by Sean O’Connell
My wife, Deb, and I used to fight all of the time. It was constant. Fight … fight … fight.
I would say: “It’s red.”
Deb would say: “No, it’s black.”
We had no role models for a godly marriage and didn’t know how to make our relationship succeed. When I was 12 years old, my father abandoned me and our family. With Dad gone, Mom had to go to work in a factory sewing tents to support us. Deb’s parents both drank heavily and her father was an alcoholic.
When Deb and I were teenagers, we were promiscuous. We married after Deb became pregnant. She was a young 16-year-old girl and I was a rebellious 15-year-old rock and roll guitar player whose band played in bars. Smoking pot and using illicit drugs like LSD was commonplace. We both dropped out of high school and depended on our monthly welfare check to survive. Not much of a beginning for a marriage.
After we had been married for about a year, I remember thinking, What are we going to do? We’re uneducated. We have a baby. We have no money. We have nothing!
By the time I turned 21, Deb and I found ourselves living in Chicago. I remember sitting on the outside steps of our apartment, playing my guitar one afternoon, and this neighbor guy who I barely knew walked by. He asked, “Hey, do you want to go to Bible study?”
“Sure,” I said, and hopped into his car. That one decision directed the rest of my life. I asked Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior at that Bible study. Three days later Deb went to a women’s Bible study with the neighbor’s wife and she asked the Lord to take control of her life.
Help for our marriage
God began to gradually change Deb and me, and over time He created a truly remarkable legacy for our family.
As new Christians, we did our best to figure out what “this Christian thing” was all about. We learned about God’s Word, went to church, and joined Bible studies. Despite all this, we continued to have struggles and argue with one another. I’d find myself thinking in the midst of a heated discussion, Wait a minute, we’re Christians. We’re not supposed to do this anymore. To make matters worse, the illicit drug use from my teenage years was now replaced by a severe addiction to prescription drugs.
Deb and I had four kids by this time, and we had been married for about 11 years. The reality of life had completely set in. It was obvious to some friends that our marriage was a mess. “Boy, you guys need help!” they lovingly asserted, and sent us to a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.
That conference was a pivotal point in our marriage. Dennis and Barbara Rainey were the speakers, and we remember seeing ourselves in the stories they both told. They gave us the practical tools we so desperately needed. We clung to an exhortation Dennis made at the conference to not allow divorce to be an option in our marriage. That weekend we began our training in how to communicate with one another … without fighting.
Dennis and Barbara said, “We should not make our spouse compete for our affection,” and that really hit home for us. I had never considered that using drugs was another way of making Deb compete for my affection. At one point Deb said to me, “If it was another woman, I could figure out how to compete … but drugs. You love drugs more than you love me.” She was right. I was addicted.
Mentoring younger couples
Although Deb and I have had our share of marital challenges, we’ve now stayed together for more than three decades. Over time I was delivered from my drug addiction; it was a lot of hard work, but well worth it. We’ve been mentored by godly, older couples, and joyfully reach out to mentor younger couples.
We were so excited about what we had learned at the Weekend to Remember conferences that we began teaching the concepts to other couples in our home and at church. In time, we began HomeBuilders groups. We look for opportunities to share what we’ve been through, and also how we overcame our struggles. We make sure couples understand that, “Whatever you tell us, you’re not going to stun us. We’re not going to think any worse of you; we’ve all got our skeletons in our closets.”
In 2008 we became the city directors for the Weekend to Remember in Branson, Missouri. That same year we started about eight HomeBuilders groups and spoke at about six or seven different churches. Deb and I talked about how God has used FamilyLife and what it has done in our lives. We encouraged couples to go to a Weekend to Remember conference.
In fact, among them were the same friends who originally sent us to our first FamilyLife marriage conference. After all the years we recently had a chance to give back to them. “You guys need a break,” we said. “You need to go to this.” They went to the Weekend to Remember and so did their married children.
An amazing legacy
Deb and I are very excited that our four children are now believers. They have all attended a Weekend to Remember with their spouses; some of them two and three times. A couple of years ago Deb and I had the opportunity to meet Dennis Rainey. We told him how our first FamilyLife marriage conference had saved our marriage. “It’s one thing when you hear these stories [of changed lives] at the end of a conference weekend,” Dennis said, “but to hear it almost 25 years later … to see that your children are Christians and they are raising their children in the Spirit of the Lord … it’s an amazing legacy!”
What God has done for Deb and me is so tremendous and we are forever grateful. Not too long ago I discovered that all this is an answer to prayers from many years ago. I met a lady at my mom’s surprise 70th birthday party. “You don’t know me,” she said, “but I am one of the ladies who prayed every day with your mother for your salvation when you were in trouble and getting kicked out of school. Your mother always knew that you would have a wonderful life. We would hold hands and pray for you on our break time at the old sewing factory when you were 12 or 13 years old.” All I could do was cry.
It’s been more than four decades since Mom and that beautiful lady prayed for a rebellious boy who had no direction for his life. God heard their prayers.