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The Marriage Doctor Is In

After learning the hard way that bad things happen to good marriages, author and therapist Leslie Parrott shares her secrets to making your marriage thrive.

Considering all author and therapist Leslie Parrott, 37, and her husband, Les, 40, have been through in their 17-year marriage, it's amazing they're still a healthy, happy couple, let alone Oklahoma's "Marriage Ambassadors." But in early 2000, when Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating invited the Parrotts to join his ambitious plan to reduce the divorce rate in his state by one-third over 10 years, he no doubt was drawn to their impressive credentials. Leslie and Les have written numerous bestsellers, including Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates, Relationships, Getting Ready for the Wedding, and Questions Couples Ask. Based on their books' popularity, the Parrotts have been guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS This Morning, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and The View. Leslie serves as a marriage and family therapist, and Les is a professor of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University, where the couple also established the Center for Relationship Development, a program dedicated to teaching the basics of good relationships. Despite the fact they both hold doctorate degrees, this couple's learned some of their best marriage lessons in their own home, as they've worked through the tough circumstances that prompted them to write one of their most recent books, When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages (Zondervan).

Born and raised in the Midwest, Leslie and Les experienced culture shock when they moved to Pasadena, California, to attend Fuller Theological Seminary shortly after their wedding. The tumult around them—they witnessed a murder from their apartment balcony during their first month there—mirrored the storm brewing in their own relationship. Despite the fact they'd dated seven years, shared the same name (Les is short for Leslie), and were each seeking degrees in counseling, they quickly realized the classroom assignment of seeking their own marital counseling was the only thing that got them through their first year of marriage.

When Leslie and Les moved to Seattle in 1989 to attend and work at Seattle Pacific University, they quickly noticed their students' and clients' insatiable desire for solid, godly relationship advice. Drawing on their educational background and the lessons they learned in their marriage, they reached out to couples on both sides of the altar by establishing the Center for Relationship Development and writing books based on their collective research and real-life experiences.

Just when their book Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts began garnering mainstream attention, Leslie's father, a pastor, left her mother after 35 years of marriage for another woman in their church. As the national spotlight began to shine on the Parrotts, who were eight years into their marriage, Leslie's world was "rocked in every way." Her father moved away and her mother's health deteriorated drastically. In the aftermath, Leslie found herself renegotiating her marriage and leaning more heavily on her faith in Christ.

Six years later, with their educational goals met and their mid-30s upon them, Leslie and Les decided it was time to start a family. The thrill of expecting their first child soon gave way to agonizing weeks of bedrest and pregnancy complications—and eventually the birth of their 1 pound, 8 ounce son, John, at 28 weeks. The first two years of John's life were filled with countless surgeries, anxieties, and therapies—stressors Leslie and Les were told by hospital staff that 80 percent of marriages don't survive.

Just when John's condition stabilized, Leslie and Les received the invitation to become Oklahoma's "Marriage Ambassadors." Governor Frank Keating had heard them speak at a governors cabinet meeting in Washington, D.C., part of an effort to pass a marriage initiative to help fight the country's growing divorce rate. Keating had made healthy marriages a priority when he received the results of a study he'd commissioned to economists to determine the best thing he could do to raise the quality of life for people across his state. Surprisingly, the study revealed the number-one factor that led to increased violence, poverty, health problems, and overall unhappiness was divorce. That, coupled with the fact Oklahoma has the nation's second highest divorce rate, spurred him to set the goal of aggressively lowering the number of divorces in Oklahoma between 2000 (the year he took office) and 2010. He wanted the Parrotts to help kick off his ambitious plan.

After much prayer and deliberation, Leslie and Les accepted the offer and moved to Oklahoma in the middle of last year. That's where TCW caught up with Leslie, near the end of her stint as a "Marriage Ambassador," to get the inside scoop on the lessons she's learned through her marriage struggles, the friendship practice she calls her "lifeline," the one thing that got her through the touch-and-go days of having a preemie baby, and her secrets to making love last.

