FamilyLife Today®

The Critical Years of Marriage

with Jim Burns | January 14, 2019
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Jim Burns, executive director of the Homeward Center at Azusa Pacific University, explains why the early years of marriage are critical. Burns looks back on his own early years of marriage and the difficulties that arose from having a high-maintenance marriage. Burns reminds couples to use wisdom by building their marriage on the Rock, not the sand. Change will happen and struggles will come, but Christ's presence can help a couple weather any storm.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Guest

  • Jim Burns, executive director of the Homeward Center at Azusa Pacific University, explains why the early years of marriage are critical. Burns looks back on his own early years of marriage and the difficulties that arose from having a high-maintenance marriage. Burns reminds couples to use wisdom by building their marriage on the Rock, not the sand. Change will happen and struggles will come, but Christ's presence can help a couple weather any storm.

Jim Burns explains why the early years of marriage are critical. Burns looks back on his own early years of marriage and the difficulties that arose from having a high-maintenance marriage.

The Critical Years of Marriage

With Jim Burns
January 14, 2019
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Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 14th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. One of the things every couple has to learn early in marriage is that even great marriages require some significant preventative maintenance. We’ll talk more about that today with Jim Burns. Stay with us.


And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Have you ever stopped to think that when you run into people who are saying things that you passionately agree with, you just find yourself thinking how smart those people are—because they are saying things you passionately agree with. You’re really saying, “I’m smart, and they must be smart too.”

Dennis: It’s kind of like somebody is reading your book to you.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: You’re going—“Yes. Yes.”

Bob: “I agree with that.”

Dennis: You said it! “I agree with that.” Well, we’ve got someone who is passionate about what we are—Jim Burns—who joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Jim.

Jim: It’s great to be here—and I’m passionate just to be with you two. I’ve learned so much from you, and I appreciate all that you do so much.

Dennis: You have made a great impact in a lot of people’s lives over the years. How long has HomeWord been around?

Jim: 32 years—I had hair 32 years ago, too, Dennis. I just want you to know that. You don’t see it now. [Laughter]

Dennis: I don’t. I’m sorry.


He is the Founder and the President of HomeWord, and also—I want you to tell us about this. You are the Executive Director of HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. What are you doing there? I want to hear about that program.

Jim: It’s a pretty great partnership. HomeWord exists to help families succeed. We have four values: strong marriages, confident parents, empowered kids, and healthy leaders. What they are doing at Azusa Pacific is creating an institute and a group that is doing the same thing. Students can go to Azusa—get trained—they can also get trained even if they are not at Azusa. They can come to some of the programs that they have, and HomeWord has the privilege to be a part of it.

Bob: So, does Professor Burns teach classes?

Jim: I don’t let them say, “Professor Burns.” I mean one—

Dennis: Doctor—Doctor Burns?

Jim: I’m “Doctor”—but I don’t let them say doctor either—I’m Jim. You know why? My first day when I teach, I take them to the In-N-Out Burger headquarters. Now, I know you don’t have that here in Little Rock.

Bob: No, but we’ve been to some of their franchises.

Jim: When—really—my youth ministry background kicks in—I take them over to In-N-Out.


I own the students then. I don’t have to be heady. I don’t have to be academic. They’ve got free hamburgers. So, that’s what I do.

Bob: What else matters; right?

Jim: That’s what I do.

Bob: Do you order off the secret menu?

Jim: I do order off the secret menu. One of my best friends from college—I went to Azusa Pacific myself—alumni—he was working there then, and he has taught me many, many secrets about In-N-Out.

Bob: Can you divulge one? I mean if we’re going to go and we want the best In-N-Out order today, what should we order?

Jim: My favorite is the Animal, and I’m not even going to tell you what it is. You have to order it, Bob, and then you’re going to find out. It’ll turn you into an animal.

Dennis: It’s not on the menu; is it?

Jim: No, no, no—they have lots of things that aren’t on the menu. You’ve got to be in the know.

Dennis: Another thing you are in the know—tell our listeners what is on the inside of the Solo cup at the bottom. Isn’t there something inside that?

