Bob Lepine: Build a Stronger Marriage
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Wondering how to build a stronger marriage? Bestselling author and former FamilyLife Today host Bob Lepine suggests ways to restore and heal together.
Bob Lepine: Build a Stronger Marriage
Bob: I think, so often, couples don’t realize the patterns/the habits—how we learned to relate to another person—that all got imprinted pretty strongly in our family of origin. It gets subconsciously carried into marriage; and then, we find ourselves at odds with one another.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So sitting down with a counselor, during Covid,—
Ann: Oh, we’re going here today?
Dave: —was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Ann: Why do you say that?
Dave: I should have—remember how many times I said: “I should have done this in my 30s!” “I should have done this in my 40s?”—so I waited ‘til my 60s. I mean, I’ve been to a counselor before; but this counselor said, “Let’s dive into your family of origin.”
Ann: It was awesome.
Dave: You loved it!
Ann: I did love it.
Dave: Yes; but it was so good that I said, “We’re bringing Ann back next.” And then we dove into your family of origin.
Dave: There were light bulbs going off—
Ann: Yes, there really were.
Dave: —that were transformative for us in our marriage. Again, because they were so transforming, I was like, “I wish I’d done this 20 years ago.”
Ann: I don’t think either of us understood how much our baggage from the past had affected us, not only at the beginning of our marriage, but throughout our marriage. We really were both dealing with stuff from our past.
And we’ve got Bob Lepine—
Dave: —back in the FamilyLife studio to talk about baggage in marriage.
Bob, welcome back.
Bob: I am just so glad that I don’t have to sit here and think, “How do I start today’s program?” [Laughter]
Dave: You didn’t even have to think; it just rolled off your lips. Ann and I look over [in previous broadcasts], like, “Where did that come from?”
Ann: Yes; he is the master.
Bob: Anyway, you guys are absolutely right about this whole issue of family of origin. I was sitting with a couple, a while back, and they had had a bad day. They were telling me about their bad day. The husband had been stressed out; he was frustrated. He said things he should not have said to his wife about his wife/about their marriage. He had just let his emotions out.
And as much as what he said was kind of an exaggerated version of what he was feeling, she heard it as the truth. She’s walking away now, with an imprint on her soul: “This is what he really believes.” So when he comes back around, and he says, “I was stressed out”; she’s thinking, “I don’t know.”
As I started talking to them about this day—and about all that had gone on and about why his statements had been so hurtful to her—she started talking about the family she grew up in: things her brothers had said to her; things her dad had said to her, growing up. Now, when her husband would get near a statement like that—“You never do this,” or “You don’t do that,” or “I can’t depend on you for this,” or “You always...”—you know, those kinds of statements that come out in a marriage—when she would hear that from her husband, without her even realizing it, there are ghosts/there are phantoms from the past that get triggered. I hate to—it’s almost a cliché anymore—to talk about triggering, but it would bring back to her soul.
Here’s what it is: her husband had gotten near a scar area; and it’s still sore, and it’s never been addressed. She would hear it, and she would think: “He feels about me the way my dad felt about me,” “He feels about me the way my brothers felt about me.” And she would start to project onto him things that weren’t true about him, or his feelings for her, just because it all gets kind of mixed together in our psyche.
I think, so often, couples don’t realize the patterns/the habits—how we learned to relate to another person—that all got imprinted pretty strongly in our family of origin. It gets subconsciously carried into marriage; and then, we find ourselves at odds with one another.
Ann: I would say it’s not even a scar; I’d say it’s still a wound. If we get triggered so much that—we respond or we react in a way that feels like: “Wow! She’s really out of control in her reaction,” or “It feels like this is way bigger than I intended it to be,”—I would say, in my case, at least, I hadn’t dealt with the wounds in my life.
Bob: Most of us haven’t.
Ann: I agree. We don’t even know what they are.
Bob: We grew up thinking those wounds were normal.
Ann: —and they’re in the past.
Bob: I remember a friend of mine in high school—his dad was bipolar—and I remember talking to him later about some of the stuff his dad had done. I said, “Man, that’s crazy!” And he said, “It just seemed normal to me, because he was my dad,” and “I thought that’s what dads do.”
