Embracing Your Present
About the Guest
Elizabeth Oates, co-founder of Project Restoration Ministries, shares how growing up in a single-parent home, and then in a home with a stepfather, shaped her views on dating and marriage. Desperate for a peaceful, calm home, Oates set out to be the perfect wife, only to find herself miserable and her husband frustrated. Oates explains why boundaries are important in dysfunctional families and how important it is to learn to deal with conflict.
Elizabeth OatesElizabeth Oates is cofounder and vice president of Project Restoration Ministry. She and her husband are raising their five children (three biological, one adopted through foster care, and one they are currently fostering) in Waco, Texas, where she blogs and mentors women who’ve experienced brokenness in their family trees.
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Elizabeth Oates shares how growing up in a single-parent home, and then in a home with a stepfather, shaped her views on dating and marriage.
Embracing Your Present
Bob: When it comes to resolving conflict, the patterns we saw, as we were growing up in our family of origin, are often the patterns that we carry into our own marriage. That was the case for Elizabeth Oates and her husband.
Elizabeth: We were in an unhealthy pattern of—we would disagree, and I would get really upset and really angry. I would say really harsh words. He would think: “Oh my goodness! We’re getting a divorce”; so he would retreat; then, I would get even angrier. And then, he would try to work toward me; and I would retreat. Here we have two people retreating, so nothing is getting resolved.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, June 5th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. How do you break the unhealthy habits of conflict resolution that you may have brought into your marriage because of what you saw from the family you grew up in? We’ll explore that today.
Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, when people grow up in homes, where there is dysfunction—there are patterns that are unhealthy—oftentimes, it’s not until they’re in their marriage relationship that some of the implications of their past start to show up. They start to try to form a healthy relationship; and they realize, “I don’t have the necessary equipment to know how to do that well.”
Dennis: Marriage, along with raising children, has a way of putting us in touch with some of those issues that we have to deal with.
We have two guests with us today. Ron Deal and Elizabeth Oates join us, again, on FamilyLife Today. Ron, Elizabeth, welcome back.
Elizabeth: Thank you.
Ron: Thank you.
It’s good to be here.
Dennis: Ron heads up FamilyLife’s blended initiative. Elizabeth is from Waco, Texas, and has written a book called Mending Broken Branches and is a cofounder and Vice President of a ministry called Project Restoration Ministries. Explain to our listeners what Project Restoration Ministries is all about.
Elizabeth: It’s a ministry that offers lay mentoring to young couples as well as reduced-fee counseling.
Bob: This is something that—because of your own experience, you saw the need in your own life for this; and now, you’re following what 2 Corinthian 1 says—which is: “Comfort others with the comfort that you’ve received”; right?
Elizabeth: That’s right. My husband and I were involved in a church, when we were first married, and received just some really excellent, supportive mentoring from some couples who were in a stage ahead of us. It was so impactful—just—especially for me, coming from a single-parent home; and then, as my mom was married and that marriage was really dysfunctional.
I really needed couples, who were in a healthy marriage, to pour into me in those first few years of marriage.
My husband came from a great, pretty healthy family; but even he, I think, trying to adjust to, you know, just normal issues that every young married couple deals with. I think those couples pouring into us were really helpful for him.
Bob: Do you remember when you realized, Elizabeth, that, as you were starting to form a family and you were now married to this wonderful man—but there are patterns from your past that are starting to break through—we’ve already talked this week about this beach ball that we try to keep submerged that pops us—do you remember when you found yourself blindsided by some of these thoughts or feelings that were showing up in your marriage, and you didn’t know where they came from or how they got there?
Elizabeth: Yes; it happened really quickly after we got married—probably the second month—because, you know, the first month you’re still in the honeymoon stage;—
Elizabeth: —so everything is wonderful and peaches and cream; but the second month, reality sets in.
