FamilyLife Today®

Making a Marriage Work

with Kathy Keller, Tim Keller | January 18, 2012
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What does it take to make a marriage really work? Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, dives into the tricky areas of marital communication, conflict resolution and forgiveness.

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  • What does it take to make a marriage really work? Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, dives into the tricky areas of marital communication, conflict resolution and forgiveness.

What does it take to make a marriage really work?

Making a Marriage Work

With Kathy Keller, Tim Keller
January 18, 2012
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Bob:  Have you ever gotten into a marital disagreement and been so deep in the disagreement that you forgot exactly what you were disagreeing about?  That’s happened to Tim and Kathy Keller.

Kathy:  Tim and I were masters at this.  We’d begin discussing a problem and end, exhausted, hours later, me weeping.  Tim shut down emotionally because he had no idea what to do—not discussing the initial problem but fighting about the way we were fighting.

“You took such a dismissive tone to me.”

“You obviously would rather not think about this.”

The original issue was way lost, and everything else was what had happened in the intervening hours.  Rather than focusing the energy on resolving the problem, we used all of our energy on each other.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, January 18th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  How do we learn to resolve conflict in a way that we can focus on the issue and get it resolved?  We’ll get some counsel today from Tim and Kathy Keller.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition.  I sometimes think marriage would be a whole lot easier if we just didn’t talk to each other because then we wouldn’t mess up our communication, but that probably wouldn’t work either; do you think?


Dennis:  No.  No, it really wouldn’t.  Isn’t it interesting that we receive so little training for such an important relationship in life?  There are two relationships in life that we’re not naturally good at—well, actually three:  our relationship with God, our spouse, and our children.

Frankly, I think that’s why FamilyLife exists—to help you in all three of those relationships.  It’s why we’ve been hosting the Weekend to Remember®marriage getaway since 1976.

Bob:  Right.  We’re about to kick off our spring season of getaways, and they’re going to be hosted in three or four dozen cities all across the country this spring.  We thought we’d come to FamilyLife Today listeners this week and, as an additional incentive to get you to go ahead and make your plans and be at one of these getaways, we thought, “If you’ll sign up this week—go online, find out when the conference is going to be in a location that you’d like to go to or a location near you, and go ahead and register.

“If you’ll do that this week and identify yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener, you’ll get a half-price registration.  You buy one registration at regular price; the second one comes free.  You and your spouse get to attend for half price.  Or you can pay the regular price and bring another couple with you for free—however you want to do it.”

We’re making this offer just this week; and you have to identify yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener, which means if you’re registering online you have to type my name—you have to type “BOB” into the promo code box on the registration form; or, if you call 1-800-FL-TODAY to register, just say, “I listen to FamilyLife Today, and I heard about the special offer,” and you will qualify for it.

So give us a call or go online and plan to join us at one of these Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.  One of the things you’ll hear about at the Weekend to Remember is effective communication.  We’re going to hear a little about that today from Tim Keller.

Dennis:  We are.  Tim and Kathy Keller gave a message at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, where Tim has been the pastor since, I think, all the way back to 1989.  He has authored a number of books.  This most recent book is called The Meaning of Marriage. 

I’ve been enjoying listening to the message that he and Kathy gave one Sunday night at their church because I think it speaks really to the heart of the wisdom we need today to make the commitment to our marriage so we can finish the race tomorrow. 


Bob:  Well, let’s listen together.  Here is Pastor Tim Keller, along with his wife Kathy.

Tim:  [Recorded message]  Now, first of all, let me give you four basic proverbs, I guess, about communication in marriage.  I’m trying to be as pithy as I possibly can.  First, you have to—even though communication is so rapid-fire—you have to learn the discipline of asking yourself, “What is the goal of this message I’m about to send?”  You have to ask, “What is my motive?  I’m about to say something to my spouse that may be confrontive or, maybe, critical.  Why?”

