Though we like to think it will never happen, most of us become a lot like our parents. We get jobs, we get married, then a few years pass and we begin to notice the frightening similarities. We keep a box of extra car keys under the bed just like Mom. We sort fall leaves into piles according to color, just like Dad. How long will it be before we're wearing black socks when we mow the lawn and sprinkling Beano on our taco salad?
Not that it's such a bad idea to imitate our parents—that's the way it's supposed to work. We rely on them to teach us how to be good husbands and wives; we take their best lessons and apply them to our own marriage. What happens, though, to children raised by distant, emotionally unhealthy or abusive parents?
Negative cycles aren't easy to escape. That's why we're devoting this special section to ways we can break free from the past. We begin with the story of Deborah and Robert Bell (this page), a couple who overcame childhood models of workaholism and alcoholism to build a healthy, Christ-honoring marriage.
Next we interview John Trent, Ph.D. (p. 39), who draws from personal experience and his expertise as a counselor to show how to begin a constructive cycle in your marriage. And finally, popular Christian author Philip Yancey (p. 41 - print copy only) examines the essential ingredients of true healing—the power of forgiveness and God's grace.
If you have noticed patterns that prevent you from enjoying a deeper bond in your marriage, we hope this special section will help you make a new start.
Leave the Past Behind
As children, Deborah and Robert Bell learned the wrong messages about family life. Still, there was hope.
by Jennifer Fleetwood
Growing up, Robert Bell* figured he had the perfect family. He knew his father spent too much time at work, leaving home before breakfast and returning well after dinner. But it was years before Robert understood that his dad had been a workaholic—driven at the job, isolated from his family and yet overly demanding too. Robert remembers showing his parents a report card with straight As and one B plus. His dad's only comment: "If you worked hard, you could bring up that B plus."
Robert never saw himself as a chip off the workaholic block. That's why it surprised him to find that he had picked up a few bad habits from his dad after all. As a busy executive, Robert demanded a lot of himself and his co-workers. But when he brought those high standards home—"tidying up" after Deborah or giving her "suggestions" about how she ought to write the family newsletter—he couldn't understand why it bothered her so much.
Only when their son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder did Robert begin to face some facts. "Through the teaching at a Christian conference and the Holy Spirit working in my life," he says, "it became clear that I really had perfectionism and drivenness in me that was hurting people I cared about. My high expectations were making things harder for my family."
As for Deborah, she never had any delusions about her home life. She calls her father a "white-collar alcoholic." Though he functioned well at a respectable job, his wife and children saw a different side of him. He drank most nights and often flew into a rage by the end of the evening—yelling and threatening his family, ripping into them with words. "You never knew when the bomb was going to go off," she says. "We kids joked that if you wanted to have a nice conversation with Dad, you should go to his office in the middle of the afternoon."
Deborah met Robert in high school and, through him, eventually became a Christian. They remained good friends for a long time, then started dating and got married. Deborah knew she'd been blessed—Robert was an affectionate and supportive husband. "Completely the opposite of my dad," she says. Still, a childhood filled with cruelty and derision had shattered her self-image. Terrified of Robert's disapproval, she agonized over the most trivial decisions.
"I thought I could never do anything right," she recalls. "I'd call Robert at work to ask what to make for dinner. I'd beg him to tell me. For the first time in my life I had a taste of freedom, but I had the belief I couldn't take care of myself."
In one of their first arguments, when Robert raised his voice, Deborah couldn't handle his anger. "I shut down completely and left the room," she says. Talking about it later, the Bells sorted out what had happened: just as Robert's angry tone had hurt Deborah, her silence and emotional distance had wounded him. Their backgrounds had left them with dueling dysfunctions. To survive as a couple, they'd have to heal some of the wounds of childhood.
The Grace of the Father
The Bells attribute the healing in their marriage to God's grace. Robert, for one, had to figure out how a driven perfectionist can get along with a spouse who craves support and approval.
"I've learned," he says, "that I need to accept and love my family as God made them to be." Just as importantly, he knew he had to deal with his workaholic tendencies. "What really got through to me was remembering how my dad would miss spring concerts and plays because he was traveling for work. That bothered me a lot. Looking at my kids, I didn't want to repeat this thing."
Robert relies on Deborah to help him temper his overachiever instincts. "We don't make outside commitments without talking to each other first," he says. "Deborah is good at saying no and I'm not, but I've learned from her that it's okay to set limits. We negotiate. When work gets real heavy, we sit down and say, 'Okay, you can work Monday night and Saturday morning, but the rest of the time forget that stuff.' We also have a six-month rule that runs like this: if one of us has a lot of extra work, he or she can go with that for six months and the other needs to live with it. But if we see it's going to go on for more than a six-month period, we work out some structural changes. At times it hasn't felt good—at first I resented it because it felt like a ball-and-chain kind of thing. But after a while I saw the genius of it because I knew if I said yes about something that Deborah was totally behind it—I felt no guilt and I knew she wouldn't complain."
As for Deborah, she discussed her insecurity and lack of self-confidence with Robert. Part of her fears were financial: what if something happened to him? How would she support herself and the children? She doubted that she could manage on her own. Ever practical (about finances, at least), Robert came up with an astoundingly simple answer: they should buy life insurance.
Good idea, but beyond just buying insurance for the future, Deborah needed to explore her own gifts and find out what she could accomplish. Once their kids were in school, she started studying for a master's degree. Since then she's become a counselor, drawing on her own difficult experience to guide and encourage others. But she hasn't forgotten where she came from or how much she has blossomed.
"I'm a supervisor, and I have to make decisions every day," says Deborah. "Then I come home and I say, 'Yes! There's a God who's given me a husband to bless me and call out my gifts and release me.'"
By talking over problems, staying involved in each other's lives and offering unconditional support through hard times, the Bells have broken free of painful memories and strengthened their marriage. Thank God; love covers a multitude of sins.
Jennifer Fleetwood is a pen name for a freelance writer living in the southeast.
*Names have been changed to protect the couple's privacy.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.