Jim: Absolutely. Since we’re talking about In-N-Out, it’s John 3:16.

Bob: Okay, let’s move from In-N-Out which we could talk about for the rest of today’s program.

Jim: Makes me hungry.

Dennis: Yes.

Bob: Let’s talk about what you and Doug Fields have written on in your book, The First Few Years of Marriage—and just before we do—I need to remind our regular listeners.


We’ve got something special happening this week and next week for those of you who would be interested in attending one of our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. You know about the getaway—we do these in cities all across the country. In fact, we’re going to be in about 60 cities this spring.

It’s a two and a half day getaway for couples where you come and you have a relaxing, romantic weekend away together. You learn about what the Bible has to say about building a strong marriage.

This week and next week—if you sign up for one of our spring getaways­—you’ll save 50-percent off the regular registration fee—so, this is a great time for you to sign up. You can get all the details about what cities we are going to be in when. Go to, and click on the information about the Weekend to Remember.

Again, if you register this week or next week, you save 50-percent off the regular registration fee. We hope a lot of our listeners will come join us at one of these getaways this spring. I need to get that out of the way.


Let’s talk about your book, The First Few Years of Marriage. You guys feel like this season—these first few years of marriage are really important—really critical; don’t you?

Jim: I think they are very critical, and I think we were desperate because our kids were all getting married. Doug and I said, “You know what?  We need a book—if no one else would ever read this book—we need a book for our kids.”

Actually, Cathy and I, who have been married 44 years, have what we call a high-maintenance marriage. That means I think in those first few years, if we would have had something like this that could have helped us be directed in marriage, we would have done a lot better. We were so busy, and—you get busy. You get busy with your work and your calling and making babies and all the other things—and you sort of drift. That’s what happened.

So, we wrote this book to try to help young couples or newlyweds make good and right decisions about their marriage.

Dennis: I love what you say in your book: “Are you ready for a 50 year voyage?”

Jim: Yes.

Dennis: That is a great question.

Jim: No—it is a great question because a lot of people are not. You know if you think about just getting married,—


—they put all of their energy and time into the wedding. Then, they don’t put the time and energy into preparing for marriage. Then, again, once they get married, we get so busy. It’s not a bad thing. We just are so busy. We get distracted. Next thing we look up and we say, “Wow. We’re not even together anymore.”

Bob: Now, you said you and Cathy have a high-maintenance marriage.

Jim: Yes, we often say that.

Bob: How is your marriage different than my marriage, or do we all have high-maintenance marriages?

Jim: I think to an extent, we probably do. However, Cathy and I were both raised in non-Christian homes. I come from a family where there is alcoholism on my side. Cathy comes from a family that’s just a little crazy. When we got married, we were first-generation Christians and pretty new at being Christians. So we thought—because we were Christians—we wouldn’t have the same bumps and things.

About—well—I’d say a year into it, we had to make a declaration because we kept saying the “D” word—you know—divorce. The “D” word was really rampant in our life, and we were called to ministry, so we had to make a decision to—

Dennis: Now, wait—I want to ask you about that.

Jim: Yes.

Dennis: How did you throw it around?


Jim: Well, I would do it and so would Cathy—“Maybe, we shouldn’t be together anymore.” Our families—both sides of the families had divorce.

Bob: Anytime there was some conflict—

Jim: Instead of working through the conflict, what we did was we would run and say, “Well, maybe, this isn’t going to work. Maybe, there is somebody better. Maybe, the grass is greener. I know I loved you, but this is getting really too hard.”

Bob: I’ve talked to couples about this, and what I’ve said over the years is—“This is the trump card that every couple—every person is carrying. So, when you are in an argument and your spouse throws down a Jack and says, ‘You did this,’ then, you pull a Queen out of your hand and you say, ‘Look, you did this. This is worse than what I did.’ Then, they throw down the King and say, ‘Well, what about this?’” There is really nothing that trumps, “Maybe, we shouldn’t be married anymore.”

Jim: No.

Bob: But the other thing I’ve said is—Once you’ve played that card—

Jim: Yes.