I didn’t know how to be a wife—I’d never seen that healthy model. I’d only seen an unhealthy picture of marriage. I thought, “The only way I’m going to make marriage work is to be a ‘picture-perfect housewife’”; but I didn’t know what that looked like. I thought: “I’m going to have a four-course meal every night. I will be at his beckon call. I’m going to create this wonderful unicorns-and-rainbows kind of marriage.”
If anyone knows me—that is the furthest thing from who I really am. [Laughter] In order to make this happen—because I was also working and in seminary at the time, so I don’t know how I thought I was going to get a four-course meal on the dinner table and keep a house neat and tidy—but I dropped out of Bible study; I quit any book club; I quit activities. I was staying up late to finish course work so I could make his life 100 percent calm, and neat, and tidy—
—and I was miserable; therefore, he was miserable.
About two months after trying to live this façade of a life, my husband came to me; and he just said: “What is going on? This isn’t you.” We sort of had a big—I want to say an argument—but it was a big fight. [Laughter] Let’s just be honest. I just said, “You know, I’m just trying to be the wife that you want.” He just kind of looked at me, super confused; and he said, “Who says that I want this?!” We had a great conversation then. I just confessed that: “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be a wife. I don’t know how to make marriage work.”
I remember saying to him, “This is not what I signed up for,”—you know, we laugh about it now; because he just thought, “We’re getting a divorce,” because he came from a family, where he never saw parents fight. He’s like, “If they did fight, they went behind closed doors.” He had never, in his 27 years of life, seen his parents fight; whereas, I only saw parents fight.
You know, we were just coming at marriage from two completely different perspectives, and we just talked about expectations. We talked about roles and responsibilities / what we each wanted. That was—I think the beginning of us really trying to figure out what we wanted our marriage to look like.
Bob: And I just have to step in here and say, “I run into couples all the time”—you do too—“at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, who are hearing about expectations, and about roles and responsibilities, and about how to do healthy conflict; and for many of them, it’s the first time anybody has every told them these things.”
Bob: “They’ve never had this baseline of what a healthy relationship should look like; and they go: ‘I wish we’d heard this six years ago,” or “…16 years ago,’—
Bob: —or “‘…40 years ago,’—I mean, we get couples like that—‘I wish somebody had told us this, back at the beginning.’”
I’d just encourage listeners—if you’ve never been to a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, you’ll be surprised at what you learn there that does set expectations for a healthy relationship.
Ron: If I may, Elizabeth, let me ask you a question.
Ron: So, obviously, you had a great desire to be pleasing to your husband / to provide and create an environment where he felt loved; and that’s great. It also seems like there was a concern on the flipside of that. Your desire was to be pleasing, but your concern was: “If I’m not pleasing…”—what? Could you put words on that?—what was the fear?
Elizabeth: I wanted to create a peaceful home, I think, because I had grown up with such an environment of chaos and constant tension. I wanted a home that was stable and calm.
Ron: And there we have it.
Ron: Right? There’s the connection to the past. Her book is about mending broken branches.
When people do what you just did—recognize that something’s fueling me / something’s driving me to take this certain course of action in my marriage relationship—
—or what have you: “What is that that is driving me?” “Oh! I grew up with chaos. I don’t want to repeat that. I don’t want my husband to feel disappointed. I don’t feel secure about being a wife, and I’m not exactly sure what that looks like. I never really saw that modeled. I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want him to be disappointed in me.”
All of those concerns are fueling your four-course meal activity, so you go from chaos to control; right?
Ron: That’s who you are, and that drives you. If you can identify that—like you’ve done—then, all of a sudden, you go: “Wait a minute! Are those fears legitimate? Is that real? What’s the truth?” “Well, the truth is: ‘My husband loves me,’ / the truth is: ‘God loves me.’ I think I can mess up, every once in a while; and it won’t mean chaos like I grew up with.”
All of a sudden, you relax; your expectations get adjusted; you and your husband fall more in line with one another rather than inadvertently working against one another—
—that’s the beauty of what Elizabeth is writing about in this book.
