Gary Thomas: Lifelong Love that Fights the Drift
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Gary ThomasGary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of 20 books, including When to Walk Away, Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Cherish, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith. He has a master’s degree from Regent College, where he studied u...more
Feeling the drift in your marriage? Author Gary Thomas explores how intimacy with God helps us go the distance in marriage and fight for lifelong love.
Gary Thomas: Lifelong Love that Fights the Drift
Dave: If you think back to when we were struggling, what did we do wrong?
Ann: You mean when our marriage has struggled?
Dave: What do you think we did wrong?—besides saying it was all my fault!
Ann: We got angry and resentful; we pulled away from one another. I stopped talking.
What do you think?
Dave: I think we lost our sense of calling/—
Dave: —our sense of mission. I think, for me, I became very inward-focused on my happiness and my dreams—you not meeting them—I got frustrated, and I pulled away.
Ann: Yes, and I think I started getting obsessed with your weaknesses/how you were pulling away. [Laughter] I was very selfish and prideful, thinking that it was all your fault.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: Every couple—we were included—wants to have a lifelong marriage.
Dave: That’s the goal. On day one, you’re like, “I don’t want this to end in a year or ten years.”
Ann: Right! We long for it.
Dave: We see the picture of ourselves now—bald, empty nesters—
Ann: —but handsome.
Dave: —and that’s the dream. The question is: “How do you get there?”
We have Gary Thomas back in the studio today with us to talk about how to do a lifelong love. Gary, welcome back.
Gary: Thank you for having me.
Dave: Now, you wrote a book called A Lifelong Love.
Dave: It’s obviously all about how you do marriage [for the] long distance. You’ve written 20 books. I mean, of all the books you’ve written, though, where does this rank in terms of the message you were trying to get at?
Ann: Well, let me say what the subtitle is, too, Dave; it’s Discovering How Intimacy with God Brings Passion into Your Marriage, which is a great subtitle.
Gary: Well, Sacred Marriage, which was just sort of what I became known for, was really, in one sense, I think, a spiritual formation book: “How does God use the challenges, the difficulties, the frustrations of marriage to help us grow and to become more like Christ?” It really gets at the root issues of marriage.
This [A Lifelong Love] was my first more: “How does this understanding draw the two of you together to build intimacy so that you have a lifelong love?” Both words matter—a “lifelong”: how do you go the distance?—but a “love”; so it’s qualitative, not just quantitative, that you’re building it.
And what you mentioned with drift is the problem with every marriage, because we live as fallen people in a fallen world. This is not a world that’s neutral toward our love; I want every listener to get that!
- There are real spiritual beings going to war against your affection for each other. That’s Satan; the Bible talks about the devil, “prowls around like a roaring lion.” He hates families being together. Real spiritual beings [are] attacking your faith.
- You have your own sin pulling you apart from each other. Our tendency is, like Adam and Eve, to hide when our sin is exposed. I mean, the accountability of marriage is a wonderful, holy, and sacred thing; and it’s a terrifying thing, so I might start to hide from my wife.
- And then, you just have a fallen world: we get sick; we get fired; we have kids who aren’t always on their best behavior. [Laughter] It’s a world that’s hostile to our relationship!
We have to realize: “Okay, if we’re going to stay together, we can’t drift; because we’re being taken downstream.” And that’s true of everything. You don’t drift into physical fitness; you drift into being a couch potato. [Laughter] In most areas, we have to realize: “Okay, if we want to go upward, we have to go against the natural inertia.”
The same thing is true of a marriage: You can be infatuated with each other, spiritually idealistic—“This is a great match,”—but if you don’t keep pressing toward each other, you’ll pull apart.
Dave: And how do you stop the drift?
Ann: —the drift?
Dave: Because, as you say that, every couple is like,—
Ann: Oh, yes!
Dave: “Yes, been there!” Except maybe the pre-marrieds; they’re like, “That’s not going to happen to us!”
Ann: We thought that! We thought—
Dave: We thought it.
Ann: —“Oh, we’re going to be different. We will not fall into the drift.” But it’s natural!
Ann: We just go with the flow, as you said.
Ann: We go downstream with it.
Gary: Well, I want people to listen to yesterday’s broadcast, where we talked about The Magnificent Obsession; because I do think spiritual purpose is so key.
Dave: Give us one sentence on that; you know?
