Greg Smalley: Reconnecting in Marriage
About the Guest
Life has a way of moving us into roommates in marriage when we want to be soulmates. Ron Deal talks with Dr. Greg Smalley about how to stay deeply connected.
Greg Smalley: Reconnecting in Marriage
Greg: I love the verse in Song of Solomon 2:15. It’s talking about: “Catch all the foxes”—so these little foxes—“before they ruin the vineyard of love.” I think, for a lot of us, we guard against the big things—infidelity, affairs, abuse—whatever/the big things—I think we do a pretty good job of really guarding our marriages from those things. It’s honestly the little things that really can trap us.
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 our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: One of the things that every marriage needs is a lot of—
Dave: Here is one nobody thinks of: rest.
Dave: Because you can get so busy—I don’t know why we’re talking about this—we have gotten so busy in our marriage that we don’t rest; we don’t play. We talk about playing, but it’s hard to do sometimes; isn’t it?
Ann: Oh! We need this. We need help in this area, because we work hard; and we’re struggling to find rest.
Dave: I think a lot of marriages find the same things. You just become roommates; you sort of become like a business partnership. We’ve actually used those terms.
Today, we’ve got help for marriages that are in that place we’ve been in. We’ve got Ron Deal on his FamilyLife Blended® podcast. He sat down with Greg Smalley, who is the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family®. Guess what they talked about.
Dave: Rest in marriage, and it’s a great conversation. Here are Ron and Greg, talking about a really important topic for your marriage.
[FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: What are some of the things that pull couples apart?—turn us into roommates?
Greg: Yes, we hear that a lot. We hear sort of this idea that: “Hey, I love you; I’m committed to you. But man, I just feel like we’re nothing more than married roommates.” Actually, that’s about what my wife Erin said, eight years into our marriage. I had just finished my doctorate; I had just had my very first marriage book come out—
Ron: Perfect timing; right? [Laughter]
Greg: —The Marriage You’ve Always Dreamed Of—so while that is just being released, my own wife, in tears, just says, “This is far from the marriage I’ve always dreamed of. I just feel like we’re married roommates. We’ve drifted so far apart. I don’t know you; I feel like I’m sleeping with a stranger.”
Of course, I’d love to say that I met that statement with total compassion, and empathy, and deep understanding. I defended myself; I rationalized; I gave every excuse/tried to reframe. Yet, when I really was willing to hear her, I realized that was exactly what had happened: is that we had just drifted.
I think, for a lot of couples who go through that, and then they try to do bigger things, like: “Well, let’s make sure we’re doing date nights,” “Let’s go on a vacation,” “Let’s do a holiday,” “Let’s do something big.” The problem is a marriage can’t survive from date to date night or from vacation to vacation. I think that’s what is going on for a lot of couples. They are hoping that they can make up for all the disconnect/for all the busyness. Thus, they try to live from vacation, holiday, date night to date night, holiday, vacation. A marriage cannot survive off of that.
Ron: I definitely want us to talk about some of the things that lead us into being roommates.
Ron: You and Erin have identified a number of things.
Let me just pull back a second; I love that story, and I appreciate that story. One of the things that those of us, that are in marriage and family ministry, know is that our own families are not perfect.
Ron: I’ve said so many times, “You’re always going to be working on your marriage, because God is always using your marriage to work on you. So as soon as you feel like, ‘We’ve arrived,’ well, then God—if you are humble enough to listen—He’ll show you that next piece of you—
Greg: That’s right.
Ron: —“that you have to deal with.” Usually, it comes out in a relationship environment. It’s sort of like, “But why can’t we get it all…” “Well, because we are working at this.”
Greg: We’re human.
Ron: And there is a discipling process that’s going on within it.
Ron: I’m also pleased to hear that you, like me, have the spiritual gift of defensiveness. I’m very good at that.
Greg: Oh, I’m amazing at it.
Greg: I’m so well-trained. [Laughter]
Ron: One of my other gifts, by the way, is sarcasm, which I just used.
Greg: Oh, that’s perfect. We’re like brothers. [Laughter] We’re like twins.
