When Anxiety Hits Your Marriage: Dr. Ed Welch
What's it look like to help an anxious spouse? Psychologist Dr. Ed Welch offers real wisdom—and real hope—for the dark waters of fear. Find practical insights for navigating tough areas together with a bedrock trust in God's love.
About the Guest
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How do you help an anxious spouse? Psychologist Dr. Ed Welch offers practical insights for the dark waters of fear—starting with bedrock trust in God’s love.
When Anxiety Hits Your Marriage: Dr. Ed Welch
FamilyLife Today® National Radio Version (time edited) Transcript
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When Anxiety Hits Your Marriage
Guest: Ed Welch
From the series: When Mental Illness Comes Home (Day 2 of 2)
Air date: July 4, 2023
Dave: Sometimes I think that you think that when you’re struggling with fear or anxiety, that I’m not a very good husband. And when my kids struggle with that, I don’t think I do a great job.
Ann: [Laughing] If I’m in a mood that’s not super-joyful—
Dave: Okay, you don’t have to be that honest.
Dave: I know where you’re going to go with this.
Ann: You’re like, “What’s wrong? Why are you so sad?” And I’m not sad! I’m just quiet.
Dave: That’s because you have positivity as one of your highest traits, and when you’re not positive, I almost crumble. [Laughter] I’m just being honest! It’s like I don’t do well when you’re struggling. I need to do better.
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 or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So, we’ve got help in the studio. Ed Welch is back with us. Ed, you’re my counselor today! You were yesterday, too, but welcome back.
Ed: Thank you.
Dave: What are you thinking? I need help! [Laughter]
Ed: Well, you were saying a couple of things: one is something I can appreciate. My wife’s well-being is my own well-being.
Ed: When she’s not right, then—
Dave: We are one, right?
Ed: I can’t be right. So, that’s the baby way to live, of course. The other is Psalm 62:8. If we’re having a harder day, “pour out your heart.” The psalmist is the one who exhorts us to do that: “The Lord is a Refuge. Pour out your heart.” Pour out your heart. That’s how we do life in the kingdom of heaven. So, the alternative for us as husbands is, rather than trying to rescue our spouse—
Sometimes—and I think you’re making an important point—we do it for our well-being. [Laughter] Because if our wives aren’t well, somehow, the foundation for our own lives is getting a bit more difficult. But in the house of God, as we observe, how does the Lord speak? He says, “Pour out your heart.” “Tell me more about your day.” Then, could you imagine for us, as husbands, to say, “How are you? Pour out your heart and tell me more. Could I pray for you?” Or even, if we don’t know how to pray: “Given what you’re saying, ‘How could I pray for you?’”
Could there be anything more simple than that? We as husbands are not being really smart; we’re not figuring it out. [Laughter] We’re saying two to three things: “Could you tell me more?” We want our compassion to be aroused. We want our spouse to move us, the challenges of our wife’s day. We don’t want to give up until we are moved! “Ah, I think I know what you’re talking about! That is hard! Now, how can we turn to Jesus? What is it that we want to ask of Him?” Any husband could do that! Any wife could do that as well, for their husband.
Ann: This is the best marriage advice ever! [Laughter]
Dave: Well, I was just going to say: you just captured what a husband—a Christian husband and dad—
Ann: And wife!
Dave: —or mom and wife—should look like! You’ve been a counselor four decades plus! You’ve got kids, grandkids.
Ed: Eight kids, yes; and eight grandkids.
Dave: Were you that dad? Were you that husband? Was that something you were able to do?
Ed: I think I apologize to my wife regularly for the first 15 years of marriage! [Laughter]
Ed: She would bring a concern in my life to me, and I would get defensive.
Ed: When she would do things that were hurtful—and it wasn’t necessarily what she had said, but it was the way I took it—I would get quiet, which, if you looked at us, it wouldn’t look that horrible, because I wasn’t yelling or screaming, but it was worse. It was worse.