Gary: Yes; “Seeking first the kingdom of God”: that you were made for more than marriage; you were made for a mission. And the closest marriages have a mission outside of their marriage that draws them together.
Gary: But then, beyond that, just recognize that, throughout our lives—because lives can be long—there are certain things that pull us away from each other.
There is just something about the male mind—it shouldn’t be this way; I wish we weren’t this way—but I’ve seen so many counselors who’ve talked about it, where “Getting the girl,” so to speak, is our accomplishment; and then, all of a sudden: “Okay, now I’m going to get a promotion,” “I’m going to become a scratch golfer,” “I’m going to finish rebuilding that car.”
Our wife, before she was our wife, was just this high priority. Now, she feels like she’s five or six.
Ann: I would say this, too, Gary: I remember this woman wrote me a letter; and she said, “I feel like I was totally duped!
Ann: “My husband goes after me; he spends time with me, talking; he wins me and woos me.” She said, “Now, we’re married. I feel like now he’s on to another hunt.
Ann: “I feel like he saw me; he shot me; he bagged me; he put me on the mantle, and now, he’s off to the next hunt.”
Ann: And it’s exactly what you’re saying!
Gary: No, that’s exactly what I’m describing. I’m imploring the men: “Not to let that happen! It is one of the greatest acts of fraud we can ever commit.”
Dave: Now, did you do it?
Gary: I think to some degree. I mean, I was pretty conscientious. For whatever reason, I really wanted to be a good husband. I was reading Gary Smalley books, back in our early days of marriage, believe it or not. [Laughter]
Ann: Oh, we did too!!
Dave: Oh, we were too.
Gary: And then, I was asked to sign his books. People thought I was him, later on in my life! [Laughter] That’s just kind of ironic.
But I just think there’s this natural male ambition that: “We want to get this done,” or “…that done.” And we just have to realize that: “Guys, what we did to win our wives, we should do to keep our wives.” There is that sense, where wives feel like, “I’m just more invested in this!” And how do wives often respond? Because here’s what a lot of husbands say: she starts to have kids; and suddenly, he feels left out!
Gary: Because she’s thinking, “Hey, this guy duped me!
Gary: “But now, I have these kids; and I can have this relationship [with them].” It can carry some people away, because babies can be amazing; but often, that’s where the husband feels like the wife is pushing away. He feels like she’s—and wives hate it when guys say this—“I feel like you’re having an affair with our child.”
What often happens, after the husband feels like the wife is more invested in the kids, and he feels left out, [is] then he doubles down; and he rediscovers golf or rediscovers his—
Dave: Yes; I was going to say, “He doesn’t always pursue her more; he goes outside.”
Gary: Yes; so now, he gets his ego needs met outside the house. The wife often doubles down and is saying: “You’re an absent father,” “You’re a terrible husband.” But he gets on the golf course, and he hears, “Man! That guy can knock it straight down the fairway, 275 yards!” [Laughter] His ego needs [are met]; okay? So he likes to be outside now, which pulls them even further apart.
Then what happens, if this isn’t addressed, is that, eventually, the last kid leaves; so the wife doesn’t have that anymore, and they’ve been pulled apart. Pretty much, they stop at the lawyer’s on the way home from dropping the last kid off at college, saying, “Okay, we raised our kids together,”—but they never really built intimacy—they’ve been teammates!
Gary: And if you just raise kids as teammates, not as intimate partners—if you’ve never built real intimacy—when the season is over, you go your separate ways.
It’s just recognizing those vulnerabilities and saying, “Okay, we don’t want to let this happen. We are committed to putting each other first/to making each other a priority, and to not let this drift.” Because most of us—you said it, Dave—“We want onemarriage, and we want it to work. So let’s invest in it, and make it the best marriage we can; and not just do this ping-ponging, back and forth.
Dave: You know, I think, in some ways—I don’t know if every guy is this way—I also drifted, because I thought I was doing a good job as a husband. I thought she was satisfied! I thought I was better than I was. I didn’t realize we had drifted, even though I noticed, “Boy, she is pouring her life into the kids. I am pouring my life into the job and pursuing this mission I think God has given us.” But at the same time—
Ann: But how did you think I was satisfied at that point?
Dave: —well, that’s what you always said—“How in the world can you think our marriage is a 10 when I think it’s a 0.5?” I just thought, “I’m doing a pretty good job.” I don’t know if every guy thinks that; but there is part of me, thinking, “We’re not as bad as she thinks we are.” [Laughter] And then, it took a crisis to get me back.
