tell you how many photographs, school photographs I've got my glasses on and there's duct tape holding... and my glasses are totally skewed because my dad... there wasn't extra money.

Tim Muehlhoff: So my mom would make us go to flea markets and we would get stuff like school clothes and certain things, and I hate it. I didn't know much about flea markets. I just knew we didn't have enough money to go to Sears or Kmart and that just stuck. Right? And by the way, flea markets are great and you can get killer deals. My perception of it though is rooted in my past. Welcome to marriage one-on-one.

Chris Grace: I think, Tim, what you're defining and what really starts to happen is we each have these unique histories and backgrounds, right? And we come in with these ideas, we come in with even these expectations. But what gets shaped oftentimes during our childhood comes out, and why someone does what they do has a lot to do with the very fact that I experienced this. This is what it's supposed to be like in my relationship or in my marriage. And if a person doesn't share that background or that perception, all of a sudden it comes to the front. Right? And now you're dealing with a disagreement or a difference in a pretty, maybe not that quite substantial area, but it seems to hit the other person pretty hard.

Tim Muehlhoff: So a quick aside, if you're listening to us and you're single and you're thinking about getting married, here's what premarital counseling ought to do. You ought to take an inventory of your background. You need to take an inventory of the place you grew up geographically as well as economically. You need to hear what your spouse grew up with because that is affecting you in ways you don't even realize until you get married. And suddenly a flea market is off the table because you just associate it negatively. So yeah, know each other's history and family backgrounds, it's incredibly important.

Chris Grace: I remember when we were going through that process and trying to learn about each other and I think, Tim, it's wise for you to point out for listeners that are dealing with maybe being in a longterm relationship, maybe they're engaged and wanting to get married. Knowing as much as you can before that strikes is really important. And that's part of this idea. I remember driving in the car with Elisa and she said, "Now Chris, we're about to go meet this family member and when we go meet them for the first time, I'm going to tell you he is going to offer you an alcoholic beverage, a beer. He's going to offer it to you and I just want you to be prepared because that's all he drinks." She goes, "And so what will you do?"

Chris Grace: And I go, "Well, I would probably drink it." And then I realized based upon her action, that was the wrong answer because she grew up where alcohol really wasn't maybe part of the social thing that you did and it clearly wasn't something in this case that she would have thought was important because she struggled with this particular member of the family who maybe drank too much. So all that to say, I remember looking at her going, "Or maybe I won't drink it."

Tim Muehlhoff: I know.

Chris Grace: And it's this idea, what is your view towards something like... what you shared. Well, what is your view towards going to a flea market? Or what is your view towards alcohol? Helping people figure that out ahead of time is really the key.

Tim Muehlhoff: And ignore what Hollywood says. Hollywood blurs this line constantly. Hollywood likes to suggest it doesn't matter social, economic backgrounds. Love will cover all of that. So I think of the classic movie, the Titanic, where you get Leonardo DiCaprio who is below the deck of the Titanic because that's where all the stowaways are and that's where people who didn't have money to buy a first class ticket. But he falls in love with a woman who's on the upper deck, who's actually engaged to a socialite who's incredibly wealthy. Hollywood would say, but it doesn't matter. They love each other. I remember what she says, this is just a crazy line for the movie. Kate Winslet is the name of the actress.

Tim Muehlhoff: She says, "Jack, when I get off this boat, I'm going with you even though you have no money to support us, even though my going with you, he's going to cut me off all of my financial background, we will have no money to live on. I know this sounds crazy. That's why I trust it." That's literally a quote on the Titanic. And we want to say, listen, can people from different socioeconomic backgrounds get married? Yes, but it's going to cause massive problems because you've grown up in different contexts of what you think is wasteful or not, and all of that needs to be taken into consideration. So perception is for real. It'd be really good before you marry a person to know what's shaping your perspective the most.

Tim Muehlhoff: So in comm studies, and I'd love to hear about psych in a little bit, but I think comm studies should go first because it's superior. We know that we are bombarded with information on a daily basis and we're going to have to find ways of limiting our perception because we get hit. So consider this, Chris. Through the growth of the internet, laptop, computers, sophisticated mobile phones and ubiquitous news programs, we receive five times more information in one day than people did in 1986. So using a '85 page newspaper as a measure, researchers found out that in 1986, we received around 40 newspapers worth of information in a day. But today that has skyrocketed to 174 newspapers worth of information. That's a 200 fold increase.