I can remember a counseling situation where the wife said, “My image of my marriage is my husband turning the other direction and walking away.” And this husband was, actually. He would walk away in the midst of it. I wasn’t literally walking away, but indeed, my wife would experience that my back was turned. In contrast to, here’s life in God’s house: the Lord turns to us face-to-face and shows us His pleasure. Here I am doing the exact opposite of what my Father does.
Experience, I think, is useful. It’s part of wisdom; but I am always struck by the simplicity of things that are especially good.
Ed: And the blessings. For example, I’m not a natural leader. So, every once in a while, I start thinking, “How can I be a better leader for my wife? That’s what I’m supposed to be!” [Laughter] And then, I’ll ask her: “Do you want me to be a better leader?” I think I expect her to say, “You’re great the way you are! No!” But she says, “Yes, I think that would be great.” [Laughter] Ay, ay, ay!
Dave: And then, you get defensive! “I’m a pretty good leader!”
Ed: I’ve grown out of that a little bit. But all of the sudden, it becomes complex. “What can I do? How should I do it?” [Sigh] But typically, if we’re on that path, where we’re thinking and thinking and thinking, and we don’t have the right answers, we’re missing a path that is a bit more simple. Maybe I’ll put it this way (and this is Psalm 121): when we grow up, we want to be a child. That’s what we aspire to be. It’s not a matter of insight; it’s a matter of dependence, and also sort of getting the knack of how life works by watching our Father in action. One of the things He says is, “Tell me more. Pour out your heart.”
Dave: You write in here—I love this sort of definition of anxiety. It says, “When anxiety happens, it’s a signal that something important to you is threatened: your money, your reputation, your relationships, or your health.” Help us understand that, because I think, oftentimes, we don’t connect that when we feel fear and anxiety; that something is being threatened.
Ed: We want to pour out our hearts to the Lord in the midst of our anxiety. And there’s more than we can do. We can ask questions of it: “There’s a threat here. What is the threat?” Well, typically, I find the threat is financial: “If this happens, will I be able to care for my wife in retirement or whatever?”
Ed: I’m sort of getting to that sort of age. “Will I have enough money to care for her?”
Dave: Oh, yes. That’s a big one!
Ed: So, finances would be, certainly, a prominent one. Reputation would be another: “What’s going to happen? What are people going to think?” The opinions of other people. And the other would be life and death issues: my own health and the health of those I love. We usually don’t have to go farther than those places, or variations of those, to see where our anxieties lie.
Now, identifying those things—is that going to help us in itself? It’s going to help us to be more specific, perhaps. “Lord, here it is!” I see the way Jesus lived; I see the way the disciples lived; I see how He sends people off without anything and relies on, you know, the towns they go to. I see that, but I still feel like I need to have a little bit of a nest egg! [Laughter]
Dave: Of course!
Ed: My anxiety. “Lord, have mercy!” So, sometimes, being able to identify what the problem is might not help that much. But I will say, when it comes down to money: “Lord, there it is again! There’s the fear!”
Ann: This is Dave’s language, right here, as we’re talking—your anxiety!
Dave: Well, thanks for telling the world! [Laughter]
Ed: Yes! It’s not so much how far we are down the road. It’s, “Are we turning to Jesus a little bit more quickly?” That’s what we’re after. So, when we see, “Yes, there it is! There are the financial fears again!” By the way, I used to use the financial fears as a way to say—Sheri’s my wife; I would say, “Sheri, I have these fears because I’m concerned for you.”
Dave: There you go!
Ed: And then she would say, “Well, I don’t have those fears!”
Ann: That’s what I would say!
Ed: I’d say, “That’s no fair!” [Laughter] So, now, it really is my particular problem.
Dave: I mean, I want to say, “You’re just naïve! You should really be scared!” [Laughter]
Ed: And the Lord is so gracious to us! He has compassion for us. Because, to live without much in the bank; to live when you watch the silos going down; life is in jeopardy in such a situation.
