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Portrait of a Marriage: "Rebels with a Cause"

Both from broken homes and dysfunctional relationships, Tripp and Barbara Curtis resolved to pursue more for their marriage and family.

Running away to get married is unusual when you're 32 and 28. But for Barbara and Tripp Curtis, eloping seemed like the most natural decision in the world.

Little did they know God would use their "shotgun" wedding to lead them where he wanted them to be: from radical, self-centered individuals to serving, self-sacrificing parents of 12.

Their wedding came on the heels of a whirlwind courtship. They met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in September 1981, when both of them were dating other people. A year later, after Tripp broke up with his girlfriend, Barbara (who had earlier broken off her relationship) "made a beeline for him." And on September 15, 1982—his 28th birthday—Tripp and Barbara had their first date. The next day, they moved in together.

 "I woke up the morning after that date and knew I wanted to [be with] Barbara," says Tripp. Barbara possessed qualities lacking in the "flashy" and "wounded bird" types Tripp usually dated: "She was strong and self-contained … she definitely wasn't a wounded bird in need of rescuing. And she was seeking spiritual answers, as was I."

"Tripp and I are not deliberate people who think things over carefully," says Barbara, laughing. "We're risk takers." For them, living together seemed like a logical step.

Barbara's 13- and 7-year-old daughters from her first marriage, accustomed to their mom's promiscuity, took the new boyfriend in stride. "My most recent relationship had been a lesbian relationship, so my daughters were probably relieved," says Barbara.

Discussions about when to get married began soon after Tripp moved in. "I felt ridiculous next to my daughters' friends' parents," says Barbara. "With a few years of sobriety under my belt, I was starting to yearn for a more 'normal' life."

But whenever Barbara pressed Tripp to set a wedding date, he waffled. "My template had been to sleep and live with as many women as possible," says Tripp. "I was afraid of commitment, and I think Barbara was worried I'd change my mind."

Three months later, on the day after Christmas, Barbara learned she was pregnant. When she told Tripp, he responded, "Well then, we'll get married." They tied the knot a week later.

Aware of the couple's impulsivity and aversion to long-term relationships, their friends and family begged them not to marry. "So we ran away," says Tripp.

"We just wanted to marry quickly," adds Barbara. They didn't even invite Barbara's daughters to the wedding—a decision they sincerely regret. "My daughters stayed with their grandmother, and they were hurt at not being included."

Barbara and Tripp exchanged vows at a coastal inn in California, just as the sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean.

Wedded bliss lasted about 20 minutes. Immediately after the ceremony, the newlyweds sat down to their wedding dinner at the inn's restaurant. Tripp ordered a dish he'd never tasted: rack of lamb. "I'll never forget the look of horror on Barbara's face as I tore into the rack of lamb," he recalls. Befuddled by Barbara's strange expression, he asked, "What's wrong?"

Mouth agape, Barbara replied, "I just realized what terrible manners you have!"

Wanted: the perfect family

The fact that they married in the first place still causes Tripp and Barbara to scratch their heads in wonder. When they met at AA 26 years ago, Barbara was just beginning to get her life on track after more than a decade of serial drug and alcohol addictions. Tripp, who describes his pre-Barbara persona as "an irresponsible wild boy who refused to grow up," had been sober a year and a half.

Despite that, Barbara and Tripp had much in common: both were oldest children and came from broken homes—their fathers moved out when they were young children. Both were achievement-oriented and on the same page intellectually—they loved to read and discuss ideas.

"So many things have happened that we wouldn't have chosen at the time, but now we can see God's wisdom."

They were on the same level emotionally and spiritually too. "We were both extremely strong-willed and immature," says Tripp, laughing.

When they met, Barbara had been attending AA meetings for two and a half years. Adhering to AA principles, she'd willed her life to a higher power. "This 'higher power' was keeping me sober," explains Barbara. Curious to learn more about the "higher power," Barbara studied New Age spirituality. "Because

I was a radical leftist and a fierce feminist, I had no desire to look into Christianity," she says. "I thought Christians were really stupid." When Barbara met Tripp, the two "spiritual pilgrims" meditated together daily and read the same New Age books, practices they continued after they were married.

