Debra Fileta: It’s not, “You are greater than me, I’m greater than you, he’s greater than she.” It’s learning to see that “we” is greater than “me”. This is for the benefit of both of us. When I am sacrificial, when I lay down my life, it is for the benefit of the “we”.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: That’s Debra Fileta, who is joining us today on Focus on the Family, and your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. Thanks for joining us today. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: You know, when couples reach out to us, we often see that they’re struggling because their marriage isn’t making them as happy as they thought it would.
Jim: And it’s an expectation that they bring into the marriage commitment. And so many marriages break up because people are saying, “I’m not happy,” or “It’s not right for me.” Let’s look at it from a different perspective. Maybe, especially for those of us who are Christian, maybe it’s meant to make us better, that marriage is a design that God has set in place to help challenge us to become more selfless, more like Christ, more servant-minded. How about that? It’s a tough one because we’re selfish as human beings, living in our flesh in this world. But as Christians, particularly, we’re supposed to die to that flesh every day, and there’s no greater institution than marriage…
Jim: …To help your flesh die. And, uh, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today.
John: Yeah, our guest, uh, Debra, is a professional counselor, and she specializes in relationship and marital issues. She’s written two books, and the one we’ll talk about today is called Choosing Marriage: Why It Has To Start With We Is Greater Than Me. And, uh, we’re so glad she’s here. She’s married to John, and they have three children.
Jim: Debra, welcome to Focus.
Debra: Thank you. It’s so good to be here.
Jim: So good to have you here. Uh, that we versus me – let’s just kick it off right there.
Jim: I mean, that’s pretty funny.
Debra: “We” is greater than “me”.
Debra: That’s really what it comes down to, and a lot of people don’t understand that going into marriage.
Jim: Why do we get into marriage thinking me is bigger than we?
Jim: Is it just natural for us to be about me?
Debra: It’s absolutely natural. And when you think about it as singles, who else do you have to think about when you are single but yourself? You know, what you’re gonna eat, where you’re gonna go, what you’re gonna wear, how you’re gonna spend your time – we’re wired to focus on the me, and then we kind of take that into marriage, and it’s a reality check for many of us.
Jim: (Laughter) It’s so true. Now, your husband, John – there’s a great opening story I wanted to get to because…
Jim: …I think he showed you sacrificial marriage before you got married. I think you were engaged.
Jim: What did he do? He’s in the audience right now. You’re gonna throw him a big shout out here. What did he do so well that got you thinking, ah, maybe there’s a different way…
Debra: Maybe this is a good guy.
Jim: …To look at it? Yeah.
Debra: Well, when John and I were dating – and honestly, unbeknownst to me at the time, he was eating bologna sandwiches for months to cut his grocery bill down to $10 a week.
Jim: Is that a problem?
Debra: Just so that he could buy me an engagement ring.
Jim: Oh, man. Go, John.
Debra: Not because he likes bologna sandwiches.
John: He loved you more than bologna.
Debra: And if you show him a bologna sandwich today, I’m sure he would have issues.
Jim: I don’t think I’ve eaten one of those in 40 years.
Debra: It’s one of the cheapest lunchmeats you can buy.
Jim: Calling it a lunchmeat may be a little too gracious, I don’t know. But that – that was a way of sacrifice.
Debra: It was a way of sacrifice. And you know, a lot of times we go in to marriage and we’re focused on the wedding. We’re focused on the flowers. We’re focused on the cake. We’re focused on the engagement ring or the proposal. But we don’t understand that there’s a level of sacrifice. It starts with something silly like a bologna sandwich. But really, it represents something far greater, that marriage is always about sacrifice. And that’s something that we hear about, but we don’t fully understand what that means.
Jim: Yeah, and I want to say to listeners right now, don’t turn off what you’re listening to, the podcast or the radio, whatever. I mean, when you start talking sacrifice, people tune out a little bit…
Debra: You’re absolutely right.
Jim: …Because I don’t want to do that. But let’s go from the beginning. Yeah, you and John did premarital counseling. You learned quite a bit in that. Jean and I did that. And we have something called Ready to Wed that Greg Smalley, the VP of marriage here at Focus on the Family, he and his wife Erin created. And what they learned in their research was that if a couple received 10 hours of premarital counseling or more, that their likelihood of divorce was only 20 percent. Eighty percent of couples that received that kind of premarital counseling stay together. That’s really critical.
