In an effort to draw on the experiences of those who have lived together successfully as husbands and wives, we asked married couples to participate in an informal study. More than 600 people agreed to speak candidly to the younger generation about the concepts and methods that have worked in their homes. They each wrote comments and recommendations which were carefully analyzed and compared.
The advice they offered is not new, but it certainly represents a great place to begin. In attempting to learn any task, one should start with the fundamentals — those initial steps from which everything else will later develop. In this spirit, our panel of 600 offered three tried-and-tested, back-to-basic recommendations with which no committed Christian would likely disagree.
The panel first suggests that newlyweds should establish and maintain a Christ-centered home. Everything rests on that foundation. If a young husband and wife are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, they enjoy enormous advantages over the family with no spiritual dimension.
A meaningful prayer life is essential in maintaining a Christ-centered home. Of course, some people use prayer the way they follow their horoscopes, attempting to manipulate an unidentified “higher power” around them. One of my friends teasingly admits that he utters a prayer each morning on the way to work when he passes the doughnut shop. He knows it is unhealthy to eat the greasy pastries, but he loves them dearly. Therefore, he asks the Lord for permission to indulge himself each day.
He’ll say, “If it is Your will that I have a doughnut this morning, let there be a parking space available somewhere as I circle the block.” If no spot can be found for his car, he circles the block and prays again.
Shirley and I have taken our prayer life a bit more seriously. In fact, this communication between us and God has been the stabilizing factor throughout our many years of married life. In good times, in hard times, in moments of anxiety and in periods of praise, we have shared this wonderful privilege of talking directly to our heavenly Father. What a concept! No appointment is needed to enter into His presence. We don’t have to go through His subordinates or bribe His secretaries. He is simply there, whenever we bow before Him. Some of the highlights of my life have occurred in these quiet sessions with the Lord.
I’ll never forget the time when our daughter had just learned to drive. Danae had been enrolled in Kamakazi Driving School, and the moment finally arrived for her to take her first solo flight in the family car. Believe me, my anxiety level was climbing off the chart that day.
Someday you will know how terrifying it is to hand the car keys to a 16-year-old kid who doesn’t know what she doesn’t know about driving. Shirley and I stood quaking in the front yard as Danae drove out of sight. We then turned to go back into the house, and I said, “Well, Babe, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Fortunately, Danae made it home safely in a few minutes and brought the car to a careful and controlled stop. That is the sweetest sound in the world to an anxious parent!
It was during this era, when we lived in Southern California, that Shirley and I covenanted between us to pray for our son and daughter at the close of every day. Not only were we concerned about the risk of an automobile accident, but we were also aware of so many other dangers that lurk out there in a city like Los Angeles.
That part of the world is known for weirdos, kooks, nuts, ding-a-lings and fruitcakes. That’s one reason we found ourselves on our knees each evening, asking for divine protection for the teenagers we love so much.
One night we were particularly tired and collapsed into bed without our benedictory prayer. We were almost asleep before Shirley’s voice pierced the night. “Jim,” she said. “We haven’t prayed for our kids yet today. Don’t you think we should talk to the Lord?”
I admit it was difficult for me to pull my 6’2″ frame out of the warm bed that night. Nevertheless, we got on our knees and offered a prayer for our children’s safety, placing them in the hands of the Father once more.
Later we learned that Danae and a girlfriend had gone to a fast-food establishment and bought hamburgers and Cokes. They drove up the road a few miles to eat the meal when a city policeman drove by, shining his spotlight in all directions. He was obviously looking for someone, but gradually went past.
In a few minutes, Danae and her friend heard a “clunk” from under the car. They looked at one another nervously and felt another sharp bump. Before they could leave, a man crawled out from under the car and emerged on the passenger side. He was very hairy and looked as if he had been on the street for weeks. He also wore strange-looking “John Lennon” glasses down on his nose. The man immediately came over to the door and attempted to open it. Thank God, it was locked. Danae quickly started the car and drove off … no doubt at record speed.