Dennis: That dance is difficult enough with the right blueprints—
Dennis: —but if you are coming from a background—like Elizabeth did, where she didn’t have any—it was a blank slate—at that point, there’s where you go back to what Bob was talking about earlier. You need to get the right blueprints to know how to build this thing called marriage and learn how to dance and to be in sync with one another. The Weekend to Remember—I think that’s its strength.
I just want to add to what you said, Bob—encouraging listeners to come. They may be thinking, “Oh, that conference is just for people in trouble.” No; it’s for all people. When you come on Friday night, and they ask, “How many of you here have never been to a marriage conference?”—and Bob what happens?
Bob: The majority of people raise their hands.
Dennis: It is 60/75/80 percent of the hands go up. You’re in good company—
Ron: Yes; right.
Dennis: —other people wanting to find the blueprints of how you go about building your marriage.
For you, Elizabeth—you and your husband stumbled onto the issue of boundaries, early on, in your marriage relationship; and that was a huge benefit to you. Explain what boundaries are—at least, how you applied them in your life—and then what the benefits were to you and Brandon in your marriage.
Elizabeth: Boundaries are teaching other people how they are allowed to treat you. The benefit to us was that we were allowed to say, “This is how you can treat us, and we are not going to feel guilty about it.” I think, being raised in the home I was raised in, I was taught that I was allowed to be treated any way that people wanted to treat me; and if I spoke up about it, then, there were consequences.
Boundaries gave me permission to have a voice, and it gave Brandon and me unity.
That was really powerful for us, because I had never had a voice in my family of origin. And Brandon is such a peacemaker—he is very compassionate, very kind, very laidback and easygoing—which is why I loved him, because I grew up in such chaos and such a volatile environment that I was drawn to his easygoing nature; but on the flipside, he also tends to let things go. He will fully admit this. He will not mind me sharing this, because we talk about this with our—you know, on our marriage retreats that we lead and classes that we teach.
When it would come to dealing with my family of origin, he would just let things go and not stand up for me or not voice concerns just because that’s his nature. When we read through Boundaries / talked to older mentor couples about boundaries, it really gave us a voice.
It allowed us to say: “You know what? This is how we want our marriage to look. This is how we want our family to look. This is what we will tolerate and what we will not tolerate for the health of our marriage and our family.”
Ron: What I love about what you’re saying is—you know, here you are reading, studying, talking, exploring together as a couple——to have that attitude that says: “We need to learn; we need to be moldable. Let’s help each other overcome and move past where we have come from—you know, what we know / the rules, so to speak,—
Ron: —“of how things should be—and now, we’re discovering, ‘Hey, it can be more than that,’” and you’re helping each other.
Ron: What a spirit of cooperation.
Bob: Well, this is where, as I talk with couples about this—and I did this, just recently, at a Weekend to Remember—I said: “We have a tendency to say, ‘The issue we are dealing with is you’; rather than us saying: ‘Let’s name the issue. Let’s identify the issue. Let’s put the issue on the table. Let’s, together, talk about the issue,’—
—and not personalize the issue and make the person the issue—but let’s say, ‘Okay; what are the issues?’—and take us out of it—‘And then, together, let’s figure out a strategy for dealing with this issue that works for both of us.’”
Dennis: Earlier, Elizabeth, you were talking about you and your husband having a fight. Some of our listeners, when they hear that, they think of a boxing match, where two people are slugging each other. [Laughter] Well, it may be happening with words—
Dennis: —but it’s an argument; it’s a disagreement; it’s differences that are working their way out between two imperfect people. It’s why we need the blueprints for building a marriage and knowing how to resolve conflict. You two did not know how to have a healthy conflict, and how to have a disagreement, and work through it all the way through to forgiveness but also to restoration.
Elizabeth: We do now, but we did not. We were in an unhealthy pattern of—we would disagree, and I would get really upset and really angry.
I would say really harsh words; and he would think, “Oh my goodness! We’re getting a divorce”; so he would retreat; then, I would get even angrier. And he would try to work toward me; then, I would retreat. Here we have two people retreating, so nothing was getting resolved.
