Why Emotional Health Matters for Your Marriage
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Dave and Ashley WillisDave and Ashley Willis spent thirteen years in full-time church ministry before joining the XO Marriage team to build stronger, Christ-centered marriages. With XO Marriage―the largest marriage-focused ministry in the world―their books, blogs, podcasts, speaking events, and media resources have reached millions of couples worldwide. Dave and Ashley speak at all XO events, host The Naked Marriage Podcast and regularly create new marriage resources. They also co-host the MarriageToday broadcast...more
Why’s emotional health a big deal in marriage? Bestselling authors Dave & Ashley Willis share their story–and how vulnerability became their game changer.
Why Emotional Health Matters for Your Marriage
Dave Willis: Naked Marriage goes back to God’s original design for marriage. The first picture He gave us of marriage is in Genesis, Chapter 2—He says that that first couple, Adam and Eve—they were naked and unashamed. That nakedness wasn’t just a picture of physical intimacy, even though that’s a beautiful part of it; but it’s a picture of having nothing to hide from each other, being completely vulnerable/completely open. And that’s what God desires for marriage.
Ann: 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: So we don’t often talk about 1999 in our marriage.
Ann: Oh, 1999; ooh, yes.
Dave: It was one of the tougher years; why?
Ann: I lost my very best friend to cancer, and it was my sister. She’s my best friend; she led me to Jesus. She died of [emotion in voice]—gosh, I get teary talking about it—she died of lung cancer. My parents had never smoked, and she never did. She was gone within five months, leaving her four sons; and it was really a dark time for us in our lives.
Dave: Yes; I mean, it was dark for you; it was dark for everyone really. And as your husband, I’ve always said—you know this—one of the things I love about Ann Wilson is your StrengthsFinders [assessment]: like number two is positivity.
Dave: If you walk in the kitchen one day, and you’re not positive, I like fall on the floor. [Laughter] I can barely function, which is like I’m so codependent on your positivity; but you went through/our marriage went through 18 months; didn’t it?
Ann: Yes, I was grieving; and I could not conjure up anything. I was just at a dark, dark place, questioning everything; and I felt like I had absolutely nothing to give.
Dave: I can remember the day I heard you laugh in the garage; I was in the kitchen. I think it was two years that I hadn’t heard you laugh/like belly laugh.
We’re bringing that up because when one of the spouses, or both, are really struggling emotionally or mentally, it can really impact a marriage.
Ann: And I think it can lead one or both of you reeling, not knowing where to go, what to do. You’re wondering, “Will our marriage survive this?”
Dave: Yes; so I’m excited because we’ve got two friends in the studio today, Dave and Ashley Willis, who—I didn’t say Dave and Ann Wilson—Dave and Ashley Willis.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today. [Laughter]
Dave Willis: Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you.
Dave: You’re sitting over there, being so polite. You know you can’t interrupt us, and here you are sitting in the studio. You guys have this amazing ministry that you have committed—has it been two decades or so of your lives?—to helping marriages, like what we just described, thrive in the midst of good times and tough times; right?
Ashley: Yes; I mean, it’s, you know, we definitely have walked through some dark times, just like what you described. Yes, it’s our heart to help people navigate these things. Because it’s those times that, even though we are personally going through a hard time, I think we can turn and kind of put it on our spouse and think: “Oh, did I marry the wrong person?” or “Maybe the marriage is the problem. Maybe it’s all their fault after all.”
So we want to help couples—just like you guys are doing—you know, help them see they can get through these hard times and, not only that, that there’s really kind of a strength you find on the other side of that. When you lean into each other, and really give it to God through that hard time, you can really grow stronger through it.
Dave: Tell us a little bit about Dave and Ashley Willis, because I know you’ve written—I didn’t know this many: 15 books?—is that right? That sounds like a lot.
Ann: You guys are young! It’s not like you’re this old couple; you’re young. [Laughter] You must be cranking them out every six months.
Dave Willis: Well some of them are just really short. [Laughter] I’ve got some really, really short ones—like children’s-book length probably—
Ashley: Oh, my goodness.
Dave Willis: —just to add to the total count.
