FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Running on Fumes: David & Meg Robbins

with David and Meg Robbins | February 16, 2024
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"Our marriage feels off, but I can't pinpoint why. How can I be working on my marriage while running on fumes?" David & Meg Robbins recognize the signs of strain and provide practical advice for addressing them. Discover insights to strengthen your relationship. David and Meg are contributors to FamilyLife's all-new Art of Marriage group study! To learn more or order your copy, visit

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Our marriage feels…off. David & Meg Robbins recognize signs of strain, offering practical advice to strengthen your relationship.

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Running on Fumes: David & Meg Robbins

With David and Meg Robbins
February 16, 2024
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David: There’s all sorts of reasons we can get to this numb, flat place when the numbness turns into hardening of heart. We’re going to have these seasons—I think that’s where—

Ann: —the danger.

David: —we have to pay attention to it—because then, you’re going to be hardened to the Lord [and] to the relationships that matter most to you that you want to cultivate the most.

What gets hardened is the ability to experience a godly sorrow; and therefore, repent.

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

Dave: This is FamilyLife Today.

Dave: Okay; I don’t know if this is how we start a show; but Jackson Brown—famous song back in the ‘70s—[singing] “Running on empty; running on; running on”—should have started a little lower key. You ever heard that song, honey?!

Ann: I have.

Dave: Come on, I know you have.

Ann: Yes, I didn’t know who it was.

Dave: We’ve got a younger couple in the studio.

Ann: I know.

Dave: I wonder if David even knows who Jackson Brown is.

David and Meg Robbins, President of FamilyLife®, is back in the studio. Do you guys know who Jackson Brown—

Meg: I know that song!

Dave: You do?

Meg: For sure, yes!

David: I think I know that song because of Forrest Gump, watching that as a kid. [Laughter]

Dave: That is right!

Meg: Oh, funny.

Ann: That’s right!

David: Yes, that was in there;—

Dave: That was in that.

David: I think that is why [I know of it].

Meg: This comes on Ford’s regular station; he loves music.

David: Yes, teenagers listen to that, the classic stuff.

Ann: It’s a classic!

Meg: Yes!

Ann: Classic rock; good stuff.

David: I was just, also, impressed with the a Capello moment there; that was gutsy. Way to go!

Dave: —instead of grabbing a guitar. [Laughter] He’s just being nice. [Laughter]

Well, the question is: “How do you know when you’re running on empty?—when you’re life, maybe, is in fumes; maybe, your marriage is running on empty. We’re going to talk about that today. “What are the signs—if we could call five signs—like a Friday five.

Ann: This is good: signs that you’re marriage could be struggling.

Dave: Yes, like you need a rest: your marriage needs a rest or your life needs a rest.

What’s the first one you guys think of?

Meg: I think the first one is just when you’re feeling numb; you just feel everything’s just kind of flat and muted. You don’t have lots of emotions at all; you’re just kind of coasting, just getting through. I think, in our marriage, the numbness can look is like passing on the go.

David: Yes, there’s a “Tag, you are it,” nature of life, when there’s young kids. It feels like it only gets more complex—I mean, talking with you guys, and other friends, [who] have adult children—it’s not like that season is simpler. You multiply the number of people—they may not be living with you all of the time—but yet, you end up passing in different ways; because you’re keeping kids here or whatnot.

Every phase allows those times, where you just pass each other by and living life. You don’t slow down to really experience what you’re feeling, so you stop sharing. All of a sudden, emotional intimacy just kind of dries up.

Dave: When you’re in some kind of pain, it’s hard to be outward focused. You probably don’t—maybe, you don’t know this—two of my front teeth were knocked out.

Meg: What happened?!

Dave: Well, long story short, I was coaching high school football. A kid’s elbow hit my front teeth.

David: Wow.

Dave: I had to get implants.

David: Okay.

Dave: But it got infected—bone graft, infection, more infection—anyway, it took a long time. I had to wear what they call a flipper, which is like a retainer with your two front teeth; you slip it in there.

There were times where the pain was really strong; and then, I had a back-thing going on that I had surgery on. All I know is that I recognized, during that time—"I’m around all these people; inside, they have no idea I’m really in pain right now”; but you’re trying to be—I thought, “This is what people live with every day,”—maybe, chronic physical pain.

But if they’re in emotional pain, and they haven’t been able to fill their soul in any way—and maybe, they’re in a season of life when that’s not even possible—because they’re taking care of somebody or they’re having to be taken care of. We have a dear friend, right now, in the hospital, who is struggling to get her life back. I just thought, “So many people are walking around us, and they’re feeling what I’m feeling all the time.” We’re disappointed they’re not coming through for us; it’s like: “They can’t.”