Bob: —you have sowed a seed in the back of your spouse’s heart and mind that says, “You remember that promise I made? You can’t count on that.” It doesn’t matter if you never bring it up again—


—unless you address it specifically like you guys did—that seed is there in the back of the mind; and they are singing with Carole King, ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’; right?

Jim: You’re right. I actually like that song—but I do agree with you. We put a stake in the ground. What we said was—you know the Scripture says, “You inherit the sins of a previous generation of third and fourth generation.” It’s all throughout the Old Testament.

For Cathy and myself, we weren’t necessarily doing the same sins as our parents, but we had the sin bent. That meant—also—we didn’t know how to do communication. So, we made a decision that first year that we would remove the “D” word. Even if we were going to be miserable, we were going to remove the “D” word.

When that Scripture says about the sins of a previous generations, we decided that we would be what we called the transitional generation—we made up those words—meaning we would try to either recover or repeat the sins of the generations because that’s what you do. We decided, “We’re going to recover. Even if we’re miserable, we’re going to make this thing work.”

I would say that that—besides making the decision to bring Christ into our lives—


—that was the most important decision we could ever make for our marriage—and actually—our own legacy, with our own children now and our grandchildren—was to recover and break that chain. That’s what we’ve been doing. In those first few years, we had some really bad habits. We wish somebody would have helped us in those first few years guide us in a direction that would have made it—I don’t know if it’s the word simpler—but made it more successful in terms of the relationship.

Dennis: When I speak at the Weekend to Remember marriage conferences that we do around the country, I will say to the engaged couples who are there, “You have made the very finest investment you could possibly make by taking a three-day weekend and studying what God’s Word says about marriage and family by some folks who have been working on this for over four decades.”

“Now, let me tell you something else,” I say, “if you’ll come back with them in the next 12 months after you get married, you will have built some”—


—“spiritual disciplines into your lives one of them being the tongue”—what you’re talking about.

Jim: Yes; exactly.

Dennis: If you start out on the right trajectory, it’ll take you all the way to the moon; but if you have the wrong trajectory—

Jim: Right.

Dennis: —you could end up in outer space.

Bob: You talk about this in The First Few Years of Marriage. You talk about—when you’re adrift—it’s that one degree difference. Explain to listeners what that’s all about.

Jim: If you just drift one degree off—you know I live in California—so, if I’m going toward Hawaii—I’m on a boat—and I drift one degree off, it eventually takes me to Australia.

Bob: Right.

Jim: A good marriage is constant course corrections. You know you’re drifting—

Dennis: That’s right.

Jim: —and you’re making course corrections.

I was speaking in Houston a couple of years ago now; and the guy who had me out said, “Hey, do you want to meet an astronaut?” I went—“Yes, I’ve never met an astronaut.” His church is literally next door to NASA.

So, I shook hands with this guy. We talked, and I said, “How many times have you been up?”


He said he’d been up in space twice—pretty incredible. I said, “What does it feel like”—and I pointed to NASA next door—I said, “What does it feel like to have them in charge of your life when you’re up there in space?” He said, “Oh, they’re only in charge three-percent of the time. All of the rest of time, we are making course corrections.”

For me, that was a message for marriage—that we don’t always have it perfect. We need to be making course corrections. To do that, we need content. We need to build mentors around our lives. A lot of younger marriages don’t take the time to do that. They don’t invest in that—but if you do it, you’re going to make these constant course corrections—and you’re going to head out in a good place.

Bob: One of the reasons you have to keep making course corrections is because you wake up every morning, and you’re married to somebody different. [Laughter] I mean I remember thinking when Mary Ann and I got married, I thought, “What happens—I’m about to make a vow that this is for the rest of my life. What happens if she changes?”

Jim: Yes.

Bob: It was like God said, “Guess what. She will and so will you.


So, you’ve got to figure out how you make those course corrections because you’re changing—you’re growing—you’re not the same person today that you were when you got married—neither is Mary Ann—neither is your spouse. So, the course corrections are required because you are different people every month—every six months—every year.

Dennis: And let’s not leave out the culture either. It’s like the currents—

Bob: Right.