Tim Muehlhoff: You can't pay attention to everything. So your perception has to be narrowed. And we use this term, cognitive misers, just like a miser is very careful to spend his or her money, a cognitive miser is very careful to spend mental energy interpreting people. So we've got a guy named G.A. Quattrone, who came up with a three step process. First, categorization. I meet you and I immediately put you in a category. It could be Democrat, Republican. It could be wealthy, poor. It could be spiritual, not spiritual. It could be handsome, not handsome. Then I put you in that category and then I give it all these characteristics, right? Democrats are like this, Republicans are like this.

Tim Muehlhoff: And then based on that, I can correct my perception, but that often doesn't happen because I don't take time to talk to a person to correct my perceptions of that person. So that's G.A. Quattrone, we use him in comm theory, categorization, characterization, and then perhaps, hopefully, correction.

Chris Grace: Tim, we use very similar, in fact, cognitive misers is actually a pretty common social phenomenon as well. Right? Social cognition just simply says we're overwhelmed with information and we can only pay attention to a select amount and we tend to be more lazy and so we just really don't want to pay attention to all these other things. And so we really select that which we either most agree with or feels right to us and we like to hang out with the people... Well, let me ask you this, Tim, and maybe you'll talk a little bit more about the idea of categorization and characterization and correction, but I have a question. Is there certain kinds of things right away in a relationship, you're in a relationship right away, that it becomes clear that there are something that you either disagree with or you have very different perceptions?

Chris Grace: In this example from the movie, you have very different socioeconomic standings. Are there some things however, that are really hard to bridge? And I ask you that because one of the studies I think that's fascinating is that they oftentimes find people from different socioeconomic standings having a much better go at it in a marriage, in a relationship than they do, one variable stands out, is they almost rarely find people of different political persuasions-

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh yeah. Yep.

Chris Grace: ... together in dating or being successful in their dating. It's almost like you will rarely find a blue liberal Democrat dating a very red conservative Republican. And because that just seems as if it hits at something deeper. So values or... it's almost like it can be overcome. Do you think there are some things that people who are maybe in a dating relationship or thinking about, have discovered this difference and are there some that are clear stop signs you really need to pay attention to this difference?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. And we talk about snap judgments. I know psych does as well. So when you meet a person, you make judgements pretty quickly about this person. So let me go back to college. I met this girl, she was in the same dorm that I was in. She was a piano major, funny, a very attractive woman. She liked me and I liked her and I thought, wow, this is great. So think of all the categories I just put her on to. Funny, check, love that. Artistic, love that. I was a theater major. She's a piano performance major. That's cool. Right? Here's one category though. I'm super religious, right? I'm in that category. I'm a student leader with Campus Crusade for Christ. She is in the category of... how can you even say it? Quasi religious? Semi-religious? Maybe pray before I eat religious?

Tim Muehlhoff: And Chris, it bothered me. Right? Because I really liked her and here she was and we'd talk about God and you could tell she was hedging her cards a little bit like, "Oh no, I think... No, God's great. No, I think that's really cool." "Well, do you go to church?" "No, I don't really go to church." "Do you own a Bible?" Nothing. So now there's a category she just got placed into. Right? Now what do I do with that category?

Chris Grace: Well, you would say, and I think a lot of our listeners would say, there are categories like that that are really not to be challenged or maybe there isn't... I don't want to correct that. Or I don't want to go through this process of trying... If I want to become a good friend with this person, that's one thing. But to romantically become attached, it feels as if we're violating something, pretty much this idea of being yoked together with an unbeliever. And we think of all these bad stories that we've heard growing up or from the church or from the Bible that caution us against something just like that.

Chris Grace: So you would say that probably you put a quick, it may be stop on the relationship or at least a slow step.

