In many parts of the United States, checking the weather forecast is an important part of people’s morning routines. (Or so we’re told here in perpetually sunny Southern California.) But did you know that it’s equally important to make a regular check of your “marriage forecast”?
At least that’s what marriage expert and Biola University professor Tim Muehlhoff says. In his latest book, Marriage Forecasting: Changing the Climate of Your Relationship One Conversation at a Time, Muehlhoff advises couples on how to weather thestorms that can arise in any relationship — and what it takes to create and maintain a healthy, sunny climate. He recently sat down with Biola Magazine to share some insights that might be helpful in your “neck of the woods.”
Tim, one of the premises of your book is that marriage is a lot like the weather. What do you mean by that?
I’m from Michigan, where they just got hit with an ice storm. My brother couldn’t go to work. My mom had to cancel a doctor’s appointment. People are having to adapt to the weather. Well, as soon as two people start talking, a communication climate is developed that is just as real as what the people in Detroit are having to deal with. You can’t just say, “I’m just going to pretend it didn’t snow 10 inches. I’m going to ignore it and go about my business.” It’s the same thing in communication theory. You cannot ignore a communication climate. It is the backdrop to all communication. If you do ignore it, you really inhibit your ability to have a successful conversation. Communication climates really do determine how productive your conversation is.
How can you determine what kind of a climate your marriage has?
Communication theorists have been studying this for quite a while, and they’ve come up with four different aspects of what a communication climate is. First is the level of commitment between two people: Do you feel like this person is absolutely committed to you and to the marriage? Second is the idea of trust: If I don’t trust your words or your intentions, if I’m always suspicious, that really inhibits a communication climate. Third is acknowledgement: Do you feel like your perspective is acknowledged or do you feel like it’s always being belittled? Or maybe something really important to you is met with detached neutrality from me? Last is expectations: What did you expect your wife or husband to be like? When I say something like “being a spiritual leader in the home” — my goodness, what does that mean? So when we talk about communication climates, you can live in one, for example, in which there’s no trust — you feel that person’s career or the kids are more important than the marriage. That climate no doubt is unstable.
Is it possible for people to be living in an unhealthy climate without necessarily realizing it?
Yeah, with some couples it takes a third party to look into the relationship and say, “I can’t see how this is healthy for you guys, spiritually, physically, emotionally.” But what I tend to find mostly are couples who know there are areas where they just don’t go anymore — she doesn’t know why he’s so defensive; he doesn’t know why she feels devalued. They can see the storm clouds, but they just have no idea what to do. Most couples tend to ignore it and push through those finance discussions or those in-law conversations. Or, they shrink the marriage so that they just don’t talk about finances or sexual intimacy or church involvement anymore because they’ve had conversations that didn’t go well. They just are resigned to the fact that they have a negative climate, and they just don’t know what to do to improve it.
Before we get to how to improve it, is it true that the divorce rates among Christians are virtually identical to the divorce rates among non-Christians?
That was really a sobering part of my research. Barna Research Group would say that statistically it’s virtually identical. In their first marriage, within the first 40 years of their marriage, people within the church are calling it quits roughly the same average as people outside the church. That’s really discouraging.
Why do you think that is? Would you expect there to be a difference?
What I find is that people lack a theology of marriage. They don’t understand from a biblical standpoint that a marriage is supposed to represent Christ’s love for the church. As a husband I’m called to love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Noreen, my wife, is to respect me as she does the Savior himself. Why? So that people will look at this marriage and see something of what God’s unconditional, unyielding love actually looks like. Being a Christian doesn’t preclude you from going through some tough times. Christian marriages aren’t spared from the same kind of struggles that non-Christian marriages face. But there’s a bigger purpose to it all. C.S. Lewis said to men that precisely when your wife is acting least Christ-like is when you need to love her, because God loved us when we were at our lowest. But that takes a rich theology of the purpose of my marriage — not just the American idea of what my marriage is supposed to be.
