FamilyLife Today®

How Marriages Get Better

with John and Pam McGee | January 17, 2017
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John McGee, director of marriage ministry at Watermark church, and his wife, Pam, talk about the characteristics of couples with healthy marriages. One clear indicator is when each spouse works on themselves first. Working on yourself, irrespective of what your mate does, isn't easy, but it's the right path to take when a marriage is strained.

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  • John McGee, director of marriage ministry at Watermark church, and his wife, Pam, talk about the characteristics of couples with healthy marriages. One clear indicator is when each spouse works on themselves first. Working on yourself, irrespective of what your mate does, isn't easy, but it's the right path to take when a marriage is strained.

John McGee and his wife, Pam, talk about the characteristics of couples with healthy marriages. One clear indicator is when each spouse works on themselves first.

How Marriages Get Better

With John and Pam McGee
January 17, 2017
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Bob: Working with married couples at a large church in Dallas, Texas, John McGee has had the opportunity to hear a lot of marriage come-back stories. In fact, he’s encouraged couples to share their stories with other couples. Along the way, he says, he’s made an interesting observation.

John: One of the things that happens most nights is a couple will share their story. They’ll just recount either how they moved from a bad place to a good place—some people who literally had divorce papers in hand and now are doing great—so they share that story to give hope. As I sat there, year after year after year, these stories became kind of like Groundhog Day—they just all sounded the same.

So I just—you know, Pam and I would sit in the front row there. I was just trying to make notes and trying to understand: “What are the common patterns?”  Turns out, even though the details were radically different in all these couples’ lives and couples’ stories, there were some really common characteristics— that they showed up all the time.


Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, January 17th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey. I'm Bob Lepine. So, what are some common characteristics of marriages that make it out of tough waters?  We’ll hear from John and Pam McGee about that today. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.

Dennis: How are you feeling, Bob?

Bob: Well, why do you ask?

Dennis: Well, we’re going to talk about getting well. [Laughter]

Bob: I’m doing okay. I think the kind of wellness we’re going to talk about is maybe a different kind of wellness than you had in mind when you asked how I’m feeling; right?

Dennis: I think that’s correct. In fact, we have a pair of friends with us who join us on FamilyLife Today. John and Pam McGee, welcome to the broadcast.

John: Thanks, Dennis—really fun to be here.

Pam: Yes; glad to be here.

Dennis: We let them in from across the border in Texas.


John: Yes.

Dennis: They live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and—

Bob: —canoed across the Red River.

Dennis: —didn’t even have to check their passports to get into Arkansas. [Laughter]

John and Pam have been married since 1995. They have four children. John is the Director of Marriage Ministry and Re-Engage at Watermark Community Church.

Bob: Great church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In fact, any time I have spoken in the Dallas area, at one of our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, I run into a lot of—I don’t know if you call them Watermarkers—but I run into a lot of people who attend Watermark who come out for our getaways, because you guys do a great job of making sure your people understand that marriage needs to be a priority and investing in your marriage is smart for every married couple.

Let me just interrupt here long enough to make sure our listeners know about the special offer that we’re making this week for FamilyLife Today listeners.


If you’d like to attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway—and we’re going to be hosting about 85, 86, 80 / I don’t know the exact number—in cities all across the country this spring. If you’d like to attend one of the getaways in a city near where you live—you register today—you pay the regular rate for yourself and your spouse comes free.

It’s the best offer we make all year, and it’s good this week only. So if you want to take advantage of saving a little money and sign up now for what will be a fun, romantic getaway weekend for you and your spouse later on this spring, go to our website, Get more information about when one of these weekends is coming to a city you’d like to visit, or a city near where you live, and then register online or call to register. Again, if you pay the regular rate for yourself, right now, your spouse comes free.


That offer is good through this weekend. Give us a call or go online and plan to join us at an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.

Dennis: Explain to our listeners a little bit, John, what Re-Engage is all about; because you’ve worked with literally thousands of couples. You’ve observed characteristics among couples—who are healthy or who maybe are unhealthy and get well—that have made a difference in their lives.

John: Right. So, you know, I think just about anything you give yourself to in life, there are patterns that you can recognize. For example, I met a stockbroker, one time, who traded on the floor. He said, “A couple times a day things will line up; and I just know I’m going to make a lot of money, and that’s where I lean in.”