Dennis: It’s hard to dance if you’re retreating.
Elizabeth: It really is! [Laughter] When you have two turtles, who are tucking into their turtle shells, nothing is happening! [Laughter] And we were retreating for different reasons. I was retreating because I had only seen arguments solved in violent or unhealthy ways. He was retreating because he’d never seen his parents solve conflict in a healthy way and because of his personality type—because he is sort of that laidback, you know, more peaceful type. He just doesn’t like conflict. I don’t like conflict, because I’m afraid of conflict. We just—we come at it in different ways.
So, yes; we just had to learn that conflict can be healthy. It can move you toward resolution and reconciliation.
It can be healthy and biblical. We’ve had to work really hard—we’re going on 17 years of marriage. We don’t always get it right, but we try. It takes a lot of humility, I think, to pursue conflict in a healthy way. I’m much more prideful than my husband is. Fortunately, he is the one who usually takes the first step; but I’m working on that. He’s very patient with me.
Ron: Welcome to the process. [Laughter] We’re all working on it too.
One of the things you talk about in your book, Mending Broken Branches, is deconstruct your past and let go of old ways. As you just were talking there, I was thinking: “The old ways for you were anger, and loud, and the loudest person wins—or something like that—that’s kind of what you learned.
Ron: “For him—he didn’t know what conflict looked like, so the old ways for him were: ‘Oh, no; we don’t have any conflict. That should never happen, and we should get really afraid if it does happen.’”
How do you talk to yourself in a way that lets go of the old ways? I mean, what’s that process like for people; do you think?
Elizabeth: I think you have to think about: “What is your goal?” What Brandon repeated to me—and I write about this in the book—he said the best thing to me during our first year of marriage; and he repeated it to me—I am not exaggerating—he probably said it a hundred times—was: “We are on the same team,” “We’re on the same team.” That concept to me was so foreign because of what I saw, growing up, and the short marriages that I saw was—you know, my mom and my stepdad fighting against one another—I really saw people who were just looking out for their own interests.
To see it—to hear him talk about a team concept of “You mean, we are working with one another?!” I didn’t grow up playing any team sports, so that team concept was foreign to me also; so he would explain it: “I’m for you. I am for you. I want what is best for both of us.”
Ron: Okay; what he said was brilliant—
Ron: —and foreign to you.
Ron: How did you tell yourself to adopt that? To me, that’s like—it’s—because it’s one thing to hear, “Oh, we’re a team”; it’s another thing to go, “Now, how do I put that into action?” How did you move yourself in that direction?
Elizabeth: It probably took that whole first year of marriage—it was just repetition, repetition—and finally, it just sunk in. I think just a lot of trust / a lot of patience. You know, I think, people who come from broken branches, that’s one thing—people let us down. For him to faithfully spend that year—of just repeating that over, and over, and over—and him showing me: “I really am for you. I really am for us. I’m not in this for myself. I’m not trying to get something for my own selfish needs.” After seeing that consistency for a year, I was able to let that sink in.
Ron: There’s a takeaway—repetition. When you’re trying to overcome something in your past, don’t expect it to go away quickly. Stay after it—keep trying; keep trying; keep trying; keep trying.
Bob: Well, the way we encourage couples to apply the same principle is to say: “I am on the same team. You’re not my enemy.”
Bob: Your spouse is not your enemy.
Elizabeth: Right; yes.
Bob: We repeat this over and over again. For a lot of couples, that’s an epiphany: “I’ve never thought that my spouse is not my enemy. I always thought they were an obstacle. I thought they were against me, but they really are for me.”
Ron: It was an epiphany for her; right?
Elizabeth: It was!
Ron: Even though you hear that truth, it’s hard to grab it. It’s like: “Okay; but I don’t know what that means. What do I, now, do with that?” That’s where the repetition and keep working comes in.