Dave: Is that normal? Because I think a lot of us are disengaged until we realize: “Oh, my goodness! This marriage is in trouble, and a lot of it’s my fault.” Then, we start to fight the drift. Is that common?
Gary: I think, sadly, it is. We can just get used to living distant lives; but eventually, we get lonely; and we’re not willing to put up with it. I try to plead with couples: “If you’re unsatisfied with a disconnected marriage, there are two things you can do. You can get a divorce, or you can become a connected marriage.” My advice is to try to become a connected marriage first and see how that goes. Because you might be wanting to run from the disconnection, but you can get reconnected! A good marriage isn’t something you find—it’s something you make—and you have to keep on making it.
A couple things that can keep couples connected as we try to build this. One is a silly little thing I talk about—but it’s actually helpful—called “Killing spiders.”
Gary: If there’s a spider in our house, it’s dead; I’m killing it—not because I have a problem with spiders—they actually eat other insects, so they can be good. But my wife just hates to see them. Some of them leave webs behind; and so because I love my wife, and she hates spiders, I hate spiders.
- The principle is: “I want to make my wife feel safe and connected to me. I’ll care about what she cares about.”
Let me give you some examples:
- Let’s say her dad had been an alcoholic—he wasn’t at all, but I’m just using that—if her dad was an alcoholic, and she had these memories of smelling it on her dad’s breath, and seeing the devastation in her family, I could just imagine, if she smelled it on my breath, the horror of her childhood would come rushing back. If I want her to feel safe around me, I need to kill that spider. It’s about what makes my wife feel connected to me. If this pushes her away, I’m going to kill that spider; because I want her to be connected to me.
- Let’s say we were on our second marriage—we’re not—we’ve only been married to each other. But let’s say her first marriage was destroyed by a husband who watched too many video games. Okay, that took down her first marriage; and I could imagine, if I had this game controller out, and she says, “Hey, honey, I’m going upstairs. Do you want to meet me?” “Yes, I’ll be there in five minutes.” And time goes by, and maybe it’s 90 minutes; I go upstairs, and she’s asleep. I’ve got to be thinking, “Okay, she’s going, ‘This destroyed my first marriage; here goes my second marriage.’” I’m like, “Okay, I need to kill that spider. It's not worth it to have a separate hobby that’s making my wife feel disconnected from me.”
It’s not whether it’s morally allowed or not; —
Gary: —it’s: “What serves my marriage?”
Some guys might say: “Well, hey, I like the occasional beer,” or “Why can’t I enjoy video games?” My response is: “If you knew what an emotionally-connected marriage feels like—arm in arm, heart to heart, soul to soul—no individual pursuit can match that. It’s a much lesser sacrifice to get that together.
But we all have to recognize: all of us have “spiders” in our marriage—things that we do—and we try to say, “Well, the Bible doesn’t prohibit it.” And I’m saying, “Well, that’s not the only issue. Does this help your spouse feel closer to you? Or does it become a roadblock for them to feel connected to you?”
Dave: Is that one of those symptoms?—where your wife says something to you: “That is a spider! Listen to it,”—or your husband says something—
Gary: Absolutely; and you’ve got to find another way. Talk about it together, in a spirit of empathy, what makes you close.
I know a military guy that’s been on a lot of dangerous missions. When you’ve been gone for a while—he says the tough thing for him, when he’s coming back [Laughing]—he says, “My main idea—I’m thinking of one thing—it’s three letters.” [Laughter] And his wife got that; and so they realized: “You know what? When he came home, they would go to a hotel; and then go to [their] house the next day so that he could be fully present for his kids.”
But it was also like, for him, “Okay, here’s what else we reengage. We have this: we enjoy each other; we get our time alone.” She feels like, “I like having time with him; because it’s hard, because the kids all want him.” They just found out that re-entry: “What is something that draws us together instead of pushes us apart?”
Here’s another example of solving a problem by killing a spider. When Lisa started traveling with me—we became empty nesters; she’s traveling with me most of the time—I would laugh, because she’s the extrovert; she’s always talking to people. She’s telling me about everybody she talked to.
She knows I pay attention to these things, and she doesn’t—so if we would come out of an elevator, and our room was left, she would invariably go right. If we go to a parking garage, and the rental car is north, she’d go south. You’d think half of the time—[Laughter]—she would guess right—but it’s like these repelling magnets; it was almost fascinating.