Re-Engage is a ministry we have at Watermark—other churches do with us as well. One of the things that happens most nights is a couple will share their story. They’ll just recount either how they moved from a bad place to a good place—some people who literally had divorce papers in hand and now are doing great—so they share that story to give hope. It’s kind of an indirect teaching method.


As I sat there, year after year after year, these stories became kind of like Groundhog Day—they just all sounded the same. Turns out, even though the details were radically different in all these couples’ lives and couples’ stories, there were some really common characteristics—that they showed up all the time. For example, one of those—I think in every story, somewhere in there, someone decides to work on themselves.

So, you know, we’ll just give it the one word, “circle.” We say: “If you want to have a great marriage, or if you want to change your marriage / you want to restore your marriage, the place to start is to draw a circle around yourself and change everybody inside the circle. Just give yourself fully to working on yourself, irrespective of what anyone else does—whatever your spouse does or doesn’t do / reciprocates or not—it is just give yourself fully to working on yourself—whatever that looks like.”

Bob: So the circle’s just you?

John: Just you.

Bob: The focus is then on, “What do I need to be?” and “What do I need to do in a marriage?”


Pam, if somebody’s drawing a circle around themselves, they go: “Okay, I’m here. Now what do I do?”

Pam: Yes; and Jesus spoke to this in Matthew 7, directly—you know, He said, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own eye?” We [Pam and John] just think we all have these logs that we really have a hard time seeing. We can very easily point out the little specks in our spouse’s, in our friends’, in our kids’ eyes, but we forget about these logs.

When we draw that circle and just look at whether it’s a sin issue, an annoying habit, just some expectations that you’re frustrated about that were unspoken—anything in my life that I can say, “I’m going to remove this log,”—then it gives the other person permission to look at the speck if you humbly say, “I’m going to work on my own part first.”

Bob: I think that’s important—what you just said—because a lot of people would say: “Okay; I drew the circle around myself, and as objectively as possible. Yes; I know I do some little things—I can nag sometimes and I overspend in our budget, but my spouse—I mean, I have a long list.


“And I’m trying to be objective here; but my stuff’s little / his stuff is big.” You would say, even in that situation—even if it’s out of balance—until you are really working hard on the stuff in your circle, don’t step outside and try to address the rest. Is that right?

John: Absolutely. It is so difficult, Bob, when you’ve been wounded—when you’ve been shorted when they’ve been unkind. You’re so attuned to that, and—I mean, I think that’s part of what Jesus was saying. You want to focus in on those little specks—they could be much bigger than specks—but it is the only thing you can control. It is the only thing you can control, is yourself. When couples were relaying their stories—maybe there was an affair / maybe there was something horrendous—always part of their story is, “Even though he or she did what they did, I began to see I played a part; and I worked on myself.”

We think about our friend, Jennifer, who is a great, great friend of ours. To say their marriage was a disaster would be the understatement of the century.


He had been in the war and had some PTSD. He had deployed affairs, and—you name it. He deploys to Japan and tells her: “Do not come. I don’t want to be married to you. I don’t want to raise our kids…” I’m sure there were others in Jennifer’s life that said: “Don’t go. Given who he is and what he’s done, do not go.”

She went, and she wasn’t in any kind of physical danger. But she worked on herself. She surrounded herself with some friends, and she began to see that she had some control issues / she had some fear—and that was just exacerbating that. She didn’t try to fix him / she didn’t try to change him; she just changed and worked on herself ruthlesslyruthlessly.

That is what really softened her husband’s heart. There wasn’t any kind of manipulative trick she pulled. He was watching her and he said, “All I can do now is reciprocate.” All the words, all the strategies, all the manipulation she tried before that never worked and never did what just working on herself could do.


Dennis: You mentioned something I want to double underline. You ran past if really fast—you said she surrounded herself in that circle with good friends / good counsel.

John: Yes; good counsel.

Dennis: I want to tell you something—a good friend in the midst of a deep, profound marriage conflict can make a big difference; or they can point that person toward tossing in the towel and heading toward the divorce court.

Bob: And you’re talking about a good friend, who’s not just a sympathetic enabler. You’re talking about a good friend, who will speak truth to you—kindly, with compassion—

Dennis: That’s the point.

John: Yes.