Later, when we checked the timing of this incident, we realized that Shirley and I had been on our knees at the precise moment of danger. Our prayers were answered. Our daughter and her friend were safe!
It is impossible for me to overstate the need for prayer in the fabric of family life. Not simply as a shield against danger, of course. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of marriage, giving meaning and purpose to every dimension of living. Being able to bow in prayer as the day begins or ends gives expression to the frustrations and concerns that might not otherwise be ventilated.
On the other end of that prayer line is a loving heavenly Father who has promised to hear and answer our petitions. In this day of disintegrating families on every side, we dare not try to make it on our own.
I attended the 50th wedding anniversary for two friends a few years ago, and the man made an incredible statement to his guests. He said he and his wife had never had a serious fight or argument in the 50 years since they were married. That was either a lot of baloney or he and his wife had a very boring relationship. Maybe both were true.
To newly married couples I must say: Don’t count on having that kind of placid relationship. There will be times of conflict and disagreement. There will be periods of emotional blandness when you can generate nothing but a yawn for one another. That’s life, as they say.
What will you do, then, when unexpected tornadoes blow through your home, or when the doldrums leave your sails sagging and silent? Will you pack it in and go home to Mama? Will you pout and cry and seek ways to strike back? Or will your commitment hold you steady?
These questions must be addressed now, before Satan has an opportunity to put his noose of discouragement around your neck. Set your jaw and clench your fists. Nothing short of death must ever be permitted to come between the two of you. Nothing!
This determined attitude is missing from so many marital relationships today. I read of a wedding ceremony in New York a few years ago where the bride and groom each pledged “to stay with you for as long as I shall love you.” I doubt if their marriage lasted even to this time.
The feeling of love is simply too ephemeral to hold a relationship together for very long. It comes and goes. That’s why our panel of 600 was adamant at this point. They have lived long enough to know that a weak marital commitment will inevitably end in divorce.
Another recommendation by our panel represents a basic ingredient for a good marriage — good communication between husbands and wives. This topic has been beaten to death by writers of books on the subject of marriage, so I will hit it lightly. I would like to offer a few less overworked thoughts on marital communication, however, that might be useful to young married couples.
First, it must be understood that males and females differ in a way not often mentioned. Research makes it clear that little girls are blessed with greater linguistic ability than little boys, and it remains a lifelong talent. Simply stated, she talks more than he.
As an adult, she typically expresses her feelings and thoughts far better than her husband and is often irritated by his reticence. God may have given her 50,000 words per day and her husband only 25,000. He comes home with 24,975 used up and merely grunts his way through the evening. He may descend into “Monday Night Football” while his wife is dying to expend her remaining 25,000 words.
Erma Bombeck complained about this tendency of men to get lost in televised sports while their wives hunger for companionship. She even proposed that a new ordinance be passed that would be called “Bombeck’s Law.” According to it, a man who had watched 168,000 football games in a single season could be declared legally dead. All in favor say “Aye.”
The complexity of the human personality guarantees exceptions to every generalization. Yet women do tend to talk more than men. Every knowledgeable marriage counselor knows that the inability or unwillingness of husbands to reveal their feelings to their wives is one of the common complaints of women.
It can almost be stated as an absolute: Show me a quiet, reserved husband, and I’ll show you a frustrated wife. She wants to know what he’s thinking and what happened at his office and how he sees the children and, especially, how he feels about her. The husband, by contrast, finds some things better left unsaid. It is a classic struggle.
The paradox is that a highly emotional, verbal woman is sometimes drawn to the strong, silent type. He seemed so secure and “in control” before they were married. She admired his unflappable nature and his coolness in a crisis.
Then they were married, and the flip side of his great strength became obvious. He wouldn’t talk! She then gnashed her teeth for the next 40 years because her husband couldn’t give what she needed from him. It just wasn’t in him.