In some ways, that’s what it feels like—you’re on fumes—it’s like, “How do I get recharged?”

David: Yes; I think one of the hardest things about this that ends up affecting all of our relationships—with the Lord; the ones we care about the most, like our spouse/our kids—is that, when we are numb, and we choose not to pay attention to the numbness. Because we’re going to have these seasons—

Ann: all of us.

David: —all of us will. Maybe, doubt floods in; there’s all sorts of reasons we can get to this numb, flat place. When the numbness turns into hardening of heart. I think that’s where—

Ann: —the danger.

David: —we have to pay attention to it; because then, you’re going to be hardened to the Lord [and] to the relationships that matter most to you that you want to cultivate the most.

What gets hardened is the ability to experience a godly sorrow; and therefore, repent. What gets hardened is the ability to lift our eyes to remember how God is being faithful.

These are hard seasons, sometimes; but yet, I do feel like you have to clear away and do everything we can, when there’s numbness, to keep a softness of heart. I think that becomes dangerous when we let the numbness crust over.

[Learn to] go, “Okay,”—that happens, too, sometimes—like, “Alright, Lord, I want to invite You to chip away and soften my heart again and give me that Ezekiel 36:[26] new heart that receives the things of You and not my heart of stone that focuses on my flesh.”

Dave: I also thought of Revelation 2, because it’s a little bit of you’ve lost your first love for the Lord and, maybe, even your marriage. What does Jesus say to the church? “You have lost your first love; repent and do the things you once did.” I think it’s easy, in marriage—to not date, to not talk like we used to—the next thing you know: you’re numb.

Meg: One last thing I’ll say about the danger of numbing out is that we often think of numbing because of the pain. But when we do that, you also lose out on the joy that you can experience. You can’t numb out the pain without numbing the joy. God has made us, in life—even when we’re in really hard seasons of loss and grief—to still be able to engage with joyful moments. Sometimes, if you are in the depths of grief, you can even feel guilty for feeling joy. I think the danger of numbing is that we lose both. You can’t lose one without losing the other.

David: How about we trade out. You all go to Number 2.

Dave: My first thought was, and I know Ann will agree, anger: chippy, snippy, mean.

Ann: —short.

Dave: I’m talking about me. Ann, you don’t get that snippy—every once in a while—but when I’m on fumes, don’t even let me drive a car; because I’m yelling at every driver around. [Laughter] Ann’s like, “You are the most arrogant driver [Laughter]: ‘I’m perfect and everybody else is wrong.’” You know, [they’re] going 55 in the left passing lane: “Get over! Let me go by.”

There’s a level of anger just under the surface that I think is like a dashboard light going, “You’ve got to look at this,”—because anger’s always plugged into something—it’s always got an extension cord. Sometimes, it’s the situation we’re in; but most of the time, you haven’t dealt with something. Maybe, you’re just not fueling your soul; maybe, your schedule is out of whack—there are times where there’s nothing you can do about that; you’ve just got to run from your heart—but I think we need to look at our schedule sometime, and say, “My anger: is it inappropriate?” You need a wife or a spouse to go, “Yes, it’s inappropriate, dude.”

Ann: It is good to have a spouse. We were doing a conference one time—

Dave: Oh, yes; we did Weekend to Remember® in Los Angeles. Again, during this season in our life—we’ve been on the team 30-some years—so our kids were little. After the last talk, and people were saying: “Thank you,” “Thank you,”—

Ann: —and you were tired.

Dave: —and exhausted. Our life was on fumes. This lady says to me—and Ann’s standing right beside me—some stranger/she was there all weekend; she said, “You guys were wonderful. I just wish you were my pastor. I would love to hear you preach every Sunday.” And I said to her: “If I was your pastor, you’d hate me in a week.” [Laughter] That’s what I said.

Ann just grabbed my arm and said, “Okay; he doesn’t know…”[Laughter]

Ann: “Thank you; that’s the nicest thing for you to say that”; [and to Dave], “Come on, honey! Let’s get out of here.”

Dave: She said to me, as we got in the elevator, “You are fried, dude. You need a break. You need to recharge; and maybe, your marriage needs to recharge.” It could be a vacation; it could just be pulling away.