It’s really hard to do.  It’s really hard to slow your responses down and really ask yourself, “Why am I sending this message?”  But it’s critical—number one.

Number two:  The log out of your own eye—that basic biblical idea.  Before you take the speck out of your spouse’s eye, remove the log from your own eye.  I can’t tell you how important that has been to us over the years.  Never start with, “Here’s what you’ve done,” and then later on, I get to what I’ve done.  “Here’s what I’ve done.”  Start pointing to yourself—absolutely crucial.  Start every conversation like that, certainly every one where you’re talking about a difference of opinion.  Start that way.  That’s the second.

Third:  Attack the problem, not the person.  This is an incredible discipline.  Let’s just say the wife finds that the husband has forgotten a birthday or an anniversary or some—again.  Now there’s two ways you can go about it.  She can say, “You’re so thoughtless,” or she can say, “You repeatedly forget these special dates, even though you continually tell me you’re not going to.  What are we going to do about it?”

See the first is attacking the person, “You’re so thoughtless.”  The second is saying, “We’ve got a problem.  What are we going to do about it?”  So actually consider this—the next time you have a problem with your spouse, consider this template.  Start like this:

“As I see it, you’re doing this.  It’s affecting me like this.  I wish you would do this instead, but I need to find out whether I’m missing something.  Tell me, do I have this right or not?”  If you are able to talk like that—ask for those four things when you’ve got a problem.  If you’re able to slow your responses enough to put your problem in that shape, then you’re attacking the problem, not the person; and you’ll make some progress.

Fourth, and I really needed to learn this:  You have to make it safe for your spouse to criticize.  You have to create a safe environment.  Now, surprisingly, there might be some interesting ways that you may use to make it unsafe.  We all know that if your spouse comes and criticizes you and you just blow up, or you attack back, that’s not making it safe for the person to say, “I’ve got a problem.”

But in my case, what I do is, I apologize really quickly.  See, it’s very spiritual.  If Kathy comes and tries to say something to me, “I’ve really got a problem with you here,”—“Oh, I’m so sorry.  I’m so wrong.”  I get, “Oh, I—Ohh!”  Kathy starts to say, “Forget it,” (Laughter) which is exactly what I want in my heart of hearts.  You see, because by being so spiritual, by apologizing so abjectly, I’ve made it impossible for her—it’s unsafe for her to say, “I’m really unhappy with you.”  Now, it’s not legitimate because, “The poor guy is a massive, smoking wreckage.  I have to back away.”

There are all sorts of ways—by apologizing too much, explaining too much, attacking back and arguing too much.  When your spouse comes to criticize you, the most important thing you can do is to slow your responses down and give your spouse permission to keep on talking.  Your first response ought to be,“I didn’t realize that. I didn’t understand that.  Would you please tell me more?” 

So there are the four things.  Do this and you will live—important safety tip.  Okay. (Laughter) 

Let’s talk about SEX—just wanted to say that into a microphone really loud.  (Laughter)  Okay, Kathy and I are both going to say something about this; so let’s talk practically.  Number one, according to the Bible, sex is really good and, in marriage, needs to be frequent.  Proverbs Chapter 5 says a husband should be ravished with his wife’s breasts.  Right there, in the Bible, it says that.  (Laughter)

First Corinthians 7 talks about the fact that sex should be frequent; it should be reciprocal.  You should not forbid sex to one another; you mustn’t bargain with sex.  You mustn’t say, “Sorry, I’m not interested.”  It’s very, very important.  That’s number one.

Number two:  The biggest pleasure and the only lasting pleasure is giving pleasure.  That is, when you get to the place where giving arousal is the most arousing thing, you’re home free. 

Now Kathy will say something about this, because the third principle here is—this solves the frequency problem.   When one person wants it more often than the other—if your main purpose in sex is ministry—if the main purpose in sex is giving pleasure, not getting pleasure, then the person who doesn’t have as much of a sex drive physically can give to the other person as a gift.  Kathy has a very funny way of saying that, and she will tell you in a minute.

