FamilyLife Today®

My Marriage, My Way? Debra Fileta

with Debra Fileta | January 19, 2024
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Do we really need that many pillows on the bed? Are we both doing the same amount of chores? Is there room for compromise? Author Debra Fileta provides a fresh perspective in the struggle, highlighting how the 'me, myself, and I' mindset even in small things like pillows, can harm a marriage. She advocates that shifting from selfish ambition to prioritizing your spouse can have a positive impact on your relationship.

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  • About the Guest

Author Debra Fileta provides a fresh perspective in the struggle for compromise—and how the ‘me, myself, and I’ mindset can harm your marriage.

My Marriage, My Way? Debra Fileta

With Debra Fileta
|
January 19, 2024
| Download Transcript PDF

Dave: So, after 41 years of marriage,—

Ann: —yes.

Dave: —which has been awesome,—

Ann: —okay, yes.

Dave: —what would you say is different about me from maybe the beginning?

Ann: Oh, that’s a good question.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.

Dave: This is FamilyLife Today.

Dave: What would you say is different about me from maybe the beginning?

Ann: You are way more others-centered than self-centered.

Dave: Really?!

Ann: Oh, yes. What did you think I was going to say?

Dave: I had no idea. I just wanted to know what you were thinking.

Ann: Okay, what would you say? That’s kind of scary.

Dave: No, I think we’ve talked about this many times. You are so affirming; you believe in me. I feel so believed in. That is one of the greatest gifts anyone could ever give.

Ann: I feel like you believe in me way more than I believe in myself, and that’s a great place to be. [Laughter]

Dave: I’m laughing because we have, sitting across the table in our studio, a therapist, who is probably analyzing us right now, like, “Oh boy! I can see all their childhood wounds coming out.”

Ann: I’m glad she didn’t see us back in the day, hon. Let’s just say that.

Dave: Yes. We’ve got Debra Fileta with us. She is a therapist, an author, and a mom of four kids. I mean, your first book was really about dating, right? But—

Debra: —yes—

Ann: True Love Dates.

Debra: —a book about dating. Yes, True Love Dates.

Dave:True Love Dates; but you’ve moved on to write about marriage. We’re also going to talk about some other stuff, in terms of psychology, that you wrote.

We want, first of all, to say, “Thanks for being here. It’s great to have you and your husband John in town.”

Debra: I thought, for sure, Ann was going to say the haircut. [Laughter]

Ann: Oh! Why didn’t I say that?!

Dave: It’s the haircut.

Debra: Right, about you.

Dave: You know, you mentioned—

Debra: —or did you have the same haircut? I guess I wouldn’t know.

Dave: —I thought you mentioned something about sarcasm earlier; how it is hurtful. [Laughter]

Debra: I thought I was being just honest, but—

Ann: I would say that was pretty honest, and that is a big change for sure.

Dave: I think it is funny. There was a day when that bothered me, and now, it’s just like, “I love being a bald man.”

Debra: “Low maintenance.”

Ann: That’s right.

Dave: “Nothing to do.”

Ann: “No shampoo budget.”

Dave: None. Yes, to shave in the shower.

Debra: Well, you both look great. Let me just affirm that.

Ann: You’re so sweet.

Dave: Well, your book, Choosing Marriage—let’s talk about this subtitle.

Debra: Yes.

Dave: We’ve already talked about many things: the walls that we bring in—if you missed our previous conversation, you’ve got to go listen to it—the subtitle is, Why It Has to Start with We > [is Greater than] Me. I’m guessing that has something—I know I’ve read the book, talking about going from pride to humility or the selfish problem in our marriages.

Debra: Yes.

Dave: Help us out with this.

Debra: Yes. We > Me. I think that is the formula for a healthy marriage. When you think of marriage—I think, oftentimes, we look at it like a competition, you know? “Who’s doing more around the house?” “Who has the most power in the relationship?” There can be this competition rather than seeing us as truly one.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: When we are truly one, it’s a “we” thing. Now, I am beginning to lose myself, but in the best way possible.

When John and I met—you guys didn’t hear this story at lunch—I used to go by Debbie; everyone called me Debbie. When John and I met, he literally just started calling me Deb, without even asking my permission. It was kind of funny, because at first, it threw me off. I’m like, “I don’t like the word, ‘Deb.’ Debs are serious, and Debbies are fun. Debs are boring.”