Dennis: —and the winds—

Bob: Pulling you in different directions.

Dennis: —and the storms. I mean there are other things that cause a course correction in a marriage relationship—and you can’t control them.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: It’s not a matter of it being happily after ever without any kind of hiccup along the way. It’s going to be a voyage that knows all kinds of storms—all kinds of challenges—the equipment breaking down at points. I mean you’ve experienced it.

Jim: Sure; absolutely. When I’m thinking back to—well, the most famous sermon every spoken or written—the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concluded that by saying, “When you build your house, build it on a rock, not on sand.” He doesn’t promise that you aren’t going to have those storms—because you are.


Part of it is what you guys are saying—“How do we help people in marriages learn to embrace each other’s difference and embrace the fact that change is going to happen?” There is going to be illness. There is going to be adult child who is going to walk away from faith. There is going to be financial problems. There are going to be all kinds of issues. How—through those storms—do you do it? I think you do it by building on the Rock.

As much as we want to sound romantic and spontaneous—that is definitely a part of marriage—there is also a discipline to this. When Paul said to Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” he was talking about godliness—but he was talking about an athletic term of building discipline. So, what I’m learning, more and more, is that to really get a marriage started on a great ground, you’ve got to have some good disciplines—build those disciplines into your life early.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: Jim, would you be willing to take us into the darkest storm you and your bride have ever faced in 44 years of marriage?

Jim: Sure.

Dennis: Take us there.

Jim: Sure. When Cathy and I were first married, we wanted nothing more than to have children.


Both of—Cathy’s background is early childhood. She has a degree in it. She works with kids who have autism, and she is amazing with kids. My background was youth ministry—love kids.

We were unable to have kids. So, we went through a deep time of infertility; and the infertility—it never entered my mind. I didn’t know anybody who was infertile. I now realize 1 out of 5 couples are—but that, we didn’t know. So, that put us in a unique stage in our marriage. The story continued that we adopted our daughter Christy, which is the great joy of our life. Then, we have two other daughters who came through natural birth.

Then, she had a hysterectomy, and she went into a deep depression. So, now, I’m not married to the person—

Bob: Right.

Jim: —you were talking about this—I’m not married to that same person because she has got post-partum, and it is a tough deal.

It took some time because—I have to be honest—I looked at this situation—we had three babies—two of them in diapers. I went, “Whoa! I don’t know that I signed up for this”—because I realized during that time I was giving about 75-percent—and she was giving about 25-percent. Now, there are other dark times—


—where she’s given 80-percent, and I’ve given 20-percent.

But what we had to come together—was we realized during that tough time—because it affected our marriage. Now, none of that was really about our own relationship—it was about outside sources—but were we going to accept these outside sources, and were we going to become all that God wanted us to be?

To be honest, those were strong years. We look back at it now. We still want to feel the intense pain because we want to care for others who are going through that. At the same time, we look back at it and say, “Wow, we made some good decisions through that.”

Dennis: So, what about the “D” word?

Jim: Yes?

Dennis: Have you used it since that first year?

Jim: No. No. Even as you all know, the studies now show that if somebody, even in a troubled marriage would persevere for five years, there’s a 78—I’ve seen 82—percent chance that they’ll say that their marriage is better off.

So, Cathy and I dumped that word—I mean, literally—we dumped it. Now, has it ever entered my mind? Would it be easier? Of course, it has—that’s human nature—but you know that word doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t give any confidence.


It didn’t give Cathy any confidence in our relationship. So, we dumped that.

Bob: Here’s what that illustration has brought to mind for me so many times. I’ve had cars that have lived into their post-100,000 mile lifetime—and when you’ve got a car that’s got 160,000 miles on it and the transmission goes out, you’re looking at the car and you’re going—“Is this the time when you just trade it in, get whatever you can for it, and buy the new car?”

Jim: Right.

Bob: Well, if somebody told you when you bought the car, this is the only one you will ever have. Well, when the transmission goes bad, you’ve got one option. You fix the transmission because this is your only car for the rest of your life. I think for a lot of couples, if they walk into marriage going—“This is the only marriage I’m ever going to have”—so, if the transmission goes out—and that’s a big deal—you’re going to have to fix the transmission, or you’re walking a lot of places.