Tim Muehlhoff: Three years later I broke up with her. No, I'm kidding. But here's what we find out, Chris, that was a great insight. Here's what we find out. So we speak at FamilyLife marriage conferences, right? There's a pre-engaged session. Pre-married session. I'm sorry. A lot of these people are engaged. So Chris, I'm at this one conference and there's like, I don't know, 10 couples. And three couples stay afterwards to talk to me. So we're talking to him and one guy, you could just tell, he's lukewarm towards religion. I finally say to him, "Hey, are you a Christian?" And he would go, "Oh no, no, I wouldn't put myself in that category." I look at her, I said, "Would you identify yourself as a Christian?" She goes, "Well, yes, I would."

Tim Muehlhoff: Then I go to the next couple, same thing. He just is not talking the lingo of religion, and I said, "Hey, can I ask, do you go to church?" He goes, "No, I'm not really in that category." I look at her, "Are you a Christian?" She goes, "Ah, yes." Okay. Here's what's happened. When you meet a person and you just really like him, but they're clearly not in the same category you are when it comes to religion, two things are going to happen. One, you're going to lessen the category. You're going to say, "A religious person doesn't have to go to church all the time. A religious person doesn't..." These are the characteristic parts. Doesn't have to read the Bible, doesn't even need to talk about God all the time.

Tim Muehlhoff: And I'd say to that person, "Why are you lessening that category? Before you met that person, what would that category had been to you?" And I bet you that person would say, "Oh, it's one of my most important categories." We see that compromise happening all the time. Right Chris?

Chris Grace: We do, and it's worrisome, Tim. But let's dive into it just a little. Why is that so common, I guess for someone to minimize that? Is that where the heart gets too involved? All of a sudden now you find your emotions so connected with this other person, they have so many other categories that get checked off like you said. Kind, they treat you well, they love their family, they love you, they're good looking.

Tim Muehlhoff: You're good together. You're great together.

Chris Grace: You're good together. And many of them then, Tim, I think find themselves facing this very, very painful moment where they're either going to have to lessen how important this particular thing was, religion or my personal beliefs or my values, or they're just going to have to say like you found with this couple who would say, "Maybe it's just really not all that important." Right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: And what would you counsel for someone who's in that place right now, to just say, well, there are some categorizations that are really supreme and that need to filter out.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So the older I get, the more bold I get at these conferences, Chris. Now, I'd never met these couples before and they had never met me before except hearing me at this conference. So I simply said to them, I said, "Can I ask you an honest question? Feel free not to answer." They said, "Okay." These are three couples. I said, "Are you sexually active?" Couple number one, "Yes." Couple number two, "Yes." Couple number three, "Yes." Now, Chris, if you want something that destroys your perspective, get sexually active, right? The Song of Solomon says this, right? Do not awaken desire before it's appropriate time. So sex is made to bond you together and bring you close.

Tim Muehlhoff: These three couples, they were all sleeping together. One couple was living together. Here's what I said to him, tell me what you think about this. I said, "Okay, couple things. One, the three guys, you need to determine if God's important. You need to determine that outside of this relationship. Right? You need to know, is Jesus who he says he is? And if so, what are you going to do with him? Second, and I know this is going to sound crazy. I think all three of you need to stop having sex because..." You should have seen their look. Two of these were Marines. I was a little nervous. I just said, "Hey, because right now your perspective is whacked, right? You feel you might be closer than what you really are."

Tim Muehlhoff: So I just offered him that. I said, "I'd go at least six months with..." I said, "No physical contact." And I don't know if they did it, Chris. But you-

Chris Grace: Oh-

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, what do you think?

Chris Grace: Oh yeah. I'm sure.

Tim Muehlhoff: What's the [crosstalk 00:21:26]? Maybe Chris, maybe.

Chris Grace: I don't think you're that persuasive.

Tim Muehlhoff: I have a PhD [crosstalk 00:21:36]-

Chris Grace: Maybe you're a great communicator, Tim, but I just I'm not sure...

Tim Muehlhoff: But it's not true though, Chris. Come on. That's such a hard situation.

Chris Grace: [crosstalk 00:21:44]. Not only is it true, but I think that's exactly the problem we face with so many couples in relationships is you begin to do this. I think what you do is you begin to not be clear in your judgment or your perceptions about your compatibility. And in fact, the other areas are most likely going to not be... you're probably not going to be as compatible in a lot of areas, but you ignore those simply because the overwhelming sense of-

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.