Ron: It’s easy to put up those walls and react: “What do you mean you are upset?” “What do you mean you are disappointed? You don’t know my heart and my intentions.” Next thing you know, the other person is feeling unheard and not listened to. Now, things are getting worse, not better.
If you, the listener, right now [is] going, “Oh, I think that is us,”—or there is some element in any of this that you can relate to—okay; good; you know you’re normal. Let’s just keep talking about what this stuff is/put words on it.
You guys have identified some characteristics—
Ron: —of roommate marriage situations. Let’s walk through a few of them. Tell us about them.
Greg: Erin and I kept hearing about people saying, “Yes, we feel like married roommates.” Well, why? Like this one couple might feel that way because they are just in a really busy season:
- young, young kids;
- or they are taking care of aging parents;
- another couple may be in a lot of conflict, so they are not connecting;
- maybe, spiritually, they have no mutual spiritual relationship.
We started going, “Okay; so what would those main things be?” We just began to interview couples. We kind of generated a list, and we probably researched with about 1,000 couples just to better understand this.
By far, kind of the biggest one was: “exhausted.”
Ron: Just like physically, emotionally tired?
Greg: Yes; so a lot going on. I think by doing intensives/working with couples in crisis—we hear this a lot—that they have nothing to give. They are going at such a rapid pace, so they keep pouring out. They don’t know how to get full so that they have something to give.
Ron: You know, as you are talking, I’m sitting here listening for the blended family couples, who are hearing this. You get married; and there are three, four, five/seven kids between the two of you. You’ve got multiple households you are trying to coordinate with—former spouses, former mother-in-law—all kinds of stuff outside your home and inside your home.
Greg: —just draining the batteries.
Ron: Exactly. So “exhausted” is a good word, for emotionally, it takes a lot to try to maintain, and keep up, and chase kids, and do whatever.
This is true, I think, even if there are adult children. They may be halfway across the country, but you’re still trying to figure out: “How do we stay in touch and connect?” Maybe, there are step-grandkids involved; and you are trying to figure out: “How do we bond with…”
I think what I hear you saying is there may be different circumstances that create the exhaustion; but nevertheless, the exhaustion just means they can’t quite connect with each other. Is that what you are saying?
Greg: Right; so if we say, “empty,” we have nothing to give. If I have nothing to give, I’m not going to connect with you—because you become a threat: “Oh, you’re just going to want something,” “You’re going to want more,” “You’re going to want affection. You’re going to want…”—whatever it is—versus really understanding: “If we are going to connect, it has to begin with this idea: ‘What am I doing to make sure I’m staying full?’”
I can hear the young moms/the stepfamilies with so many kids—rolling their eyes; you just feel it—going, “Sure. Come over; watch my kids. I’ll get some rest,” or whatever.
Greg: Erin and I really have tried to narrow it down to: “Okay, if you identify with that, going, ‘Yes, I’m really in a busy season, where I end up exhausted with nothing to give,’—we just encourage people—“Figure out: ‘What gives you rest?’ ‘What gives you life?’” They are kind of two sides of the same coin. What gives me rest probably isn’t going to set my heart on fire; it’s not going to bring me passion. At the same time, what does get me going and gives me life probably isn’t going to give me rest.
Greg: We encourage people: “Really, talk about that. Ask each other: ‘In this season of our life together, what would rest look like? What would life look like?’”—doing activities that really give you life.
For example, we live in Colorado. We are right there, in the base of Pike’s Peak. I love to fish; so when I think about something that would give me life, it’s all about fishing. Erin knows that. I’ll go to her and say, “Hey, I’m going to take off a day of work. I’m just going to go by myself; I’m going to go up into the mountains.” She blesses that because she knows what it does. I’ll get up super early; I drive. I don’t come back rested, but my goodness!—man, getting a big old trout on the end of that line, just standing in the middle of a river,—
Ron: Sounds good.
Greg: —in God’s beauty,—I mean, there is something about it that so brings me alive.
Then, when I think about rest—for me, as an introvert—just unplugging from people and kind of being by myself. Sometimes, it’s just listening to some praise and worship music; but doing something like that just gives me real rest.
It’s going to be different for everybody.