Ann: Yes. [Laughter]

Debra: But he just started calling me Deb, and it stuck. Now, 14 years into marriage, you can tell how someone knows me by what they call me. If they call me Debbie, it’s the pre-John era—

Ann: —oh!

Debra: —my parents, my cousins, my high school friends. If they call me Deb, it’s the post-John era, right? If they call me Debra, it is work-related.

Dave: There you go.

Debra: But I use that story because, in a way, I lost part of myself when I got married. My name shifted—even something as small as that—but in the best of ways, because in marriage, God calls us to lose our self, our selfishness; all of the things He didn’t call us to be. Not our personality, and not our hobbies and interests, and our calling—but all of the things that God didn’t intend for us to carry, those sins and struggles. We come to the table of marriage to be sharpened, to be changed, to grow, to mature.

Ann: That is so interesting, because I’m thinking about when I was a young mom, with three boys under five. I would continually say: “I have no life anymore,” “I have no life anymore.” And then, as my kids got older and I got older, I changed that, like, “That was such a wrong way to see it.” My life did change! Everything about it changed, but there was beauty in that change. I saw it as: “Oh, I can’t do this anymore,” “I don’t have time to do that anymore.” Yet, there is this beauty to that.

I think marriage can be the same way. It is different. It’s no longer me; it is we, and you are saying there is a real beauty in that.

Debra: There is, and it is something that is so unnatural because, as a single person, your whole life is dedicated to self.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: You are thinking about yourself: “What are you going to eat?” “Where are you going to go?” Your schedule, your budget; it is just about you. And all of a sudden, you have to share everything, from the remote, to the fridge, to the bed. I mean, someone told me before I got married, “Invest in a king-sized bed.” I was like, “What kind of marriage advice is that?!” [Laughter] She was right, you know? Everything.

There is so much that you have to learn to overlook with regards to the minors so that you can reserve your energy and power for the majors, the things that really matter. Not everything can be a big issue. I actually think of our—what I would call our bathroom drama; let me talk to you a little bit about selfishness when it comes to just something as simple as how we get ready. John’s side of the sink looks pristine—

Ann: —Dave’s too!

Debra: —as if we just moved in.

Ann: There is nothing even on the counters.

Debra: Nothing. My side is a little bit chaotic, but I know where everything is, you know? Then the toilet paper roll—these little, tiny things that start bugging you—he is the king of leaving one square left on the roll. [Laughter]

Ann: —or when they’ve used the toilet paper, there is just the cardboard.

Debra: —or the cardboard.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: So, I’ll go replace it.

Dave: I’ve never done that by the way. Okay, go ahead.

Debra: I’ll replace it, but I’m just like, “I’m not going to put it on.” So, I just prop it on there.

Ann: Come on!

Debra: We’re both annoying in different ways.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: I think that’s the stuff that begins to come to the surface.

Dave: I mean, it becomes, really—as you’ve written about, and you know—a big deal. You don’t foresee how selfish you really are until you get married.

Debra: Those little things.

Dave: I remember Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, says three things happen to every married couple: first, they realize their spouse is selfish; then they realize, “I’m selfish, too.” But third: “I’m nowhere near as selfish as they are.” [Laughter] It’s really true.

I’ll tell this really quickly: I was invited, years ago, to play in this charity golf outing by a fellow; a friend of mine on the Detroit Lions. Long story short: each foursome gets a celebrity. They pay $1,000, and they get a celebrity. They don’t know who the celebrity is going to be.

I was invited to play as a celebrity because of my buddy. I said, “Dude, you know I’m not a celebrity.” He says, “I know, but you’re not going to pay; so, it’s free for you.” I get there; I walk up to this foursome; I introduce myself. They look at me like, “Why did you introduce yourself?” I said, “Oh, I’m your celebrity.” They look—Magic Johnson just walked behind—[Laughter]

Debra: —no!

Dave: —“Why don’t I get him? I get you?” And then the guys say—there were two guys and two women—and then they said to me, “Who are you? We don’t know your name! Why are you a celebrity?” I didn’t want to tell them, “I’m a pastor and a chaplain of the team.” That would freak them out. So, I said, “I’m a friend of Drew Stanton, the guy who’s running the thing.” They said, “Yes, but you must have some other reason that you’re a celebrity.” Finally, I said, “Well, I’m the chaplain of the Detroit Lions.” This guy looks at me and says, “Uh, great! That means we can’t drink, and we can’t curse, because you’re a pastor.” I said, “Well, it gets better. I’m a bad golfer, too. So, let’s go!”

