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Marital Drift

In pursuit of "the good life," busy couples can let everything take priority over the two most important things: God and marriage. Author David Goetz discusses how to make sure that doesn't happen.

In his small suburban office—the walls covered with photos of his wife of 15 years and crayon pictures, some framed, drawn by his three children—David Goetz's priorities are obvious.

Yet Goetz claims that although it's easy to paste pictures on the walls—symbols of his "trophies"—it's not so easy to live out those priorities. Especially when he's working to keep his business, CZ Marketing, a brand and strategy firm for non-profits, a success and to meet his writing deadlines.

An award-winning author and former pastor, Goetz made a controversial splash in the Christian world with the release of his recent book, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul (Harper San Francisco). In it, he claims that even in the most Christian suburban neighborhoods, we obscure the real Jesus and keep our spiritual life on cruise control.

If that's what happens to our faith, what happens to our marriages? One glance at the divorce rate makes you realize pursuing the "good life" that suburban living promises can wreak havoc on even the best marriages.

So how do we protect ourselves from marital and spiritual suicide?

In this MP interview, Goetz provides a wake-up call on how we fall into these patterns, and what we can do to get out of them.

In your book you discuss how living in the suburbs can choke our spiritual life and how intentional suburbanites have to be about living out faith. Has living in the 'burbs done the same to marriage?

Goetz: Yes. It's difficult to have a meaningful marriage in the suburbs. In his book, Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker talks about immortality symbols—things that confer glory on us, which can be measured concretely, such as cleavage, low body fat, big house, career, and successful kids. But marriage isn't an immortality symbol.

Why not?

Because there's no concrete reward. What you get from a good marriage is invisible. You get a sense of connectedness. You receive the fruit of the Spirit the apostle Paul wrote about in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

That's why the pursuit of marriage needs to be intentional. Because if you default to the values of our culture, you'll pursue the sprawling house, the great body, the accomplished kids. But you'll let your marriage drift.

What do you mean "drift"?

One simple example is how we use our calendars. We mark off dates for our kids' football practices, work trips, church social events. But most people don't mark off time to make love on a Saturday morning. Everything else gets scheduled in; meanwhile, our spouse gets squeezed out.

You have great kids; own a successful business; live in a prosperous suburb. So how do you avoid the drift?

Honestly? It usually takes pain to remind me that my marriage is more important than my immortality symbols. Like every marriage, Jana and I have experienced dark moments in which I've said hurtful things. I've wondered, What's next after what just happened?

Seeing the suffering I've caused my wife awakens me to the drift. You know you're in drift when little things become huge issues, and you realize, Okay, I just went off on my wife for some reason and it was a small thing. But underneath there's this deep current of discontent.

Ultimately discontent causes marital drift?

To some extent. But so does passivity, and that's one of the classic traits of a suburban marriage.

In what ways?

I'll give you an example. Recently Jana and I weathered one of the most stressful weeks in our marriage. I'd spent the previous two weeks traveling for business and that week I had some presentations to make to clients. It was also the week that Jana moved her mother into a retirement community. I couldn't help with the move because of my work commitments, plus I had to spend time watching the kids while she got her mom settled. By the end of that week we were exhausted.

Sunday evening I decided to run to my office, which is ten minutes away, to pick up some work. I left without telling Jana. She was busy checking her e-mail, so I thought, I'll just step out, go to the office, and come back; I won't be missed. But I know Jana doesn't like that. She wants a connection before I go anywhere, even to bed.

When I came home, Jana said, "Dave, you were gone for 30 minutes. You know I hate when you don't tell me you're leaving. Are you mad at me?" And I thought, Am I? I knew I wasn't. But by leaving without doing something I know she likes, I was being passive-aggressive.

I had a couple of weeks where I wasn't getting any attention, and I responded by becoming passive. I'll just leave and see if she misses me.

We think it's no big deal. But it is; it's a spiritual issue.

Not telling her you were leaving has a spiritual connotation?

Absolutely. Passivity, or not taking initiative in your marriage, is a spiritual issue, because underneath is a deep current that says, My needs aren't getting met, so I'm not going to meet your needs. That's a spiritually dangerous and crippling place to be.