Greg: It’s going to be different based on the season.
Again, young parents are going, “Yes; right. If we just get rid of our children, we’ll get a lot of rest.” You just have to figure that out; it’s your job to figure that out.
Ron: I’m hearing: “You’ve got to know yourself.”
Greg: You do.
Ron: And you’ve got to, then, prioritize some self-care. Isn’t that a problem, sometimes, for people?
Ron: I know going fishing is really going to help: “But no, too much to do,”—just whatever—you end up not doing it.
Greg: Right, and then you’re empty; you have nothing to give; your family gets leftovers, and no one wins—versus—understanding that, like the greatest commandment: “Love God; love others as you love yourself”; I think, as Christians, we often re-write that verse to say: “Love God; and love others before ourselves,”—instead of—“…ourselves.”
God gave us two commandments. They are to love Him and to love others. He is assuming that we are already doing the job of loving us, which means we are doing what we need to get full of His love. We’re allowing our hearts to be full so that we have then something that we can keep giving, and giving, and giving. My goal—it’s not about selfishness; it’s not this narcissistic: “Well, I’m going to focus on me,”—it’s: “Focus on you to get full so you have something to give out.” It’s really about giving but from a place of abundance. That’s why, when you figure out what gives you rest and what gives you life, that’s a great way to balance to make sure that you have something to give.
Ann: We’ve been listening to Ron Deal talking to Greg Smalley about finding rest in marriage. I am so convicted right now; are you?!
Dave: Yes; because we can run pretty hard, and we’ve been running hard. It’s a great reminder that God gave us a commandment to Sabbath/to rest. It isn’t just a legalistic law; it does our body and, as we’re learning today, does our marriage good.
Ann: I think, too, as followers of Christ, we are so busy giving our lives away that, when we hear somebody saying, “Hey, I need a ‘me’ day,” that does feel narcissistic and selfish; but we do need to learn: how to fill up and “What does fill us up?” That’s important.
Dave: And the thing about it, as Greg just said, is it makes us better for others; so we love God better; we love others better; we love our spouse better; it will make our marriage better. There is more to learn about this; let’s go back to Ron and Greg and find out how we can actually live this out.
[FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: What are some other characteristics of roommate relationships?
Greg: Yes, I think busyness—obviously, duh!—was another big one. You can be busy to the point of being exhausted; but you can, also, just not taking care of yourself is going to lead to exhaustion.
But busyness—we all have these seasons—Erin and I go through them.
Greg: Some seasons are much less busy than others; but for a lot of us, we’re just running;—
Greg: —we have so much going on. When we speak, and we’re talking about busyness, people automatically get super defensive. So now, they think we are going to start going through some time management habits and “Look at your calendar; what can you jettison?”
They feel like their plates are overflowing with a lot of good things. We always tell them: “Relax. We’re actually not going to do that. We’re actually going to show you that: ‘Let’s look at your plate; because we guarantee you there are things that are happening already that you could take advantage of.’” We tell people: “Relax; we’re not going to add. We’re just going to show you that you are doing things.”
For example, one of my favorite researchers—I know you respect this gentleman as well—John Gottman. He has done some of the best research. He found something called a bid for connection. As I’ve learned and really understood this, this has made a huge difference in my marriage. What he found is that, throughout the day, all of us constantly are turning toward our spouse; we are making some sort of bid for connection.
For example, the other day, Erin and I were just driving down the road. I’m driving; she is in the passenger seat. Approaching me is my very favorite vehicle—like if I had money/if I could buy whatever I could, this is what I would get; it was a Ford F-150 Raptor.
Ron: Oh, wow!
Greg: So Google® that if you want to see an image—it is beautiful; it will bring tears to your eyes—it’s approaching, and I can tell. I say to Erin, “Oh, look! There is a Raptor!” Now, she—in that moment, that was actually a bid for connection—I’m basically saying, “Hey, would you, for a moment, be interested in what I’m interested in?”
Ron: “Join me in this celebration of what could be.”
Greg: Exactly; because I can tell you, on no level does my wife care at all about vehicles, much less Raptors. [Laughter] I mean, she’s like—
Ron: She’s probably thinking—
Greg: —“Just buy me something; and give me the keys, and I’ll drive it.”