Jim: I’ll tell you what, Bob. That’s a perfect illustration of what we’re talking about here. I mean it really is.


Sometimes, I don’t know that young couples hear that message. Who said it was going to be easy?

Bob: Right.

Jim: I mean why are we promising that it’s going to be perfect and easy and walk on roses? No, there are going to be some transmissions break—

Bob: Right.

Jim: —along the way. Yes, we know that when people have looked at after 50 years, they oftentimes don’t say, “Oh, it was the spontaneous, physical intimacy, and it was this and that.” I mean sure that’s a part of it, but what they are saying is, “No, we hung together.”

Cathy and I had a fun experience. I was speaking in Hollywood, and we decided that we would walk to the Hollywood sign. Now, of course, I thought it was a two-mile hike. We found out it was an eight-mile hike—but that’s another problem with our marriage. She likes those kinds of hikes, but not me.

We saw this couple, and they both had walkers. They were walking to the merry-go-round where you start at Griffith Park. I said to Cathy, “I want to be like those people.” She looked at me, and she goes—“That sounds kind of creepy because I don’t want walkers yet.” I said, “I understand.”

I want to be like those people because what had they persevered through? What were their issues? They made it, but what are the issues that—


—helped them become the people who were married—we asked them—66 years. Did they have a perfect marriage? No, but they persevered. I think a lot of it is perseverance and determination and going—really, honestly—back to the discipline.

I’m so glad that in the first year in our marriage, I didn’t bail—as other family members had—and I’m so glad that Cathy didn’t bail because today we have something that is unique and beautiful and wonderful. Is it perfect? No. We still want to say we have a high-maintenance—because we still have to work at it. A high-maintenance car—you can have—I have a neighbor who has a great Corvette. It’s a 1968 Corvette. Oh, it’s beautiful. That guy is working on it all the time.

Bob: All the time; right.

Jim: You know what? I’ve got a beautiful marriage, but I’ve got to be working on it all the time.

Bob: Mary Ann and I have had the experience now of walking out of a restaurant—we’ll be holding hands—and I’ll turn to her and say, “Do you think there are people looking at us saying, ‘Look at that cute, old couple holding hands?’”

Jim: You’ve become them.

Bob: Like we used to say about those cute, old couples; and I go—“I hope they are not saying that about us yet!” Come on.

Jim: They are.

Dennis: Yes.


Yes, they are. I think it’s kind of fun that they may be saying that. You do something—in terms of discipline—that I think is genius and that is—“Keep sowing positive seeds in your marriage relationship.” You did something with a hundred scraps of paper.

Jim: Why I’m kind of proud of this is because I’m not that guy. I don’t think about this, but somehow I had this inspiration to write a thousand reasons of affirmation and love to Cathy. I put them, literally, on scraps of paper.

Bob: A thousand!

Dennis: A thousand!

Bob: A thousand!

Jim: I said a thousand. I mean a hundred. I just wrote—sometimes—one word. I’d write a phrase.

Dennis: Like?

Jim: Actually, anything from appreciating her beauty to a lot of things about her character. Cathy has amazing character. She is a very God-honoring woman. So, I would just write reasons why I was thankful. You know, “I’m thankful for the amazing mom that you are,” “I’m thankful for the sacrifice that you’ve made with our ministry so many times.” You know Cathy never complained about that kind of stuff—that got in there—her beauty, grateful for this, grateful for that.


What I did was I gave them to her a little jar, and I probably should have gotten a nicer jar to be honest. It was just a crummy, old jelly jar—whatever—but I put it in there, and she started taking those out and reading them. Then, I watched her cry, and I watched her have some incredible emotion. She just kind of kept looking up at me like, “Are you sure this is from you?”—or whatever. Then, interestingly enough, she still has those things.

Bob: Sure.

Jim: Now, they are a little bit yellowed. I don’t know that she always looks at them, but I do know there have been other times. She shows that jar to other people, and you know it makes me look pretty good; but I’ve only done it once.