Bob: This is where I go to Romans 12:2, which is that great verse, where Paul says, “Don’t be conformed”—by the culture / by the world; don’t be conformed by the patterns you saw in the past that were destructive, unhealthy patterns; don’t let that mold you and shape you into the wife you’re trying to be today—“instead be transformed”—how?—
—“by having your mind renewed [with truth]”—the truth of God’s Word.
Every time Brandon would say to you, “We’re on the same team,” he was saying: “This is what’s true here. I know the old patterns that are here, but here’s what’s true. We’re on the same team.” It was the repetition of that truth that finally broke through and said: “We are on the same team. I can trust that. I can put my weight against that, and it’s not going to collapse. I am safe here.” Now, you can walk differently.
Ron: There is so much weight in what you just said. It’s not just Romans 12—you know, it’s Romans 8: “The life controlled by the flesh is death. The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” It’s Colossians, Chapter 3: “Take off the old and put on the new.” You’ve got to think about what you are becoming. It’s Philippians 4: “Whatever is good and right and noble and praiseworthy, think on these things.” That’s how you renew your mind. The fact that that principle is repeated throughout the New Testament ought to tell us something.
Bob: It’s a theme; isn’t it?
Ron: It is a theme, and it’s the pathway out of the old.
Dennis: And you’ve got to have blueprints to get out of the old and to establish the right kind of format for building your marriage and family. At the beginning of the Weekend to Remember, we say, “Every marriage in this room is either moving toward oneness or you’re moving toward isolation.” The natural tendency of marriage is to move toward isolation for the very reasons Elizabeth outlined earlier. You’ve got two broken people from two different perspectives; and if they don’t have something that pulls them together in oneness, the natural drift of that relationship is apart—
Elizabeth: That’s right.
Dennis: —two turtles pulling their heads in. [Laughter] That’s why I just want to go back and kind of put a double underline—get Elizabeth’s book. This book, Mending Broken Branches, will help restore. It’ll do some tree service—
Dennis: —some family tree service—[Laughter]
Ron: It is pruning.
Dennis: —in your home.
Also, go online and check out the Weekend to Remember. There’s a reason why these conferences have been around for over 41 years. They’re not advertised around who is speaking. They’re advertised around the biblical blueprints for how you achieve that oneness that we’re talking about here.
Bob: Yes; if the background of your family—as you look at it today, you would say, “I didn’t grow up in a healthy relationship environment,”—then, this is a book that will help get you there. If the background of your family was healthy—it doesn’t matter where you were on the continuum—the Weekend to Remember can be helpful as you seek to build a strong, healthy marriage.
We’ve got information about both—the Weekend to Remember and Elizabeth Oates’ book, Mending Broken Branches. You’ll find the information at our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order copies of the book or start now to register for an upcoming weekend getaway. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about these resources.
Or call us if you have any questions or if you’d like to order by phone: 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com.
You know, we recognize, here, at FamilyLife® that not all families function the same way. There are unhealthy patterns of relating and communicating in a lot of families, and we believe the Bible gives us answers on how to correct those issues. It begins when we understand that we need to get our relationship with God right through Jesus Christ / become children of God; and then empowered by His Spirit, we are able to have human relationships that show love, and humility, and kindness, and care.
Here, at FamilyLife, our goal is to effectively develop godly marriages and families.
We do that every day through this radio program, on our website, through our events, the resources we create; but the goal of all of it is still the same—to provide practical biblical help and hope for your marriage and your family.
We want to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who help make all of this possible—those of you who donate to support this ministry and, especially, those of you who are monthly Legacy Partners. We are grateful for your ongoing support of this ministry. If you’re able to help with a donation during the month of June, we’d love to say, “Thank you,” by sending you Barbara Rainey’s book, Letters to My Daughters. This is a book she wrote that actually began as letters written to her married daughters about how to navigate marriage, and life, and parenthood. Those letters, ultimately, became this book; and the wisdom is now being shared with tens of thousands of young women all across the country.
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Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about the chapter in Elizabeth Oates’ life where she and her husband had to put some boundaries in place in her relationship with her mom. That was tricky. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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