When at age 16 David Ferguson and Teresa Carpenter decided they wanted to get married, they gave their parents an ultimatum: "Sign the consent form or we'll elope to Kansas." Their parents signed the form.
The morning after their wedding, one of David's buddies knocked on their motel room door; he wanted David to shoot some pool. So the newly married teenager left his sleeping bride without any clue as to where he went. Teresa woke up alone and walked to her parents' house, crying.
In his book The Great Commandment Principle (Tyndale), David writes, "Somehow Teresa and I survived that rocky beginning. But I had communicated through my behavior that she was not the only thing in my life—and not even the most important thing. Without the tools to deal with such deep insensitivity and selfishness on my part, Teresa buried her pain, and we simply carried on with life."
The chasm between them deepened as David first went off to college, then entered the ministry. Teresa dedicated herself to their children, and they both took care of everyone's needs but each other's. One night after years of increasing emotional distance, David asked Teresa if she loved him. Teresa said only that she felt "numb."
Though her response stunned David, it wasn't until he preached a sermon on Jesus' suffering and aloneness that he discovered what was missing in their marriage: Great Commandment Love. He describes it as "the application of the command to love the Lord with all of our heart and then to love our neighbors, beginning with our spouse. This is the critical component to experiencing the blessing of marriage as God intended." For years, the Fergusons have worked through Intimate Life Ministries to help other couples avoid the trap of loneliness in their marriages.
How does Great Commandment Love improve marriages?
Teresa: I call it "in spite of" love. It means reaching out to your mate in spite of the hurt and anger you may feel and not letting that hinder your love. It's a good picture of God's unconditional love. He continues to reach out to us in spite of our actions.
That type of love doesn't come easily. How can couples be that selfless?
David: It involves the regular discipline of experiencing Romans 12:15: "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." So we might stop daily—at breakfast or when lying in bed at night—to reflect on something positive that happened that day. And then rejoice together about it.
And we ask each other if there's been a disappointment or something hurtful that day. If so, we connect by "mourning" those experiences together. That's what the Bible means by "it is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). We don't need to rejoice alone, and we don't need to mourn or hurt alone.
Why is Great Commandment Love so essential to experiencing marriage as God designed it?
David: 1 John 4:19 tells us we can love others because we have first been loved by God. He loves us through his initiative—he took the first steps. So I learn to take the initiative with Teresa—whether it's thinking of what might be on her heart or just thinking of her.
So we can't just sit around waiting for good things to happen in our marriage. We have to take the initiative to get things started.
Teresa: And one thing that makes that difficult is that sometimes we aren't well equipped to give what our spouse needs. For example, I grew up in a family of six kids, and my parents loved us, but they weren't able to demonstrate it. So when we got married, I didn't know how to show or tell David how much I loved him. He'd say, "Teresa, I love you." And I'd say, "I love you too." But what David wanted to hear was me initiating the "I love you, David."
What if we work overtime at initiating love and our spouses don't respond?
Teresa: Great Commandment Love is contagious. As David freely gave to me even when I wasn't responding in the way he desired, it motivated me. He was loving me whether he received anything in return or not.
When people tell me they don't feel loved by their spouses, I tell them to put love into the relationship. Whatever you need, give that very thing to your mate, and then continue to give it. Pretty soon you'll be content with your giving as God works to remind the other person what you gave.
David: During the first 10 or12 years of our marriage, our priorities with each other were really out of place. But once I began to prioritize Teresa in my time and my attention, God began to give back freely through Teresa by making me more of a priority in her life.
What if a spouse's heart has become numb, as Teresa's was, from years of neglect?
David: It used to be that when I'd find Teresa frustrated or upset about something, I'd say things like, "What's wrong with you now?" That didn't help, of course. Then I went through a period where I'd give her reasons why the frustrating thing might've happened. I was shocked when she told me it actually did not help for me to give her advice when she was upset.
Some days later God prompted me, when I came home to find her irritated about something, to say, "I can really see that you're hurting, and I want you to know that I care." I saw the immediate softening in her face, in her heart. And that brought us together.