Dave: You were impacting people socially on the internet before anybody was really doing it. You have literally, for two decades at least, really impacted marriages. And then you start this thing—you’ve got to tell me what this means: Naked Marriage—that’s your ministry; that’s your podcast. The book we’re going to dive in today—
Ann: —that’s compelling. [Laughter]
Dave: —is Naked and Healthy. Obviously, you have a title like Naked Marriage; that gets people interested. What’s that all about?
Dave Willis: It does; we’re not part of a nudist colony—[Laughter]—just to clarify. Naked Marriage goes back to God’s original design for marriage. The first picture He gave us of marriage is in Genesis, Chapter 2—He says that that first couple, Adam and Eve—they were naked and unashamed. That nakedness wasn’t just a picture of physical intimacy, even though that’s a beautiful part of it; but it’s a picture of having nothing to hide from each other and being completely vulnerable/completely open. And that’s what God desires for marriage.
We’ve tried to build our own marriage that way through all of God’s principles for what a marriage should be—and just be a safe place, where other couples can talk about it—whether it’s sending us messages online, which was happening long before we ever had a podcast or were doing marriage ministry, full time, the way we are now. We’re just trying to point people back to God’s design in a world that’s gotten really confused about issues around sex and marriage, and what it all means, and what its all supposed to look like. God’s perfect plan is still perfect, and we’re just trying to help point people back to that.
Dave: Yes—and it’s one of the things I really appreciate about your ministry—is it’s biblical; I mean, it’s centered on the Word of God. It’s vulnerable—that’s the naked part—you know, naked and unashamed. You’re always helping; you’re literally helping couples.
It’s real interesting—as I picked up your latest book, Naked and Healthy, it really gets into what we started with—the mind and the emotions; how that affects a marriage—the body or the physical, and the spiritual.
Here’s the thing: before we even dive into that—because I really want to talk about where we started today: the emotional part of a marriage—but one of the things that we do; and we got to talk about this now, because there’s a promotion going on right now with FamilyLife, where you can go to the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway half off.
Dave Willis: Nice.
Dave: If you’re wired like me, I say, “Yes,” to half off; so I’m going to go. You can go to any one of 60 different marriage conferences around the country. You go to FamilyLifeToday.com; you can find a marriage conference near you, or you can go to a destination one if you want and spend Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday morning learning how to build a marriage that God wants you to have. It’s a great weekend.
Ann: It really, truly changed our marriage; it changed our life. I feel like it changed our legacy. To get half off is an amazing deal off that registration price.
Dave: Yes; so I’d say, even right now, go online—go to FamilyLifeToday.com—sign up. Have a great weekend; it’s going to literally change your life.
Alright! So now, talk about the emotional part.
Ann: You have your own personal story of how this played out in your marriage, where this—the mental and emotional part—affected you in your marriage in a negative way.
Ashley: Very much so. Dave and I got married pretty young; I was actually still in college when we got married. Dave graduated from college one weekend; we got married the next weekend. He started working for the college that I was attending. It was just this fairytale for us; and being naïve and being very young, we just thought, “We’ve got this.” We were also both communication majors; and so we thought, “We know how to communicate, and our marriage is just going to be awesome.”
Dave Willis: Yes; “No problem.”
Ashley: Exactly; “No problem.” We get married—and you know, we’re in that honeymoon phase—but very quickly, I just noticed that I’m not quite myself. I’m having trouble sleeping. I had these lingering, plaguing, negative thoughts and fears that I had a really hard time shaking off. And then—
Ann: Ashley, before you go on, tell me about those thoughts and fears. What was going through your head?
Ashley: Oh my goodness! Really, it was like an onslaught of just trying to—I don’t know—I think I went through an identity crisis, really, because we were actually having a little bit of trouble with some family members in the beginning of our marriage. It really threw me for a loop to be honest with you. It was very earth-shattering in my little world. It caused me to have a little bit of a: “Who am I?” because this relationship that I really had almost just depended on, and defined myself by—was, all of a sudden, just crumbling to the ground. Things weren’t really how I thought they were; it really sent me into a massive depression.
Then I started having—
Dave: This is year one?
