As we sat together at a marriage seminar, I remember thinking how funny it was that the seminar was called "Marriage for a Lifetime." My marriage was over. I believed it with every ounce of my soul.
However, my husband was encouraged that I had agreed to come. He didn't know that my motive was selfish. I went so that I could say that I had tried everything to save the marriage—and a Christian marriage seminar was about the only fix I hadn't tried.
We had been married sixteen years and had four wonderful children. The past four years were spent in weekly marriage counseling with a Christian couple who were trying to help us stop arguing. I had recently surrendered my life to God over a problem with alcohol and was no longer numbing my feelings. Now, my discontent with our marriage was undeniable and visible.
Since I came from a remarkably dysfunctional family full of divorce and addictions, and my husband's was "in tact," I was usually labeled as the one with "the problem." But during our second session of therapy, our counselors told my husband, Steve, that he had to face his sexual addiction that revealed itself as anger, emotional and physical isolation, entitlement, pridefulness, and in a preoccupation with sex. I always thought his anger was my fault. But now I realized I could do nothing to change Steve. He had to change himself. And for the next four years, he chose not to.
Just before the marriage seminar, while on a trip with my oldest daughter, I met a man who turned my head. I felt deprived, lonely, and vulnerable. He said things that made me feel good inside. I was shocked to find myself responding emotionally. Thankfully, I cut off the friendship, but I was depressed, physically unhealthy, and knew I couldn't go on with my marriage the way it was. Steve's inability to face his own escalating addiction, coupled with my co-dependency, made our situation unbearable. I tried everything I knew how to do, and still nothing changed. So I asked Steve for a separation. It was the first time my husband took what I said seriously. He hit bottom and surrendered his life to the Lord.
But it was too late. I had lost trust and respect for Steve because of his actions and I felt my hurt over his betrayals was irreparable. I didn't think I loved him anymore. I thanked God that Steve found salvation and was able to ask for help with his problems. But I wondered why his salvation had to come at the expense of our marriage.
The separation was heart-wrenching, but we did the best that we could. We kept our children's emotional well-being a priority. They got counseling, and we talked with them about our feelings. Steve and I also continued counseling.
Despite Steve's obvious changes and spiritual growth, I didn't want to stay married. For five months, my friends held me in prayer, and acquaintances insisted on telling their stories of how God salvaged their marriages. Each time, I listened politely, nodded my head, and said, "That's great for you, but it won't work for me. I don't think God wants me to stay married."
But whenever I said those words, there wasn't peace in my heart. That made me angry. God was telling me that what I wanted to do wasn't his will. It felt so unfair. But I prayed: "Lord, if you want me to stay in this marriage, you need to change my heart. I can't do it. You need to."
Even at the Christian marriage seminar, I was uncomfortable. I couldn't wait for it to be over. Then Gary Smalley said these words: "I am sure most of you are here for a marriage tune-up, but if you are in a marriage crisis and ready to give up, please see me about our Marriage Intensive program at the Smalley Relationship Center." Steve and I looked at each other, and I said, "Let's try it." I still don't know where those words came from, but I felt God urging me to keep seeking help.
The next week Steve arranged for us to attend the Marriage Intensive: sixteen hours of counseling over two days with licensed therapists. We each received a packet of information that included forms and questionnaires. We had to complete the forms separately and not share them with our spouse. They took two hours to complete. The questions were intimate and demanded rigorous honesty, but that wasn't difficult. I figured that if I wasn't unyielding about my feelings now, then this exercise was futile. After all, I had nothing else to lose.
We arrived on a Friday morning and were greeted by psychologist Robert Paul and counselor Erin Smalley. Robert explained that he and Erin had studied and assessed our questionnaires and were prepared to explore our circumstances and struggles. He said that in our sessions, they would help us uncover what hindered our marriage.
This already felt radically different from our weekly marriage counseling. I felt relaxed knowing that we had a significant amount of time to work through issues, unlike our weekly fifty-minute sessions.
"Hmmm. Extensive time for thought and follow-through," I remember thinking. "Maybe we'll really get to the root of our problem. I feel safe here."
Over the next two days, we willingly shared our hearts and lives with two strangers who quickly became our friends in Christ. Because of the large blocks of time spent in each session, our therapists could see how we interacted with each other. They helped us work through many of the communication stumbling blocks that, in time, built a wall that prevented true intimacy with each other. Digging deeper, Steve realized his fear of inadequacy, and I owned up to my shame issues from childhood and my own fear of intimacy.
After our first day, Steve and I went out for dinner, Robert cautioned us not to talk about the day because we were both emotionally exhausted. Steve started to focus on an issue we had discussed, but I refused to talk about it based on what Robert had instructed. Steve stayed up all night, afraid and panic-stricken, but I kept my boundary and didn't rescue him—for the first time in our marriage. I felt my progress in that one situation. It was then that I knew there was hope.
This was the most difficult, yet encouraging, time of my life. I felt true hope. I knew this marriage-intensive wasn't designed to "fix" our marriage, yet I finally felt like our problems were understood. Robert and Erin could help us refigure our marital communication system and knock down the barriers that kept us from having the marriage we desired.
Robert related us and our marital journey to the children of Israel, as they exited Egypt and journeyed to the Promised Land. Our "bondage in Egypt" allowed us to side-step our deep issues and difficult emotions. With the help of Robert and Erin, Steve and I identified the patterns in our marriage that were ineffective and causing frustration. Together, we made a conscious decision to leave behind the painful patterns and to seek a new structure.
We left Egypt and crossed the Jordan River into the wilderness where we are seeking new communication skills and fresh methods of showing our love. Our challenge is the same as the Israelites': we often feel as though we are wandering aimlessly, making little progress, and are tempted to return to the familiarity of "Egypt," or our old behavioral patterns. We will hit walls, like the barrier of Jericho, but to keep going takes prayer and trust in the Lord. We also realize that God led the Israelites to victory in an unpredictable way. Had they relied on their own intelligence and resources, they would have failed.
Steve didn't move home right away. We needed first to assimilate the new skills, and envision what our Promised Land looked like. What it will take for each of us to reach our ideal marriage will differ, and to reach that ideal we must be increasingly pleased with our progress. We have grown tremendously through our sufferings and we're giving God our relationship to continue to heal. We continue to seek counseling, and we fellowship with friends whose marriages we admire. God is leading us in directions that accomplish his purposes in our lives, and this is unique to our gifts, needs, and personalities. Today, I know that the only way I can have peace is to surrender my will to the Lord every day of my life.
Anne Johnston is a pseudonym for a writer living in Chicago.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.