Number four:  A big part of sexual adjustment, as surely most of you know, is the male/female differences.  In our case, and I imagine it’s true in your case, one of the big problems that we had was, as a man, context means nothing!  To me, it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter what else is going on.  What that meant was I knew very little about creating context.  “Context?  What is context?  What are you talking about?  Oh, you mean candles or something?”  (Laughter)

And, of course, she didn’t mean candles or something.  She just meant warmth and things like that.  So that’s the reason why you need to be very, very patient.  I would say that it took years, and years, and years, and years for us to be really, really good at sexually satisfying one another—years.  Be patient.

Fifth:  Sex is such a sensitive area, that you may find problems showing up in bed that, if it wasn’t for sex, you could probably ignore—guilt over the past; real fear of having children, for example, or having more children; relational problems that would be fairly under the surface and you could probably move ahead without—in most other relationships, you could move ahead without really having to deal with them.  But those little things—unless your relationship is really good, unless your conscience is really good, unless you’re doing spiritually really well—sex doesn’t work. 

In other words, what happens in bed is extremely sensitive to everything else going on in your life physically, and socially, and spiritually, and psychologically.  If you find that your sex life is in trouble, it may be that you need counseling.  That is to say, you may need to go to a counselor and sit down and say, “What is going on?  Is there some fear?  Is there some problem with the past?  Is there something else that’s making it almost impossible for us to really meet sexually?”  So consider—if all the patience, and all the books on sex in marriage you read, and all the stuff you talk to other people about, and still something is not working, it could be there’s some deeper problem you need to go to a counselor for.

One last thing:  Pornography.  You know what is really seductive about pornography?  I guess I have to say it’s mainly for men, here, but what’s really seductive about pornography is—you get pleasure and you don’t have to do the context stuff.  You don’t have to do the relational stuff.  You get pleasure and you don’t have to do all the incredible hard gardening, the work of having a good relationship.

See, sex with your absolutely best friend—there’s nothing like it.  An awful lot of men, I think—especially when there are other problems going on in the marriage, and there’s a certain coolness in the marriage, or you’re very, very busy—very often, what will happen, I think, is that men are going to go to porn as a way of relief; and their wives don’t know about it.  Because of that, the problems that are happening in the marriage are masked. 

Wow!  I see some of you have smoke coming out of your ears as you’re thinking about this.  Kathy is going to say a couple of things about sex for the long-run.

Kathy:  I was asked to particularly address the issue of sex after children.  “Is there such a thing?”  Actually, it deserves special mention because that’s often when problems arise.  Some of you—I know some of you well enough that you’ve heard me pontificate to couples who are expecting their first child that, “You really don’t know how difficult marriage is until after the first child arrives.  Until then, you’re just on a really long date.”

The reason that sex changes after children is because everything changes after children.  Until we had our first child, Tim and I had thought alike about everything.  We had met as students, attended the same classes, worked on the same assignments; and suddenly David was born, and we had very different responses to the same thing—sex being one of them.

There are a lot of reasons for that.  One of them is just plain physical.  There is exhaustion, there’s no sleep, there’s anxiety.  They all keep a woman’s interest in sex at a very low ebb.  Also, there’s a healing period that goes on where stuff hurts.  Some couples could be experiencing anger after the child is born because you perceive your spouse isn’t fulfilling their end of the responsibilities that you expect.  You’re thinking like your family of origin again and expecting from your husband or your wife what you saw in your parents.

