In a recent mp survey, we asked, "Which marriage expert do you trust most?" The top name, given by 72 percent of you: Dr. James Dobson. It's easy to see why! As founder of Focus on the Family, author of numerous best-sellers—including Night Light (Multnomah), which he coauthored with his wife, Shirley—and host of a daily radio program heard by more than 2 million people, Dr. Dobson has, in many ways, led the effort to strengthen marriages.
"Commitment is sorely missing in so many modern marriages," writes Dobson in his book Romantic Love (Regal). "I love you, they seem to say, as long as I feel attracted to you—or as long as someone else doesn't look better—or as long as it is to my advantage to continue the relationship. … I have developed a lifelong love for my wife, but it was not something I fell into. I grew into it, and that process took time." In a culture that believes we can fall in and out of love, the Dobsons know that love is more than a fickle emotion—it's a commitment of will. And that love commitment has lasted 44 years.
That's why we were eager to interview the Dobsons about how that worked for the two of them.
How is your love toward each other different from when you were first married?
Dr. Dobson: Our love hasn't changed at all in 44 years, except to become more mature and satisfying. Our relationship has changed a bit, however. While we've always gotten along and enjoyed each other's company, like almost every bride and groom, we worked our way through early areas of minor conflict when we were "staking out territory." These little disagreements were resolved, but from them came greater understanding of each other. I've never known a family that didn't experience these points of tension between two imperfect human beings learning to come to terms with each other.
Now, four decades later, Shirley and I have less need to defend our "rights" or establish what is or is not acceptable. The early confrontations are essentially over. We've reached a point of loving homeostasis based on mutual respect and deep understanding of each other. It's a wonderful thing that happens between a woman and a man whose hearts are linked soul to soul.
Shirley: I agree with everything Jim said. My love and respect for him has grown year by year. If I had one evening to spend with any person on earth, there's no one I'd rather be with than Jim. It's been that way for 44 years, from the beginning to this moment.
Was there ever a time when you experienced a serious strain on your love?
SD: When Jim and I were dating, I got used to seeing his romantic side. He'd do little things to surprise me. Once he hid a love note in a Coke bottle. I felt cherished and special, and never questioned his devotion to me. But life quickly became more hectic for us after we married. At the beginning, Jim was working on his graduate degree and I taught school. Then the Lord began to bless our work, and children came along, and before we knew it, we hit a point where we desperately needed some time alone.
So we sent the children to my mother's house and drove six hours to a ski lodge. That weekend turned out to be a highlight of our marriage; we felt like kids again as we talked about the past and reconnected with each other. We determined right then that we would make time for a private rendezvous at least once a year.
I recommend that every couple look for those special times together. It doesn't need to be expensive or exotic. Being alone together is what matters.
What does it mean for you to love each other unconditionally?
JD: It's important to remember that, as flawed and selfish human beings, it's impossible to love one's spouse unconditionally all the time. Each of us will experience moments of weakness when we're more interested in our own comfort and needs than we are in loving and serving our mate. Early in our marriage, I learned that this principle can apply even to sleeping habits! I don't know why, but it seems that Shirley can fall asleep only if she's snuggled up against my back. To accommodate her, I've gone to sleep on my left side for decades, hoping against hope that my internal organs won't all slide to that side of my body permanently. If that's not unconditional love, I don't know what is! (Laughter.)
In all seriousness, I endeavored to sum up the importance of selfless, unconditional love in my book Love for a Lifetime: "There are two kinds of people in the world, the givers and the takers. A marriage between two givers can be a beautiful thing. Friction is the order of the day, however, for a giver and a taker. But two takers can claw each other to pieces within a period of six weeks. In short, selfishness will devastate a marriage every time."
What has being a giver, not a taker, meant for the two of you?
JD: During our first few years of marriage, I invested a great deal of my time—and our money—in completing my Ph.D. The tuition was horrendous for a young couple to handle. As a result, Shirley couldn't buy new furniture or make upgrades to our tiny house, and we shared a Volkswagen. It was definitely a tough time for us financially, but she never once complained. In fact, her support, even in the face of financial uncertainty, gave me the confidence I needed to complete the task at hand.