Ed: And He’s not rolling His eyes, shaking His head, saying, “When’s this guy ever going to trust Me?”
Ed: He says, “Turn to Me. Speak about these things.” Perhaps we might say, “How can I grow from a person of little faith in this area, to a person who has bigger faith,” which is a lifetime worth of work, and it’s a lifetime worth of work of “Who is this God that we trust?” That’s what we’re doing with finances.
And then, another fear that I tend to have is the fear of death. What do we mean by fear of death? I’ve found, in my own life, there are two particular fears of death. The first one I noticed was—and, again, this might sound silly, but—I would often talk to my wife about hoping there were visiting privileges in heaven, because she was going to live in a completely different area code than I was! [Laughter] And I was just hoping that I would be able to visit!
Ann: Because she’s more spiritual? She’ll have better digs?
Ed: Absolutely! A heavenly ghetto, I’m sure, is a fine thing! [Laughter] But there are times where I would think about [how] I would see Jesus face-to-face, and He would roll His eyes a little bit and say [disgusted voice], “Get in there!” [Laughter]
Dave: “You skimmed in!”
Ed: Right! “You said, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and you sought to follow Me in your own wretched way. Get in there!” You know, I can joke about that, and I would joke with my wife about that occasionally, but obviously, there are seeds of truth in it. At some point, as I began to see Scripture—you know, to see Jesus face-to-face is one of the grandest moments, because it also means we’re going to be sinless at the same time!
Ed: Everything is going to change! To see the One we haven’t quite seen with our eyes; to see Him face-to-face! I was realizing that, “I am not understanding reality correctly!” So, it became an opportunity for me to pray, “Lord, here’s what I want.” Some of the great prayers of Scripture are in Ephesians: “That we would know the expanse of the love of Christ.” The Spirit does many things, but one of His prize missions is that He desires to give us confidence of the love of God for us! He wants to give us confidence of the love of God poured out for us.
So, you see where we’re going. It’s, “Okay, I have these fears.” Everybody has fears of death and dying and those sorts of things. Well, dig in a little bit more: “What are those fears?” I look at my life. I would be disappointed to see myself, because I can see my own faults and failures. And I’m sure Jesus sees them more keenly than I do, obviously. So, He’s going to be even more disappointed. Well, I am thinking of Jesus as another human being, rather than as the One who delights in forgiving us; rather than the One who loves us first; who has loved us from the very foundation of the world.
So, you can see how fear is the occasion to say, “Lord, search me.” To being asking questions of our hearts: “Where does that fear lie?” And there might be other things that the Lord gives us; that the Spirit gives us. But here’s what we know: whatever the Spirit gives us is going to sound beautiful. If it doesn’t sound beautiful, we’re not on it! That’s the path that He gave me. And I’m just giving you one illustration of fear: the fear of death. Other fears can be how we’re going to die. That’s a different question.
Dave: Yes, when you said that earlier, you know our fear is when something’s threatened—money, reputation—I immediately thought of Matthew 6. I thought, “Wow, is that why Jesus went right to that?” Where He says, in Matthew 6:25, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious”—here we are—“about” what? “life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food?” So, it's a long discourse, all the way down to the end. And I know you know this, but it’s like He’s really going after everything you just said. Your fears and anxieties are based on these things, and you just said it so well: He’s trying to say, “I love you. If you seek Me first, these things—I’ve got ‘em!” Right?
Ed: That particular passage, I’ve known it for years, and I’ve wanted it to bust open more and more. And it has been busting open a little bit more. I think, even over the past week, I’ve been thinking about this passage. There are two things in the passage that I’ve found useful. I mean, there are a bunch of things! One is that Jesus is calling us to seek the Kingdom today. To paraphrase His conclusion in Matthew, Chapter 6: “Seek the Kingdom today, and Your Father will worry about tomorrow.” He knows you, and He takes these concerns—even these financial concerns—He takes them seriously! And He will be the One who will worry Himself.