Anyway, long story short, we get to the eighth or ninth hole, standing on the green, getting ready to putt—and this wife walks from the other cart up to me, and she says, “So, I hear you’re a marriage expert. They say you’re a writer of marriage…”—blah, blah, blah. She says, “I’ve got a marriage question.” I say, “Okay.” This is classic. I could never have scripted this! She says, “I’m on my second marriage. What’s the problem with marriage?” [Laughter] That’s what she says!

We’re on a green, and she’s looking at me like, “You’ve got 30 seconds: ‘What’s the problem with marriage?’” I say, “Oh, I can answer that in one word: selfishness.” She looks at me, and she goes, “You are so right! My first husband was the most selfish man ever.”

Debra: Oh, man.

Dave: I mean, it was classic. I look back at her, and I say, “I’m not talking about your first husband. I’m talking about you; I’m talking about me.” I could tell on her face; she’s like, “You’re right.” There’s a problem there called [selfishness].

Your whole book is about: “That’s at the root of this thing.” So, how do we deal with our own selfishness? We want to deal with our spouse’s, but we really need to deal with our own. How do we move from pride to humility?

Debra: Well, I think it’s important to, first and foremost, recognize our selfishness. When we’re oblivious to it, we have no hope. To really do an assessment between us and the Lord: “God, just open my eyes. What are the areas that I am holding onto self, elevating self?”

Then something else, too, that I really think helps is just changing my mentality and seeing the ways that God has forgiven me and what God has done for me. It kind of begins to change my heart to extend that same grace to my spouse. I do believe it starts with the little things in marriage.

In the surveys I did—I surveyed over 1,000 singles and 1,000 married couples to get some data for this book—it was really interesting, because the majority of married couples said it’s not the big things that they feel are destroying their marriage—like addictions and pornography, not that those aren’t an issue—but what is actually affecting their marriages, day in and day out, is these little things—these little lifestyle selfishness-type things; the tension that begins to build.


Think about it: most of these arguments that we have are about these little things. If we don’t learn to extend grace, to communicate in a healthy way; if we don’t learn to build those muscles with the little things, when the big things come, we’re not going to be able to handle them. It really does start with learning what it looks like to be selfless in the little things.

But I will add, I think a lot of Christians are walking around believing that they are being selfless, when they are actually being passive. That’s something I think is really important to differentiate.

Ann: Yes, talk about that.

Dave: Talk about that. That’s interesting.

Debra: Passivity is when you’re not communicating your needs. Passivity is when you don’t know how to say, “No,” and you are just doing things out of guilt. Passivity is when you don’t want to rock the boat and cause conflict, so you’d rather just not talk about something. That ends up destroying your marriage, because you cannot be passive and not expect that there is some root of bitterness that starts to take hold of your heart and life.

Maybe, you’re not actively saying it—you’re being quiet, and you’re letting your spouse kind of lead, and you’re not saying what you need—but deep down, the root of bitterness and resentment begins to kind of creep into your heart. You can only be passive for so long until it is going to come out in some conflict, or argument, or rage. I think we have to really be cautious and say, “Selflessness is thinking of others first, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t communicate what I need. That doesn’t mean that I pretend that I’m fine when, really, I’m not.” That actually ends up causing more damage to the relationship than good.

Ann: I think I did that a lot in our younger years, when we were first married, because I thought, “I’m not going to bring it up, because it’s not that big of a deal,” and “I want to be this good, Christian wife.” I found myself stewing about things. When I would go back and think about—“What was I thinking about?”—I was constantly complaining about Dave over little things, as you said, Debra, like: “He never puts his dishes in the dishwasher,” or “Why isn’t he praying with the kids?” or “Why is he gone again tonight?” I didn’t say anything, but man, I would keep thinking about it.

Then I would kind of pat myself on the back: “I do this,” and “I do way more than he does.” I think that is typical in a lot of marriages.  But then, what would happen because I didn’t say anything, [was] I would just blow up at one time.

Debra: Right.

Ann: Dave’s thinking, “What is happening?! Where did this come from?”

Debra: “Where did this come from?” Right.

Ann: Is that kind of typical?

Debra: Absolutely. If you really get to the root, the question is,, “Why am I not communicating what I need?” Maybe you don’t know how to put it into words; maybe you don’t think it is serious enough; maybe you’ve grown up just kind of stuffing your needs or not feeling like they are important. The question is: “Why?

Ann: Yes.