Ron: She is hearing, “Raptor”—like that’s dangerous; right?—a dinosaur: “Run away! You don’t want to go toward that.” [Laughter]
Greg: She knows, because I’ve said it a million times. She knows what it is—but she’s/that’s not her thing—but it’s my thing.
In that moment, she had a couple choices:
- She could turn away and basically ignore me, keep texting on her cell phone or scrolling through Facebook®—whatever. So she could turn away and ignore me.
- She could turn against me and actually say something snarky, like, “Come on! We’re in ministry,”—as if we could ever afford an expensive vehicle like that—“Give it up! Come on; you are being ridiculous!” So she could have turned against me.
- Or she could turn towards that connection, which is what she did. Just simply, she went, “Ooh!” She goes, “The red one?!” I was like, “Yes!” She was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” She’s like, “Why—I know you love those. Why do you like that so much?” “Oh, man! It’s so fast. It has zero to sixty in six seconds.” We literally had maybe a 10 to 15 second connection; but it was a connection; it was a micro-connection.
Greg: Those are the things that are happening constantly throughout the day. Oftentimes, we ignore it, or we turn against it, versus really turning towards. Erin loves—her idea of a Ford Raptor is bargain shopping—like that is her Raptor. [Laughter]
Ron: That’s her Raptor.
Greg: Now, on no level do I have any interest in—I hate to shop: I go one time to the Dillard’s New Year’s Day sale; I get a couple things; I’m good for the year—[Laughter]—but Erin loves to bargain shop. She’ll come home; she’ll walk in the door with her bags; she’ll set them down. She comes up to me, and she’ll hold up an item; and she’ll say, “Guess how much this originally was.” [Laughter] Now, it’s like we’re playing the Price Is Right all of a sudden.
Now, I’ve learned that I’ve got to guess high; or she doesn’t care [Laughter]: “I don’t know, like, 150 bucks,” “Not even close! 200 dollars!” I’m like, “Whoa!” Again, I could care less, but I’m turning toward her; she’s making a bid. She’ll say, “Guess what I paid!” I know if it’s under like $10 dollars, it’s a real exciting bargain. So I’m like, “I don’t know, like, $9.99.” “Not even close! 8 dollars!” I’m like, “Not even close? What?” That’s when you say, “Honey, you’re amazing.
Greg: “The stewardship you are displaying for our finances is amazing.”
The point is—again, I have no interest in clothing—but she was making a bid; I can turn towards that. That’s one of those things—in the busy, busy season, you may not have the capacity to add: “Let’s do a date night,” “Let’s go on a vacation,”—but you can really notice these little, tiny bids. They can be anything—a phone call, going, “You’ve got to hear what happened to me!”—I can choose: I can say, “I’m right in the middle of something; I don’t have time,” or “Hey, let me call you back in five,”—whatever—but I can turn towards that. The more that we do that—those little micro-connections—they add up.
So for that busy person, relax. They are already happening—just do your best to turn toward those—take advantage of the ten seconds and just watch how those will add up.
Ron: I imagine somebody is listening right now; and they are feeling what I am feeling, and that is—
Greg: —you want a Ford Raptor. I know; I know.
Ron: —no, guilt.
Greg: Oh, guilt.
Ron: I’m feeling guilt because, as I’m listening to you talk,—
Greg: That’s worse. [Laughter]
Ron: Yes, that is a lot worse. [Laughter] As I’m listening to you talk, I’m feeling, “You know what? I missed a bid just this week,” and “I got a lot on my mind; and I’ve got this in line with that, and line up with this.” I’m so focused there that I missed a bid; and it’s like, “Wow! What do I do now?”
Greg: Yes; here is the good news: “You will have dozens tomorrow; you will have more the next day.” See, the fact that you noticed that you missed a bid I think is the true battle: is noticing them/seeing them for what they are. There will be plenty of times that we even know it and don’t respond. “Okay; so how about the next one?” “How about the next one?” I would just say to someone: “Don’t be discouraged; be glad. I noticed it; okay, I didn’t take advantage of it…”
Ron: —“and now, I can tune in a little bit better next time”?
