Patty and Joel Anderson look like they have it all. They're Christians. They're talented and artistic. Joel has achieved career success: his design studio is one of the hottest in Nashville, and his children's books have been well received. They have three beautiful sons and a gorgeous brick home built high on a hill. But the Andersons know outside successes don't mean much if you're miserable at home. In 1994, when they'd been married seven years, Patty and Joel reached "the lowest, loneliest point" in their marriage. One night they sat on the couch and agreed they were no longer in love. "That was the end of our marriage as we knew it," says Joel. "You know what? It needed to die." But here they are, five years later, thrilled to be together. How did they do it? By staying together: "For a while, our commitment was all that held us together," says Joel. By getting help: "When you reach a dead end, go to a Christian counselor," says Patty. "A neutral party can see from the outside what's going on in your relationship." By God's grace: "All God's plans are good, and making changes in our marriage brought good growth in all areas of our life," says Joel.
Falling in Love
Joel and Patty met at the Ringling School of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida. ("There's a Ringling Circus Clown School, too, but we didn't go to that one," says Joel.) Patty had been there a year, studying interior design, when Joel arrived to study design.
Joel was attracted to Patty—but he didn't want to be. "I was praying for a nice Christian girl to come along … "
"And a Jewish girl showed up!" Patty interrupts.
"She didn't fit what I'd asked God for," Joel goes on. "I'd think, 'She swears! She smokes!' But God wouldn't let me forget her."
While Joel and Patty were becoming friends, Patty was facing her own minor crisis. Her parents, who had moved the family to Florida when Patty was in high school, had moved back home to France. "I was all by myself," she says. "I was struggling emotionally." Then along came Joel, talking about spiritual things.
Patty had heard the gospel before—in Catholic boarding school. "In France, education is more important than spiritual things. My parents sent me to a school with a high academic level," she says. "I know now that was the Lord, exposing me to the truth."
Joel invited Patty to a church that just happened to have an outreach ministry for Jewish people. Afterward they attended a Christian movie. "It was like the Holy Spirit turned on the light for me," Patty says.
She immediately hooked up with people who understood her Jewish background. "They discipled me. God provided that little church as the perfect place for me to be nurtured. I really kicked into the faith."
"And I've been playing catch-up ever since," says Joel. "The change in her was amazing."
Though Patty's parents weren't too happy about this Christian "phase," they were delighted when the couple became engaged their last year at college.
"Her dad really believed in me," says Joel. "He thought I'd take good care of his daughter. But I haven't always taken good care of her."
"No," Patty agrees.
The Andersons got married in 1986—Joel was 21; Patty was 22. Joel's job took them to Nashville, and soon they were busy with their design careers.
Then, shortly before their first son, Nathan, was born, they got some counseling. Those sessions were helpful in identifying what Joel calls "symptoms"—behaviors that needed to change—and providing ideas for making changes. "But we never dealt with the root problems, so the changes never lasted," says Joel.
They hit bottom soon after Nathan was born.
"We had a big fight because Patty felt I wasn't doing anything to make her feel loved," explains Joel. "She said, 'I could give you a list of things that would make me feel loved, but then you'd resent me for telling you how to do it. And you'd only do them because I told you to.' Nothing had met any of our expectations."
"At that point, I couldn't imagine staying with Joel after our kids were grown," says Patty.
"But we'd promised before God that we'd stay together," says Joel.
They started seeing a counselor. Joel tells a joke: "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change."
"We were in counseling only two or three months," explains Patty. "It didn't take long because we both really wanted to change." This time, they identified the root problems.
"I'm very self-centered," says Joel. "It was foreign to me to consider what's going on in someone else. I cared about Patty, but I didn't know how to show it."
"At the same time, most of my hurts from the past stemmed from rejection—especially because of a difficult, angry relationship with my mom," says Patty.
"When I'd do things that made Patty feel I didn't care about her, she'd really react because it felt too much like the rejections of the past," says Joel. "It was a downward spiral."