Debra: And let’s stop there for a second. You just said 10 hours. That is – I mean, think about – think about this. My husband, to get his medical license, needed 20,000 hours of training. In order to get a driver’s license, you need about 100 hours of training. To get a marriage license, how many required hours of training are there?
Debra: Zero, you walk in, you sign a paper, they give you the license. And I think part of the problem, even in Christian culture, is that we believe that just because we’re Christian we are going to be good at this thing called marriage. And then we get in there and we realize, uh, maybe we don’t have the training, maybe we don’t have the preparation, maybe we don’t have the expectations on the right page.
Jim: And that’s where, yeah, you get dashed in your hopes and your dreams, and you think, “Oh, I may – maybe I married the wrong person.” That can be a conclusion that you’re errantly making right now, rather than saying, “Well, marriage takes work.”
Jim: And you’re gonna have to put some effort into it to make it healthy and make it strong. In fact, you did a survey, I think with both single and married couples. What prompted doing that? And then what was your finding?
Debra: Well, I primarily work with singles at my ministry, truelovedates.com, and I’m slowly evolving into a marriage ministry as well. But it was interesting because I wanted to compare the two. What singles believe about marriage to what is actually true about marriage are very different things. And so I surveyed a thousand singles asking them to tell me, what do you think marriage will be like in these categories – communication, intimacy, conflict, all these different categories. And then I surveyed married couples telling me, what is marriage like in these same exact areas. And the difference in the answers was just mind-blowing. And it just showed me that, really, our expectations are so skewed. And one of the statistics was that three-quarters of single people thought that marriage would require sacrifice. A lot of us in Christian culture use the word sacrifice. Yes, marriage requires sacrifice. We use it so loosely.
Debra: But then when I ask them, “Do you think marriage will be difficult,” the majority of them said, “No, marriage is going to be easy.” And to me, sacrifice doesn’t equal easy. There’s a disconnect there.
Jim: Right. It’s incongruent.
Debra: There’s a disconnect with what we actually expect and then the reality of what marriage is like on the other side.
Jim: Then that’s when you step in, you start getting disappointed again. Um, you also have a story about a reality TV show that caught my attention. I thought that was interesting. I actually never saw this. I couldn’t believe they did this.
Debra: It’s probably a good thing.
Jim: Yeah, describe the show – but nowadays, I mean it’s – there’s all kinds of reality TV shows out there, so it doesn’t shock me. But what was the show’s concept? And what were they trying to do?
Debra: There’s this reality show called, Married At First Sight. And basically, they take two complete strangers, some psychologists match them up based on their personality and their experiences, and it’s a good psychological match. So they match these two people up, and they meet at the altar. And they have a few weeks then to be married – legally married – and to figure out at the end of these few weeks, do you want to stay married or not? Was it a good match or not?
John: So these are two strangers who meet for the first time at the wedding?
Debra: They’re married at first sight. And during an episode…
Jim: Why would anybody sign up to do that?
Debra: Really, you know, out of desperation is what I think.
Jim: Yeah, I mean, that’s crazy, but anyway…
Debra: And trusting someone else’s instinct over yourself or over what you believe to be right. But at the end of these few weeks, they make their decision. And during one of the episodes, one of the participants looked straight in the camera and said, “I am not happy anymore, and I deserve to be happy. You know, if I’m not happy, this isn’t the right relationship.” And you know what was interesting? It’s a reality TV show, but I hear that phrase all the time as a counselor, not just after four weeks of marriage. Maybe after months, maybe after years, maybe after decades, “I’m not happy anymore. I deserve to be happy.” And that is a fallacy that we’re believing. We don’t deserve to be happy. And – and ultimately, happiness is not the end goal. I believe that when we do marriage right – let me just infuse some hope here. When we do marriage right, it will lead to an unbelievable happiness. But there are going to be seasons, there are going to be days, there are going to be moments, weeks, months that you are not happy. And that’s when your decisions are more crucial and more important than ever before.
Jim: In fact, you quote a popular columnist about this generation’s lack of ability to handle marriage, partly because of this lack, I think, of contentment. That the culture today, with all its intense imagery and, you know, connection to entertainment and all of it, it’s almost like we no longer know how to socialize, we no longer how to be in relationship in a healthy way. Describe what that columnist was talking about.
Debra: You know, he really blamed this generation’s lack of ability to handle marriage. Like, “We can’t handle marriage,” was his main message. And why we can’t handle it is because we have poor sex lives. We have financial burdens. We’re struggling with social media. We’ve got emotional disconnect. We’ve got unhealthy desires for attention. And while these things are all true, the main ingredient that he forgets is God. God is the crucial ingredient. And we have everything we need to overcome life’s obstacles because God made us for love. And so we need to kind of learn how to navigate all of those different things rooted in the foundation of God’s love and what that means for each of us as individuals.