Dave: I mean, it’s funny—we’ve said here, many times, our first exposure to FamilyLife was a Weekend to Remember® two weeks before our wedding—so we’re sitting there, as an engaged couple; we’re getting married in 14 days. We honestly, all weekend, thought, “We don’t really need this. We were told to be here. This is nice, but we’re going to have a great marriage: we love Jesus; we love each other.”
Think about this: if you could put a camera on our life in that moment—like hover above us, like a drone looking down—say, “Okay, what’s their past they’re bringing in?” Here’s a guy—me—two alcoholic parents, adultery and divorce as my history; Ann [had] sexual abuse in her past. Of all couples—who should be going: “Oh, boy!” “Oh, boy, we’re bringing baggage in,”—we were that naïve! And I think most couples are.
Bob: So in that situation, it’s now two or three years later:
- Ann walks in, and you say, “You’re looking really attractive tonight.” And Ann thinks about the time, when she was six or seven years old, and somebody said something like that to her;—
Bob: —and she thinks that this is the same thing.
- Or Ann says to you, in a moment of frustration, something like, “You know, sometimes, I think we just don’t belong together.” And you think, “I remember my dad saying stuff like that to my mom.”
That’s where we get near those scars/those wounds from the past. Unless somebody comes in—and says: “We need to identify those,” “We need to address those,” and “We need to try to bring some healing to those wounds,”—they’re going to continue to be tender spots and sore spots in your life and in your marriage.
You know, it’s almost a cliché in counseling, when somebody goes in for counseling, that somebody says: “So tell me about your relationship with your mother,” or “…your relationship with your father.” There’s a reason it’s a cliché, because there’s so much imprinted in our relationship with our parents. What we were taught/what we saw modeled by them shaped us in a profound way. When we have some scars from that, that start to get exposed in marriage, that can be a trouble spot for us.
Ann: Well, what did you experience, Bob?
Bob: I’ve looked back and thought—again, things I thought were normal—when I was 15 years old, my sister died in a car wreck. That’s a traumatic moment in our family.
Ann: Oh, yes!
Bob: I watched how my mom and dad processed that, separately; how they processed that grief together.
Ann: How old was she?
Bob: She was 23?—yes.
I remember a time when she was still at home—when she was in high school—I was a Cub Scout. I was getting ready to go to the Cub Scout baseball game—the Cardinals; you know, it was Boy Scout Day with the Cardinals—so we were all going to the game. Somebody was coming to pick me up. Right before they came, my parents and my oldest sister were having a physical confrontation. The argument had gotten so bad that my dad was having to restrain/physically restrain my sister in the middle of this.
And that moment for me—I was seven or eight, watching this happen with my older sister—and just thinking: “This is uncomfortable and unpleasant,” and “I’m glad I’m going to the baseball game; I’m glad I’m out of here.” I went away, and I came back afterwards; and we didn’t talk about it. There was never any follow-up. Here’s what kind of gets imprinted into me: “Those things happen, and then you go away; and you never talk about it again”; right?
Bob: And if that’s your patterning, then you can learn how to cover up a toxic waste dump: “You just leave it over here, and we won’t go near that again. We won’t bring that up, because that was just unpleasant; and nobody wants to talk about that. Let’s just move on.”
Well, we wish it was that simple; but little things can come up, again, where you can become so conflict-averse in marriage that anybody, who expresses conflict, and you want to back down—you know, “We’ve got to stop this right away,”—as opposed to: “How do we deal with this conflict?
Bob: “How do we get honest with our feelings?”
Dave: Yes, and you mentioned that in your new book, Build a Stronger Marriage.
Dave: You have a whole section on conflict.
But man!—I’ll tell you—this section we’re talking about right now: “Family of Origin Issues: Lies We Grow up With”—I didn’t even know, until last year, when I was talking to my sister, who is ten years older, that when my brother died—I was seven; he was five—my sister said, “I’m coming home from high school. I walk down our driveway. A priest walks out of our house and says, “Hey, your brother just died.” Pam tells us this year/she said, “You know, Mom never mentioned it. We never had a conversation about it,”—I never had a conversation about it.
