“One of your most important tasks as new parents–or becoming parents for the second, third, or fourth time–is to resolve that, eighteen years from now, you will love each other more deeply, be more emotionally connected, and more spiritually supportive in your marriage. That won’t happen by accident! Something as wonderful as welcoming a new life into this world can be a huge benefit to your relationship or, in some sad cases, the death knell of joy and togetherness. It’s your choice! Here’s how and why Debra and John chose the ‘let’s get closer together’ option.”
And Baby Makes Three
Debra and John had been married for three years when their first daughter came along.
“It was a major change right from the start,” John remembers. “Just drastically different. On
top of Deb having a new baby, we moved to a new city and I started residency.”
It didn’t help that their daughter wasn’t exactly a “cherub.” “She was a little drill sergeant,”
Debra laughs, “who wanted everything to revolve around her. I literally felt like I was on house
arrest for a season.
“Oh, and John was working a hundred hours a week in residency, which meant I felt like a
single mom. He was on call almost all the time and only had four days off a month.”
Further adding to their challenge, Debra went through postpartum depression. “I didn’t know
what it was at the time, but hormonally I was completely messed up. And John is sort of like
Mister Rogers optimistic. He didn’t know what to do with me. Eventually, his tactic of dealing
with my depression was to withdraw, which is not at all what I needed or wanted.”
Sexual intimacy, which had been a valued and enjoyable part of their relationship, became
something of a stranger. John attributes some of his withdrawal to sheer weariness. “I had
interest in intimacy but not much energy for intimacy. All the pictures we have of me that year
are me lying down sleeping with the baby on top of me.”
It was hard for Debra not to take some of this personally. “The manuals always say the man
usually initiates sex, but John definitely was not initiating, so it made me feel even worse. I’m
reading all these books about how he’s ‘supposed’ to be that way, so when he wasn’t and I was
already feeling depressed, it made me feel even worse. It was a really bad combination.”
Debra’s former default mode of thinking is a common but devastating one. We take
something universal and make it personal. It’s understandable why we do that, but it never helps.
Working one-hundred-hour weeks will dampen the sexual ardor of just about anyone. John’s
disinterest, though hurtful, wasn’t a reflection of Debra being undesirable; it was simply a
reflection of him being tired.
I’ve heard it said, “Make the situation your enemy instead of your spouse.”¹
I talked to a wife in charge of her company’s tech needs. Their system crashed during a busy
season, and she had executives above her and colleagues below her screaming out their
frustration about how they couldn’t get anything done until she got the system back up and
running. She knew her husband was feeling ignored as she worked nights and weekends, but her
workmates screamed louder than he did.
Her husband could have recognized her panic and showed empathy and understanding.
Instead, he felt hurt and neglected, only adding to her stress, and then he ended up getting into an
emotional affair. He took personally what was happening. Pride got in the way, which is what
happens when we take what our spouse is going through and make it a statement about us rather
than seeking to understand, support, and encourage our spouse.
Becoming hyperaware of our own hurt and frustration can blind us to the hurt and frustration
our spouse is going through. I’m not talking about abusive situations in which a spouse needs to
seek safety rather than understanding. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t connect emotionally. I’m
talking about self-focus and self-obsession that make us so aware of our own lot in life that we
have no mental space to have empathy for our spouse. The apostle Paul urges believers to
counter this “self first” approach to life when he tells us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3–4). This isn’t a onetime teaching
of Paul’s, by the way. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:24: “No one should seek their own good, but
the good of others.”
Spiritual maturity means learning to think of others first. Spiritual maturity means defaulting
to curiosity before condemnation, empathy before judgment, and care before censure. Marriage
is one of the best training grounds for learning how to adopt this attitude.
Allowing emotional disconnection to continue is hazardous to your marriage. Drs. Hart and
May define distressed marriages as “those where spouses are no longer emotionally connected in
a secure and loving way.”¹ Disconnection is distress. Admit it, but don’t put up with it.
Withdrawing from Withdrawal
Dr. John Gottman calls withdrawal—something John was doing in his marriage—one of the
“four horsemen of the apocalypse,” relationally speaking.² And, interestingly enough, he says
that most stonewallers (his overall term for withdrawers) are men. Withdrawal can sound
passive, but it’s actively destructive. Gottman lists stonewalling, especially when women
stonewall, as a fairly reliable predictor of divorce.²
Let’s look at why withdrawal didn’t doom John and Debra to this fate. When stonewalling
arises, it is often reinforced by what Gottman calls “emotional flooding.”³ The husband feels
overwhelmed with his wife’s concerns and verbal attacks. Gottman warns in particular about
“harsh start-ups—when the wife (though it’s not always the wife) responds to the husband’s withdrawal by beginning the conversation in a harsh manner, with words that are immediate, hot,
loud, intense, and sharp.”4
“You never listen to me!”
“You prioritize everything but me!”
“You never pay attention to me!”