SD: And Jim certainly took his turn being the supportive one when God opened the door for me to become Chairman of the National Day of Prayer. Despite some busy, stressful days, he's done all he could to support my calling—and I know he'll continue to do so in the years to come.
The Bible commands us to love one another. Have you ever obeyed that command even when tempted not to?
JD: When Focus on the Family moved from Southern California to Colorado Springs, it was tough on Shirley, in particular. Most women, by their very nature, want to put down roots and to have a sense of stability in their lives, and that's certainly what we had in California. We were surrounded by close friends; we were actively involved in church; and many of our extended family members lived nearby. However, when it became clear that the Lord was opening the door for Focus on the Family to relocate to Colorado, I was much more excited about the idea than Shirley was.
She was so distressed over the possibility of uprooting our family and heading into the great unknown that she cried herself to sleep periodically for months and even lost 14 pounds. Nevertheless, when Focus on the Family's board of directors gave the go-ahead to move to Colorado, Shirley honored me by saying, "Let's go!" She still had her reservations, of course, but she didn't put up a fight. Her response to that difficult transition demonstrated not only her unconditional love for me but her willingness to surrender in faith to what was clearly the Lord's will for us.
SD: That was a difficult move! But I became willing and able to go, not only because I knew God had a plan for us, but because I believed in Jim and knew that he honors God's leading. I've never seen him compromise on something he thought was what God wanted of him. It's a privilege to follow a man like that.
Because marriage is a continual growth process, what steps have you taken to safeguard your love for each other?
JD: The biggest enemy of marriage today is "busy-ness," or over-commitment. It's likely many couples can identify with the challenges we faced at the beginning of my career. I was running a rat race, working long hours at the USC School of Medicine, counseling, writing, and speaking several times per month. I also served as a Sunday school teacher and superintendent of youth at our church during that time. At one point, I looked at the calendar and realized that I had commitments for the next 17 nights in a row, without a break! Even though I had Shirley's interests as well as my own at heart in pursuing my education, we were beginning to drift apart as a result of my heavy workload.
I resolved to take off a year from my studies in order to spend more time with her and to focus my energies where they belonged—on our marriage. Even today, as Shirley and I both face numerous responsibilities at Focus on the Family and the National Day of Prayer, we make every effort to set aside quality time each day to focus on each other and to "reconnect."
SD: Even when we've been most busy, we have found time to pray and enjoy private times together. Jim's writing trips have offered special opportunities once per year to be together, just the two of us. We're usually away for approximately six weeks, and Jim and I find these opportunities wonderfully refreshing.
What would you say to other couples who want to keep their love alive and strong?
JD: We live in a fast-paced and demanding world, and husbands and wives must work hard, particularly during the early years of marriage, when it's difficult to make ends meet. However, if the only time couples see each other is at the end of the day, when they're both exhausted and irritable, their relationship will inevitably suffer.
This is particularly true in cases where the husband is grossly overcommitted while the wife is at home caring for a preschooler. Her profound loneliness can lead to feelings of discontent and depression that are lethal to marital harmony. No matter what life stage they're in, couples must reserve quality time for each other if they want to keep their love alive. For a husband to love his wife unconditionally, he must make her his top priority. Similarly, for the wife who wants to show unconditional love to her husband, the most important gift she can give him is her time.
SD: It's critical for spouses to build each other's self-esteem whenever possible. In our devotional, Night Light, we share the story of a World War II fighter pilot who had his face burned beyond recognition in battle. Despite his disfigurement, his fiancée told him nothing had changed, and she married him two years later. He later said that she became his mirror, projecting to him an image of himself that let him know he was good and worthy.
When partners affirm each other by acknowledging the other person's best qualities—even during times of disagreement or struggle—they will never have to experience the fear of being unloved. Despite surface arguments that will erupt from time to time, unconditional love means we can be confident in the strong foundation of trust and respect that lies beneath.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.