Being a "Marriage Ambassador" is a tall order!

Yes! The title sounded laughably huge when Les and I first heard it. But we were blown away by Governor Keating's heart for saving marriages and making Oklahoma one of the best places to get married and raise a family—even though right now it's one of the worst. We certainly didn't feel equipped for the task, and weren't eager to leave our life in Seattle, but we were honored and humbled that God would allow us to be part of an initiative that's so in sync with our passion for healthy marriages.

What exactly have you done during your term?

We've raised awareness about the need to nurture and prepare for marriage, and have trained as many professionals as possible to work with couples long-term. We've spoken at Christian colleges, vocational schools, secular universities, and community colleges, usually hosting a campus-wide event called "Can You Relate?" We've done huge events to train pastors called "What Every Pastor Needs to Know About Saving Marriages Before They Start." We've traveled to every corner of the state, speaking at churches, civic centers, Rotary programs, whatever's available. Sometimes we have a whole day with an audience, other times it's only 45 minutes.

One thing that's impressed us most about this initiative is its bipartisan nature—it's involved the government, the church, the mental health community, educators, social services, civic organizations, economists—groups that don't usually work together. They're all seeking a long-term solution, not a quick fix. We also know other states are watching, so we're trying to craft something that's easily replicated in other states.

What are some of the main principles you've been teaching in Oklahoma?

We're trying to introduce specific marriage skills to help couples take ownership not only for what's good in their relationship, but also for what's bad. We encourage couples to avoid placing blame for problems, even if one spouse has the right to do so, because this pits husband against wife. Instead, we try to pit a couple against the problem, encouraging them to work through the issue together.

It sounds as though that requires forgiveness.

That's another core principle we teach. Marriage is like a dance; there's no way around stepping on each other's toes. Even if we try our best not to, we still hurt our partner. For example, while all the emotional turmoil I went through after my parents' divorce wasn't my husband's fault, Les was forced to deal with the consequences. We all have hang-ups and unfinished business, so forgiveness is a huge requirement in marriage.

That also ties into the principle of commitment—choosing to stay in your marriage and work through the inevitable issues, no matter what. A lot of couples don't see any other choice but to split up when things get tough. They think divorce is the only answer because they've never seen anyone model the hard work of sticking with it when things get difficult. We're trying to change that.

Since you're involved in a government-sponsored initiative, are you able to share your faith?

Obviously we can whenever we speak in a church. But when we're at a government-sponsored event, we use neutral language. Yet our principles stay the same; they're based on biblical truths.

It's interesting, though. Seventy-five percent of couples still get married in the church, and there's definitely some spiritual openness during that pre-nuptial phase. That's why Les and I are thrilled to interact with so many others during this teachable time. Back in Seattle, we host an annual event for engaged couples—"Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts"—and of the 300 couples who usually attend, about one-third are totally unchurched. We also take our Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts curriculum to wedding shows, right there in-between the booths for bakeries and limo services! You should see the looks on engaged couples' faces when they pass by and realize, Oh yeah, there's going to be a marriage after this big party.

You and Les have had plenty of tough stuff to work through in your marriage.

One of the biggest blows was my parents' divorce. It came as a complete surprise; it made me question everything. My dad, who's a pastor, took my mom to dinner on their 35th wedding anniversary, then came home and told her he'd been having an affair with another woman. He left my mom and resigned from the church; the woman he'd been seeing left her childhood sweetheart, to whom she'd been married for 25 years. My dad and this woman eventually married and had a child together. For me it was a horrible, tragic thing.

Have you had contact with your dad since he left?