Ashley: This is in the first year. It happened within like the first two weeks. It just—I mean, it was like day after day—I mean, the holidays would come; and it would get worse on the holidays. It was just terrible; it went on for several years.
Ann: So let me go to you, Dave. So here you are—you’re newly-married, like, “Oh, this is going to be amazing!”—and here Ashley is in this phase of life/in this depression. Were you thinking, “What just happened?” Like were you doubting, “Who is she?”
Dave Willis: No, no; I never doubted, “Who is she?”; but I was still completely terrified at the situation. I knew who I married; I never had a doubt in my mind at all about that. I was so thankful, and have been every day of our marriage, that she’s my wife; but I just didn’t know how to help. I didn’t know how to get us/how to lead through that. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do; I didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
It became a time in our marriage, where we really had to lean on God like never before. It was a good way to start out in that way, because it forced us to realize the obvious; which is, “We can’t do everything in our own strength. We need the Lord.” That isn’t just something we said; like that is something, in that moment, we had to live. We had to say: “God, help us do this. Show us what to do.” God helped us in a lot of ways through that. It was a slow process. Usually, the healing happens in slow processes; unfortunately. We want it to happen fast, but it’s usually a journey.
Ann: You were saying how many years?
Ashley: It went on for, at least, four years. I can distinctly remember—like you kind of with depression—anybody who is listening to this, when you’re first depressed, you kind of get used to it. You don’t realize that’s what you’re going through, and you kind of chalk it up to sadness; or “I’m just having problems with this one relationship in my life,”—or whatever it is—you call it circumstantial.
But I—looking back, I think it was actually probably even more than four years—but definitely four distinct years, where I would—I mean, I was crying; I would just cry all the time. I literally, just like the commercials you see on TV for antidepressants, I literally felt like this little dark cloud was following me around; and I didn’t want to do the things I once enjoyed. I just/I just felt like a shell of a person.
I remember that’s when the enemy came in and just really played on that. It was like he just tried to mess with me even more and started kind of feeding me these lies—like: “You know what? Dave’s going to leave you. You’re not really the woman he married anymore,” and “Are you really saved? Are you really saved if you are thinking these dark thoughts,” or “…if you’re doubting God?” or “…you’re questioning your marriage?”—or whatever it is—“How dare you even think that”; like, “You should be ashamed.” I just had all those really terrible lies going through my mind.
It got really dark kind of in the midst of that four-year journey, of even thinking, “I don’t know if I even want to live,”—like—“I don’t know if I really want to continue living. If this is living, I don’t want it.”
Ann: And talk about, spiritually, what did you feel? What were you praying in that time?
Ashley: I would pray; I will tell you there’s never been another time in my life where I’ve cried out to the Lord so much. I did go to Christian counseling; that was a game-changer for me. My Christian/I actually went to two different ones, because we moved kind of in the middle of my depression. Both of my counselors really kind of helped me to do what the Bible says to do: to take your thoughts captive and to replace them with God’s truth. That was something that I had to learn.
In those moments, when I was crying out to God, I’ve never felt Him so close [before]. I literally felt the verse that says He is close to the brokenhearted. Over time, I could see Him giving me beauty for my ashes—because I did; I felt like ashes—I felt like the beautiful life I thought I was going to live with Dave. At the time, I had small children. Even when I was going through this, I thought, “It’s just burning in flames,”—like—“I’m the one; it’s me. It’s my fault.” I just had to learn that mental illness is no respecter of persons—Christian or not—we can go through this. But God is our healer, and with His help—and if you’re married, please help your spouse; lean into your spouse in this—but with helping each other through this, you can come through it.
I’ve been on the other side of this for years—praise Jesus—I mean, I’ve been free from anxiety and depression for years; and I’m so, so grateful.
Ann: I’m guessing you guys have met people that the spouse hasn’t responded the way Dave responded to you, Ashley.
Ann: Have you seen a negative toll that it plays out if you don’t respond in a kind, and generous, and grace-giving way?
Dave Willis: Absolutely. I didn’t know what to say during those times—like I didn’t have any/there was nothing magical that I said or did that helped—but I just knew, “I just need to make sure she knows she’s not going to face this alone.” I just reminded her, over and over, that: “I’m here. We’re going to get through this together.”