On the husband’s part, there may be some level of discomfort with your wife as a sexual partner, now that you’ve seen her give birth.  Her breasts are meaningful in a totally different way to a totally different person—a baby—than what they were to you.  That may be an image that’s hard to put out of your mind.  Plus, if your wife nurses for a year or more, the breast remains a functional organ rather than an ornamental plaything; and that can be disconcerting for both the husband and the wife.  (Laughter)

Another thing is, my friend Adele—(Burst of laughter.)  You can laugh.  My friend, Adele, was one of my friends from seminary; and we kept in touch over the last 30 years.  When we all had young children, one of the things she pointed out was a very subtle but important change she found—and when she said this, I understood it immediately—that her “skin hunger” was being met with the baby and not with her husband. 

That means that the need to hug, to touch, to cuddle is a big motivator for sex; but the woman who is tending to have more bodily contact with a child by holding it, and bathing it, and feeding it, etc., is full up as far as touch needs—and her husband is full-down empty and still is very interested in sexual or in any kind of touching with his wife.  Whereas, the wife is, “Been there, had that; I’m full” with the baby.

Another issue for the couple is spontaneity versus planning.  You have to plan to have sex after you have children—during a nap, during a play date where the child is elsewhere, during school hours, you know—times when you’re not going to be interrupted or insecure.  Even a lock on the door doesn’t really help if you know that somebody can be pounding on the other side.  (Laughter)

Sometimes the solution is to recognize that this is just a temporary season.  There is a book out there—I forget the title, but I remembered this illustration because it was memorable.  It talked about three different kinds of sex:  appetizer sex, which is the quickie kind; main-course sex, which is your meat-and-potatoes kind of regular, normal sexual relationship; and gourmet sex, which is the long, romantic evening with all the foreplay, etc.

My mother, who had five children, invented her own category.  She made sure that all four of her daughters understood the importance of using it sometimes.  She called it the, “I’m too tired to participate; but I love you, so please just go ahead and jump my bones.”  (Laughter)  She told us this.  She really did.

This is a legitimate act of love.  Tim was telling you I was going to talk about this, and here it is.  This is a legitimate act of love; and it shouldn’t be denigrated as, “Oh no, no.  Unless you’re going to be all passionate and everything, I don’t want to do anything.”  Sometimes you’re just too tired, but you still love your husband.

A fundamental rule of marriage is that you must always remember that time marches on.  Another way to put it is you don’t marry one woman or one man—but many.  Time, children, illness, age—all create changes that demand creative, honest responses to rebuild something that might have been effortless at an earlier time.  Sex after children is one of them.

If you don’t confront and adapt to these changes, they’ll seep into your sex life together and lead to coldness, anger, and disappointment.  Rather than being the commitment glue that holds you together, they can become a force to divide you.  Conversely—and Tim already talked about this.  I didn’t know he was going to, but I’ll say it anyway—problems elsewhere in the marriage will end up in bed with you.

Think for a minute of all the baggage you carry around, unresolved, as real baggage—suitcases, trunks, garment bags.  Now, imagine trying to make love in a bed piled high with all those things.  It would be uncomfortable, if not impossible.

Tim:  Summary.  There are other things, obviously, we could say; and maybe you can ask questions, and we’ll get to it. 

If your spouse is the ultimate source of happiness, security, and worth in your life, then you’re just going to freak out when the other person is not giving you what you want; and you’re going to give up on the relationship too quickly.  You have to have a real experience of the spousal love of Jesus Christ.  This sounds very paradoxical.  Jesus has to push your spouse out of the center of your significance and security if you’re going to really have a great marriage.  Jesus has to demote your spouse.  Your spouse cannot be the main reason why you feel any kind of sense of worth and happiness. 

Otherwise, when your spouse is having a problem, you’ll just be paralyzed.  When your spouse is not giving you what you need, you’re just going to freak out and give up.  That’s the reason why ultimately, in the end, service—I’m going to go back to what I said in the very beginning.  I am committed long-term to my spouse—to make her the beautiful person I see God is making her.  If that means laying myself out for her, even when she’s not being to me what I want her to be, so what?  That’s what Jesus did. 