Ann: I remember saying, one time, to the kids: “Okay, everybody; I’m in a bad mood. I just want you [to know] I’m in a bad mood. I don’t even know why yet. [Laughter] But I just want you all to know it.” [Laughter]

David: Honestly, how healthy; because the comment: “I don’t know why yet,” shows them, “Hey, I’m actually going to dig into this.” I love that; I think, how often do we hear: “I’m fried,” “I’m fried,” “I’m maxed,” “Oh, my goodness; it’s…”—whatever we’re doing—“It’s just too much.” And yet, we don’t look at the “Why?” “I don’t know why yet,”—that’s actually a very inviting phrase that I’m going, “I need to—

Meg: I’m going to start telling my kids that: [Laughter]—“Everybody watch out!”

David: Yes, this is so pathetic; because on Saturday, the team that we root for the most just got toasted. I was snippy; I was the definition of snippy, and chippy with my kids—it totally felt unrelated—and then, I was just like, “What is my problem?!” I was like, “It’s the game! That is so lame”; yet, “Okay, I can own that. Let me own it and move on.”

Meg: But I think it’s when, in our marriage, when we have ongoing anger/shortness—you’re not necessarily running on fumes if you have a day you are angry and you don’t know why, or you’re mad about a football game—we’re not saying that’s a major red flag in your life—but when we have unexplained ongoing, underlying anger, I think that’s when we have to really be honest and say, “Okay, what do I need to pop the hood in my life and really dig in and see?”

David: That’s good.

Dave: What you’re talking about, Meg, I did a study years ago because Ann said to me, when our kids were little, “You’re angry a lot.” I did the study; it’s called chronic anger. It’s the kind of anger that its—you’re around somebody; you don’t know what’s going/they’re going to explode—it’s like—

Ann: —just beneath the surface.

Dave: There’s levels of anger—but it’s like scary—mine was. I would encourage someone: If you’re not sure what it’s plugged into—it may be this: mine was forgiveness—I had never wrestled through forgiving my dad. I brought that into our marriage and didn’t even know it. That anger level got my attention enough to go, “I think I’ve got to look”; I sort of searched around in the dark; and it’s like, “Oh, here it is.”

It isn’t always just one thing; but I bet there’s a listener or two going, “There’s something in my life; I’ve got bitterness. That bitterness is seeping into my marriage and into my kids. It’s going to become my legacy if I don’t do the hard work of saying, ‘How do I get to forgiveness?’” I had to get there, and it changed our legacy.

Ann: Yes, it did.

Dave: So I went deep.

Meg: That’s powerful, because we do—we all bring bags in—that we have to deal with it.

Ann: We do.

Dave: Yes, we do.

Okay, it’s your turn.

David: Alright. I think I’m going to relate the next one to the previous one; because when a low-lying anger and chipping comes into my life, usually, for me, as a fairly positive person—that’s usually my MO [modus operandi: normal mode of operation]—when I get out of that it’s because I’m going off of adrenaline and just plowing to the next thing and unable to actually stop. I end up getting on fumes when I’m just churning, with adrenaline, to the next thing: accomplishing; getting the next thing done; next speaking engagement; next travel trip; next thing with kids, being present for them; “Oh, yes; we’re going on a date.”

I’m just going with it; I’m filling the calendar, back to back—and doing some good/like all of it’s kind of fitting in—trying to manage it all. And yet, I’m not really showing up in any of it. I end up just living what I know I want to be true and be there for; but yet, I’m not really showing up. I’m just being propelled by adrenaline to the next thing, the next thing; but my presence is not there, even though I may be physically there.

I embrace that I end up running on fumes when I can’t tell that I’m full. When we have hunger, and we eat, we get full. Sometimes, when that comes to a marriage or our family, that gets on fumes—for me, what I bring to the marriage a lot of times is, “Yes, I’ve been full for three months; and I haven’t paid attention to it,”—that barometer to be able to experience the dashboard light, and respond to it, I have a problem seeing it sometimes; because I just keep going. Me owning that—yes, there’s been boundary conversations in the past that have been really good—but God invites me deeper. I’m in a season right now of Him inviting me deeper into [understanding] that. It does put our family on fumes often; I lead us there.

Ann: I find myself doing that same thing, David, like we’ll have really busy weeks of work or conferences and speaking. I find, when I come off of that, I’ll get a migraine. I had someone say, “Oh, it’s because you’re coming off your adrenaline high.” But then, when you have that headache, and you go on to the next thing, where your adrenaline rises up again, it’s not a great pattern. It’s not healthy for your soul, for your marriage, and for your relationships. I’ve been trying to figure out the balance of that; because you’re going to have those times, where you’re just so busy—

David: Right; busy seasons.

Ann: —right. But how do you balance that? How have you found—and we’ve been talking about this for the past few days, too, with you and Meg—you’re trying to find more balance in the adrenaline rush and coming down, what’s helped you?

