A news reporter once asked Joyce Rumsfeld how she and her husband Donald, former Secretary of Defense, kept their marriage of nearly 60 years together. She replied without hesitation, "He travels a lot." Her response might elicit a smile, but I imagine there's more truth in it than fiction. Staying together through tough times such as leading through war in Iraq, 10 relocations in 12 years, and rearing children largely alone, requires strength, commitment, and the grace of God. For some couples, like the Rumsfelds, trying circumstances actually transform their marriages to a level of good they never expected.
I remember speaking with an old friend after we'd been apart for many years due to various changes in our lives. The last I'd heard, she and her husband were on the verge of separation. But then something occurred in her life that prompted her to take one simple step before giving up. She began praying for her husband—not that he would change or be more loving or a better listener, but that God would bless him right where he was. And she asked the Lord to take away her harsh judgments about him. Over time and with the support of other praying wives, my friend's marriage was healed. Her husband didn't suddenly become someone new. He was the same man he'd always been, but she saw him differently and began to love him as he was. Some might consider this a miracle. She says, "No, it was my deal with God—to pray for my husband and to accept and be happy with whatever results the Lord gave me." She paused and smiled. "And I am."
I spoke with other women and men too, about their marriages and how God used the unlikely situations in their lives to transform their relationships. Here are their stories.
Alcoholism Led to Renewal
"Hello. I'm Heidi, a recovering alcoholic. That was my problem—our problem—right there," said Heidi. "But it has brought me closer to my husband in the last 2,912 days of sober living than ever before."
How does Heidi know this precise number? Because her husband writes on a little slip of paper the number of each new day that Heidi remains sober. She carries the paper in her pocket as a reminder to stay grateful for the day—and to live it without drinking. "Dick has done this for me since the very first day of my sobriety," she said, "when I surrendered my life back to God and stopped drinking. It is a joint effort and I am accountable to myself, to my husband, and to my God."
This action alone changed Heidi and Dick's marriage, but the real transformation came when the couple's pastor invited Heidi to speak on sobriety and her faith in front of 4,500 people at three weekend services.
"Dick hadn't been in church in 50 years!" said Heidi. "But he came to all three services to support me. That weekend he was touched by the Holy Spirit through the sermon, the praise and worship music, and my testimony. He became a Christian soon after that." Not only was their marriage transformed, but so was Heidi once again.
She admits that while standing in front of the crowd she was focused on herself. "I thought that whole experience was about me delivering my message, when in fact, it was about God getting his message to my husband through me! I am so blessed now to be able to show up sober for God's work. From that day on, Dick and I have done mission work together and we sing in the choir—Dick's idea."
Heidi can admit with a smile that God used her alcoholism to serve his purpose in their marriage. "Sobriety," she said, "is not so much about 'not drinking,' but about engagement with life, reconnecting to God and to others. Drinking was about isolation from people and separation from God. Staying sober and helping other alcoholics has now become my ministry for God."
Disability Changed Their Marriage for Good
Joseph and Lynn have a unique story, too. "I was declared disabled six months after we were married, due to issues with my back," said Ellen. "It was a complete game-changer for us. We had both worked full time and planned to continue doing so—until this happened."
The couple had known that eventually Ellen might be limited in what she could do, but they weren't expecting it that soon. Ellen wondered how her husband would deal with it. Her situation meant they couldn't be as social as they had been. But instead of allowing a rift, they made Ellen's disability work for them.
Joseph is quick to admit, "Because we have so much time to spend together, we have become physically and emotionally closer than I ever thought possible."
Ellen said her husband is grateful to have a shoulder to cry on, "knowing I will love him no matter what and I know he'll love me no matter what. Being together more now than ever enables us to bounce ideas off one another and to talk about opportunities for our future. It's a real blessing that many couples who've been married more years than we have only dream about."
Before they married, the couple decided they'd share all household responsibilities. But due to Ellen's disability, Joseph has had to take on more than they imagined. They've made that work in their favor too. For example, "when we want to prepare a dish for the oven—meatloaf, for example—Joseph gets out all the ingredients and I sit at the table and combine them." This is just one of many ways the couple has focused on the positive side of their challenge and enjoy doing so.
A Case of Shingles Deepened Their Love
"After 62 years of marriage, my mother came down with a severe case of shingles," said Sandra. "She was in excruciating pain, lost 20 pounds, and was bedridden for almost a year because she couldn't tolerate pain medication." This was a most difficult time for a woman who had always been independent. But God used this unusual circumstance to heal the estranged relationship between Sandra and her mother, and to knit her parents together in a new way.