Greg: You consider: “There will be hundreds coming your way.”
Ron: Yes; it might even be that I go back to my wife and say—
Ron: —“Hey, I realize I missed something there that you were leaning toward me,”—
Greg: That’s powerful.
Ron: —“and I was so focused I didn’t catch it.”
Ron: Maybe, that in and of itself—an apology in effect—would be a bid/would be responding to or, at least, moving toward her in a way.
Greg: Totally. Well, it’s another bid; because basically, you are apologizing. So now, she would have the opportunity to respond—turn towards that—and receive that; I mean, whatever.
Greg: They happen all the time; my job is to really notice and look for it. Erin and I have even gotten to the point, to where we will call it out: “Hey, that’s a bid! You made a bid right now.” [Laughter] And we’ll just make it a fun thing. I think we have grown to the point, where we really notice those; and thus, we’re going to turn towards them. They are micro—and that is the nice part—we’re not talking about: “Hey, you have an hour conversation.”
Ron: Doing a little self-care—I can imagine somebody playfully tossing it the other way—“Hey, did you notice I just made a bid?” You know, sort of making it overt: “Yes, I’m inviting you to join me in this discussion about shopping,”—
Ron: —or “…Raptors,” or whatever it might be. Again, the playfulness in that is a connection.
But I don’t want our listener to miss what you are saying: “The big picture is”—you are saying here—“people, who are busy and exhausted, feel like, ‘No, this is not an add something to your life. This is just: notice; tune in; turn toward; and let that be something that energizes the relationship.’”
Greg: Because a marriage can survive between bids, because they are going to happen so much. We may not be able to add in the big stuff; but again, those little foxes—on the flip side—the good news is your bids will happen constantly, and we can take advantage of those. That’s how we can stay connected when we’re busy.
Ann: We’ve been listening to Ron Deal and Dr. Greg Smalley and their conversation from the FamilyLife Blended podcast, talking about rest and even knowing how to do that as a couple.
Does this mean—as I’ve been listening—does this mean I need to learn to play golf? [Laughter]
Dave: You know what I was thinking? I was thinking, “You do!” When I throw out the bid to you, “Hey, do you want to go ride on the cart with me as I play golf?” you go!
Your bid to me often is: “I’m going to go for a walk. Do you want to go?”
Dave: Because you love to walk, and you want me to go walk with you. I’d rather run, but I walk with you. What do we do?—we talk.
Ann: We do.
Dave: That makes our marriage better.
Ann: I think this discussion is really helpful; and it keeps us from being lazy, and it helps us to pursue one another.
Dave: We need to listen for the bids and take time to rest. And if rest looks like play—whatever it looks like for you that gives you energy back—do it in your marriage. Your marriage will be better for it.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to FamilyLife Today with Dave and Ann Wilson. Now, if you know anyone who needs to hear today’s conversation between Ron Deal and Greg Smalley, you can share it from wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, you can search for the FamilyLife Blended podcast as well and subscribe to hear more from Ron Deal.
In fact, I don’t think you’ll want to miss the episode that just released this week about the story of a stepmom and a biological mom and how they turned their toxic relationship into a healthy one. Again, search for FamilyLife Blended wherever you get your podcasts.
At FamilyLife, we believe strong, godly marriages and families can help transform the culture and our world. If that resonates with you, would you consider giving to FamilyLife Today? We are listener-supported. And all this week, we want to send you a copy of Eric Reed’s book, Uncommon Trust. He was a guest earlier this week on FamilyLife Today. We want to get that to you, as a “Thank you,” for your donation of any amount to FamilyLife Today. You can give securely online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call with your donation at 1-800-358-6329. That could be a one-time gift, or you could become a partner with us and make it a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
So how do you resolve conflict in your marriage? Is it a yelling match? Is it the silent treatment? Is it a rousing game of Rock, Paper, Scissors? Well, whether you are in a stepfamily or not, I think you’ll find some practical wisdom when we hear, again, tomorrow from Ron Deal and Dr. Greg Smalley. I hope you can join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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