There’ve been times at work where I’ve had something on my mind that I thought was important. I would tell somebody else about it, and I knew they weren’t going to do anything with it; so, I would keep it in mind. I would note: “That person’s not going to do anything, and I think this is important.” I would tell it to another person, and they would say, “I’ve got it. I know what you’re saying, and I’m going to do something with it.” Now, I can release it. I don’t have to carry this particular worry anymore, because I know somebody else is now worried about it.
The principle there is really this picture of manna. That’s what Jesus is identifying. Manna was such a perfect treatment for the anxious heart, where for—what?—decades, Jesus will take care—He was the manna.
Ed: He gives the manna; He was the manna! Every day, He will give you what you need for that day.
Ed: But the brilliance of it, except for the Sabbath, He doesn’t give you enough for tomorrow, because if He did, then you don’t come to Him! You’re no longer dependent on Him. As long as the manna’s going to last, you’re living on your own! You’re living this independent life. It’s just the worst thing that could happen to us! How do we live dependently today? That’s the beauty of the Christian life.
Ann: How do you do that day-by-day? What does that look like?
Ed: I speak to Him. I say, “Lord, here it is again! I know that You have it. What do I need to do now? What’s the grace? What’s the manna that You’ve given more for today?”
“Lord, give me that tunnel vision,” in a sense. You know? “Give me those blinders, where I’m looking ahead and loving the person who’s in front of me.” He will give me the grace for whenever the hard things of tomorrow happen; and there will be hard things. So, that would be one. A second thing that I’ve found to be helpful—and let me bridge this to the passage in Matthew 8, a couple chapters later after Matthew, Chapter 6. This was when Jesus was in the boat with the disciples. He sleeps in the boat. [Laughter]
I believe there’s something psalmic in that, where in Psalm, Chapter 4, it talks about how we can sleep, because God is awake. He is the One who cares for us. Jesus was this living illustration of that in the boat! What happened was, they didn’t take their cue from Him. They never said, “Well, He’s back there sleeping! So, He’s okay with this!”
Dave: “We must be okay,” yes.
Ed: “I guess everything’s okay.” I can think of a bunch of illustrations for this, but for example, if we have a possibly bad diagnosis when we’re going to a physician, if the physician seems to be fairly casual in his or her response, it’s like, “You know, the physician’s not too concerned about it, so I guess I don’t have to be concerned about it [either].” I think that’s part of that story in Matthew, Chapter 8. The disciples weren’t taking their cues from Jesus.
In Matthew, Chapter 6, it’s very similar, where the picture is like this wonderful walk. We’re on the walk; we’re looking at the lilies of the field, we’re looking at the birds. He’s the One who knows us. He knows the difficulties we’re facing and the hard things tomorrow; but when we look at Him, He’s not worried. He’s okay with this! And you can almost inhabit the life of a child in this: here you’re walking with your Father. “Alright, I don’t know where this is going, and I’m a little bit concerned myself, but He’s not concerned at all, so I’m just going to enjoy the walk!”
So, that’s—I’m just trying to glean a few extra things out of that.
Dave: No, that’s great! Here’s another thought. Tell me this, Ed. A thing that really helps me in anxiety, or when I’m feeling fearful—and it will often be money or the future—is a simple word. And I think it’s Deuteronomy 8, where—
Ed: You got me on the edge of my seat. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, here it is, where the Lord says to the nation of Israel, as they go into the Promised Land, “Remember—when you have the nice houses, and you have the food, remember—the Lord your God.” That, often, when I’m lying in bed and I can’t sleep because of fear, that’s what will calm me. I pour out, “God, I’m scared about this. I’m not sure about this,” it’s like: “Just remember. Have I taken care of you? Go ahead! Just filter back through the last 50 years of your life.”
I think, for me, that has helped me as well. “Pour out your heart,” but also remind yourself, “He’s come through in the past. I know He’ll come through again. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I can trust Him.”