How do you protect your marriage from that?

By making space for God in your life. Life just naturally packs itself to the edges with everything except the most important things: God and marriage.

The spiritual discipline of creating space to listen to God is so important, because you become more reflective about your life. Over time you begin to ask, Why am I passive? Why do I always need Jana to initiate in the relationship?

It sounds great, but that's difficult to do—especially in suburbia where so many things compete for our time.

So the discipline is to schedule it. We read about scheduling dates and sex. The larger issue, though, is finding time in your life for God first. But one reason it's so difficult is that it's a long-term discipline that won't produce amazing results for our immortality symbols.

That's definitely our culture. We do something only if it has concrete results. I pray about my marriage, but as soon as my husband doesn't meet my needs, I react as if my spiritual discipline has failed.

Exactly. And really that's the wrong way to look at it.

Zig Ziglar says, "You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want." That's a nice pithy comment, but that isn't necessarily true. Think about this in marriage: You can have everything in your marriage you want if you just help your spouse get what she wants. On the surface, that's just good plain wisdom. But the deeper, thicker spiritual life realizes that: (1) you can't have everything in this life; and (2) there are times you give and give and give and your spouse won't get you what you want.

That probably won't sell many marriage-help books.

{Laughs} No. But with that realization, you have the great opportunity for understanding the deeper life the monastics talked about: that you must work on yourself. And your self is the biggest problem.

You think the biggest problem is your spouse not paying enough attention to you, or you always being the one who does the dishes or picks up after the kids.

The most difficult thing in a marriage is to serve the other person when your own needs aren't getting met. That's why marriage is the perfect environment for spiritual development, because it's only when your needs aren't getting met that you begin to work on your overblown sense of self. And that is something we fight against. I hate it. But without this fight, I don't grow spiritually.

I hate to say this, but I'm not sure that sounds all that enticing—especially if you're married to a difficult partner. Isn't there another way?

Do you think that if you're married to a perfect spouse you can avoid suffering? And if so, where do you think your spiritual life will be? Dead or crippled. In my book I wrote: "The human tendency seems to be to fight the difficult parts of life, as if by resisting them I can skip to the good stuff. … [But] there's no entrance into the thicker reality of Christ's presence without the cross. No one has to go looking for one; the cross finds you."

In the first years of our marriage, Jana and I would always say, "I love you"; "I love you more." We'd think, We don't fight much. We're not like those people. And that romance is a wonderful gift. Once you get through all that, though, you reach the deeper stuff. That first phase of marriage, you think, Can it get better than this? Well, then it gets worse. The romance and newness wear off, and the suffering begins. The suffering we experience in marriage—those unmet needs, those really alone times—can lead us to the deeper life.

Studies show that once couples hit about the 20-year mark, or their late forties, a lot of women walk away from their marriage. Why is that?

You hear it's because women have given and given, and then the kids start to leave and the husband, who is in the second half of life, still wants to ascend. The woman has sacrificed herself for years with her husband and the kids. She thinks, It's my turn now.

Theologian Richard Rohr sums it up well. He says that men in the second half of life need to learn the way of the cross, of suffering. But men don't want to learn that.

Many women, on the other hand, have already learned suffering—through menstruation, childbirth, giving up career for motherhood, and by living in a culture that values men more than women. And so in the second half of life Rohr thinks that women need to learn resurrection.

So you have a marriage in which the wife is going to resurrect but the husband wants to resurrect again because he doesn't want to lose that power. You're going to have conflict.

Have you experienced that conflict in your marriage?

I've asked my wife through the years to support me in different ventures. When we were first married, I was a youth pastor and was taking classes at University of Colorado at Denver. And I decided, "I'm going to be a writer." So Jana and I moved to the Chicago suburbs so I could take a job as a writer and editor. About four years later I became restless, so I began working on an mba. I expected her again to sacrifice. By that time we'd had one child. I also had a book contract. So I was working full-time, going to graduate school two nights a week, writing a book. I'm not the one sacrificing; she is. Then I decided to start my business. By this time we had two children and the week I told her I was leaving my secure job to start a business, she told me she was pregnant. And again, who sacrificed?