Teresa: A hard heart is the result of no one caring, or feeling like no one cares. So whenever someone comes in with tenderness and care, it softens us.
Are you saying that identifying with a spouse's hurt can make him or her more loving?
David: Well it certainly takes away the person's aloneness. Adam actually had a full relationship with God at the time our Creator said aloneness was not good (Gen. 2:18). For years I believed that all I needed was God. I didn't acknowledge that I also needed Teresa.
But God addressed Adam's aloneness by supplying Eve. God intends marriage to be a relationship through which he removes a measure of our aloneness. And that begins to define a successful husband. It has nothing to do with trips we take or gifts we buy. A successful husband wonders, "Is my wife less alone this year than she has ever been?"
What are the negative consequences of a spouse feeling alone?
David: There's nothing good that comes out of aloneness. We find ourselves vulnerable to temptation and compromise. We're more likely to escape into sometimes good things like ministry or computers or entertainment, or even in destructive things like addictions.
Teresa: One of the consequences for me was false guilt. I felt guilty over needing David when he was out doing "the Lord's work." But the guilt was false because my need for him was valid.
David: Not long ago, Teresa and I were helping a couple work through the pain of infidelity. The husband had been busy, off doing his thing, and the wife looked after the children. Their two sons were stars on the soccer team, and the mom would rejoice on the sidelines over their success. The next school term a new student joined the team, and his single dad also rejoiced along the sidelines. It wasn't long until this wife was rejoicing together with the single dad. And you see where the pain of her aloneness took her.
When we feel alone, how can we reach out to our spouses?
Teresa: One time David came in after working late, and I was feeling alone. Normally I'd complain, "Why are you always late? Why can't you come home on time?" Of course, that never helped either one of us get in touch with my real needs.
So when David and I were lying in bed that night, I reached over, touched him and said, "Sweetheart, I see how busy you've been and all the neat things you're doing. I'm proud of you. And yet I'm feeling alone. Is there something we can look forward to doing together this week?"
David responded well and my need was met. Too much of the time we attack the person and the behavior instead of getting in touch with "What is it I'm really feeling and needing?"
Intimacy is a problem partly because it's difficult to know how to meet our mate's needs. When we feel distant, how can we move closer together?
David: One way is to understand one another well enough that you know some of your partner's key needs, and to realize that those needs often are different from yours. The Bible says husbands should live with their wives in an understanding way (1 Pet. 3:7). A part of my understanding Teresa is realizing she has high needs for security, attention, and acceptance. For instance, when we travel she needs to feel secure that there's enough time to get to the airport and find a parking place and that there will be enough luggage room in the airplane. When those needs are met, she's relaxed and fulfilled. There's a closeness between us. I can help meet her needs when I know her well.
Teresa: Early in our marriage, we were trying to work through this dilemma of how to come closer when we felt distant. My pattern would be to put my walls of protection up whenever I was hurt. Not share my needs.
But one day I told David, "You know, whenever I'm pushing you away the most, don't let me. That's when I need you to be the most aggressive and come toward me." I was asking him in the midst of my rejecting him to pursue me. That's a pretty tall order. But it's a great picture of how God entered into our world even when we didn't know that we needed him.
In a close relationship like marriage, it's easy to be hurt again and again and to start holding a grudge. How does forgiveness figure into intimacy?
Teresa: When you're harboring unforgiveness, love can't flow the way it needs to. An example is when David asked me if I loved him and I told him I was numb. This was largely the result of my being hurt, not forgiving him and then holding the hurt inside. That is a great barrier to intimacy.
David: Think about Ephesians 4:32, which says, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." When forgiveness isn't there, then kindness, tenderheartedness, and compassion are stifled. Anger and resentment and bitterness accumulate when unforgiveness hinders us from being kind, tenderhearted and compassionate.
If you've got hurt bottled up inside, if you're feeling distant from one another, if little things lead to big fights, then start working on forgiveness. That's what opens the door to giving each other the love you've both been wanting.
Copyrightby the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.