On the outside, Tripp and Barbara epitomized the Norman Rockwell family living the American dream. They built a successful tree service business and they owned a nice home in the San Francisco Bay Area. But in private, they fought about everything.

"Because I was older than Tripp and had a history of more responsibility because of having my daughters, I tended to be bossy," admits Barbara. Their strong-willed, powerful personalities clashed continually. "Neither of us knew anything about submission; we both thought we were god," explains Barbara.

"Can you imagine two gods living under the same roof?" adds Tripp. "There was lightning and thunder all the time."

They fought constantly on topics ranging from parenting issues to their business. Because they worked together, Barbara was well aware of every nuance of their business. "I let him know every single thing he was doing wrong," she admits. "Instead of saying, 'How was your day, honey?' I'd say, 'So and so phoned and you still haven't returned their call.'"

Unpracticed at resolving conflict, Barbara and Tripp separated several times during their first year of marriage. "When you have a history of broken relationships, the first thing you want to do when things go wrong is bolt," says Barbara. But their strong desire to have a solid family for their children kept them coming back together.

"Both of us were motivated to create a stable, happy family," explains Barbara. "I'd come from a 'poor, white trash' childhood that included poverty, being sexually abused, and living in foster homes. So I really wanted a perfect family."

Eight months after she gave birth to their son, Joshua, Barbara became pregnant again. When she almost lost the baby, Tripp discovered a newfound sense of commitment. "My dad ran off when I was 13. He told me, 'The only thing your mother and I have in common anymore is you kids, and that's just not good enough.' With Barbara, I decided, This is it. Even though I felt like a foolish man, with no good role models, who was trying to be a husband and father, I was going to stick it out. No matter what. I wasn't going to allow her children to get hurt."

Unbeknownst to Tripp, though, and fed up with the non-stop conflict, Barbara's motivation wore thin and she was on the verge of abandoning their marriage. "I didn't want to fight anymore," she says. "At the time, I didn't realize how much was wrong with me. Everything was his fault." But resolved to give Tripp one last chance to "straighten out." That "last chance" was a national Christian marriage conference.

One last chance

Tripp and Barbara would sometimes listen to Christian radio programs. "Not for spiritual guidance," Barbara says, "but because we had four kids and the shows were usually about parenting issues." One day while listening, she heard a commercial for an upcoming marriage conference. She signed up.

"We fought all the way there; several times, I almost got out of the car," says Tripp.

At the conference, the speakers described the difference between the world's view of marriage and God's, explaining that the world views marriage as a 50-50 relationship, while God's plan for marriage is two people, submitted to God. "We were shell-shocked; most of it made no sense to us," says Barbara.

But one thing did make sense. "We began to understand that, when we had gotten married, neither of us were ogres," says Tripp. "We weren't bad people. Something was at work to keep us from having a good relationship."

Tripp and Barbara just didn't know what that "something" was. "We didn't believe in good and evil. We thought Satan was a myth; we didn't understand the forces that are at work in the world," says Tripp. 

Although most of the other couples were Christians, the leaders still took some time to explain the basics of Christianity. "I had never heard the gospel," says Tripp. To Tripp and Barbara, Jesus was another spiritual teacher. "We had a whole line of gurus on our altar at home whom we meditated on every day. Jesus was one of those avatars."

When the conference leaders explained how to have a relationship with God and invited the attendees to ask Jesus to be their savior, something clicked inside both Tripp and Barbara. "At the break, everyone got up," says Tripp. "I looked at Barbara and she was crying. I was crying too. We didn't know what had happened to us. We knew only that we'd just found something we'd been looking for our whole lives."

As soon as Tripp and Barbara returned home, they disassembled their altar, burned all their statues, and got rid of their occult books. "The Holy Spirit was at work, cleaning out our house, cleaning out our thinking," says Tripp.