So recently, she told me she wants to go back to school. And how did I respond? I became unsupportive and critical. I thought, We don't have the money. Or, You actually need to work more because …. It didn't matter that we didn't have the money for me to get my MBA or to start my business. I had a great opportunity to give up power, to sacrifice some of the things I wanted so I could help my wife resurrect.

I told Jana the other day, "I know in my head that I need to do this, and it's killing me because it's so difficult." Why? Because I think about what I have to give up. I want my goals.

This is where divorce comes for many couples. Women get sick of it and say, "I don't need you." But it's really because men have never learned to give up power, which is a spiritual issue.

How do they learn that, though?

There are two ways people change. One is through contemplative prayer, through making space for God in our lives. It isn't a direct correlation, but we learn about God, and about our own motives. But most of us don't pray. Let's face it. So how are we going to learn? The only other way is through suffering. And often men don't learn this until after the wife is gone.

I know a 50 year old who had the biggest wake-up call of his life. He'd built this successful business. And his wife left him. Then he found out he had cancer. He's a much different man now. And the only thing that changed him was the suffering in his life.

It would be better to learn the deeper life before a divorce.

Absolutely, but I don't think you can do it without knowing God. Making space in your life for God through prayer and suffering is to become awakened to what you need to do for your marriage. Not just as survival mode or to have more romance or sex, but to honor God and serve your spouse.

When suffering comes, our instinct is to externalize the problem. But true spirituality is always internalizing: It's not my spouse who's the problem, but I am the problem. True spirituality says, I have unmet needs. How am I going to respond? Am I going to manipulate my wife to get what I need? Am I going to be passive, and not say good night when I go to bed because for some reason I feel neglected?

Some of the deepest, most wounding times for me are when I've realized I really hurt Jana. And I'm one of those guys who immediately knows I've done it. Though I can't stop myself, I've learned how to say, "I'm so sorry for what I just did."

For me reaching the deeper life has been learning to admit when I'm wrong. Believe me, that's suffering too.

It sounds as if your wife has mastered the art of forgiveness!

{Laughs} Absolutely. But here's the dark place: when you realize you can say, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize for …" and you can't make that person forgive you. And then you learn you can't even make them love you. Being in that place is true spiritual formation.

That's a scary place to be.

Yes. Because the next question becomes, What if she doesn't love me anymore? What if I've pushed us right over the edge?

Those are difficult places, and I've been there. It's realizing I really want to be loved, and I can't do anything to achieve that. The only thing I can do is serve her, and I have to leave it up to God at that point.

Sounds like a cliché;. But I don't want anybody to think a successful marriage is about three easy steps. I don't believe that anymore. Is practical help essential? Absolutely. But if you want to get to the deeper parts of a fulfilling marriage, you can't get there directly. You can't create a fulfilling marriage. The marriage that is part of this deeper life is a marriage that is not passive, but is always initiating, as God always initiates with us; always loving even when it's not easy.

But many times we design our own suffering and the consequences reverberate.

In what ways?

You design your own suffering, obviously, if you have an affair. I don't think anybody has looked back on an affair and said, "I'm glad I made that decision."

But many people design their own suffering by creating an environment in which they don't initiate. They create a passive-aggressive marriage. They create a marriage in which there's always some subtext as opposed to being open and honest and authentic.

There's a great song on U2's new album "How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb." Bono writes, "I want a trip inside your head, spend the day there." I'm to the point in my marriage where I want to know on a much deeper level what really makes Jana tick. What goes on inside her head on a day-to-day basis. It's a deeper love. That's what I mean by initiating—when I stop seeing her as an object that meets my needs.

There's typically someone who is giving all the time and someone who is taking all the time. In a healthy marriage that begins to flip, that taking person learns to grow and give when, in fact, he or she isn't getting anything back. I want to be that kind of person, no matter where I live.

For more information about David Goetz, go to www.deathbysuburb.net.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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