And not just a theology, but you say in the book that the first step to improving the climate of your marriage is to focus on the climate of your relationship with God.
In many ways that’s true. And the reason that’s true is because I was created to experience divine love — a type of unconditional, divine love. There are a ton of reasons why my relationship with God might not be very healthy. We talk about expectations between people? Well, you better believe that I bring into my relationship with God a ton of expectations. And over a while, prayers do not get answered in the way or timing that I want, or I go through a tough time in my life or marriage, or one of my kids gets sick, or — God forbid — one of my kids passes away. I am now angry with God, so I stop going to God to get divine love, but I turn to my spouse. But our spouse really can’t do what God can do. I start that chapter with a C.S. Lewis quote: “Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long. You cannot love a fellow creature fully till you love God.” And that’s because God fills up that divine need, and then I can accept the imperfect love of my wife.
With that as the starting point, what are some of the simple changes that couples can make to start improving their climate?
There are two ways to check the climate of your marriage. One is to throw open the window, pop your head out and look up. It’s not super sophisticated, but it works. So if we just ask those four big questions — Do I trust that person? Do I feel like that person is committed to me? Do I feel acknowledged? Are my expectations generally being met? — those four can really give you a quick, broad reading of your relationship.
But in looking at the weather, we also know that we have very sophisticated meteorological instruments. So, first take the quick read, and then go in depth to find out what’s causing the problem. For example, is it the fact that you have expectations that your spouse is just not fulfilling? The next step is to dive in and ask, “OK, what expectations in particular can you put your finger on, where did those expectation come from, and how reasonable are those expectations?” That’s really important to ask. Noreen’s dad was Mr. Fix-It. He could fix anything. He could make a bomb out of rope. He is unbelievable. Obviously, she grew up in that kind of environment, so walking into marriage she had expectations that I was going to be the Mr. Fix-It guy. I’ll never forget early in our marriage, Noreen came in and said, “Honey, the van won’t start.” And I said, “Bummer.” I was a theater major.
An interesting thing that you suggest in the book is that it’s healthy for couples from time to time to take a look back at their history together.
One of the top marriage experts in the country, John Gottman, says that nothing can tell you more about the health of a couple than how they retell their past. I encourage couples that they really need to keep mementos. Whenever we go places as a family or as a couple, we buy a Christmas ornament. When we decorate the tree, it will literally tell the story of each one of the kids and it will tell the history of the marriage. It’s a lot of fun to be able to look at it and remember when we went to the Grand Canyon or to see something from our first anniversary or our honeymoon. The Scriptures are filled with this — of God saying, “I want you to remember. I want you to be purposeful in remembering.” Couples tend to get out that habit, but it’s very important to sit down and consciously remember the good times.
You must get questions all the time from students looking for marriage advice. What’s your best advice for couples thinking about marriage?
Well, the concept of communication climates applies to everything: family relationship, dating relationships, marital relationships, evangelism, apologetics. I would say to a couple thinking about marriage: “What’s your climate like?” And I would walk them through those four aspects of what a good climate is. Your climate — what you’re seeing on a day-to-day basis — is what the climate of marriage is going to look like. People don’t just change overnight. So I would do dating forecasting as you’re dating this person. I would fairly regularly say, what is the climate here?
I would also say that if your relationship with God is everything and really impacts a human communication climate, then you better be looking at this person and be asking, “What is their communication climate like with God? Am I always the one bringing up spiritual issues, or suggesting that we go to church?” That’s very important. I love to say to students — and I often do, “If nothing changed about this person — it didn’t get worse, it didn’t get better — would you be content?” And so many times people say, “Oh, I’m not sure.” And that’s a yellow light. That’s a warning sign, because you can’t bank on the fact that when you get married things are going to change. That’s why time is on your side. Get a long track record.
Tim Muehlhoff, an associate professor of communication at Biola, holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Noreen, are frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Marriage Forecasting was released by IVP Books in November.