We write every now and then. He's never tried to see me, and I've never met his son, my half-brother. It's been difficult. My mom has severe juvenile diabetes, and the stress of the divorce brought on two heart attacks and serious nerve damage. When I was in the hospital with my mom for her first heart attack, I wanted so much to blame my dad. I wanted to scream, "You did this to her!" But even though his actions may have contributed to her condition, I knew he didn't damage my mother's health purposely. God's really worked on my attitude toward my father and reminded me he's not a monster, just a fallen human being. To be honest, I'm on my knees in prayer daily saying, "God, you must direct me in this because I'm still not satisfied with my level of forgiveness." I'm still working on this.

How did their divorce affect your marriage?

Trust became a huge issue. We'd been married eight years when my parents divorced. Les didn't do anything differently, but suddenly I didn't trust him—or myself. I constantly questioned the choices we made and examined our interactions to be sure we weren't forming any unhealthy attachments to other people. I became vigilant about dealing with even a hint of a problem in our marriage. And I cried literally every day for a year—when I was driving across town, when I was in the shower, whenever I was alone. I'd never known grief like this before.

I spent a year in counseling, and came away with a greater appreciation for the need for accountability in marriage, and with the knowledge that no relationship can be taken for granted. We run into lots of Christians who believe the myth that loving God makes you immune to marital problems or temptations. I think that's why, according to some recent studies, the divorce rate is higher among churchgoing people than nonattenders. A healthy marriage takes work, and when we fail to do that work, we put our relationship at risk.

How do you create accountability in marriage?

Thankfully Les and I learned early on the value of marriage mentors. While we were in seminary, we met Dennis and Lucy, a wonderful older married couple. They asked us tough things, but also shared stories from their own marriage struggles—such as the time they had a fight and Lucy took off her wedding ring, threw it at Dennis, then drove off in his car and didn't come back for two days. Because they were so earthy and authentic, it was easy to be honest with them about our marriage issues. They loved us, were incredibly hospitable, and prayed for us. It was great.

We thought, Every couple needs this. That's why marriage mentoring is central to our work. Over the past 8 years, we've connected about 300 mentor couples annually through our Center for Relationship Development in Seattle, and we've stressed mentoring in our work in Oklahoma. Having an older, wiser couple to learn from in that tough, transitional first year of marriage makes a big difference.

It sounds as if vulnerability is key, too.

We all need friends with whom we can be completely honest, and I think this is especially important for women. I listened to a Christian radio show recently that said the divorce rate is high partly because women are isolated from each other. They mentioned that so many of the things a healthy marriage needs flow from women's friendships: accountability, emotional support, and prayer.

My friendship with Debbie is a perfect example of this. Together we've talked about the fact marriage isn't quite as romantic as we envisioned. I remember her telling me about the first morning of her honeymoon, which she'd pictured consisting of a lovely breakfast in bed with her new husband totally en-thralled with her. Instead, she awoke to find her husband watching TV and buying baseball cards on the phone from the Home Shopping Network. Being able to laugh about that and share this important truth about marriage have equipped us to be better wives. So has praying together daily over the phone.

Over the phone?

I thought this suggestion sounded bizarre when I first heard it at a meeting on prayer I attended soon after we moved to Oklahoma. But I approached Debbie, a casual acquaintance at the time, and asked if she'd be willing to give it a try anyway. She agreed, and it's become our lifeline.

We call each other every morning at 8:00 and ask each other the same three questions: "Who's on your mind?" "What's on your mind?" "What's on your schedule today?" Then we pray for each other. Sometimes one of us is on the cell phone in the car. Sometimes the kids are screaming in the background. Sometimes we have to cut the conversation short if things get too chaotic. But we do it every day. It's such a gift. Debbie's become an unbelievable friend in the process, and we've seen countless answers to our prayers. I know it's helped me be a better wife and mom.

Being a mom to John hasn't been easy.

Nothing about John's been easy. But we love him so much and are grateful we've made it this far.

So when did the pregnancy complications start?