So Bob—exactly what you just said—I get married, decades later. Ann starts—anything that feels uncomfortable, guess where I go?—to the driveway—
Bob: “We don’t talk about that”; yes; right.
Dave: —“I’m out of here!” [Laughter]
Dave: We’ve never talked about anything in my life; I think that’s normal. She’s like, “You don’t love me? You don’t want to be in this marriage?”
Dave: I’m like, “No, no, no! What are you talking about?” I mean, this is huge!
Bob: And this is where we’re focused on some of the scars and traumas of our families of origin.
But there are normal simple things in family of origin that aren’t really scars or traumas; it’s just ways we learned to relate to one another. In our family, one of the ways that we expressed affection for one another was by teasing each other—you know, if you had a good-natured, funny way of teasing somebody about something—you know: “Your hair looks like it just walked through a wind tunnel!” I’d go, “Yes, I know…” We’d laugh about it and move on; right?
So when I get married—[Laughter]
Dave: That’s not going to work!!
Bob: —I say to Mary Ann, “Man, it looks like you walked through a wind tunnel!”—and she goes back to the bedroom, crying. I go, “I was trying to be funny and fun with you.”
Well, it’s because, in her family, you didn’t tease like that; and in fact, if you said things like that, you were being critical or helpful; it was hurtful.
Bob: We’ve talked, often, at the Weekend to Remember marriage getaways about the fact that:
- When it comes to conflict: some people are avoiders; and some people are spewers; and the concealers. Some want to fight it out, and some want to hide it all. These are just different patterns of relating to one another.
- How do we express affection? Why is it that some husbands almost never say to their wives, “I love you?” Why would a husband hesitate to say that? Well, you can trace that back, most often, to: “How was affection expressed in the family you grew up in?”
This is where a wife—who never hears her husband say, “I love you,” and thinks, “He doesn’t love me,”—is discounting the fact that part of his family of origin programming was that: “You express it this way.” I remember my dad—he would say to my mom, “I love you,”—and she would say, “I don’t want to hear it; show me.”
Bob: She didn’t want empty words.
Bob: She wanted to see the actions that accompany that.
- So what does that imprint on my soul?
- How does that carry over?
- What does that make me think, or want, or need?
All of those things are a part of the suitcases that we bring into marriage with us—some of which we’ve never opened and looked at—right?
Bob: But some of them are just: “This is how we learned.”
You [Dave] played college quarterback; you know that you had to have your throwing motion corrected at times. What came natural to you was not the best way to throw the football; so you needed a coach to come in, and say, “No, no, no. If you take your arm back here,” “…you spin it this way…”—I don’t know, because I’m not a quarterback. [Laughter] But you had to have some of the mechanics worked out so that you could throw better. What came naturally to you, just from throwing the ball in the backyard, was not the right way to do it.
Well, what comes natural to us in terms of relating to one another—patterns we learned from the family we grew up in—that’s not necessarily the right way to do it. [We need] a little coaching/some mechanics to come along and say:
- You know: “When you feel that way/when you think that, maybe, instead of saying it this way, you should say it that way.”
- Or maybe: “Instead of saying anything, maybe that’s something you take to the Lord, and you keep silent about.”
Just some of those mechanics of relationships: we’re trying to work out some of the kinks that we experienced as we were growing up.
Ann: I think one of the things that I loved, that we did in our counseling, was that we really did our life timeline on this big whiteboard. He wrote everything up. It was interesting just to see all that Dave went through, and all these light bulbs going off, like, “Well, no wonder!”
I think that’s really healthy to do—maybe, on a date night—that we just sit with one another and kind of go through our timelines of the highs, but some of the real lows; because some people have never done that.
Bob: You’ve got to feel safe with one another to do that.
Ann: Yes, good point.
Bob: And I would say, “If you don’t, then get a counselor to help you walk through a process like that; because some of this stuff is going to pop up, and we’re back to the scars, and we’re near the wounded areas. You’ve got to be very careful about that.”