Dennis: I want to challenge—I’m going to throw the gauntlet down—

Jim: Yes.

Dennis: —“Do a thousand.” [Laughter]

Jim: Yes, you know what? I honestly should.

Dennis: Somehow, I must have misread your book because I thought what you did was you had these little pieces of paper and you spread them all over the house.

Bob: No, they are in the jar. I wrote love notes early on to Mary Ann, and I hid them around the house.

Jim: Yes.

Bob: Some, she found the next day—I made sure they were in conspicuous spots—but some, she didn’t find for months.


I would put some in her recipe files. So, she’s looking for a recipe for chicken. All of the sudden, it’s “Oh, there’s that love note.” I think some of the—and some of those recipe files she hasn’t been back to visit those recipes for a while so she may get one of those in another 10 or 20 years.

Jim: What is interesting about what we’re talking about—and I know in my experience with Cathy with that—you know Cathy appreciates a little bit, almost geeky, sometimes, for guys to say, “This is what we did”; but I’ll tell you what—it means so much to our spouse. So, putting it in the recipe file, putting it in a jar, doing it however we do it—they appreciate it. I watched Cathy get past it pretty quick of going, “What is this,” into “Wow, this is a love letter,” without writing it longhand and love-letter language.

Dennis: Here’s the thing. All of us know someone who is getting married in the coming months, get a copy of The First Few Years of Marriage—subtitled 8 Ways to Strengthen Your “I Do”.

Bob: One of those eight is what we have been talking about here. It’s Chapter 6: Choose the Positive and how you do that practically.


That’s one of eight suggestions you’ve got in here.  

Dennis: And I would encourage you to get a copy of the book—but the other thing I’d encourage them to get is a certificate to attend the Weekend to Remember. If you send a couple to the Weekend to Remember and they work their way through Jim Burns and Doug Fields’ book, The First Few Years of Marriage, you will have sent them in the right course in order to have a 50-year voyage in the right direction.

Bob: This is Perma Jack. This helps get that foundation strong and stable.

Dennis: Perma Jack?

Bob: Perma—where they fix the foundation on a house—you know Perma Jack; right? You’ve never heard of them.

Dennis: I’m sorry, Bob. [Laughter]

Bob: They go in—

Dennis: I thought you had a side job or something.

Bob: We’re talking about the foundation of your marriage, and Jim’s book and the Weekend to Remember is kind of that Perma Jack that will get the foundation of your marriage settled for you. We’ve got copies of Jim’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book from us online at


It’s called The First Few Years of Marriage: 8 Ways to Strengthen Your “I Do”. Again, you can order online at—or you can call to order.

We also want to let you know about the special offer we’re making this week and next week for FamilyLife Today listeners. You can attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. If you register this week or next week for the getaway, you pay 50-percent less than you would pay otherwise. 50-percent off the regular registration fee as long as you sign up this week or next week, and then plan to join us for a getaway this spring.

If you need information about where the getaways are being hosted—what weekend, what city—you can go online at—or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. We can answer any questions you have about the getaway. You can register online if you’d like. Again, at—or call to register 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”—


—1-800-FL-TODAY, the number to call. We hope you’ll join us at one of our upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.

We also hope you’ll join us back tomorrow when we’re going to talk about how important it is for couples to start off their marriage laughing together. Seriously, that’s one of the critical pieces of counsel that Jim Burns has for newly married couples. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. Hope you can be with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. A Cru® Ministry. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.


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Episodes in this Series

The First Few Years Of Marriage 3
Facing Conflict
with Jim Burns January 16, 2019
Every couple will have conflict. But it's how they handle that conflict that makes all the difference. Jim Burns explains that fear is often hiding behind our defensiveness. But once you realize your fears, you can face them and handle conflict better.
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The First Few Years Of Marriage 2
Laugh for a Happier Marriage
with Jim Burns January 15, 2019
The best thing a couple can do for their marriage is to pray together every day. The second best: laugh. Author and counselor Jim Burns encourages any couple who wants to win in marriage to laugh a lot.
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