"Mom had no desire to be close to me—until she got shingles," said Sandra. "Then, in desperation she started calling me several times a day, asking for prayer. Gradually, God restored my relationship with both my mother, Elaine, now 82, and with my father, Henry, age 90." The Lord also did an amazing work in her parents' marriage. Sandra's father closed his office when his wife became ill, so he could be with her. "He read to her every night," said Sandra. "I often watched them gaze into each other's eyes when they were together. It was obvious they were experiencing renewed love and respect. Though my mother has been free of shingles for four years, she is not free of the aftermath and still suffers from bouts of extreme pain, so my father continues to do all the cooking, shopping, and most of the cleaning. Their love is deeper than ever, despite also losing two sons due to congenital heart defects. Many couples divorce after such tragedies."
Regardless of how challenging the circumstances were, Sandra watched her father take excellent care of himself during those times. Every day he exercised, lifted weights, ate nutritious meals, and slept well. This allowed him to be at his best when his wife needed him.
According to Sandra's dad, "The love your mother and I have for each other has reached greater heights than anything I could have imagined during previous years."
"It gives me great joy to know my parents are passing on a legacy of love and devotion," said Sandra, "made all the sweeter because of what they've been through."
Bankruptcy Turned My Marriage Around
One year my husband, Charles, and I went through a season of profound financial challenge. We were down to our last few dollars when we turned to our church for assistance. The Deacons' Fund covered our rent for two months, and our home fellowship donated enough money to carry us through for another month.
But ultimately, we felt we had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. It was by far the lowest point in our marriage. I couldn't imagine how we'd ever climb back. We hadn't been spenders or gamblers. I hadn't thought this could happen to us. But it had. The company my husband worked for went out of business and he lost his job. The freelance work I relied on dwindled. Our meager savings disappeared faster than a puddle in the sun.
Then one afternoon, just before Christmas that same year, we received a money order for the perfect amount we needed for our tree, holiday food, and a few gifts for our children. It was signed, "Barnabas." A fitting pseudonym! We looked at each other in disbelief. Then came the tears. "Praise God!" we shouted. For nearly a year he had kept us going with donations of food, clothing, and money and small jobs here and there.
It was all coming clear at last. It had been our season to receive, our time to be humbled before him, our turn to acknowledge our weakness and our neediness before our Christian friends. Shortly after Christmas that year, things began to turn around. I landed a teaching job and a new book contract, and my husband received a job offer.
But just as things were looking up, our trusty compact car of 14 years collapsed and couldn't be fixed. How could we purchase a new vehicle, I wondered, with a bankruptcy on our credit report? After praying about it, we decided to face the situation head-on. We visited a local car dealership with bankruptcy papers in hand. I would plead our case and leave the results to God.
The manager greeted us, offered us a friendly hand, and listened to our story. Then he stood up, smiled, and declared on the spot: "Everyone goes through tough times. You look like honest, hard-working folks. I'm going to take a chance on you." With that he showed us a fleet of no-frills, stick-shift cars at a whopping discount. I stood there without breathing! I was sure I saw my name written across the small blue station wagon parked against the wall. I let out a breath. "Okay, God, we'll go for it, trusting you to help us make our payments on time."
Today I realize the most remarkable aspect of our brush with financial ruin and the path to solvency that God provided, is how the Lord changed our hearts toward one another and our marriage. Instead of looking to my husband to find a decent paying job that would take care of us so I could build my writing career and manage our home, I learned to trust God for what we needed.
"I love you," I told my husband one day soon after that experience, "and I want our marriage. I apologize for my harsh thoughts and words toward you. I'm putting our relationship and our finances in God's hands. He just showed us he's more than able."
My husband's eyes lit up. His shoulders relaxed and his chin quivered. He put his arms around me and promised that from that day forward we'd work as a team, taking the lead from God, and he apologized for his part in the mess.
Next April we will celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. It has been 20 years since the experience that could have torn us apart. I never expected bankruptcy to be the means God would use to transform our marriage, but as I look back, it was just what we needed to turn from obsessing about money and blaming each other for our problems, to trusting God—the only one who can and will provide all our needs.
Karen O'Connor is a retreat speaker, award-winning author, and writing mentor from Watsonville, California. Visit Karen's web site: KarenOConnor.com.