We've been married for more than 48 years now, so we think we can talk confidently on the subject of loyalty. Not that we've "arrived" in marriage. None of us has, since marriage is constantly growing and changing. Yet, we can say honestly that, even with the difficulties that accompany all marriages, ours has been a wonderful, fulfilling lifetime of partnership. Why? Because we've held a steadfast commitment to each other and to God.
Over the years we've watched marriage fall under assault in our society. But we've believed that our principled concepts of loyalty and faithfulness pay huge dividends in the end. While we aren't the perfect model for every relationship, we've discovered how clinging to God's perfect love can bring a lifetime of peace, joy, and fulfillment to a couple. Here's what we've learned.
Loyalty starts with commitment to God. Our commitment to each other begins with a commitment to follow God, both individually and as a couple. Both are lifelong promises. Neither commitment allows us to say, "Let's try this for a while and see if it works." Both are tough; both call us to live a disciplined life. But both, in the end, are life-giving.
There was a period when I (Betty) felt blocked from God. I was constantly exhausted, and I didn't want to pray or study the Bible. It was amazing how tense our home life became during that time. But James was able to pray for me and speak truth to me. While it wasn't easy to hear, I knew God was using James to convict me about having an unteachable spirit. Because we were both committed to God, I finally realized that James was concerned about me as his wife, but also he was concerned about my spiritual life.
Loyalty depends on communication. When there's a breakdown in communication, a breakdown in commitment is sure to follow. Communication isn't simply talking to each other; it's making sure we really hear each other. We try to listen to and understand the heart of our mate, not just the words they speak.
For years, I (Betty) struggled with self-esteem issues. I never felt good enough—as a wife, person, or child of God. I respected and loved James so much that I couldn't imagine that he could truly love me for who I was. I saw how gifted and popular he was—and compared myself unfavorably.
Finally, one day, James confronted me on it. He'd listened to my heart; even though I hadn't said anything verbally, I was communicating loudly! His willingness to "hear" me made a huge difference in my self-esteem and strengthened our marriage.
Communication is especially important when situations aren't particularly easy or pleasant. But knowing that we're committed to each other helps us confront, confess, and open up more freely.
Loyalty means we give our spouse the benefit of the doubt. One issue we've worked through has been when one of us says something that the other spouse takes the wrong way. An offhanded or unthinking comment can wreak havoc on our thoughts and relationship.
Dr. Jimmy Draper, our pastor for many years, said something about his wife, Carol Ann, that put those statements in perspective: "If I ever think she's said something to offend me, then I know I've misunderstood her, because she'd never do anything purposely to hurt me."
That's an awesome reality when we stop to think that neither of us would intentionally hurt the other. When one of us says something that hurts, we stop before we react, and think, Did my mate say that intentionally to hurt me? We can answer, No, I know my spouse didn't say that in a mean spirit. That helps us confront the issue and not the person.
We'll say, "I know you wouldn't hurt me, and I know you didn't intend this, but let me tell you how this came across to me. Let me tell you what I heard. Let me tell you how it felt."
If we don't react rationally about it, it becomes easy to feel our spouse is leveling an accusation, when really, he or she was simply making a statement—one that didn't mean anything. The times I (Betty) have confronted James on things he's said, he's been willing to say, "I'm sorry. I handled that wrong. I shouldn't have said that." And vice versa.
Loyalty willingly compromises for the other's good. The Bible tells us we must lose our life for Christ's sake in order to find it (Matthew 10:39). That same spirit applies to marriage. Although it doesn't make human sense, when we put the other person first, God grows our marriages.
Early in our marriage, I (James) loved to fish, while Betty enjoyed shopping. But we quickly discovered our hobbies and interests could have caused us to spend less time with each other. We knew that wasn't what we wanted our marriage to be—two people who "did their own thing." So we made a conscious effort to do things together. That meant when I went fishing, Betty joined me. And when Betty shopped, I tagged along. When we made up our minds to give each other's hobbies a chance, we found we enjoyed the activities—because it meant being with each other. It simply required an attitude check.
The same is true of work and church obligations. There was a time when the demands of traveling for my ministry came close to destroying our relationship. Betty was extremely lonely, since I was gone much of the time, and I was burning the candle at both ends. I felt so burned out and tormented by lustful thoughts! I knew I needed help, so I finally talked to some respected ministers. One of them suggested I talk to and pray with a man who had gone through a similar experience. It was a humbling time for me. But God used those men to help turn around my life and my marriage.
Since then we've learned to say no to many invitations. We discuss our ministry and work opportunities with each other and, together, prayerfully decide which ones we believe are truly in God's will. We try always to honor each other.
Once we got in the habit of planning together, it became natural; it no longer feels like a sacrifice or compromise.
Loyalty doesn't depend on our children. Our children are now grown and have their own families. But our life together didn't leave with the kids. Far too many couples find that when the children are grown, they no longer have anything in common. For us, nothing could be further from the truth. That's because we stayed committed to the marriage during those child-rearing years.
Just this fall the two of us spent time walking together in Colorado. We admired the natural beauty as the aspens turned shades of gold. We both love wildlife photography, and we caught sight of foxes hunting in the woods. But most of all, we spent time talking, laughing, holding hands, and sharing our lives together. It was easy because we'd deliberately done that while our children were still at home.
We're still pursuing life. We're still pursuing God. We haven't settled in or retired from our marriage. The apostle Paul says Christians are running a race to win (1 Corinthians 9:24). That's also true of marriage. While it's not always easy, when we keep running on course, determined to cross the finish line, marriage gets sweeter. We enjoy just being with each other. We become increasingly sensitive to the other person's areas of enjoyment. Our greatest joy, apart from pleasing God, is seeking to please each other. And our commitment has made our love grow stronger!
As we go through life together, we realize more and more that we need each other in order to do what God has called both of us to do. It's an awesome responsibility and a great challenge to be there completely for each other, but it's a tremendous opportunity.
For us, everything started with our commitment to God, then our commitment to each other. Out of that, we've been able to impact the world with the love of Jesus Christ. And isn't that what it's all about?
James and Betty Robison, co-hosts of the television talk show Life Today, are founders of LIFE Outreach International (www.lifetoday.org). James is author of True Prosperity (Tyndale). Betty is author of Free to Be Me (Tyndale).
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.