But yes, I think for us to identify—first of all, to identify—and then go back and say, “Okay, this is what I kind of default-learned; is that true?”
Ann: What do you mean by—"Go back and identify”—identify what?
Bob: So to go back and identify—as I just did when I learned about my parents and conflict with my sister—and I thought, “Okay, so the way you deal with this is you just get some separation; you don’t talk about it.” So now, I’ve identified: “That’s the pattern.”
If that’s the pattern:
- Is that the right pattern?
- Is that how God’s Word would have me address this situation?
- Is that the right way to deal with this?
And then, to address and say, “No, that’s not the right way to deal with it.” There may need to be some emotional processing that goes along with that to come to a place, where we go—“Okay, my dad” or “…my mom” or “…my big sister”—or whoever it was that was processing these kinds of things—"they had their own issues.” I’ve got to give them some grace and some distance and learn how to let go of that. But walk away from there, going, “What I learned about how to do this is not the right way to do it.”
This is what Romans 12:2 says when it says, “Don’t be conformed”—pardon the paraphrase— “Don’t be conformed by your family-of-origin issues. But be transformed by the renewing of your mind and starting to think, godly/biblically, about how this should work out.”
Dave: Yes; I know that sitting with that counselor sort of helped us identify beliefs we grew up with that, as you look at them—it’s just like you said, Bob—you’ve got to evaluate each one. There were several that were lies; they just weren’t true. And again, I should have done this in my 30s. If you’re listening—and you’re 25/you’re 35—“Go! Find a trusted counselor or a really good friend, with discernment and wisdom, and identify these lies.”
As I looked at sort of the dominant lies I grew up believing—now, I’m an adult man; I’m still believing them—and then Ann’s—our ten-year anniversary story, where Ann said, “I’ve lost my feelings for you,”—they were in the lies:
- It was like I grew up believing that I have to perform to be important—so I’m on a stage [as a pastor]; I’m the Lions Chaplain—doing all this stuff.
- She grew up in a home, where she was not seen. She was literally told, at the dinner table, “Hey, your day will come; but right now, it’s your brothers’ time. Just be quiet.” Then, when the brothers left, and went on to college, she never got to share.
Bob: Her day never came; yes.
Dave: So I’m sitting there, going—ten-year anniversary story—“Why’d she say, ‘I’ve lost my feelings’?” She wasn’t seen by me, and I’m out trying to be seen by the world. If we could have identified that, 20 years earlier, maybe we [wouldn’t] have to go through that.
Bob: Here’s the other thing that I think couples are not aware of: we bring with us, into marriage, some level of guilt and shame about our sinful past.
Ann: Oh, absolutely.
Bob: And all of us have got a sinful past.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Bob Lepine on FamilyLife Today. Man, this is an important conversation about an important topic, and we believe Bob’s book will make a difference in your marriage; so all this week, with your gift, we want to send you a copy of Build a Stronger Marriage. It’s our “Thanks,” to you when you give and help families this week at FamilyLifeToday.com or when you call with your donation at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in “life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright; now, back to Bob Lepine on the guilt and sin that can be brought into a marriage.
Bob: Most couples come in, not wanting to talk about that/not wanting to open up or share much about that. I’m not suggesting that every couple needs to sit down with hard details about their past; but until we address and deal with the fact that the guilt and shame we’re bringing in, we’re carrying in because we’ve never gone through a biblical process of confessing that this was sinful/of going to another person and seeking their forgiveness for this sinful behavior on our part. Until we can apply Romans 8:1 to the guilt and shame that we’re experiencing, it will continue to be an issue in whatever relationship we have, going forward.
I say Romans 8:1—that’s the verse that says—“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We can say that verse and not believe it. We can say that verse and go, “I know; but here’s what I did—I did this…—it was so bad; it so wrong; I’m so ashamed.”