At 13 weeks. My ob-gyn discovered a uterine condition that put me at high risk for a second trimester miscarriage. Subsequent ultrasounds revealed a one-in-a-million problem with the placenta that limited John's growth. Soon after, pregnancy-induced hypertension forced me on complete bedrest.

To help John develop, my physicians put me on medications that made me too sick for visitors. If I couldn't get to week 28, the doctors didn't think John would survive. People prayed for us constantly. Miraculously, we made it to 28 weeks, and John was born on February 8, 1998, weighing only 1 pound, 8 ounces. Because of an intestinal problem, he immediately dropped to one pound. Major surgery saved his life, but he was put on total life support.

How were you doing physically?

I was deathly ill. The medications had taken a toll on me. I had toxemia, so my kidneys shut down for a while.

But I was even more fragile emotionally. Once John was in the clear, there still were constant surgeries and complications. We finally brought John home at three months. He weighed only three pounds. For many months he screamed around the clock and vomited everything I fed him. For a long time, I never got more than two hours sleep a night.

During that first year, John's immune system was so damaged, he could only leave the house to go to the doctor. That was such a drastic change for me. Les and I'd been traveling nonstop for speaking engagements, and then suddenly I was homebound with round-the-clock medical mothering.

Does John have health problems now?

He's had occupational, feeding, and speech therapy out the wazoo. He had to have his tongue clipped so he could eat, and he still can't eat very well. At age three, he still takes a bottle. He's often hospitalized for pneumonia and respiratory infections, and he has at least one more corrective surgery to go. But when you consider the physicians predicted he'd be blind or have cerebral palsy, we're just glad he's stable. Actually, he's bright and active and has a full life. He loves music, and is always playing his toy drums or guitars. And he's been a doll through all these medical procedures. He calls the big scar across his stomach his "scarf."

How did you survive all this?

Extraordinary prayer support. Besides family and friends, there were people we didn't even know who prayed for us. For example, someone who ran a prison ministry heard about John's critical condition and had the whole prison praying for us. It was incredible to experience such an outpouring of support, even months after John's birth. The best gifts we were given were those prayers for John, Les, and me. We definitely felt God answering them—not only in John's slowly improving health, but in our outlook.

Never in the face of this whole or-deal did I ever sense God telling me, Everything's going to be great, just have faith. I only felt him saying, I'll be present with you no matter how the story unfolds. I don't think I'd ever lived like that before. Normally if I'd gained a gazillion pounds, got next to no sleep, and had to face such terrible emotional stress, I'd be a mess. But I felt a strength and peace beyond myself that enabled me to get through everything we faced.

The whole ordeal taught us about the power of prayer and the benefit of being in close community with others.

Did moving to Oklahoma diminish that prayer and people support?

While the phone's kept me connected to friends in Seattle, I've definitely been lonely here. It wasn't the easiest transition. The stress gave me shingles, Les and I bickered for the first several weeks as we settled into new routines, and we lost all the college students who used to help watch John for us.

How have you found new friends?

One morning each week I take John to a local mom/tot program and try to connect with the other moms there. It hasn't always been the most natural connection, but I keep at it. Children can be such a natural draw to other moms, who can become some of our best friends.

I've also learned being vulnerable helps connect me to new friends. When a woman at one church reached out to me, I told her, "This is amazing. Thanks for wanting to take me to the coolest coffee place you know. You have no idea what that means to me." I'm trying to be more open with my friendship needs—and more open with the real me.

What's one of the best lessons you've learned during your marriage?

It was so freeing to learn it's normal for passion in a marriage to ebb and flow. Once I realized that, I didn't feel so anxious, guilty, and ready to place blame during those times when passion isn't as natural and easy. Sometimes Les and I feel totally connected to each other, other times we don't—that's just reality.

We often ask the couples we counsel to rate their passion level for that particular day. It's a way to gauge their level of intimacy, commitment, and excitement about each other and the marriage. One day when Les and I did this, I was at a two. … again. Les asked, "What are we going to do?" I remember how great it felt to admit my passion was low because of hormone levels, sleep deprivation, and anxiety over John—and not have Les take it personally!