So one time, we’d been at this hotel two or three nights already. I let her go out of the elevator first, trying to be the polite man. [Laughter] And she goes right. I’m like, “Seriously?” [Laughter] Because I was just amazed that she still didn’t know! And that didn’t make her feel closer to me.
Ann: No, I don’t think so!
Gary: That might shock you, Ann; [Laughter] but she didn’t receive that.
The next day, she did it again. I just stood where I was. She kept talking, walking down the hallway until, about 20 yards [later], she realized I wasn’t next to her. That also didn’t make her feel close to me. [Laughter] I don’t know if you can believe it, Dave. [Laughter] I’m trying to be like—
Ann: This is Dave, notoriously, trying to teach me a lesson or something; right?
Gary: And so I put it in guy language: “Okay, honey, here’s the deal: I say something; it makes you feel stupid. I don’t say something; it makes you feel angry. Obviously, there’s nothing I can do! I can’t be the problem.” And Lisa said, “Oh, honey, it’s so easy. It’s so easy! Whenever this happens, just say, ‘This way, hon,’ in exactly that tone: ‘This way, hon.’ And we’ll both be so happy!”
So on our next trip, we got to do it. She went the wrong way; I said, “This way, hon!” And she looked, and she gave me this gorgeous smile. [Laughter] And we laughed about it, and we have laughed probably 100 times since then.
But here’s the principle: Something that was pushing us apart—some silly little thing like that—she taught me: “Okay, this is how you do it in a way that draws us closer together.” So every couple has a “This way, hon.”
- What is it that your husband does that really pushes you away? Then have him help you understand what it is.
- If he feels disrespected, then let him help you: “Okay; how do I correct you, or how do I speak up in a way that you don’t feel disrespected?”
So that you don’t keep doing these things that cause the—it’s not just drift—it’s like propelling each other apart. You’re learning how to let the frustrations of life pull you closer together.
Ann: I love that! I mean, I love, too, how you both have strengths and weaknesses. She’s saying, “Don’t harbor my weaknesses, and don’t keep pointing them out.”
When Dave and I were dating, he realized I had this terrible habit of losing everything—
Dave: Not everything!
Ann: I do lose a lot, and I was even worse back then. We had gone to a restaurant, and I had left my gloves on the table.
Dave: You’re going to bring this up.
Ann: And I got back in the car. I said—
Dave: This was first year of marriage, by the way.
Ann: —“Oh, I forgot my gloves!” I went back into the restaurant, not finding them. I came back; I said, “They weren’t there.” And he pulled them out; he said, “I was hoping to teach you a lesson by remembering to pick up your gloves.” [Laughter] I was so angry! I said, “Oh, so now our relationship’s going to be about you teaching me how to be better, or teaching me a lesson?” That didn’t fly very well; did it?
Dave: No; I mean, I remember that. I can take you right to the parking lot; it’s so vivid in my mind. I thought, “This will work; this will teach her”; you know? “I’m going to take her gloves into the car; she’s going to…”—and it all played out, just like I thought. But the result didn’t play out like I was hoping. She just got so hurt—
Ann: And I said,—
Dave: —and so mad.
Ann: —“This is a weakness that I’ve had my whole life!” I’m wondering, “Can you accept it? I am broken, and I forget things. And I just need you to realize: ‘This is me! Can you receive me?!’”
Dave: And now, I love it; I really do, Gary.
Ann: I don’t know if you love it!
Dave: No; I mean, she loses her phone three or four times a day. [Laughter] It’s so funny now. It used to be a thing of—it just irritated me, because I don’t—I have many other weaknesses.
But what you said is so true! It’s like: “Wait, wait, wait.” Part of it is what you talked about yesterday: we are on mission together.
Dave: It’s much more important than this little thing. But this little thing—the differences and our quirks—it’s something not just to tolerate. I actually sort of celebrate it now. Now, when I realize she lost her phone, and it’s sitting right over there, I just smile. It’s like, I can grab it; I can hand it to her.
Ann: And you also got me an Apple® watch to help me find my phone. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; she can push the little thing, and she can find it.