Lyricist and singer Paul Simon wrote a song entitled “I Am a Rock,” which expressed the sentiment of a silent introvert. The person about whom the song is written has been wounded and has pulled within himself for protection. As you read these lyrics, imagine the special communication problems such a man and his poor wife would experience in marriage.
Unfortunately, the wives and children of rocks and islands do feel pain, and they do cry! But what is the solution to such communicative problems at home? As always, it involves compromise. A man has a clear responsibility to “cheer up his wife which he has taken” (Deuteronomy 24:5). He must not claim himself “a rock” who will never allow himself to be vulnerable again. He must press himself to open his heart and share his deeper feelings with his wife.
Time must be reserved for meaningful conversations. Taking walks and going out to breakfast and riding bicycles on Saturday mornings are conversation inducers that keep love alive. Communication can occur even in families where the husband leans inward and the wife leans outward. In these instances, I believe, the primary responsibility for compromise lies with the husband.
On the other hand, women must understand and accept the fact that some men cannot be what they want them to be. I have previously addressed this need for wives to accept reality as it is presented to them in my book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women.
Can you accept the fact that your husband will never be able to meet all your needs and aspirations? Seldom does one human being satisfy every longing and hope in the breast of another.
Obviously, this coin has two sides: You can’t be his perfect woman, either. He is no more equipped to resolve your entire package of emotional needs than you are to become his sexual dream machine every 24 hours. Both partners have to settle for human foibles and faults and irritability and fatigue and occasional nighttime “headaches.”
A good marriage is not one where perfection reigns: It is a relationship where a healthy perspective overlooks a multitude of “unresolvables.” Thank goodness my wife, Shirley, has adopted this attitude toward me!
I am especially concerned about the mother of small children who chooses to stay at home as a full-time homemaker. If she looks to her husband as a provider of all adult conversation and the satisfier of every emotional need, their marriage can quickly run aground. He will return home from work somewhat depleted and in need of “tranquility,” as we discussed earlier.
Instead, he finds a woman who is continually starved for attention and support. When she sees in his eyes that he has nothing left to give, that is the beginning of sorrows. She either becomes depressed or angry (or both), and he has no idea how he can help her. I understand this feminine need and have attempted to articulate it to men.
Nevertheless, a woman’s total dependence on a man places too great a pressure on the marital relationship. It sometimes cracks under the strain.
What can be done, then? A woman with a normal range of emotional needs cannot simply ignore them. They scream for fulfillment. Consequently, I have long recommended that women in this situation seek to supplement what their husbands can give by cultivating meaningful female relationships.
Having girlfriends with whom they can talk heart-to-heart, study the Scriptures, and share child-care techniques can be vital to mental health. Without this additional support, loneliness and low self-esteem can accumulate and begin to choke the marriage to death.
This solution of feminine company seems so obvious that one might ask why it is even worthwhile to suggest it. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to implement. A woman must often search for companionship today. We’ve witnessed a breakdown in relationships between women in recent years.
A hundred years ago, wives and mothers did not have to seek female friendship. It was programmed into the culture. Women canned food together, washed clothes at the creek together and cooperated in church charity work together.
When babies were born, the new mother was visited by aunts, sisters, neighbors and church women who came to help her diaper, feed and care for the child. There was an automatic support system that surrounded women and made life easier. Its absence translates quickly into marital conflict and can lead to divorce.
To the young wives who are reading these words, I urge you not to let this scenario happen to you. Invest some time in your female friends – even though you are busy. Resist the temptation to pull into the walls of your home and wait for your husband to be all things to you. Stay involved as a family in a church that meets your needs and preaches the Word.
Remember that you are surrounded by many other women with similar feelings. Find them. Care for them. Give to them. And in the process, your own self-esteem will rise. Then when you are content, your marriage will flourish.
It sounds simplistic, but that’s the way we are made. We are designed to love God and to love one another. Deprivation of either function can be devastating.
This material was excerpted from his book Love for a Lifetime.
Copyright © 1987, 1993 James C. Dobson. Read more from Dr. Dobson at Focus on the Family.
Used by permission of Questar Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.