Statements like these put the other spouse on the defensive. An emotionally connected couple
feels safe; a spouse under attack naturally wants to defend themselves. If your spouse doesn’t feel
safe with you, they can’t feel intimate with you. If your marriage isn’t a place of security, it will
never be a place of emotional connection.
Before you express your anger, express your love. Before you express your disappointment,
express your overwhelming desire to be close to each other. Instead of saying, “How could you
do this to me?” say, “I love you so much, and I’m scared that we’re drifting apart,” or “I really
miss you,” or “I hate how this challenge is pulling us apart.”
Think safety. Think connection. These are the two “pedals” of marriage that will help you
ride back together. Harsh words, verbal attacks, and sullen silence take a bad situation and make
it worse. As the proverb writer says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs
up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Learn how to feel grief and pain and yet talk with invitation and
empathy: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may
know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).
Hart and May explain: “What the research does show is that fighting—and by this we mean
arguments and disagreements, not physical encounters—is not necessarily hazardous to a
marriage . . . John Gottman’s research found that it wasn’t the content of arguments that
predicted divorce, but the emotional disengagement that accompanies these fights . . . As long as couples remain emotionally connected, their marriages can survive until they find a way around
After stumbling along for a few months, Debra started to feel a little better as her hormones
gradually returned to normal levels. That gave her enough energy to examine their marriage with
more insight and perspective.
“Something had to give. John couldn’t work less and we couldn’t return the baby, so that left
me as the remaining link to create something different. I had to adjust something.”
I love Debra’s attitude. It’s so easy during difficult seasons of marriage to start to feel sorry
for ourselves, which only makes us feel worse, which further depletes our energy, which causes
things to slip a little further in the wrong direction, which reinforces our discouragement, and so
on. In her books and counseling practice, Debra preaches active resistance and God-inspired
initiation.³ Instead of just passively letting things happen, we need to take charge, with God’s
help, and work to find a way through, leaning on this promise: “I am the LORD your God who
takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13). Life
isn’t easy, so sometimes we need to lean into the Spirit’s comfort and assistance to confront
what’s off-kilter and give our marriage another try.
Every marriage that maintains long-term emotional connection is a marriage in which, during
various seasons, one partner had to take the first step. One partner had to temporarily carry more
of the load.
Part of John and Debra’s marital recovery meant that John had to learn how to help Debra
cope with her depression. Some women in Debra’s situation might have resented their husbands’
withdrawal, but most men don’t have a psychology degree. Most people don’t know how to
identify depression or don’t know what to do even if there has been a diagnosis. Expecting your
spouse to understand and have the right response ready just because they love you isn’t realistic.
Explaining to your spouse what’s going on and then talking together about how to address it is
the best way to make your marriage a fortress.
Eventually, Debra and John’s marriage came back together. The experience of postpartum
depression actually increased their intimacy because it forced them to face and overcome
something new, something they had to face as a couple, not just as individuals.
If you’re the spouse working crazy hours or the spouse staying home, or if both of you are
trying to return to work as soon as possible after a baby is born—no matter what your situation
is—face it as a couple. Talk about it as a couple. Both of you may feel like you’re drowning, but
it’s vital to learn how to swim out of it together. Isolation creates a third problem, which may
become an even bigger challenge than what led to the isolation in the first place. Independently
“gritting your teeth and bearing it” can result in resentment and emotional separation.
Admit that it’s difficult for both of you. Admit that both of you feel shortchanged. Admit that
neither one of you seems to be having all that much fun. Instead of resenting each other, pursue
empathy for each other. If your spouse is experiencing depression, you can even say, “I’m sorry
you’re going through this. I don’t know how to help, but I want to. Tell me what would help you
the most in this season.” Even if you feel like you never signed up for this and have a spouse
who is completely different from the one you married, an empathetic response is what’s needed.
Whatever you do, don’t make it “me versus you.” You can be frustrated with your spouse and feel empathy for your spouse at the same time. In fact, a successful, intimate marriage will require you to do just that.
If you’ve never had children before (or multiple children at the same time), you can’t fault
yourself or each other for not knowing what to do the first time around. In whatever season you
and your spouse are in, let the uncertainty and the search for solutions become a glue that binds
you ever closer together.
¹ I’m sorry I don’t know the actual genesis of this quote. It was suggested to me by a friend, and I’ve held on to it.
And my friend didn’t know where she heard it either. ² For the “four horsemen” image, see Revelation 6:1–8. ³ To learn more about Debra’s books and ministry, visit www.truelovedates.com.
¹ Hart and May, Safe Haven Marriage, 9.
² Much of my discussion about withdrawal is based on Hart and May, Safe Haven Marriage, 101–2; see also Ellie
Lisitsa, “The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling,” Gottman Institute, www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-
³ Cited in Hart and May, Safe Haven Marriage, 102.
4 Cited in Hart and May, Safe Haven Marriage, 104.
5 Hart and May, Safe Haven Marriage, 15–16, italics in original.
If you would like to read more, buy Gary Thomas’s new book, Making Your Marriage a Fortress: Strengthening Your Marriage to Withstand Life’s Storms, here.
Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?
Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?