I was not a perfect husband back then; I don’t want to paint this picture that I was this rock, who was doing everything right; because I was like, in my own ways, kind of messed up then. I was struggling; I felt inadequate and insecure, because I didn’t completely know how to help.
But if you are dealing with depression or anxiety, the way that Ashley was, some of the things she did—that I just commend her for that God really blessed and used—is like, number one, she chose to hold onto God’s promises, even when she was feeling something different. Our culture kind of says: “Your feelings are always right,” “Your feelings are your god,” “Your feelings are your truth, and you just hold onto that.”
But she said, “No, my feelings are lying to me right now. My feelings are real—I mean, they’re real; and I’m feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders—but even though I don’t feel it right now, I’m holding onto God’s promises that He’s good; He’s with me; He’s for me; and that I’m going to get through this.” She kept feeding her mind things that reinforced that message.
She was so disciplined in saying, “I’m going to read the Word today, even though I’m not feeling it. I’m going to put God’s Word in my mind through what I’m listening to and what I’m watching. I’m going to surround myself with people, who love me, and encouraging voices; because I know I’m really vulnerable right now. If I’m listening to the wrong voices, it could have a really negative impact. I’m going to get into counseling.”
Healing can happen; God wants you to live with healing. He’s not given us a spirit of fear; He wants to give you a spirit of a sound mind. If you don’t feel that right now, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t convince yourself that it’s because you’re some kind of terrible sinner. This is just part of being a human being. Sometimes, we deal with brokenness; but God wants to carry you through it.
Dave: Now, did either one of you guys ever feel like or sort of blame your marriage for the problems you were having? I think, often, we can get in a marriage—and you go through something like what Ashley was going through—and you [say], “Well, if I wouldn’t have married you…” or “If I wouldn’t have got married, I’d be in a different place; I’d be okay.” It’s easy to blame the marriage when the marriage isn’t the problem, but did you find yourself ever doing that?
Dave Willis: One thing I have not struggled with is saying, like, “Oh man, I wish I would have not married her.” Like I’ve really/honestly, I’ve had all kinds of terrible thoughts, and dumb thoughts, and sinful thoughts; but that thought has never really entered my mind. I’m like, “I know/I know that I’m with the person that I’m meant to be with for my whole life.” I’m so thankful for her; even in our toughest time/in her darkest time, I was so thankful to be her husband. If anything, I just felt more of a sense of urgency to remind her of that; because she didn’t believe that, even though it was true.
You know, our feelings can lie to us; so I just tried to remind her every way I could, like: “I love you so much,” and “I’m so honored to get to be your husband,” and “We’re going to get through this together.” Her mind wouldn’t let her believe it at the time, but it was true; and I kept saying it.
Ashley: Well, I would even say things like, “Hey, I know I’m not keeping my end of the bargain here,”—like—“I’m not really who you married; and I don’t know if I’m ever going to be that woman again, so if you want to leave it’s okay.” I would literally say that; and every time, he would say, “Ashley, I am not going anywhere.”
Ann: That’s a gift.
Ashley: Oh my gosh, yes!
Ann: That’s a true gift—that we can say that to our spouse—when they’re struggling.
I’m thinking, too, of Romans 12:2; and I love that Scripture: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed”—how?—“by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is: His good, pleasing and perfect will.” I think—not being conformed to the world but being transformed by the renewing of our minds—when I was going through my grieving of my sister—and I would say that’s probably the time in my life where I was the most depressed; would you say that, Dave?
Dave: Oh yes; yes, definitely.
Ann: But I found myself the same, Ashley—like my mind is reeling of: “What kind of God would take this 44-year-old woman, who has four kids?”—and then I would be asking, like, “What if that happens to me?” Your mind goes crazy, especially at night.
Learning to take those thoughts captive—man, that was hard—because my whole life, I’d just let my mind go. When you think of captivity, you think of a cage; like you’re going to put those thoughts in a cage and not let them run wild. Learning how to do that can take some time. How did you/like what was your discipline? How did you do that?