“Okay, I hear you; and it was bad, and it’s shameful. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“I know, but how could God…” Here’s how God can free you from it: Jesus died with that sin on His shoulders and put it to death for you. God, when He looks at you, He has chosen to remember that sin no more. You’re remembering something God has chosen to forget—you’re still feeling shame—that Jesus says: “Wait! I took this to the cross for you! Why are you still feeling this? Why is this still controlling you?”
We have to get to the point where, with that guilt and shame:
- We can identify it.
- We can address it.
- We can confess it.
- We can repent of it/turn away from it.
And then we can experience the freedom that comes when God says, “Forgiven; restored. You’re a new creation in Christ. I don’t hold that against you anymore.” There may be consequences of guilt or shame issues that we bring into marriage, that are always going to be there, and that have got to be dealt with, but the shame and guilt can be addressed through the finished work of Christ.
There is a hymn—and people at the church I pastor in Little Rock know that this is one of those hymns that is in my top five—"Who can have a favorite hymn? I mean, I love so many hymns, but this is in my top five.” It’s the hymn, Before the Throne of God Above. In the second verse of the hymn, it says this: “When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within”—he’s the accuser of the brethren; right?—
Bob: —“upward I look and see Him there, who made an end to all my sin. Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me.”
I’m getting chills, just reciting that, because the truth of that is so liberating for anyone who is caught in a web of shame—inward shame/guilt—and that’s a pollutant in a marriage relationship. That will create conflict in marriage that—has nothing to do with the marriage; it has nothing to do with your relationship with one another—it’s just your guilt and shame. You’ve got to have some place to let it spew, and so you [wrongfully] spew it on one another and deal with it in the midst of one another.
That’s, again, why we’ve got to identify these things, take them to the cross, apply God’s Word and the truth to that, and then we can start to move in a new direction.
Dave: Yes; I would say, Bob, hearing you quote the lyrics to that hymn, I want to encourage a listener, who’s been carrying some guilt and shame around for whatever reason: “Today could be your day.” Right now, as you were saying that, I just envision a woman or a man—even a boy or a girl—getting on their knees and saying, “You know what, God? I need to confess this. I need to receive your forgiveness, and I need to move on”; and move on. If you want to get a shovel, and go out in the backyard and bury it; do it! But live free!
I mean, we are living free—it was a journey; it was a process—but there is nothing like freedom in Christ. I think a lot of us in the church can say it and not experience it. Like Bob said: you’ve got to confess it—agree with God it was sin—give it to Him/lay it at the cross; and start a new life.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson’s conversation with Bob Lepine on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Build a Stronger Marriage, and we’ll send you a copy when you give any amount today at FamilyLifeToday.com.
I’ve got David Robbins, the president of FamilyLife here with me. We all miss Bob here on the program—I mean, not too much—but some. No; I’m just kidding!—we all love and miss Bob. What he’s talking about today is so helpful; right?
David: You know, this is exactly what I needed today. I’m so grateful for you, Bob, coming and sharing these truths; because for Meg and I, it’s been a super-stressful season, like for many of you, I’m sure. There are so many things—with the start of school, and getting kids in a rhythm again, and kids finding their relationships with teachers and thriving with them—that pull at you in so many ways.
This has been a great reminder for me of: “How do I be intentional to, not only make the adjustments that are needed for Meg and I to be the priority in our home?”—because everything will trickle down from there—but also thinking, “Alright; as I think about the next few months to come, how can I be intentional for us to really pour into our marriage that keeps us strong in order to keep our home and our kids strong?—and passing on what we want to pass on to them?”
And so I just/hearing Bob, and so many of these truths that he has unpacked today, are the truths that are spoken at a Weekend to Remember. Obviously, Bob’s been a huge part of curating and cultivating what a Weekend to Remember is; and so, if you have not been to a Weekend to Remember, or you have not gone in a while, I want to encourage you to go check them out and invest in your marriage.
Shelby: Yes, you can head to FamilyLifeToday.com; do a little research on when and where to attend; and watch God work through one weekend to change your life.
Could you use a mentor in your life? Could you be a mentor? Well, Melissa Kruger joins Dave and Ann tomorrow to talk about going deeper in our relationships than small talk and prayer requests.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time
for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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