It started in the summer of 1976. Barbara and I were not getting along very well—nibbling and picking at each other. Our sexual relationship was at an all-time low. And when we arrived in Little Rock, our new home was so filthy it took days to clean. Later we discovered that in purchasing the home, we had been cheated out of several thousand dollars.
Our troubles were starting to pick up speed. We got a call one Sunday morning in August. My brother said, “Dennis, Dad died this morning.” My dad had always been one of the stronger figures in my life. A sudden heart attack had taken him at the age of 66.
And so I packed up my family and we all moved to my hometown of Ozark, Missouri, for three weeks of living out of suitcases and trying to help my mother get through the funeral and her initial time of grief.
A few months later, another phone call came from Ozark saying my brother had suffered an apparent heart attack. So in the middle of a terrible winter, I went to Ozark to run the family propane business. What I encountered there was shocking: streets frozen solid with sleet and snow, a wind chill factor of 20 to 30 degrees below zero, and people desperate for fuel.
I was working long hours trying to keep all the bases covered, and one night as I lay in the same bed where my father had died, I suddenly felt my heart beating at an unusually rapid rate. The more it raced, the more frightened I became and I was finally rushed to the hospital where my brother had already been admitted. For awhile they thought I might be having a heart attack, too. But it turned out to be a reaction to all the stress and pressure. The same was true for my brother.
In February I came home from work to learn that our son Benjamin needed major abdominal surgery. He came through fine, but the financial stress was heavy.
A racing heart
Fortunately, the spring months passed quietly. Then in June, Barbara was doing her morning exercises. I hadn’t left for work at my usual time and was still there, admiring her energy as she did sit-ups. Suddenly, she stopped and put her head between her knees. I said, “Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
“I feel faint.”
“Well, can I help?”
“I think my heart is beating fast.”
“Well, maybe you should get up and try to walk it off. Let me help you to your feet.”
We got exactly three feet, and she collapsed on the bed, nearly passing out. I checked her pulse, and her heart was racing so fast, I couldn’t count the number of beats. I called the ambulance, which rushed Barbara to the hospital.
Throughout the morning, Barbara’s heart raced at 280 to 300 beats a minute. Her blood pressure dropped alarmingly low.
Just before noon, I began to despair. I had just lost my dad. Was I going to lose my wife too? I called Kitty Longstreth, a widow who had become one of our good friends in Little Rock, and asked her to pray.
“Of course I will, Dennis. I’ll start right now.”
At 4 p.m. the doctors told me they were going to try to stop Barbara’s heart with electric shock and retime it as they shocked it into starting up again. There was no choice. But at 4:05 a doctor came back out and said, “We didn’t have to use the shock treatment. Your wife’s heart suddenly returned to normal.”
Because they wouldn’t let me see Barbara, I decided to call Kitty and tell her the good news. When I told her what had happened at 4:05, she said, “That’s when I stopped praying! Somehow I knew at that moment that everything was okay.”
For the next 30 days, Barbara had extra heartbeats, I had extra heartbeats, and so did the kids. Then we discovered that she was pregnant.
That ended our one-year adventure in trials, but we faced eight more months of suspense, wondering whether Barbara would give birth to a healthy baby. Three weeks past her due date, she delivered a nine-pound, five-ounce boy whom we named Samuel.
Storms are inevitable
I acknowledge that what we went through was not the worst possible series of traumas a couple can face. But from that experience early in our marriage we learned an important lesson: In life, the sky is not always clear and blue. Storms appear on the horizon. And without a plan and the inner resources to move through storms, a marriage will suffer.
Many couples fail to anticipate the trials and problems they will inevitably face. Then, when the troubles do hit, many husbands and wives mistakenly turn against each other rather than turning together to God.
Part of the strategy for facing troubles is realizing that God allows difficulties in our lives for many reasons. I’m not saying He causes difficulties. I believe He allows them for many reasons, but difficulties do not mean something is wrong with your marriage. And God wants us to trust Him in the midst of these storms and to grow together as a couple.
Trials do not bring neutral results: They drive two people together or apart. The natural tendency is to go through a difficulty alone and not share it as a couple. The following are some principles we’ve learned:
1. Give your spouse the time and freedom to process trials differently than you do. The problems Barbara and I faced that year brought us to a crossroad: Would we share our difficulties with each other and give the other person room to process the problems? I remember feeling tempted to think that Barbara was silly for being so introspective during the months that followed her heart episode. I had to fight the urge to discount her emotions and say, “Snap out of it, Dear. Everything is going to be fine.” But Barbara wanted to share her fears with me. She needed me to listen. Men and women process suffering differently, so don’t try to make your spouse like you.
2. Realize that there will be a temptation to become self-focused and to withdraw from each other. The desire to pull away is greatest during these periods because it is very difficult for another person to carry your burden. As a result, you end up thinking the other person doesn’t understand, and the pain associated with that conclusion makes you want to pull back to safety.
3. Respond to trials by embracing God’s perspective of suffering together as a couple. The couples who learn the art of facing storms together by seeking God’s perspective can develop a sweet and robust spiritual oneness. As we struggled with our trials, Barbara and I learned a principle for handling problems: “In everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It isn’t a simplistic excuse to put your head in the sand and ignore reality. On the contrary, I believe when we give thanks in all things, we express faith in a God who knows what He’s doing and can be trusted.
4. Remember that your spouse is never your enemy. Realize that your struggle is not against your spouse; resist the urge to punish or think that he or she is the problem. Your spouse is your intimate ally, a fellow burden bearer who is there to encourage you as you go through a difficult time.
5. If the burden or suffering persists, seek outside help. If you feel you are slipping off in a deep ditch as a couple, don’t wait until you have all four wheels stuck before you seek help. Find godly counsel by calling a couple who can act as mentors, your pastor, or a biblical counselor to gain outside perspective.
That year-long trial was not the only season of suffering for Barbara and me. The lessons we learned that year helped prepare us for many trials to come. We learned that suffering is common to all marriages. The way in which you respond to it will determine whether your marriage flourishes or flounders.