Love Your Spouse
The more a marriage is spirited and sporting, the better off for the kids. It’s impossible to have a healthy family without a healthy marriage. One of the best gifts parents can bequeath to children is the example of two people in love bound together in a vibrant covenant relationship.
—Leonard Sweet, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa1
Cathy and I have what we call a high-maintenance marriage. We met the first day of college and were married one week after Cathy graduated. Our courtship and engagement were relatively uneventful when it came to conflict, but from the moment we arrived home after a wonderful honeymoon, we began to have a great deal of it. As a pastor doing youth ministry in a church, I remember having intense arguments with Cathy on the way to our youth-group meeting and then standing up in front of the kids, feeling like a hypocrite. What made things worse was that during that season in the church, people didn’t talk much about marital conflict, so I thought we were the only ones out there with problems. I remember so well when one leader in our congregation told us that he and his wife had never had a fight. Never! My reaction was a deep sense of guilt. Yet now, years later, I feel deeply sorry for them. Conflict and intimacy tend to go hand in hand.
Perhaps our greatest marriage lesson came about five years into our union. After a year of marital unbliss, we moved from California to Princeton, New Jersey, where I attended graduate school. The Princeton years were actually better than our first year of marriage, but we still needed improvement. We both realized we didn’t have the communication tools we needed in order to work on our high-maintenance marriage.
After graduate school, we moved to Orange, California, where Cathy started teaching and I began a youth-ministry program at a church. We became very busy. Cathy worked as a teacher by day and was my number-one adult volunteer for the youth group by night. Our days, nights, mornings and evenings were a blur of activity with the youth group. Our youth ministry grew from four kids on the first Sunday to more than 100 in just three months, and the numbers just kept on growing. With numerical growth came loads of affirmation for me. After the first year, the church actually doubled my salary. We bought our first house, and I thought life was going great. My entire being was focused on my work, which gave me enthusiasm and self-esteem.
One night after a particularly excellent evening with the students, Cathy said, “Jim, we need to talk.” I could see she was very serious, but being the dense male that I can be, I thought she wanted to talk about a problem with one of the kids in the youth group. At the time, we were basically running a MASH unit for kids and families in crisis. Helping families succeed was my theme, and judging by the number of people participating in our program, we could tell we were prospering. Now Cathy and I were sitting across from each other at the Salt and Pepper Restaurant, which was open 24 hours a day.
“Jim, I feel abandoned by you. I feel resentment every time the phone rings or you are gone one more night. I know how you will probably respond, and you are partly right—God has been doing a special work in our ministry. But, Jim, I’m even beginning to resent God.”
Cathy had me pegged. Yes, we were gloriously out of control—but all with good things. It’s true that there had been little focus on our marriage and intimacy was ebbing. I would come home after a very busy, successful and stressful day and crash, only to get up and do it all over again the next day. Cathy went on to say, “I feel like you are having an affair. I can’t imagine how you would find the time, but you sure aren’t investing in our relationship.”
I knew she was right. Cathy had even taken away my ammunition; I couldn’t blame it all on God, who was blessing our youth ministry. So I just said, “You’re right. Not about the affair, but about the focus not being on our marriage.”
Neither of us had had very good role models in our lives in the areas of courtship, intimacy and healthy relationships. We spent the next hour trying to figure out what to do. Was it time to quit my beloved work? How could we have the children we wanted with this kind of lifestyle and pace? We were embarrassed to talk with anyone and really share how bad it was.
At that table, in the midst of our immaturity and lack of knowledge, we made three decisions that we hoped would stop our marriage from continuing on its rocky course:
- Nonnegotiable date night
- Only out three nights a week
- Cathy to have veto power over the schedule
These three decisions were our action steps. I looked forward to the date night idea, but I didn’t know how we would find the time. The decision to work toward only being out working three nights a week felt awfully oppressive, but I knew I needed to take a drastic measure. And the veto power over the schedule was almost a passive-aggressive act on my part to appease Cathy’s concerns. I saw it as a bit of an overreaction to her critique of our marriage. And yet, those three decisions proved to be lifesavers for our marriage and good boundaries when children became part of our lives.
1 Leonard Sweet, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).