But I think it’s so easy to drift! That takes work—right?—
Dave: —to say: “I’m going to make this work.”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Gary Thomas on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear more on dealing with irritations in marriage in just a minute; but first, as you can imagine, this has been a tough year for us. We’ve had to make some tough choices. And we’re hoping that, through the generosity of people, just like you, we can continue to reach your home and all the homes that need help and hope for the relationships that matter most. This is an especially unique and critical time of year to donate, because we’ve had some amazing friends of the ministry come alongside us and offer to double your monthly gifts for 12 months, up to $300,000, when you become a monthly Partner right now.
So that means, if you give $25/month, the impact is actually $50/month. If you give $50/month, it becomes $100; you get the point. On top of that, when you give this month, as our thanks to you, we’re going to send you a bundle of resources, including two books. The first one is Not Part of the Plan by Kristen Clark and Bethany Beal; and the second is A Lifelong Love by Gary Thomas, whom you’re hearing from today. So you get to become a monthly Partner; have your gift doubled for a year; impact families for the glory of Jesus; and get a bundle of books. You can give right now at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright, now, back to Dave and Ann with Gary Thomas and what it’s like to live with the everyday irritations in marriage.
Gary: We have to guard our minds. One thing that we have to push against is that there’s ever a spouse that doesn’t have those things that irritate us.
Gary: We do! And James 3:2: “We all stumble in many ways [emphasis added].” We all stumble. Nobody’s married to the fourth member of the Trinity. [Laughter] No! That person doesn’t exist.
You talk about losing things: I had a time with Lisa when we used to live out in Katy, Texas, which is suburb of Houston. They kept building; and the freeway, I-10, just kept getting worse, and worse, and worse. I would have to leave progressively earlier and earlier in the morning; because every five or ten minutes, it’s another ten or fifteen minutes, sitting in traffic, which I just hated in the morning.
One morning, I got up; it was like 5:10, and I was ready to go; and my keys weren’t where they were supposed to be. I’m looking all around, and I could feel the traffic backing up. [Laughter] So I’m panicking more. Lisa finally heard me, because I had my phone flashlight on.
She goes, “What is it?” And I said, “Man, I can’t find my keys!” She goes, “Oh, yes.” She goes, “See; I couldn’t find my car keys last night, so I took your car.” I said, “Oh, okay; so where are my car keys?” “Uhhhh.” [Laughter] Says the same thing! I’m like—she goes, “Let me think: well, they must be in my purse.” We look: “No, they’re not in my purse.” So now, it’s like 20 minutes, and I’m just thinking, “Okay, I’ve lost 45 minutes on the road,” and whatnot.
We finally found them, and I’m getting on the road. But God stopped me; it was like, “Gary, this is how your spouse stumbles.
Gary: “Lisa misplaces things like that,—
Ann: Me too!
Gary: —“like you do.”
But here’s the thing, Dave, that helped me: she doesn’t intentionally do it.
Dave: Right; right.
Gary: Is she doing that to stop me?—no! It’s not in Lisa at all—
Gary: —to not want me to get to work on time or to frustrate me.
So instead of judging her—or calling her: “You can’t do this again!”—she already felt terrible about it; I didn’t even need to confront her. So often, we think we have to express our displeasure. But what you said, Ann, about you misplacing things: that will never change. Some of these things will never change. In fact, I think Dr. John Gottman said, “About 60 percent of marital issues will never go away.”
Gary: So if we can’t accept the fact that our spouse doesn’t have everything we want, and doesn’t have anything that’s frustrating, we’ll never have a close marriage. We’ll let those things pull us away from each other. We just have to say, “No; that’s where we need grace, acceptance, and love.”
Dave:Yes; and I think a lifelong love is accepting and loving each other in our imperfections.
Dave: You know, I think I could sing it: “All of me, loves all of you”—[Laughter]—didn’t he say—“in all your curves and imperfections”?
Dave: I mean, it’s really what God does with us; and we get to do that with our spouse.
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Gary Thomas on FamilyLife Today. I wanted to let you know that you can get his book, A Lifelong Love, when you become a monthly Partner at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
If you know of anyone who needs to hear today’s conversation, you can share it from wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, it would really help us out if you would rate and review us.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear a conversation with Ron Deal, Director of FamilyLife Blended®, and Dr. Jim Burns; he’s the president of HomeWord. Jim says: “The benefit of fun is often overlooked when we consider how to build healthy step-family relationships.” We hope you can join us for their conversation about why and how intentional play can benefit your family. That’s coming up tomorrow.
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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