David: Balance is a hard word because it really is almost impossible to live out. Withdrawals and deposits is something we talk about a lot, like there will be seasons or times, where there’s a lot of withdrawals. The bank account that you keep withdrawing, it has its costs and you feel it: “Are we putting in the deposits—to not only keep it above/in the black?—but are we really investing”—figuratively speaking—“into the relationships that we want?”

I have just had to make space—that is my number 1 thing—is that I will have gone in [my schedule] now, and we have Friday day lunch, where [I’m] like, “It’s not going to get compromised unless there is a very unique thing.” If we don’t have that, then our dates just get squeezed at night—sports get scheduled, a special choir event—or whatever else just takes you out of the rhythm.

Multiple mornings a week, I’m calling them: “a zero-entry morning,” where—and not all vocations allow you to do this—but a lot of my work is thought work; but yet, I rush past it and start meeting with people. Zero-entry being like a zero-entry pool, like a beach-entry pool. There are days you’ve got to jump in; I can make space for some days, where I’m working [with meeting people]—but I’m making sure that I’m doing the thought work and strategic work that only I can do—and that I’m present in it, and can show up present to the things in those days.

Ann: So you’re learning what fills you up and what you need to do.

I’ve learned that, too. It can be as simple as: I need a 45-minute—that may seem long for some people—but if I can get up early, and go for a walk and pray—and not, at first, be listening to a podcast or something really good, which is my temptation—but just to sit with God to unload, to tell Him all the things I’m carrying; that fills me back up.

Dave: Yes, I was going to say, “I think we underestimate something that God did not underestimate; He made it one of the Ten Commandments”—

Ann: —Sabbath.

Dave: —He made it one of the biggest—"Sabbath.” I know, as a person in ministry, we preach it; we tell people; we quote it: “Man wasn’t made for Sabbath; Sabbath was made for man [Mark 2:27].” You [Ann] just explained mini-Sabbaths: waking up and taking a walk. Literally, taking a day a week and saying, “You know what? I’m going to rest”; that’s real Sabbath.

Okay, we don’t have much time.

David: Let’s go; go for it.

Dave: We have two more; we’re doing “Five Signs You’re Running on Empty.”

You were talking about being full a minute ago. I thought, “When your car is full—the gas tank needle is on ‘F’—you drive by gas stations; why would you stop? You don’t even look at them. But when you’re near empty, or you’re in trouble, you’re looking at every gas station: ‘I got to pull in.’”

That’s what made me think, when you’re running on fumes, you start pulling into places you shouldn’t to get something. I mean, sometimes, it’s food—it’s like your personal discipline: “I don’t care anymore; I’m too tired. I want another burger; I’m going to eat the fries; I’m going to have a milkshake,”—I’m giving you all my vices. It’s like, “I’m too tired to work at this; I’m just going to fill up.” It could be temptation—sexual sin: it could be, for men, looking at something; and women [as well]—but it could just be I’m letting my guard down: “I’m too tired; I’m not going to fight; I’m just going to give in.”

Meg: Yes, it could be Netflix® on repeat—

Dave and Ann: Yes!

Meg: —you binge watch a season—or scrolling social media, or whatever; and then, falling into the comparison trap. These things—we forget where some of these things lead—that we go to as an escape.

Dave: Is that what you meant by “hiding”?

Meg: Yes.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: Yes: “Where are you triggered?” and “Where do you go to hide?”

Dave: That’s a scary place to be.

David: Also, we hide and run to things that aren’t bad things—some are:—

Dave: Yes.

Ann: Exactly!

David: —some is sin/sinful things—but they’re just idols: good things that we run [toward] to try to get something like God could give us, but it isn’t God Himself.

Meg: One sign for me, oftentimes, is: if I’m not going to the Lord first or not letting David in—sometimes, I’m going to friends or family, like my sister: I’m unloading all this stuff on her; I’m like, “I probably should share that with David,”—it could be running to other people, I think, hiding in that way.

Ann: So that’s a sign.

Meg: Yes, I think that can be a sign of just hiding from—

David: It’s a healthy thing for you to be sharing with your sister; yet, when it’s—

Meg: Yes, that’s not that; that’s good.

David: —when it’s starting to log up, and you’re going, “I’m not sure I’m sharing much of this with David”; that’s a sign.

Let’s do one more real quick; here we go! What about affection?—pulling away. You start pulling your affection—not being there—ends up being a sign you’re pulling away from people. It’s like a tell-tale sign.

Meg: This is true. [Laughter] Okay, when we go to bed at night, I do sleep on my side, that is facing away from David most of the time. But I don’t usually turn over to that side, away from him, until we’re going to sleep. He always falls asleep before me.

