Marriage 101

So, I’ll start off with the obvious disclaimer that I’m no expert on marriage and not a trained counselor. These are just my thoughts and opinions.

The effort one is willing to put in towards a marriage is an indicator of how much one values the institution. As an article in the November 2011 issue of Redbook Magazine put it, “‘You’d get fired if you put zero effort into your job,’ says Julia Spira. In marriage, that’s called divorce–yikes.”

While I am thankful that my marriage is on solid ground, I have too many friends–including Christian friends–whose marriages are not; and it saddens me. Of course, my marriage isn’t perfect and there are times when I say mean, hurtful, or disrespectful things to my husband, but we are committed to each other and continually work at our marriage. We both have those days when we’re acting selfish, but mostly we are able to set aside that selfishness to work toward the goal of a happy, intact family.

The unfortunate thing is that most couples can’t set aside their selfishness for each other. They manage to be unselfish with other people, but not with each other. They will each want to take it all and give nothing to the other, as if they other half of the couple is there to serve them. An individual makes a decision or takes an action that affects the marriage and family, but doesn’t seem to care how it will affect everyone else. It’s not a marriage when you’re only looking out for number one.

I wish they could understand that the other person is not there to fix them, babysit them, or make them grow up; that’s the problem of an individual. However, when that individual is in a marriage (with or without kids) they need to work on the marriage as a first priority and then their personal issues/failings/whatever, as a close second.

I believe that when a marriage comes first and begins to heal, that frees the couple to start supporting each other as they begin to address personal issues that may have been affecting the marriage. When the couple can decide to stay committed to the marriage and work together for the good of the marriage and family, then the animosity, loneliness, and hurt can be addressed and they couple can move forward. On the other hand, if an individual is insistent on taking care of only themselves or fixing their problems first, it seems to me that the marriage suffers as the individual withdraws to “fix themselves.” Whether any personal problems existed before the marriage or not, a marriage that begins to heal will only give the couple more opportunity to support each other and further strengthen the marriage because of that support.

Sometimes a couple can correct their marriage on their own, if things haven’t gone too far down the wrong path. But there are times when couples must swallow their foolish pride, stubbornness, fear, or worries, and head straight for the nearest counselor. Some marriages need outside help if they’re ever going to improve. I wonder if there is any state that requires counseling before allowing divorces; I think that would be a great idea. How many marriages might be saved if only they put in the small effort of attending counseling? Healing may be painful, but as this letter illustrates, divorce is even more painful. (See entire post about Weathering Life’s Storms, from which this letter below was taken.)


Who can comprehend this mysterious bonding that enables a man and a woman to withstand the many storms of life and remain best friends for the rest of their lives together? This phenomenon is so remarkable that the Apostle Paul chose it to symbolize the unfathomable bond of love between Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.

Too many of today’s marriages end on a less inspirational note. Over decades I’ve seen an escalation in these wounded, dying relationships, and I’ve witnessed anew the agony that divorce inflicts on its victims. Everyone loses when a marriage turns sour.

I came across a secular book that expressed the pain associated with divorce more dramatically than anything I’ve read. It is entitled DEATH OF A MARRIAGE, by Pat Conroy. I’ve obtained permission to quote a short passage from this book in hopes of helping someone who is contemplating a divorce. If you are such a person, and you’ve been asking the Lord for guidance, perhaps this is His answer. If you know someone who is considering that decision, you might send them a copy of this letter. Urge them to beware! There is even greater pain down that well-trodden road, as Mr. Conroy states so eloquently:

Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. The greatest comes from the wound where love once issued forth.

I find it hard to believe how many people now get divorced, how many submit to such extraordinary pain. For there are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in surgical wards. In my own case, I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral and shed real tears – far easier than staring across a table, telling each other it was over.

It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. It was terrifying to say goodbye, to reject a part of my own history.

When I went through my divorce I saw it as a country, and it was treeless, airless; there were no furloughs and no holidays. I entered without passport, without directions and absolutely alone. Insanity and hopelessness grew in that land like vast orchards of malignant fruit. I do not know the precise day that I arrived in that country. Nor am I certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there.

Each divorce has its own metaphors that grow out of the dying marriage. One man was inordinately proud of his aquarium. He left his wife two weeks after the birth of their son. What visitors noticed next was that she was not taking care of the aquarium. The fish began dying. The two endings became linked in my mind.

For a long time I could not discover my own metaphor of loss – until the death of our dog, Beau, became the irrefutable message that Barbara and I were finished.

Beau was a feisty, crotchety dachshund Barbara had owned when we married. It took a year of pained toleration for us to form our alliance. But Beau had one of those illuminating inner lives that only lovers of dogs can understand. He had a genius for companionship. To be licked by Beau when you awoke in the morning was a fine thing.