Debra: “What makes me passive?” Because when you get to the why, then you can begin to resolve things. It’s so important to be able to feel that you can share with your spouse what you need.

Ann: Talk to a listener that maybe has done that. They are listening and thinking, “That is exactly what I have done over the years.” What’s our next step? How do you take that step into that conversation?

Debra: First, it starts with learning to identify your needs. I think sometimes we stuff those needs for so long that it turns into criticism.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: “My spouse isn’t helping with the dishes,” “He doesn’t do anything around the house.”

The question is: “What do I need?” The answer: “You know, I’m feeling burned out. I’m feeling exhausted. I need some help. I need support. I need to feel like you’re a teammate.” When you can figure out what you need, it begins to become about you rather than about your spouse. That’s how we want to approach the conversation.

You don’t want to go up and say, “Dave, you’re just so lazy! I do everything around here! You’re not helping.” But more of, “Dave, I’m feeling burned out. I’m feeling exhausted. It would mean so much to me if…” Because now it’s about me. I’m not attacking him; now, it’s about me, and what I need, and what I feel, versus him and what he’s not doing.

That totally changes the dynamic of the conversation. You can still have a positive conversation and share your needs. I think, sometimes, people think that sharing what they need and being honest is always going to lead to conflict.


Ann: Yes.

Debra: But that’s not the truth.


Dave: I think sometimes, maybe, as a Christ-follower, you don’t want to share what you need because it feels selfish: “It’s not about me. It’s about laying down my life for you. I’m not going to bring up my needs because then it’s about me.” But you’re saying that could be a positive way to actually serve your spouse, by saying, “This is what I need,” right?

Debra: Absolutely.

Ann: Okay, I have to give her this example; as a therapist, I’m going to ask Deb, like, “Okay, what would you do with this?”

Dave: I have no idea where you are going. This could be scary.

Ann: We’ve shared this before; but when our kids were little, I was having a day that I felt overwhelmed. I was sitting at the kitchen table crying. I say to Dave, “I am the worst mom. I feel like I’m failing. I can’t keep our lives together.” This is what he says: “I’m going to be right back.”

Dave: Okay, this is a really bad illustration of what—okay, I was very young and didn’t know what I was doing.

Ann: I know! You would never do this today.

Dave: Never!

Ann: He goes upstairs. He comes down with a 3 x 5 piece of paper. I thought, “He wrote me an encouraging note, encouraging me as a mom and a wife, like, ‘You’re doing a great job, honey.’”

Dave: That’s what she thought I wrote.

Ann: He handed me this paper, and it was numbered 1 to 10. I look at him, like, “You are the sweetest.”

“Get more organized.” [Laughter] “Number 2”—I’m thinking, “Wait. This has to get better,”—“Use your time more wisely.” [Laughter]

Dave: Okay, that’s enough.

Ann: I took it, and I ripped it up, and I threw it in his face.

Dave: She threw it right in my face.

Ann: I’m trying to be vulnerable and not withdraw. As a therapist—

Debra: —yes?

Ann: —in your office, what would you say when your spouse doesn’t respond in the way you were hoping?

Debra: Here is what I would say: “Dave, I’m proud of you that you tried to meet your wife where she was at. Your heart was in the right place. Now, I need you to spend some time listening to Ann to figure out what actually works for her, because what works for you is a list of things we need to change, but that’s not what works for her.”

“Ann, you’ve got to get better at telling Dave, in those moments, what you need, because he can’t read your mind. He’s a completely different person. He doesn’t know what you need in those moments unless you tell him.”

Ann: And that really was our conversation. This was a breaking point for us in terms of, it took us to a better place.

Dave: Actually, when she did rip it up, and throw it, I said, “What do you need?”

Debra: “What do you need?”

Dave: “Help me understand.” And she told me.

Debra: Ann, here is where you went wrong. You shared your feelings, and you stopped there. So, I want you to share your feelings as well as what you need.

Ann: Oh, that’s really good.

Debra: There are two parts to it: “Here is how I feel,”—maybe he doesn’t know what to do with those feelings. “Do you want me to”—

Ann: —which is typical for us.

Debra: —“pat you on the back?” “Do you want me to jump up and down?” “Do you want me to cry?”

But when you tell me, “This is what I feel, and this is what I need…,” then I have a roadmap.

Ann: Now, go one step further, because I’m thinking of all the women that I talk to. They’ll say, “I did that. I said, ‘This is what I need.’”

And I did tell Dave, “I need you to sit in it with me.”