Together we discussed the problem and realized that recently John had been climbing out of his crib at night. That was making me anxious and unable to sleep. Because Les was motivated to work on this issue, we went shopping the next day and bought one of those new tent things that fit on top of a crib to keep your child from climbing out. It made all the difference!

What issues did you and Les struggle with in your first year of marriage?

We had some major communication problems. You'd think a couple who'd dated for seven years and were pursuing advanced degrees in psychology would have had a smoother beginning! But we'd each brought our own script into the marriage—and the other person never seemed to follow it.

Script?

Basically it's expectations. We get conditioned to understand, accept, and expect love in certain ways, based on the way our family of origin communicated it as we were growing up. Usually we don't even realize we have a "script," or set of unspoken rules, until we marry and our spouse unknowingly breaks them.

For example, every time Les and I went on vacation, we'd have a huge fight. We'd hop in the car and Les would drive while I opened a can of pop, put my feet up on the dash, and started singing. Les got so frustrated, and I never understood why—until we spent time with his mom and dad. I discovered that in his family, his mom was the one who charted the course and handled the maps. When I failed to play that role, it drove Les nuts. But in my family, my dad was the navigator—and he never even wanted us to touch his maps!

This whole vacation scenario sounds insignificant, but these small things make up our day-to-day reality.

What's the cure for those unmet expectations?

Awareness that we even have these scripts. Then, communication about them to each other. Through counseling, Les and I learned to talk to each other about our expectations so we wouldn't keep unknowingly failing to meet them. Soon we began to create our script for love, instead of trying to live by his or mine.

Many of these expectations aren't a problem until you become husband and wife. Then, suddenly, the stakes and expectations are higher. That surprises many couples who thought they spent time getting to know each other before marrying. It sure was a surprise for us. So was the disillusionment.

About what?

About married life. We both had grandiose ideas of how romantic it would be. But I've learned taking a walk together in a rainstorm might be one of the most romantic things we can do on any given day. Or having a really good laugh together. When I let go of my idealized concept of "romance," I saw how incredible small things can be. I call this the "sacrament of the ordinary," loving those wonderful little moments of marriage.

I also had to get over the mistaken idea Les would help complete me. While I knew in my head only God could meet my deepest needs, I fell into the common trap of seeing my husband as a shortcut to personal maturity. We see that in the students we work with in Seattle all the time. It's especially common for us females.

How did you get over your dependency on Les?

My first boss in California mentored me. He required me to write out a 10-year plan for my life. Through his encouragement, I took ownership of my life, developing my character instead of trying to live off Les's dreams and direction. Now we stress to our students that no matter how attractive you find the qualities in someone else that are undeveloped in you, being attached to him is no way to escape developing them in you. Compulsive neediness in a relationship can be claustrophobic and unhealthy. The more whole you are before you marry, the better chance you have for a healthy marriage.

Where do you and Les go from here?

We just released a new book, Saving Your Second Marriage Before It Starts. There are more second marriages now than first marriages, and the issues are even more complex. There's either negative baggage from a previous divorce or the grief from the death of a first spouse, plus the challenge of a blended family. People often enter a second marriage with a false sense of security. They feel older, wiser, more experienced. But that can lead to a different set of expectations—and eventually a different kind of disillusionment.

And we'll return to Oklahoma for some follow-up visits. While we may never see the direct results of what we've done here over the past year, we know it's been successful on many levels. Les and I believe wholeheartedly there isn't any larger social revolution that can happen in our time than the lowering of the divorce rate. To be part of a movement attempting something so important, so huge, so God-honoring, is a tremendous blessing.

For more information on the Parrotts and their marriage ministry, visit their Web site: www.RealRelationships.com. Or join Leslie on October 11 at 9 P.M. ET for an exclusive online chat.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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