by Rich Atkinson
Alicia Jarrell was 17 years old when her parents asked her and her siblings to come into the dining room. While the outside of Bill and Lisa Jarrell’s home had brand-new aluminum siding, the inside of their home needed a major marriage makeover.
“I know they had been going through counseling and had gone to a marriage conference,” says Alicia. She’d heard them fight—all three kids had. They’d even broken up a few arguments themselves. The teenager couldn’t imagine why Mom and Dad gathered everyone around the dining-room table.
More than five months earlier, the troubled couple had gone to a marriage conference and received a document with a fancy font at the top, challenging them to pledge a new start to their marriage. It was called a “oneness covenant” and the couple was only now ready to sign it. Bill prayed and read it aloud, then passed the pen to each person.
“They wanted to have us witness [it] by signing it with them,” remembers Alicia. “We knew that was their promise to each other, to God, and to their kids.” But was signing this marriage covenant going to result in real change for their marriage and their family?
Before the conference, Bill described their marriage as rocky: “She didn’t want to be around me,” said Bill. “She wasn’t even sure she wanted to stay married.”
Bill didn’t know what to do. So when he heard that their local Christian radio station, Praise 106.5, had a contest to win tickets to a weekend get-away marriage conference, he entered. It was for a Weekend to Remember®, a marriage getaway sponsored by FamilyLife. FamilyLife’s main goal is to help develop godly marriages and families that then help change the world one home at a time.
The radio station asked contestants to describe how they felt about the condition of their marriage. Bill said in his online registration that he didn’t know if he would still have a marriage in a year.
Alicia describes what her parents’ marriage looked like before the changes took place: “There was a pretty rough time where they weren’t talking to each other for a while, so it kind of felt like I got stuck in the middle.”
When Bill told Lisa that he had won the tickets and invited her to go, she couldn’t give him an answer right away. “It was about a week out before she agreed to go,” says Bill.
Lisa tells her perspective at the time. “We were probably on the verge of separation, and I didn’t want to go at all, but I went.”
In November 2005, Bill and Lisa made the two-and-a-half–hour trek up Interstate 5 toward the Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, Washington, a town about 10 miles south of Canada. The mid-November weather was as cold as their relationship.
Lisa did not want to sign the oneness covenant when she first returned from the marriage conference: “I was fighting with myself. I knew what God wanted me to do with my marriage, and what I should do.”
Then in April, everything exploded with a phone call. A woman from Australia called and confronted Lisa about an affair she had been having online. The woman’s husband and Lisa had been corresponding online for three years. The woman demanded that the affair must stop.
Lisa confessed to Bill and the marriage counselor at their church about the emotional affair with the Australian man she had known earlier in college.
“When she got that phone call, I think she started re-evaluating where she was and where she wanted to be,” says Bill. “Had it not been for the conference and everything that was spoken at that conference—I think she probably would have left.”
Lisa chose to stay and commit to her husband and her marriage.
Two weeks later, they signed the oneness covenant. “We established the fact that our marriage was going to be different,” says Bill.
“That’s when they promised to all of us—to me, my brother and my sister—that they were going to be married and stay together forever,” says Alicia.
Her dad was serious about change. “Over time I would sit down and take time with the kids,” Bill says. “I would take time to talk with them and [ask] what’s bothering them—something I had not done before. As I learned to talk more to my wife and to communicate with her, I would also do it with the kids.”
In November 2007, Alicia married Nick Hackl. Communication became challenging during their first year of marriage because they lived apart for about eight months when Nick attended basic training in Texas, then Air Force Technical School in Texas and Mississippi, while Alicia lived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“When my husband and I first got married, we weren’t the best communicators,” Alicia says. “We were fighting and yelling at each other at the same time.
“My parents worked with us on how to express our feelings,” she says. “Now one person says how they feel, then the next person and vice versa.”
Bill called Nick and mentored him over the phone. “Ever since I started dating Alicia, they have always been pretty involved in my life,” says Nick, “so it’s kind of normal to me. It is cool because my dad had not done too much of that.”
“A lot of those [communication] tools, which are awesome, we got from FamilyLife,” says Lisa. “So we were able to pass that stuff on to them.”
Lisa explains what the communication looked like in her own marriage before and after the changes took place: “He would never want to fight and I would yell and yell and yell and get really angry and would walk out, slam the door, and leave,” she says. “There is none of that any more at all.”
Bill and Lisa were also able to pass on the marriage tools to Scott and Samantha Hayward, their friends from church, by sponsoring them so they could attend a Weekend to Remember conference last spring.
“She wasn’t just a nice Christian lady wanting to help me and fix my marriage,” says Samantha about Lisa. “She had been through some rough times too. It made me feel like she knew where I was coming from and was a very big help. It put us on the same playing field; it showed that she is a real person.”
Bill and Lisa signed that oneness covenant, promising more than just to renew their own marriage. They pledged to help others fulfill their marriage vows, too.
When Alicia initially signed as a witness to her parents’ marriage re-commitment, she didn’t know how it would affect her, especially years later. Now she sees.
“Their marriage now is a good example, a role model of what we try to have our marriage be,” Alicia says.