On one of the first days of our separation, when I went to the house to get some clothes, my youngest daughter, Megan, ran out to tell me that Beau had been hit by a car and taken to the animal clinic. I raced there and found Ruth Tyree, Beau’s veterinarian. She carried Beau in to see me and laid him on the examining table.

I had not cried during the terrible breaking away from Barbara. I had told her I was angry at my inability to cry. Now I came apart completely. It was not weeping; it was screaming; it was despair.

The car had crushed Beau’s spine, the X-ray showing irreparable damage. Beau looked up at me while Dr. Tyree handed me a piece of paper, saying that she needed my signature to put Beau to sleep.

I could not write my name because I could not see the paper. I leaned against the examining table and cried as I had never cried in my life, crying not just for Beau but for Barbara, the children, myself, for the death of a marriage, for inconsolable loss. Dr. Tyree touched me gently, and I heard her crying about me. And Beau, in the last grand gesture of his life, dragged himself the length of the table on his two good legs and began licking the tears as they ran down my face.

I had lost my dog and found my metaphor. In the X-ray of my dog’s crushed spine, I was looking at a portrait of my broken marriage.

But there are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about divorce. Divorces without children are minor-league divorces. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them that you are mutilating their family and changing all their tomorrows is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat. It is also their parents’ last act of solidarity and the absolute sign that the marriage is over. It felt as though I had doused my entire family with gasoline and struck a match.

The three girls entered the room and would not look at me or Barbara. Their faces, all dark wings and grief and human hurt, told me that they already knew. My betrayal of these young, sweet girls filled the room.

They wrote me notes of farewell, since it was I who was moving out. When I read them, I did not see how I could ever survive such excruciating pain. The notes said, “I love you, Daddy. I will visit you.” For months I would dream of visiting my three daughters locked in a mental hospital. The fear of damaged children was my most crippling obsession.

For a year, I walked around feeling as if I had undergone a lobotomy. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up. There is a restaurant I will never return to because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. It was a year when memory was an acid.

I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I drank to the point of not caring. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then could not eat them.

I had entered into the dark country of divorce, and for a year I was one of its ruined citizens. I suffered. I survived. I studied myself on the edge, and introduced myself to the stranger who lived within.

Barbara and I had one success in our divorce, and it is an extraordinarily rare one. As the residue of anger and hurt subsided with time, we remained friends. We saw each other for lunch occasionally, and I met her boyfriend, Tom.

Once, when I was leaving a party, I looked back and saw Barbara and Tom holding hands. They looked very happy together, and it was painful to recognize it. I wanted to go back and say something to Tom, but I mostly wanted to say it to Barbara. I wanted to say that I admired Tom’s taste in women.1

Reading these powerful words helps explain why Family Talk is so thoroughly committed to the concept of lifelong marriage. That’s the way it was intended by the Creator when He laid out the blueprint for the family. Of course, we must acknowledge that divorces do occur and many of my readers have undoubtedly gone through this tragic experience already. In those cases, we must do all we can to care for them, to pray with them and help them deal with the pain that Conroy graphically illustrated.

If we can prevent even one unnecessary dissolution from occurring, with its terrible implications for three or more generations, we will have fulfilled one of the critical purposes for which this ministry was ordained.

Thank you for making it possible through your contributions for us to reach out to families in crisis. We will continue to offer our meager fishes and loaves to those who seek our help as long as you stand with us. And speaking of support, your gifts would be especially welcomed as we continue to equip the Family Talk ministry to respond to the escalating needs of families as they weather life’s storms. Coming off a slow summer season, contributions trail current expenses. That’s probably not new news, but it is my duty merely to remind you of our financial situation.

Meanwhile, I urge those of you who are married to cling tightly to one another! The culture in which we live is hostile to marriage and the family. If you don’t “water” and maintain your relationship, it will slowly wither and die. That is a preventable tragedy if there ever was one.

Sincerely in Christ,

James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and President
Family Talk


I’ll close with the following advice from a devotional out of one of the Bibles I own:

“Marriage and the family are institutions founded by God. They are considered His highest priority for individuals next to personal salvation. They are worth defending in battle.” Beverly LaHaye (emphasis mine).

Did you get that? Next to our salvation, marriage is the priority; not an individual, but a couple, a family is where our priorities should lie. Next time you’re tempted to be selfish, remember that God want the marriage to come first, not your personal pursuits.

Do you need a model for marriage? Read Ephesians 5:22-33 and ask God to show you how to treat your spouse the way he intended. Then, comment below on one thing you’ll do to improve your marriage, whether or not yours is already solid.

God bless!