Dave: And now I do; I just sit.

Ann: He does; but I’ve heard some women say, “So, then I told him, ‘This is what I need from you.’ But my husband has not done anything since I told him that, and I was super vulnerable.” And then that bitterness has started.

Debra: Sure.

Ann: So, how would you counsel them?

Debra: I would look at it as, marriage is not a once-and-done conversation. This is a process, and we are being molded and shaped with each conversation. This is a work in progress, so we keep sharing what we need; we keep giving clues; we keep connecting with one another; we keep seeing what the other person needs; we keep making deposits before we make withdrawals. We keep seeing our role because that’s the only thing we have control over.

Ann: That’s good.

Debra: And then, we trust God with what we can’t control. So, this isn’t a once-and-done thing. It takes you so many years to get to this place of dysfunctional interactions; you can’t expect them to go away overnight. It takes years of unlearning, and relearning, and learning what the other person needs and having conversations.


There’s even a roadmap called The Speaker-Listener Technique, which you might have heard about before; it’s from the Gottman Institute. I kind of give you a layout of: “What does it look like to even begin to have a conversation about what you need and what you are feeling?” because some people don’t even know where to start.

Dave: Yes, I didn’t.

Debra: So, when you begin learning these things, give yourself grace; give your spouse grace. This isn’t an overnight thing. Training for marriage—just like training for a marathon, just like training for medical school—takes a significant amount of time and energy, and effort, and work. When you begin to do those things, it’s going to start moving in the right direction.

Dave: And as you say, in Choosing Marriage, “It’s choice after choice, and a lot of them are little.” I know for me, when Ann told me that—this was decades ago—here is what happened: I began to understand, “Oh, this is what she needs.” But here is the trick: when I would be in other situations, and I would know what she needed, I would still feel this selfishness in me, like, “I don’t want to do it.” And that’s where I would be like, “Jesus, change me. I can’t do it. I don’t have the power within me to serve her right now. I know what serving her looks like. She has told me. I don’t want to.”

It’s like that’s where the power of the gospel, I think, meets us and says, “I’ll give you that power right now.” Little choices like that, piled on top of each other, you have a whole different marriage.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: You just start one choice at a time to say, “Jesus, I surrender. Give me the power to be the man (or the woman) You want me to be,” and then walk into that.

Debra: Amen. Like we talked about in our last conversation: “with my God, I can scale any wall.” That’s the key. It’s not just the wall; it’s not just me, but it’s with my God. Psalm 18: “I can do this with God’s help.” Whatever that wall is—conflict, or bitterness, or resentment, or exhaustion—God can give me what I need to overcome this into a fruitful, positive, beautiful, grace-filled marriage.

Shelby: Neediness isn’t something we often think is a good thing; but neediness, in the Christian life, is a great thing because it drives us to Christ. When we have to say, “Lord, if You don’t show up, I’m doomed,” that’s actually a great place to be spiritually. Coming to God, empty-handed, is a beautiful thing; because it gives Him an opportunity to highlight His love and grace in your life in a way you would have never been able to see if you didn’t come to Him in the first place. So good!

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Debra Fileta on FamilyLife Today. Debra has written a book called Choosing Marriage: Why It Has to Start with We > [Is Greater than] Me. This is a really great book that combines professional expertise, real world experiences, and also practical advice to help you choose marriage. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy and click on the “Today’s Resources” link, or you can get the link in the show notes; or you can give us a call to request your copy at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”


You know, Psalm 34:8 says, “O, taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him.” One of the main ways that any married couple is able to taste and see that the Lord is good is through a thriving, intentionally Christ-focused marriage. But I think all of us could use a little—maybe even a lot of—help in this area.

I have good news: now through Monday, all Weekend to Remember marriage getaways are 50 percent off. These events give you the help you need to be more intentional with the Lord and with your spouse. You can head over to WeekendtoRemember.com to find a date and location near you, because you only have a few more days to get half off. Again, that’s WeekendtoRemember.com.

Now, coming up next week, J.D. and Veronica Greear are going to be here joining Dave and Ann Wilson to help us unpack the essence of Christianity [and] explore the book of Romans, faith, family, and the heart of the gospel. That’s next week. We hope you’ll 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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Episodes in this Series

FamilyLife Today
Choosing Marriage: Debra Fileta
with Debra Fileta January 18, 2024
Marriage different—way different—than you hoped? Author Debra Fileta thinks it's worth the beauty on the other side.
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