"Both of us thought the other would meet all these needs and make me happy," Joel goes on. "I'd suck the life out of Patty because I needed so much from her. If I felt insecure, I'd want her affirmation. If I was lonely, I'd want her to be my best friend."
This didn't work because Patty wouldn't always respond the way Joel wanted. "If I thought he screwed up, I'd say, 'You screwed up!' That wasn't the pat on the back he was looking for. He wasn't used to people talking things out."
Counseling helped Patty and Joel see where their expectations were in conflict. Most important, says Patty, is learning that "you're responsible for your own happiness. We each have to let God fill us and make us whole. Then we can go on to be a blessing to each other. We had to stop thinking 'What is this person going to do for me?' and start wondering, 'What is the Lord going to do through me?'"
Joel identified another problem: "I was a little too ambitious. All my accomplishments were like a drug—something to make me feel all right about myself. So Patty was justified in feeling that my affections and energies were going somewhere else."
Freedom was the secret to resurrecting the Andersons' marriage—"freedom to grow, freedom to love, just freedom of being," says Patty.
"I used to whine to Joel about having to cook dinner all the time," she adds. "Now if I don't want to cook dinner, I just order pizza and save us both the frustration. I also used to make him say what time he'd be coming home—then I'd give him about 15 minutes' grace, but no more! Now he usually makes it home for dinner, but we just go ahead if he doesn't."
The Andersons flex their freedom by giving each other the benefit of the doubt. "Every time I was late or did something inconsiderate," Joel explains, "Patty used to assume 'Aha! More proof that he doesn't care about me.' Now she assumes I didn't mean to hurt her, but something came up. That's a big difference."
When they threw out their old expectations so they could create something new, Patty and Joel found they were "in love" again, with an added dimension: grace.
"There's got to be a lot of grace in a marriage," explains Patty. "You've got to learn to forgive because you desperately need grace and forgiveness yourself. There's got to be a mutual 'I'm still for you even though you'll mess up and sometimes you will hurt me. I still will open myself up to you and be there and love you anyway when you're not doing or saying the right things.'"
Joel agrees. "I love Patty more than I ever did—and it's real. Before, I loved some ideas I had of Patty and not the real her. Now we've gotten in each other's face and we know what the real deal is, and we've decided to love each other in spite of whatever [happens]. Instead of being idealistic and dissatisfied, I can count my blessings—and be thankful and content."
The Andersons went to counseling to "fix" their marriage, but God used the opportunity to introduce other changes.
"Getting rid of our old marriage was God's starting point," Joel says. "I got rid of an old way of relating with my parents, and God gave me a new way. I got rid of my old advertising job, because God had a new career in mind."
The new career was a leap of faith. Joel let go of his job in advertising where, he says, "I'd been putting my identity and self-worth in my achievements," to open his own design studio with a partner. Joel wanted to give God carte blanche in rebuilding his career. So with Patty five months pregnant with their second son, David, and with their savings eliminated by an unexpected tax bill, he launched Anderson Thomas Design, Inc.
Joel and his partner agreed they'd pray about every business need. "I wanted to do this God's way—down to the last paper clip and every decision." They've seen God provide, starting with a copier and a fax machine. Five years later, Anderson Thomas is growing rapidly. Joel has even pursued a creative sideline—books for children.
"When I try to read to my kids, they won't just sit there and listen to me," he says. "They always want to talk and interact. So I thought, 'Let's make a book with a whole point of talking to each other.' There's a story, but you spend a lot of time talking about what you're looking at."
Jonah's Trash … God's Treasure (Tommy Nelson) tells a Bible story using pictures made from items scrounged from the trash. Now there's a second book in the series, David and the Trash-Talkin' Giant. And Joel's written four more children's books, including God Knows Me and The Lord Is My Shepherd (Golden).
Having added a third son, Benjamin, to their family, the Andersons agree their lives are full. They share a lot of hobbies—like architecture and construction. They enjoyed designing their home outside Nashville. And they like to try out new restaurants.
"We look at our marriage differently now," says Patty. "We're both delighting in God and that's reflected in everything we do."
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.