Bob: —somebody who will say, “I’m here to help you get better,” not just somebody who says, “Oh, you poor, poor thing.”

Dennis: In fact, in my iPhone® I have a message from a young couple in another city, who are heading toward divorce. I am proud of one of our children and their spouse—they’re headed into a meeting with them—not to smash, or bash, or blame—but just to get in there and speak truth and try to pull them out of the ditch.


I have to tell you—I think we’re probably speaking to two groups of people—one who need to draw the circle and get out their log inspection and remove the logs from their eyes; but secondly, to a group of people who are speaking into the lives of those who are in trouble, who need to take courage and take heart and don’t be guilty of saying nothing.

John: Right.

Dennis: You may be rescuing generations of broken families and divorce.

Pam: Yes; yes.

John: Yes; always—which is interesting—that’s another one of those characteristics, Dennis—is they surround themselves with people who will tell them the truth and be gracious or—you know, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says we’re to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and be patient with all men.” So there are some times we need some admonishment; there are some times we need some help; there are some times we just need some encouragement; but in all ways, we need—we always need people who will be patient with us.

Always in those stories, as we heard those stories, somewhere in there they say, “I surrounded myself with some people who love me enough to tell me the truth.”


They weren’t just the sympathetic ears—that Bob was talking about that just say: “I’m so sorry. I want you to be happy,”—it was: “What does God’s Word say? I know what you feel, and I know it’s hard; but I’m going to call you back to truth. And I’m going to help you. I’m not going anywhere.” Oftentimes, all it takes is one person.

So the person, who’s sitting out there and saying, “Should I lean in to your point?” “Yes!—because it’s amazing what one person—who will encourage you to stick in there, and to fight it out, and give you hope—will do. Don’t ever underestimate that.”

But people change, I think, in the context of community, just in a different way than just listening to sermons or listening to messages. I think, even in my own life—I will tell you that pride is one of my besetting sins. In our small group, now—it’s been years ago and it still shows up, ongoing—but there was a group of men that just said: “Listen, John. We think you don’t see your own pride. We love you. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not mad at you; but we want to admonish you, and we want to help you.


“We want to point it out / we want to pray with you.” It wasn’t one conversation—it was many. They had to be patient with me; but it has made all the difference in my marriage, in my parenting, in my relationships, in my leadership.

That happened in a way that I couldn’t get from just listening to a sermon on pride—it had to happen in the context of community. As we talk about these couples that get well, that’s always one of the things that shows up.

Pam: Yes; it just makes me think about a good friend as well.

John talks about that big sin struggle of his—of pride and just little things as well—just people that know you well and that are the true friends, that don’t just want to tickle your ear, but want to love you enough to help you look more like Christ.

So just a girl that we are in small group with—one of the couples—I remember specifically, maybe two football seasons ago / two falls ago, John was traveling, which was not normal. What was normal was for him to be home—to be at every game and to coach every one of our kids—that was the norm.


But for some reason he was gone for quite a few football games.

I remember kind of getting spun up about that and being frustrated with him, and sharing that with her. She just stopped me, lovingly but firmly, and admonished me like that verse says—and just said: “Wait, Pam. Does this characterize John? This is not normal. And remember, this is his job. He has to work. This is what he does.” She just lovingly reminded me of the truth—kind of pointed out, “This is not who you want to be,” and just helped me be better.

John: You know, if you want to combine those two ideas of the circle and community—just a really courageous question to ask your friends is: “How am I undermining my marriage? Don’t tell me about my spouse. You tell me what you see. I’m not going to fight you on it. I’ll tie my hands behind my back. You tell me—if I was going to be a better husband,”—in Pam’s case, a better wife—“what could I do?” or “What do I do in subverting that?”

Dennis: What you’re illustrating here—a couple of key things I just want to also highlight.


Number one, the wounds of a friend / a true friend bring healing.

Bob: I think the Bible says that; doesn’t it?

Dennis: It does say that.

Pam: Sure; yes.

Dennis: The Proverbs say that.

The second thing I want to underline is really talking about a functioning church—a local community of believers. And you said it, John—you’re doing life together. There’s no pulling the wool over other people’s eyes—you’re transparent, but there is the safety—that’s the key word I want to use here. There’s the safety of a true relationship—where you’re not going to be punished / you’re not going to get beat up, shamed, or blamed—but somebody’s just going to step in, after you’ve vented, and say: “Let me just remind you, Pam, of the truth about your husband. He does head up the marriage ministry of the church; but he’s human, and you need to give him some grace in this season.”

