Debbie Rodriguez kissed her 15-month-old son, Kristoffer, on the forehead and put him into his crib. She walked downstairs and slipped into a chair by the kitchen table, next to her husband, Alberto.  He was thumbing through the day’s mail. A family physician with a new private practice, he’d had a long, demanding day. He never expected what happened next.

Debbie was at a breaking point in their relationship. She looked at Alberto and said, “I just want to let you know I’m leaving you, and I’m taking the baby with me.”

Dumbfounded, Alberto sat in the chair with no expression on his face. He couldn’t comprehend what she meant. He had thought he was doing a decent job as a husband and new father. Yes, he spent a lot of time away from home, but with a new medical practice and hospital calls, what could she expect?

Debbie kept talking.  “I just can’t do this anymore,” she said.  “I think we have nothing left after all these years.”

“What do you mean?” Alberto said, “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“What have I done that you want to leave me?”

After 11 years of marriage, Debbie felt empty and alone. She and Alberto shared a house, but not their lives. As far as she was concerned, their relationship was over.

But Alberto thought everything was going well.  Wasn’t he a good provider and active in their church?

He loved her.  “I tended to her when I was home.”

How could he have missed the signs that his marriage was dying?

“Better” never came

Debbie and Alberto grew up in Puerto Rico and met on a summer ministry team before her freshman year in college. She was drawn to his gentle spirit. And Alberto? Well he couldn’t help but notice Debbie’s beauty, both inside and out. “She was sold out for Christ,” he says, “and I liked that.”

By the time Alberto proposed to Debbie she was a senior in college and he was in his third year of medical school. They married after she graduated, and before his last year of medical school.

Alberto and Debbie expected happiness to be the hallmark of their relationship. They were both committed followers of Jesus Christ. They thought that no matter what might happen in their marriage, their bond of love would always be enough.

But neither anticipated the challenges of balancing the life of a busy medical student with being newlyweds. Alberto lived with the constant tension of, I have to study. I have Debbie. What should I do?

As a new bride, Debbie thought her husband gave more attention to his studies than to her. She didn’t like it, but told herself, It’s temporary. It will get better. She knew that Alberto was carrying a heavy load at school and in the hospital. And she didn’t want to add another concern to his already full plate, so she kept everything inside.

When Alberto graduated from medical school, he was accepted to a residency program in Philadelphia. That meant a move from Puerto Rico to the United States … away from family and friends. Alberto was fluent in English, but Debbie was not. He was consumed by a grueling residency in family practice, while she struggled with loneliness.  But she pretended that things weren’t so bad. Over and over again she told herself that once the residency program ended, married life would get better.

After Alberto’s residency, he was accepted into a fellowship program at Duke University School of Medicine—another move, this time to Durham, North Carolina. By now Alberto was seldom at home, and Debbie still kept telling herself, When we are over this phase, it will get better.

But “better” never came. Even after Alberto and Debbie moved to Hartford, Connecticut, for his first job as a physician … or a few years later when he began his private practice … or after their first child was born as planned after Alberto finished his medical training. Nothing changed.

The days were long and filled with financial stress. There was little time for communication. Debbie didn’t tell Alberto that she thought she was the last person on his priority list. She ignored what she considered negative thoughts and modeled what she had seen from her childhood:  Conflict has no place in a Christian marriage.

And little by little, Alberto and Debbie became two strangers, living in the same house. Two people who at some level loved one another and wanted the best for each other, but were traveling down separate paths. One of the strangers was getting lonelier and lonelier. And the other stranger didn’t even know.

“I was so busy in the hospital,” Alberto says, “that I couldn’t think of any of this—what I was feeling or not feeling. You detach from your feelings and take care of people that are really sick.”

No interest in saving their marriage

When Debbie finally told Alberto she was leaving, she actually stayed in their house because she had no other place to go.  “I just moved into another bedroom and took care of Kristoffer,” she says. Trying to formulate what she was going to do, she was emotionally dead. She had no interest in resurrecting her marriage.

What could the doctor do? Get a second opinion. He needed help.

Alberto called Jeff, a friend from church, and told him what was happening in his marriage.  Jeff’s wife, Barbara, called Debbie and encouraged her to stay in her marriage.  When Barbara learned that a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway was coming to Hartford, Connecticut, she went right over to the Rodriguezes’ home. “It looks great,” she told Debbie as she waved a brochure. “You’ve got to go.”

Debbie wasn’t interested. She said the getaway would be useless; she felt she would be “preached at” and would be asked to repent of something and try to make her marriage work again. She simply had no energy for that. But Alberto? He was open to anything. “I would have gone anywhere, anytime,” he says.

Barbara, Jeff, and Alberto prayed that God would change Debbie’s mind. And Barbara kept pleading with Debbie, “You’ve got to go to this.”