Chris Grace: .... what intimacy does is it binds you together, it draws you closer, it creates this unified oneness. And at that point, Tim, I think too many couples struggle with this notion then of what was there before and it was clearly seen as lack of compatibility, lack of similar interests, now starts to be minimized or hidden. And guess what happens? It comes out again after the marriage ceremony, if not before, but once you are married, all of a sudden it doesn't take long for these couples to go, "Dear Lord, we don't really have anything in common or we are completely opposite in this. And I simply didn't want that to be or I didn't pay attention."

Chris Grace: And those are the ones that are really hard. Those are the marriages and the relationships I think, Tim, that struggle a lot.

Tim Muehlhoff: So let's say sadly those three couples get married, right? Here's one thing I can guarantee. If they're having that kind of conflict and are realizing they made compromises, they're not having sex. Right? The one thing that kept them together that made them feel intimate, when there's conflict that... right?

Chris Grace: [crosstalk 00:23:14].

Tim Muehlhoff: One writer said, "A good sex life starts in the kitchen, not the bedroom." If you're having a bunch of arguments about who does what and you don't see eye to eye on finances or spirituality, you better believe you're not having hot, passionate sex in the bedroom. That only happens before you're married because you can segment yourself, but when you're married, it's very hard to segment yourself.

Chris Grace: So bottom line, Tim, there are a couple of issues. This would be one of those where you would need to pay a lot of attention to that unique differences. That is your spiritual life and are you equally matched or yoked in your beliefs, in your love for God, in your desire to know him, walk with him, be a child, be obedient with him? To invest in a church and in a community? And if those aren't there, you're really starting to dabble in maybe something that could come back and be a very difficult relationship breaker and barrier.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and applying Quattrone, I would figure out what categories are incredibly important to you that you're not going to skimp on. What are the categories? It could be financial. "Hey, I'm a saver. Money is important to me. I need to feel like I'm being taken care of financially." Or certainly we would hope it's religion. And so what are the categories that you don't want to skimp on? Then when you meet a person... Now, here's one thing. When you meet a person, you may initially put them in a category, but then their spirituality may look a little bit different than what you prefigured, but after getting to know them, you kick into what Quattrone calls the correction stage.

Tim Muehlhoff: You go, "Okay, they're a little bit different than how I would do it," and that might be a good thing for you. But they do have that passion for the Lord. It just looks a little different from how you do it.

Chris Grace: And some couples find that that's the case where they realize that their partner maybe doesn't worship the same way. They don't enjoy similar experiences, but their spirituality or their love or their spiritual temperament comes out in serving other people and they realize, wait a minute, this person does love Jesus. They do, and it's just in a different way than I do. And that could be a good thing and it's not necessarily anything to worry about. Or this correction could come in where you realize, wait a minute, I need to also figure out how important is this to me? How important is my walk? Have I owned this part of my life as much to where I'm willing to sacrifice or give something up and wait?

Chris Grace: And now all of a sudden, couples are struggling, Tim, I think a little bit with trusting that God has their best interest in mind. How could I potentially give this person up for God when it feels like everything else is so right? And now you're starting to strike at something in their hearts, which is, where is God for you? Do you trust him? Does he want you and your best interest in mind?

Tim Muehlhoff: And to be honest, what we have noticed is there are godly women who are awesome, dedicated to the Lord, and then now they're in their mid 30s, they're in their early 40s. And to be honest, they're now looking at a person that they never would have looked at in their late 20s. But now it's like, "I'm tired of being alone. I really don't want to do this anymore by myself." We have seen that that tends to be a disaster. That's a short fix with longterm implications if you actually marry this person. So that's what premarital counseling is for. Get a good trained person who can look at your histories, how that's primed you, the categories that you've created, maybe some of your categories are too rigid.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's what a good trained premarital counselor does and that's why the CMR is... We're dedicated to giving people the kind of resources they need to make informed decisions on how to shape their perceptions, on how to correct their perceptions.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Good. Tim, that's great, and it's a great topic. In fact, let's keep exploring a little bit of this, about perceptions and what they do and how they impact our relationships and how they should at different stages of our relationships. What is at the top of the list of things that I need to not compromise on and how do I determine that? What do you think? Should we do that?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, we'd love to.

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