Pam: Exactly.

Dennis: So you heard it. As a result, you got out of your stew and continued on with life. All of us need those kinds of people in our lives.

Bob: We have a phrase we use at our church—that we borrowed from Paul David Tripp—that you’re going to love.


He said that the kinds of relationships we need to do life well is: “We need grace-based, Christ-centered, intentionally-intrusive, redemptive relationships.” Some people hear intentionally-intrusive; and they kind of go, “Wait, wait, wait—what am I signing up for here?” But surrounding that—grace-based, Christ-centered, redemptive—if your marriage is wobbly, and you have people like that around you, they’ll help you.

If your marriage is wobbly and what you have around—I’m thinking of a friend of mine who quit her job because the place she was working, all the women there were just griping about their husbands every day. You really do have to be wise about whom you put in community around you. When things are going to get wobbly, is it going to be people who are going to be grace-based, Christ-centered, intentionally-intrusive, and redemptive in their relationship with you?

John: That’s right.


I don’t know why; but I think even in the Christian community, especially, we just mistake love as encouragement—you know, just being for someone / putting your arm around them. Oftentimes, the most loving thing we can do is tell somebody the truth. The most loving thing we could do for a relationship is put ourselves in a position where people will tell us the truth.

Pam knows / our kids know—it’s the same deal with our kids—that if Dad is stubborn and Pam has tried to tell me the truth, and I’m not having it, and she’s pretty sure that I’m still wrong—and she’s prayed and she feels like she’s clean before the Lord—then she calls the men in our lives and just says: “I love John. I don’t think he’s at his best right now. I know you love John. Can you help me?”

Dennis: Whoa!

John: And we’ve told—

Dennis: Have you ever done that, Pam?

Pam: One time, years ago, I think I felt like I wasn’t being heard. I don’t think he was being mean, or unkind, or stubborn—maybe a little stubborn—it may have been more about me; but I just said, “Hey, let me get another set of ears.” I asked his permission, because we kind of have that—


—but I said: “Hey, I’m going to call the guys and just say, ‘This is my perspective. It could be more me, but it feels like John doesn’t understand my side/my perspective.’”

Bob: Now wait. If my wife came to me and said, “Is it okay…”

Dennis: That’s what I was thinking!

Bob: “Is it okay if I call the guys?” That would kind of be: “Wait, wait, wait!”—okay? “Time-out!” I’m now open to—“Before you call the guys,…”

Did you just say, “Yes; fine”?

John: It wasn’t: “Hey; I’m going to haul you off to the principal’s office and shame you”; right? It was: “You made this deal. You said you wanted to be the best husband you could be, and I want to help you.” She didn’t say: “I’m positive that I’m right and you’re wrong. We’re going to get these guys to kind of beat you up.” She said: “I could be wrong, but I love you enough to tell you the truth. Let’s just have this conversation.”

Dennis: There’s one other subject that I have to have you hit, because I think it is rare today in marriage.


I really mean that, in the truest sense—I think covenant-keeping commitment is increasingly rare in marriage. It’s why so many don’t get married—and don’t establish a covenant to begin with—and just live together.

The other is that they make some kind of quasi-commitment, but they’re really not all in.

Bob: You’re just talking about having a state of mind / a frame of mind, from the beginning, that says: “This is for life—for good—for keeps”; right?

Dennis: “I’m committed.”

Bob: Yes.

John: Yes.

Dennis: Comment on what you’ve seen.

John: Yes; absolutely. That would be another one those, Dennis—one of those things that just always shows up in the story. Generally, what happens is—they say, “I was contemplating divorce,” or “I wasn’t all in,” and “I just decided, ‘…till the end.’ I said, ‘Till death do us part.’ I said, ‘Better or worse, in sickness and health.’ I am in; and now, I’m going to live like it.”

We had some friends—you know—an affair on her side and just all kinds of crazy. They were taking two different planes, from the same city, back home. He just looked at her and said: “I need to know, when we land in Dallas, if you’re in. We’ll figure it out / we can work through anything, but I have to have an assurance that you’re in till the end.”