David: Yes, I do.

Meg: Because of that—because he falls asleep first—if he notices that I’m already facing away—

Ann: —that’s a sign.

Meg: —it’s a sign; it is! It’s like I’m withholding some affection, just by turning over. That was something we actually realized a couple of years ago. So now, anytime I’m on my side, “Are you on your other side because of something that you’re…” [Laughter]

David: “Just give me a little gauge check.”

Meg: I think what you’re saying, in general, “When we aren’t as affectionate with each other, and there isn’t a longer kiss, or holding hands, or some of those general—they can be physical; they don’t have to be physical—but just ways that we show each other in simple ways: “Hey, I care about you.” When those things are missing, in an ongoing way, I think that’s a sign.

Ann: I think this would be a really good conversation with your spouse: “What are the signs?—what happens to you when you feel like we’re pulling apart and we’re not as healthy as we should be? What do you do?”

Because some of Dave’s I may not know. It’s helpful—if he turned on his side—for me to say, “Mmmm; it looks like you’re turning away from me; what’s happening? How can we…”

David: Yes; I love that, Ann.

Dave: I would just say, “Switch sides of the bed. Sleep over here;— [Laughter]

Meg: Yes! Right? [Laughter]

Dave: —you’ll be turning toward me.” [Laughter]

David: That’s hilarious.

I love that idea, Ann, of doing that when you’re not in the middle of a conflict. What an incredible conversation:

it can be a date-night conversation;

it can just be: “Hey, let’s go outside and chat for 30 minutes”;

or take a walk and bring up that question.

Maybe, they don’t have answers in that moment; but “Hey, let’s circle back to that and talk about: ‘What are those signs that we have that, when we’re running on fumes, this is what comes out?’”

Meg: That’s very true. I just have to say, because even the turning-away-from-you thing, when you first asked me that, in the moment, I was like, “No; no, I’m fine.”

David: “Fine,” “Fine.”

Meg: But later, when we talked about it, I was totally—I mean, I was lying—let’s be honest. [Laughter] But when you circled back to it, it was like, “Okay; yes, I was feeling distant.”

Dave: I will end with this: “Every marriage/every marriage needs a break—a time to get away—

Ann: —time to rest.

Dave: —"a Weekend to Remember®.” You think we’re just saying that because we’re here at FamilyLife. I’m telling you: “It is life to your marriage. It’s work in some ways, but it’s really getting away”—getting-sitters-for-the-kids going away—"or/and take a vacation.”

Ann: —just the two of you.

Dave: Ann demanded that in our marriage: “We’re going on vacations.” I’m like, “I don’t want to spend the money.” It’s some of the best money that I’ve ever spent. It doesn’t even have to be that expensive, but get away—you’ve got to plug into each other and your marriage—so do it. I hope to see you at a Weekend to Remember somewhere.

Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David and Meg Robbins on FamilyLife Today.

Yes, there are so many Weekend to Remember marriage getaways that are happening all over the country this spring. In fact, I want to ask you to pray for the Weekend to Remember events that are happening this weekend, between now and Sunday. Two of them are happening: one in Albuquerque and one in Napa.

With over 40 events happening across the country, there is still time to find a location near you. If you are wondering, “Where can I find out when it’s happening and where?” you can go to; scroll around and find a location near you; and book a time to intentionally work on your marriage together, as a couple, just as Dave said.

Now, a lot of people look at their marriage and think it’s fine; and some people feel kind of stuck or like they are running on empty; maybe, they don’t feel close to their spouse like they want to be. Well, a lot of that has to do with intentionality, being intentional in developing a better relationship with your spouse. We know many couples who may have been in your shoes—if that’s you—and who struggle with grieving a loved one; reconciliation; anger; maybe, a hard diagnosis; and a ton of other things. There are speakers, preachers, and every-day couples that make up the all-new Art of Marriage from FamilyLife. This marriage study really helps you to grow deeper together as a couple, grow closer to God, and more connected with your community. It gives space for authentic and vulnerable conversations around challenging marriage topics like the ones I’ve just mentioned.

Throughout six 25-minute sessions, Art of Marriage unpacks six biblical words that describe God’s love for us and how each can be displayed through our messy, imperfect marriages. I’d encourage you to go to the Show Notes or to to learn more and grab your leader kit today. We’re really excited to share the all-new Art of Marriage with you and hear your marriage impact stories.

Now, coming up next week, Rachel Faulkner-Brown is here with her 16-year-old daughter, Campbell, to talk about her courageous journey with battling anorexia. That’s coming up 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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