After five years, Becky Zerbe said she felt she had “lasted as long as I could in my marriage.” She packed a bag for herself and her 14-month-old son and drove to her parents’ home to tell her mother why she was leaving her husband.

Her mother listened patiently and said that, no matter what she decided, they would help her. “But before you leave Bill,” she said, “I have one task for you to complete.”

First she told Becky to take a pen and paper and, on the left side, write a list of Bill’s shortcomings. This is going to be easy, Becky thought as she began.

Bill never picked his clothes off the floor. He never told me when he was going outside. He slept in church. He had embarrassing, nasty habits such as blowing his nose or belching at the dinner table. He never bought me nice presents. He refused to match his clothes. He was tight with money. He wouldn’t help with the housework. He didn’t talk with me.

The list went on and on until I’d filled the page. I certainly had more than enough evidence to prove that no woman would be able to live with this man.

The second list

Becky figured her mother would then tell her to write a list of Bill’s good qualities to the right of the first list.  But to her surprise, her mother said, “I already know Bill’s good qualities. Instead, for each item on the left side, I want you to write how you respond. What do you do?”

This was even tougher than listing his good qualities. … I hadn’t considered thinking about myself. I knew Mom wasn’t going to let me get by without completing her assignment. So I had to start writing.

I’d pout, cry, and get angry. I’d be embarrassed to be with him. I’d act like a “martyr.” I’d wish I’d married someone else. I’d give him the silent treatment. I’d feel I was too good for him. The list seemed endless.

When she finished, her mother took some scissors and cut the paper in half.  She threw the list of Bill’s bad qualities in the trash and gave Becky the other half.  “Becky,” she said, “take this list back to your house. Spend today reflecting on these things in your life. Pray about them. I’ll keep the baby until this afternoon. If you sincerely do what I ask and still want to leave Bill, Dad and I will do all we can to assist you.”

As Becky reflected that afternoon on how she had responded to her husband’s shortcomings, she was horrified.

I saw a record of petty behaviors, shameful practices, and destructive responses. I spent the next several hours asking God for forgiveness. I requested strength, guidance, and wisdom in the changes I needed to make. As I continued to pray, I realized how ridiculously I’d behaved. I could barely remember the transgressions I’d written for Bill. How absurd could I be? There was nothing immoral or horrible on that list. I’d honestly been blessed with a good man—not a perfect one, but a good one.

I thought back five years. I’d made a vow to Bill. I would love and honor him in sickness and health. I’d be with him for better or for worse. I said those words in the presence of God, my family, and friends. Yet only this morning, I’d been ready to leave him for trivial annoyances. 

I jumped back in the car and drove to my parents’ house. … When I picked up my son, I was dismayed by how willing I’d been to make such a drastic change in his life. My pettiness almost cost him the opportunity to be exposed daily to a wonderful father.

A wise mother

You can read the rest of the story in Becky’s wonderful article, “The List That Saved My Marriage”  She tells it much better than I do. And you’ll see why the article has inspired so many people since it was first published in Marriage Partnership magazine in 2005.

Becky was fortunate to have a wise mother who pushed her to fulfill her marriage vows.  In similar situations, many parents do the opposite.  Saddened and upset by the pain their children feel, they do little to stop a divorce that could be prevented.  But Genesis 2:24 tells us, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  This mom knew her daughter needed to hold fast to her husband.

Even more important, she knew that Becky needed to recognize her own shortcomings and failures.  In any type of dispute, it’s common to focus so much on the other person’s faults that you overlook or discount your own.  But this mom, again, was not normal—she forced her daughter to confront her own sins and her own culpability in a lifeless marriage.

Becky and her husband went on to enjoy many years of marriage.  They were tragically killed in an automobile accident in November of 2005, but through the power of the internet her words and legacy live on.  Thanks to a wise mother.

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