They landed; and boy, was there stuff to work through. Did it take a long time?—absolutely—but everything changed when both of them said, “We’re in till death do us part.”

You know, a great metaphor for that is to think about yourself in a room with lots of doors that are open—you have the door of an affair / you have the door of just workaholism—“I’m still going to be married, but I’m going to give myself to other…”; you know—there are all kinds of things like that. Something kind of supernatural really does happen when you say: “I’m going to lock all those doors / all those possibilities of not finishing this with you. I’m going to throw away the key, and we will work this out.”

You know—your only option is to kind of kill each other in that room or work it out. We see it over and over again—just that commitment becomes this multiplier in a marriage. All of a sudden, a couple’s able to really begin to invest in their marriage.

It’s kind of like—the cheapest homes, generally, on any market are those that have gone to foreclosure; because they’re in really, really bad shape.


What happens is—a year before that, a couple decided, “I’m not sure we’re going to keep this house.” So they lived in it that way. Then, when they left, they go: “You know what? I’ve never liked this house anyway. It’s always been a bad house. It’s always had a leaking roof.” That’s not really true—they just decided—

Dennis: —not to invest in it.

John: —years ago; yes.

So commitment—there’s two parts of that. One of it is that: “I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to give myself to anything else.” That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is: “I am going to invest, because I’m going to live here in this house for the next 50 years, I’m going to fix a leaky roof / leaky faucet. We’re going to pull weeds,”—all those kinds of things—and “I’m going to end up”—crazy thing—“I’m going to end up liking this house. As I invest in it, I will like it even more, which will kind of further my investment and my commitment to it.”

Pam: Yes; and I think that’s what’s shown—in 21 years of marriage—as I think about that for us, there’s never been a time that we’ve uttered the word or considered divorce. But there have been seasons where I know that each of us have kind of been living a little bit un-divorced.


We’re not leaving, but I’m not fully committed / I’m not giving my 100 percent. I’m getting lazy, looking to my own interests instead of my partner’s interest, and just thinking, “Even in that moment, I’m committed to be very intentional and to put my 100 percent into this.”

Dennis: It’s my experience—looking at marriages over the past 40 years—that most marriages go through, not just a season, but multiple seasons that are dark days.

Pam: Yes.

Dennis: I have to tell you—when you open the door as a possibility and you utter the word—the “d” word—it truly does become an increased possibility. I think what you’re exhorting people to do, John, is really, really wise in terms of locking the doors—shut them out / there are no exits: “We’re not bailing. We’re sticking with this.”

A second thing I just want to say here—if you want a great way to invest in your marriage, we’re going to have 85 Weekend to Remember marriage getaways this year, all over the country.


It’s a weekend getaway—Friday night, Saturday, Sunday—and it’s a great way to pull out of the mainstream of life / the busyness and park your marriage under some great—fun / entertaining—but great teaching from the Scriptures, and then go through projects that help you apply it, privately, in your own marriage—so that you experience what you’ve learned, right on the spot. You leave the conference with help and with hope. I think people are looking for that, who want to get well.

Bob: Well, as I mentioned earlier, right now, there’s a great opportunity for folks to attend one of the getaways and save some money; because when you pay the regular rate for yourself, your spouse comes free. That offer is good this week for FamilyLife Today listeners.


You have to go to our website and register—or call to register—in order to take advantage of this special offer. It’s good through this weekend. If you’d like to join us at an upcoming getaway—and we’re going to be hosting them in cities all across the country this spring—go to / get more information. Call us if you have any questions—1-800-FL-TODAY—and then plan to join us at an upcoming getaway.

I’m going to be speaking in Branson this spring—looking forward to being there the first weekend in April. But if you live in Florida, or Washington State—live in the northeast or the southwest—wherever you live, there’s a getaway near you. If it’s been awhile since you’ve done something to strengthen and build your marriage, now’s the time to join us at a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. Again, go, online, to register at; or call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word  “TODAY.”


Now, tomorrow, we have a couple who are going to be joining us. She describes herself as a fierce woman / that’s her word, not mine—her name is Kim Wagner. She and her husband LeRoy are going to be here tomorrow. LeRoy’s going to talk about what you do if you’re a husband married to a fierce woman. So I hope you can tune in for our conversation with the Wagners tomorrow.

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 tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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