A new lifestyle

The first 10 years of being Christians were challenging and invigorating, as Barbara and Tripp gradually learned to tame their wills. "When I became a Christian, my radical politics changed instantaneously, but my emotional growth has taken many years," admits Barbara. She realized that many of their marital conflicts stemmed from her need for control. So she focused on "putting the reins on" her strong personality, surrendering control to God, and allowing herself to trust her husband.

"It hasn't been easy," she says. Because Barbara and Tripp are both "leader-type personalities, the kind of people who are always right," they still clash from time to time. But rather than allowing animosity to smolder and burn, as they did in the past, they confront and resolve conflict quickly.

"Our conflicts aren't usually about big things," she says. "They're more stupid, typical man/woman miscommunication issues. The other day I didn't like the way he corrected one of the kids who'd accidentally spilled something. So I blew my top and he got defensive (our patterns). But after awhile, I realized his response to our child was simply automatic from growing up with a dad who did the same thing. So we talked it over. I reminded him of the dad connection, he agreed, and we moved on."

One thing they've always agreed on—from the moment they became Christians—is that God has entrusted them to provide spiritually for their children. "We thought, We'd better get ourselves together because we've got to rear our kids to be Christians and we don't even know what we're doing," says Barbara.

As a result of this commitment, they made service a priority. "In today's culture, we don't associate the words service and duty with marriage," says Tripp.

"It sounds so Old Testament," adds Barbara, "but the theme of our marriage is definitely service. It's no longer about fulfilling my 'needs,' it's about shouldering responsibility together and parenting our kids. It's the work we do together that makes me feel closest to Tripp."

Another test

Five years after becoming Christians, in 1992, Barbara and Tripp's marriage was tested yet again when Barbara gave birth to a son with Down syndrome. Jonathan nearly died as a result of severe medical problems. He underwent several major surgeries and was in and out of the hospital constantly during his first 15 months.

To further complicate matters, Barbara became pregnant again right away; Jonny and his sister, Madeleine, are only 15 months apart. "We were like ships passing in the night those 15 months," recalls Tripp. "During the day, Barbara would drive an hour and a half into San Francisco and advocate for Jonny at the hospital. I would come in the evening and take care of him at night, while she returned home to care for our six kids who were living at home."

For many couples, the stressor of parenting a seriously ill infant rips a marriage to shreds. But Barbara and Tripp took it in stride. "We focused on doing a job, and we just did it," Barbara states.

When Jonny was three, Barbara broached the idea of adopting a child with Down syndrome. Tripp wasn't surprised; in fact, he'd been considering it himself. "Before Jonny was born,

I taught Sunday school for adults with special needs. I saw how lonely they were. I saw what they went through as they grew older. I thought it would be wonderful for him to have a brother to grow old with."

Not long after their discussion, Tripp and Barbara adopted Jesse, a baby with Down syndrome. About a year after they adopted Jesse, a man called and explained that his pregnant wife wanted to abort their baby because it had Down syndrome. The wife agreed to carry the baby to term—if her husband could find a family to adopt the baby. Would Tripp and Barbara consider adopting him?

"God has extended such grace to us, how can we not extend grace to a child who needs a home?" Barbara and Tripp asked each other.

Four years after they adopted Daniel, Barbara and Tripp had the opportunity to adopt another baby boy with Down syndrome. True to their risk-taking nature, they said yes.

"I am a fortunate woman to be married to a man who would rather have another child than a fancy sports car," says Barbara.

Their marriage is still loud and intense, but on the "big issues" Barbara and Tripp are united in their vision. That vision is to create a family committed to God. They don't resent putting family first. "We came from self-indulgent backgrounds; we had years of 'me' time, and it was unsatisfying," says Barbara.

It's not about "me" anymore, she insists, and that feels right. "It's about the future. Our marriage is about the legacy we leave for our children; about what God is doing through us for our family for generations to come."

Laura Christianson is author of The Adoption Decision and The Adoption Network (www.laurachristianson.com). For more information on the Curtises, go to www.barbaracurtis.com.

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

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