Creating an Intimate Marriage
by Jim Burns
Making Your Marriage Your Top Priority
Cathy and I have been married for more than thirty-one years. I truly am a fortunate person. God knew what He was doing and I didn't. We describe our relationship as a "high-maintenance marriage." This means we have to constantly work at keeping our relationship healthy. Marriage doesn't come easy for us. We have felt at times like hypocrites speaking and writing on the subject. At other times we've wondered if our message and strategy for an intimate marriage would work for anyone else like it has for us. To be perfectly honest, I never set out to write a book on marriage or to speak on the subject.
Several years ago my good friends at Youth Specialties asked me to do an eight-hour "Ministry and Marriage" session for church leaders and their spouses at a national convention. At first I turned them down. I told them I had never spoken on the subject for more than twenty minutes, let alone eight hours. I was definitely not an expert. They had access to any marriage expert in the country to give the seminar, so I encouraged them to find someone else to do it.
They came back and said, "We still want you." And in a weak moment I said yes. Basically, that first eight-hour session was filled with information about issues that Cathy and I struggled with in our marriage and offered some very simple and practical ideas for refreshing their marriages. It wasn't the most articulate seminar ever given and, frankly, it wasn't all that well researched either. I was the most surprised person on the planet at the incredibly positive response. I was struck with two thoughts after the first conference: (1) Cathy and I weren't the only ones who had a high-maintenance marriage; and (2) people were struggling with figuring out a practical strategy to make their marriage work.
Since that initial conference in the late '80s, Cathy and I have shared these principles with a lot of people. The result is always the same. Couples who truly want to improve their marriage get excited about the possibility for change. They are willing to make courageous decisions to develop a marriage that is far from perfect (Perfect marriages don't exist!), but one that is filled with more intimacy than they have been experiencing.
I wish I could offer you a simple method that would magically change your relationship for the better. I can't. I can only say that if you are willing to make your marriage a top priority and implement some of the principles in this book, then you will have a very fulfilling marriage. There will be an additional bonus as well: The improvements to your marriage will also make your children more secure. In fact, I have the audacity to say (humbly, of course!) that unless your marriage is suffering extreme trauma, such as adultery, abuse, addictions, or other major issues, these principles, when applied, can dramatically and immediately change your relationship for the better. (In the case of extreme trauma, I urge you to seek a qualified marriage counselor who can help you get to a point where this book will be helpful.)
THE TURNING POINT
Cathy and I came to a major turning point in our marriage at the Salt and Pepper Diner in Orange County, California. The twenty-four-hour restaurant was a "breakfast served all day," wipe your own table down, greasy spoon kind of place. It had become sort of a hangout for Cathy and me, where we could unwind late at night after our Wednesday night youth group meeting. I guess we chose it because it was cheap and right around the corner from our apartment.
* * *
Four years earlier, Cathy had graduated from college. One week after that she walked down the aisle to marry me. After a wonderful ten-day honeymoon, I started a new job as a youth worker at a great church in Orange County. Some people have an easy time of it the first years of marriage. We didn't. I can still remember arguing all the way to the church youth group where I was going to speak to the students on "The Beauty of a Christian Home." The whole time I was speaking to them I was wondering if I had made the biggest mistake of my life! I'm sure Cathy was thinking the same thing.
We made it through that very humbling first year of our marriage and moved to Princeton, New Jersey, for my graduate school degree. We continued to work on our marriage with some days of success and other days of questioning our sanity. After graduate school, we came back to California, where I worked at a church as a youth pastor and Cathy taught preschool. Everything looked great on the outside. But inside we both still struggled with our relationship.
Our youth group took off and grew from four kids to over one hundred in just a few months. The kids liked us. The parents liked us. The church loved us and even doubled our salary after the first year. (Some people who work in churches would put doubling a church salary in one year on the same level as a miracle--such as Moses parting the Red Sea! Don't be too impressed, though; it was still a very small salary.) Cathy and I were very busy with the success of the youth group, her job, and our relationships with friends and family.
Being the insensitive male, I didn't even realize that we were investing very little energy into our own marriage relationship. She was my best youth group volunteer, I was enjoying my job, we had a lot of fun with friends, and we regularly had sex. Wasn't that all there was to marriage? My idea of a date was going to a high school football game together, where I would spend most of my time talking with students from the youth group and leave Cathy alone to watch the game by herself.
* * *
Back to the Salt and Pepper Diner. After a particularly good youth group meeting one Wednesday night, Cathy and I were sitting at the diner. After we ordered, Cathy looked at me with THAT look. Her lip began to tremble, and I knew this was not going to be a comfortable meal. The lip-tremble thing still gets me, and now my three daughters have the same lip tremble. I think it is hereditary! Anyway, Cathy suddenly blurted out, "I don't know if I want to have children."
I just stared at her in disbelief. This came out of left field and was totally unexpected. It was what kids today call "random." I managed to croak out, "What are you talking about, Cathy?"
"I just don't know if I want to have kids."
"Cathy, we talked about kids on our first date! You teach children--your degrees are in early childhood education! You are the finest person I have ever seen with children! What do you mean, you don't want kids?"
"It's just that our lives are so busy, and you and I have strayed so far apart." She went on to say, "I have been resenting you and the constant negative drain from your work for some time, but now I am even resenting God. Why would our relationship be suffering so much, even with all the good things that are happening with your work?" She continued, "Don't get me wrong. I also see God's hand on our ministry. Even tonight I was so aware of all the kids who are being helped and reached. Nevertheless, all this busyness and lack of focus with our marriage is causing me to question if we should even have kids of our own. They would never see you, and the strain of your work is straining our marriage."
I mentioned a few paragraphs above that this conversation would be a turning point for our marriage. She might as well have socked me in the stomach and taken all the wind out of me. And to make matters worse, I knew she was correct. I didn't have the answers, and frankly, we had very few role models to help us figure out what was the right thing to do.
My love affair with my job was causing me to give Cathy only my emotional scraps.
In response, I just blurted out these words: "Cathy, I am having an affair." I quickly qualified it to say it wasn't an affair with another woman. (Or a man, for that matter!) My affair was with my job. My mistress was the church youth group that was taking all my energy and attention. My love affair with my job was causing me to give Cathy only my emotional scraps. My needs, coming out of a low self-image, were being met by my job. I was running toward it, causing a strain in my relationship with Cathy.
Resetting Our Priorities
That night, sitting in a booth at the diner, we came up with three priorities. They were simple, but powerful. Truly, I would not be able to write this book if it weren't for the three action steps I wrote on a paper napkin--priorities we began to put into practice right away. Here they are:
1. A nonnegotiable date night each week
2. Away from home only three nights a week
3. Cathy to have veto power over my schedule
Sitting across from each other that night we made a commitment to go out on a date every week. It didn't have to be somewhere expensive. When little children came along, we had to trade some baby-sitting with others in the same situation to keep the costs down. Sometimes the date was a cup of coffee and a walk at the harbor near where we live.
Creating an Intimate Marriage by Jim Burns
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764202065
Published by Bethany House
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.