Ashley: One of the most helpful things to me—I actually read a book—and it’s an old Beth Moore book; okay? It’s called Praying God’s Word. One thing Beth Moore put in that book—but this is something anyone listening could do on their own—is there was like a perforated section with just Scripture. She had a little blurb in there, saying like, “Listen, even Jesus Himself when He was going through his hardest time in the desert and being tempted, He would quote Scripture to the enemy. He would say, ‘No, no, no; this is what God says…’ out loud.”
I did that; and I still, from time to time, do that. It was just Proverbs 3:5-6, not trusting in my own understanding. Because at that time, I literally couldn’t trust my own understanding; because my mind was not healthy. It helped me by putting different verses like that—it just really helped bathe/kind of wash my mind with God’s truth—and it renewed it over time.
You know, the things we tend to focus on—actually, this is a Lysa TerKeurst quote that I love—she says, “The mind feasts on what it focuses on.” I wanted to feast on God’s Word; I didn’t want to feast on the lies of the devil. I wanted to feast on His Word/on His truth. Truly, when I was feasting on His word by just focusing on it, it’s healing. I mean, His Word is healing; and it really, really helped me tremendously. I wouldn’t have been able to get through that time without it.
Dave: I’m just thinking of a listener—maybe a couple is going through what you went through—and I know we’re not sitting here, like you never struggle again.
Ashley: Oh, yes.
Dave: I mean, it isn’t like it was done and over; but you have helped so many. I’m just thinking, “Man, you’ve given us like a prescription.” And again, I know there’s no step one, step two; but getting your eyes off of the problem and onto the Lord, getting them in the Word.
One of the things that really impacted us in that time period [after Ann’s sister’s death] was worship music.
Ashley: Oh yes, yes.
Dave: I remember we would go to church; and often, I would be in the band, playing. I sort of said, “I don’t want to play for a while. I want to be just standing and singing.” We couldn’t sing; we would just weep. I remember I’d look over, and Ann was on her knees, just weeping—could barely get the words out—but being in [His] presence and going vertical was powerful.
Ann: There was something about, when you worship, your heart has to become soft and absorbs. Whereas before, wherever I’d go, I’d shut down my heart; because it hurt too bad. But when music came—and worship music—the intimacy of God’s words tended to just pour into my heart. I would just cry, because the emotion of it. I feel like that’s super healing.
Dave: I would just say, if you want more of this, pick up Naked and Healthy; because the whole first section of the book is really this story and how you managed to get through it. That’s going to help you as well, so go get it today.
Bob: I remember hearing someone say once that all of us would like to think that our worst day is not what defines us; it’s not what we’re known for in life. In the same way, in marriage, we’d like to think that our greatest struggle, our greatest weakness, the thing we wrestle with is not what defines us in our spouse’s eyes. That doesn’t mean that we ignore or gloss over the very real issues that we’re all wrestling with. It means that in marriage we are to be—to use the words Dan Allender used once—we are to be intimate allies. We’re to be working together for our mutual good in marriage and for God’s glory.
This is one of the things we focus on at our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. These two-and-a-half-day getaways, held in cities all across the country, are designed to be an opportunity for couples to be refreshed and equipped in the basics of what it means to have a healthy, strong, godly marriage. We have a whole season of these events about to kick off next month. We want to encourage you to go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and find out when a getaway is coming to a city near where you live. Decide, now, that you’re going to invest in your marriage this spring at one of our getaways.
In fact, if you register this week, you and your spouse will save 50 percent off the regular registration fee; so you can attend a getaway for essentially half price. You just need to sign up this week to take advantage of this special offer. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, for more information about the Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. Find out when one is coming to a city near where you live and then register online; or if you have any questions, call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY. We’d be happy to answer any questions you have and help you with your registration. Again, the number is 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Plan to join us this spring at a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.
And then, while you’re on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, look for more information about Dave and Ashley Willis’ book, Naked and Healthy, all about being transparent with one another in marriage, being emotionally vulnerable, being connected at the deepest level. We have copies of the Willis’s book available. You can order it online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book is Naked and Healthy by Dave and Ashley Willis. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information, or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ashley Willis are going to rejoin us to talk about the importance of our physical health when it comes to our marital oneness. Why is it important that we be physically healthy? I hope you’re able to join us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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