Finally Debbie surrendered and said, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” But she told Alberto not to put any expectations on her.

Debbie was apprehensive when she and Alberto walked into the hotel ballroom.  Since it was a “Christian” event she thought it would start with singing or prayer. But instead it began with laughter and light conversation. It was not like anything either she or Alberto had expected.

The speakers were funny, down to earth, and transparent. She laughed and started to relax, and surprising even herself, she began to listen as she learned about threats to marriage, about God’s plan for marriage, about communication and resolving conflict.

By Sunday Debbie was open to the possibility of saving her marriage. She remembers clearly a message on forgiveness.  The speaker validated her feelings by saying, “Some of you have real hurts that for the first time you are facing.” He explained that forgiveness is about releasing someone who has hurt you by choosing to let go of the debt.”That did it for me,” Debbie said. “It was like an arrow that pierced my heart.”

She began to cry. At first little tears … and then uncontrollable weeping. The floodgates of 10 years of stuffed emotions finally opened.

For the first time, Debbie told her husband about her deep hurts, the things that she had hidden in her heart for years. “He had no idea,” she says, “because I had never shared … how isolated I was feeling.”  Alberto asked her to forgive him and she asked him to forgive her.

As they left the marriage getaway, Alberto was encouraged that he and Debbie had an actual plan for their relationship. “When we got married,” he says, “there was no booklet telling me how to do marriage … how I was supposed to be a father, a husband. And this conference, through the speakers and the materials, gave me a written plan.”

A biblical foundation

The getaway was not a magic wand that solved all of the Rodriguezes’ problems. But it did open the door of hope.

Debbie and Alberto now had a place to begin. They knew how to build their marriage on a biblical foundation, but needed help in practicing new ways to relate. “I had to swallow my pride,” Alberto says, “I needed to go and seek help.” They began meeting with a Christian counselor.

Believers in preventive care, the Rodriguezes made a commitment to never allow their marriage to go on life support again. That’s why they went to a Weekend to Remember getaway every year for more than a decade.  “Every time we went, God would bring up something in particular that was important to us,” Alberto says, “… and we would work on that.” They also bought marriage books and did everything they could to help their relationship grow.

After their marriage started getting healthier, they caught a vision for what God had done for them and what He could do through them. They began leading The Art of Marriage® Connect Bible studies for couples [then called the HomeBuilders Couples Series®]. Debbie laughs and says they especially liked the study Resolving Conflict in Marriage. They led small groups with people in their church and in the community.

And they got involved with FamilyLife, working with Dr. Leonel and Miriam Motta, directors for FamilyLife in Latin America. “Our marriage was changed forever, thanks to FamilyLife,” Alberto says, “and we wanted to let others have the same opportunity that we had.”

The Rodriguezes and Mottas led a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway in Puerto Rico. And they launched some of The Art of Marriage Connect small group Bible studies in churches. Debbie also translated some FamilyLife resources into Spanish: Building Your Marriage, A Way of Hope, Keeping Your Covenant, Resurrection Eggs®, and more.

“Just take some children”

One powerful experience for Alberto and Debbie began in 2003 when they learned about a mother in their hometown who was hospitalized and dying from cancer. She had 10 children and a grandmother was doing her best to care for them. Debbie, Alberto, and their three kids decided that they would spend a day with this large family and do their best to help.

When they arrived at the grandmother’s home, it was chaotic. “The grandmother is crying from the minute I walked in,” Debbie says. “Her only daughter is dying of cancer.”

Before they left Alberto said to the grandmother, “We feel compelled to help.” He was thinking that he could possibly write a check. But instead she said, “Just take some children. My daughter is in the hospital. I don’t sleep. I am up with children all night.”

“So we walked out of there with the baby,” Debbie says. “He was the one who was keeping her up all night.”  A few months later, all 10 children were living with Debbie and Alberto because their mother had taken a turn for the worse. Before she died in 2004, the Rodriguezes had guardianship for all of the kids.

It took years, but Debbie and Alberto placed nine of the children with other families in their church. And they adopted the baby.

Looking back

Imagine what would have happened if Alberto didn’t fight for his marriage back in 1988? What chain of events would have occurred if Debbie had refused to go to that first Weekend to Remember marriage getaway? What would the lives of the Rodriguezes and countless others be like if Debbie and Alberto had not learned about God’s plan for marriage … and then put His design into practice?

“Our lives would have been destroyed,” Debbie says. “… We would have never seen the redemption of these 10 children … have seen our other children just really thrive in what God has in their lives.”

Still living near Hartford, Debbie and Alberto will be forever grateful for FamilyLife. She says it was a lifesaver God threw in front of Alberto and her, through some friends who cared.

Copyright © 2016 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.