C.S. Lewis puts it really well, like this.  He says, “Being in love is a good thing, but it’s not the main thing.  Love, as distinct from being in love, is not merely a feeling.  It’s a deep unity, maintained by the will, and deliberately strengthened by habit, reinforced in Christian marriages by the grace of Jesus Christ.  A husband and wife can have this love for each other even in moments when they do not like each other.  It is on this love that the engine of a marriage is run.  Being in love was the explosion or the ignition that started the engine going.”

Bob:  [Studio]  We’ve been listening to Pastor Tim Keller, along with his wife Kathy, talking about marriage.  I’ve had a few of those moments, where we were loving one another even when we didn’t like each other.

Dennis:  Yes.  If you want a marriage to go the distance, you have to know how to exhibit forgiveness.  You have to restore trust, you have to exhibit humility, and you have to be one who knows how to be a grace-filled person, but also receive grace when needed from your spouse.

Bob, it’s one of the reasons why I love to see couples come to the Weekend to Remember because it trains people in knowing, first of all, how to be rightly related to God through Jesus Christ, and then how to maintain a right relationship with your spouse through Jesus Christ, making Him the builder of your home.

Most of us can quote the passage over in Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it,” but most of us don’t know what God’s blueprints are to be able to build that house.   Well, what I’d invite you to do is come and spend a weekend with us at the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, get those blueprints, and begin building, according to the Master’s blueprints, that he designed in the first place, to help us be successful.

Bob:  This week we are offering our listeners a special opportunity to attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriagegetaway.  If you sign up before the end of the week, when you sign up and identify yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener, you can attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway—you pay regular price for one registration, and the second registration is free. 

Go online at, click on the link that says, “Weekend to Remember”, look around and find when the getaway is going to be happening either in a city near where you live or, if you want to travel, find a nice location where you can get away for a weekend, the two of you, and go enjoy a nice weekend away.  Then once you’re ready to sign up, sign up online and just make sure, as you fill out the online registration form, you type the word, “BOB” in the promo code box that you find on the registration form.  That way, we’ll know you’re a FamilyLife Today listener; and you will qualify for the buy one, get one free registration offer that is this week only—and it’s only for FamilyLife Today listeners. 

Now, if it’s easier to call, call 1-800-FL-TODAY, I-800-358-6329, and just remind them that you heard about the special offer on FamilyLife Today; and you’ll qualify for the special offer for listeners.  Register at the regular price for yourself, and your spouse comes free.  Again, our toll-free number is:  1-800-FL-TODAY; or go online at for more information. 

And when you’re online, check out the information about Tim and Kathy Keller’s great new book called The Meaning of Marriage.  We have it in our FamilyLifeToday Resource Center.  It’s a terrific book; we’d love to send you a copy.  Again, our website is; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information.

And then, there’s something else we’d like you to keep in mind.  You know, there are a lot of U.S. servicemen and women who are returning home after being overseas for many months.  They’re coming back to their marriages and their families, and this can be a difficult adjustment period for a lot of these military couples.  It’s a high-risk occupation for marriage relationships.  So we would like to see thousands of military couples attending a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway this spring. 

We’re asking you if you would help make that happen.  We’ve established the “Finally Home to Family”scholarship fund.  If you go to and make a donation, you can help provide the registration costs for a military couple to attend one of our upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.  Again, make your donation to the “Finally Home to Family” scholarship fund when you go online at 

Or you can text your donation.  Text the word, “HOME”, to the number 28950; and we will send back instructions on how to make a donation via text message.  Again, text the word, “HOME”, to the number 28950.  On behalf of these servicemen and women who will come as our guests to a Weekend to Remember this spring, I want to say, “Thanks,” to you for helping to make that happen.

Now, we want to encourage you to be back with us again tomorrow.  Kay Arthur is going to be here, and we’re going to talk about how you can have a marriage with no regrets.  I hope you can be here for that.

I want to thank our engineer today—his name is Keith Lynch—and 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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