Ed: That’s inspiring, and it seems to be what you find in the Psalms more often than not, where they remember the past; they remember God’s faithfulness. So far, that hasn’t been helpful for me. I know it.
Ed: I remember it; but it doesn’t change the pitch of my anxieties—
Dave: Right then.
Ed: —in any way at all in that particular moment. So, I think for me, it’s—well, here’s my own maturity. It began with, “Here are these anxieties. I have to do something about it.” And then, a day later, I said, “Oh, I didn’t pray.” So, I’m finding myself calling out more quickly. It’s becoming instinctive now.
But here’s the next step for me. You know, I go to a church; I’m part of a small group. I am the leader of the small group, which means I can do whatever I want. [Laughter] So, when we pray, I want to hear what’s on everybody's heart; and then, I can remember this one [time], just a few weeks ago, there were reasons for anxieties in my life, and I almost did not get it out of my mouth; the simple request! “I find myself anxious for this, and for this. Could you pray that I would continue to fix my eyes on Jesus, and maybe—maybe—even know a little, tiny semblance of rest in the midst of it?”
I eventually asked them, but I was stunned by how difficult it was for me to confess fears! And I don’t believe fears are sinful.
Dave: Right, right.
Ed: We’re not rebuked by the Lord in the midst of our fears. But it didn’t matter if it was sinful or not, it felt like a kind of weakness. To confess my weakness to people I love, and people who love me, I was stunned by my hesitancy! But that’s the phase I’m in now. I’ve been able to do that with my wife for a while, but to go outside the boundaries of my own home to ask friends to pray for me about my own fears, and maybe even give them a passage to pray—that’s where I am now.
Dave: The thing that hit me over the last 20 minutes with you was, “Pour out your heart to Me.” But not only to God, but to another person. I thought, you know—Ann, do you feel that? Do our kids feel that? As a husband, as a dad, as a mom, as a wife, do you feel like you’re created a space in your marriage where your spouse feels like, “I want to pour out my heart to you, because you want to know my heart?”
We know God does, so we don’t even question it. We do, but do we feel that fear you felt in sharing with your small group? Does our family feel that? I want to create an environment in my home where my sons say, “I want to run home and tell Dad! I want to run home and tell Mom! I want to run home and tell my wife, because she’s safe, and she wants to hear it. There will be a comfort there.”
Ann: And the temptation would be just to fix it when we become fearful as a parent or as a spouse. We just kind of want to fix it for them instead of asking that question: “Tell me more.”
Ed: And doesn’t it make sense that the times that my wife, my children, and even some of the people I counsel—the most memorable times for them have been times where I’ve confessed sin or asked them to pray for me in the midst of my weakness?
Ed: I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that those are the most dramatic intrusions of the kingdom of heaven in their lives.
Shelby: When we’re humble enough to be honest about how we’re not doing well, these are the moments when God and others move toward us. Remember that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The people in our lives have a tendency to do the same: give grace to the humble. Man, if only I lived that way more often!
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ed Welch on FamilyLife Today. He’s written a book called I Have a Psychiatric Diagnosis: What Does the Bible Say? It’s an important question to ask, especially because mental health is very much on the landscape of people’s hearts and minds in this day and age. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I’m excited, because at the end of this week, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be talking with Paul Miller in the studio. Paul has written a book called Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus. This book is really encouraging and convicting, because it gives us a look at Jesus’s life on earth. Now, through that lens, it gives practical answers to questions such as: “How do you love when you have your own baggage in a relationship? When do you take care of yourself?” Again, these are honest and practical questions that Paul addresses.
Now, this book is going to be our gift to you when you partner with us financially at FamilyLife. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com or give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.” And feel free to drop us something in the mail. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
Now, I’m super-excited, because tomorrow, my friend, Heather Holleman, is going to be with Dave and Ann Wilson. She’s going to talk to us about how, wherever you are, God has a reason for your to be there. When you’re there, you need to keep your eyes open for what God is going to do in your life. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us!
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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