Jim: It is so well said. You know, when you look at it, if – and I want to speak to the listener that maybe doesn’t have a relationship with Christ. I’m told maybe 10 to 15 percent of our audience that listens fits that description. I want you to lean in here because when you start thinking about how we’re created, what Debra’s talking about there, this desire for love, this desire for connection, relationship, where do you think that comes from? It’s God. It’s God’s heart. It’s His image. But you mention in your book, Debra, that one of the benefits of marriage is to love your spouse unconditionally. Oh, did you just hear that? That gasp from people listening? They’re going, “I never feel that,” or “I rarely feel that,” or “Sometimes I feel that.” It’s hard for us as human beings to love unconditionally. Even if you’re a 90 percent unconditional lover, you still got 10 percent that, you know, if you could just pick up your dirty clothes, that would be really a way to show me unconditional love. But describe those battles in the bathroom and other places when it comes to marriage, where it’s unconditional love, as long as you put the toothpaste cap back on, right?
Debra: You know, one thing I see also as a counselor is a lot of times we focus on the big issues, the big catastrophes in marriage and learning how to love through the big stuff. But honestly, I truly believe that in order to have the muscle to love in those big ways, we’ve got to start with the muscle and loving in the small ways. And I always joke – it’s kind of a joke, though, but it’s kind of reality – in the bathroom drama that my husband and I have. I mean, you don’t know how annoying it is to share a bathroom with someone until you’re married.
Jim: Oh, I do.
Debra: Yes, you do. I mean, he’ll throw his clothes over my full length mirror, you know? And then I move them, and he puts them back. And then if you look at the different sides of our sink, mine is, like, a creative disaster, and his looks like the day we moved in. And whenever my stuff starts sneaking on his side, he scoots it back over.
John: He just slides it over. Oh, yeah.
Debra: And the thing that I think is probably the most annoying is the toilet roll. You know, he has this tendency of leaving, like, one square left for me or maybe nothing at all. And then you get there, and you’re like, this is what unconditional love means. I am not going to flip out about the toilet roll. So then I replace it. But then instead of putting it on the roll, I just kind of prop it, you know, and leave it there for him to deal with.
John: So he can do his part (laughter)?
Jim: Oh, yeah. You didn’t put it back on.
Debra: I’m just as annoying in my own way.
Jim: Well, and it has to come from the top, right? It has to flow from the top, not from the bottom.
Debra: It has to come from the top, Jim. It has to.
John: Thank you. We’re all three agreed on it.
Jim: Now the big problem is that you add kids to this equation, they never replace that toilet paper roll. I mean, it just keeps compounding.
Debra: And there are just so many ways to embrace this idea of selflessness and sacrifice. How big of an issue am I going to make this? And what does unconditional love look like in these moments when I feel so frustrated and annoyed over these little things? Because those little muscles that we’re practicing are the ones that make way for the bigger acts of love. And let me just say, I do believe that there is a big, big difference between selflessness and passivity. I’m not talking about being passive. And we’re gonna get to that in a minute. But I’m just talking about those selfless acts of love in the day-to-day grind.
John: Well, this is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller. And our guest is Debra Fileta. And she’s written a great book, Choosing Marriage: Why It Has To Start With Me Is Greater Than We. And we’ve got that and a CD or download of our conversation – a lot of great marriage resources as well, at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY for more.
Jim: You know, Debra, before we, I think, go more into the selflessness, because I love that theme – I think it’s right for us, again, as believers to concentrate on that – let’s mention a few of the benefits of marriage because I think it’s so positive to talk about those good things because we’re always, you know, kind of barking about the tough stuff of marriage, even the soft stuff. But what are some of the benefits of marriage?
Debra: Well, first of all, marriage makes you a better person.
Jim: There you go.
Debra: You know, we just talked about all that junk that starts coming to the surface when you’re married and you’re just as annoying as your spouse. You just don’t realize it. You know, and all that stuff starts coming to the surface. And so as you learn the process of unconditional love, as you practice the process of unconditional love, you become more like Christ along the way. So marriage makes you better. Marriage teaches you to receive unconditional love. I think that’s something we forget. But there’s a lot of us out there, a lot of people who have been hurt, who have been abused, who have – who have been victims in different ways, and they’re not good at receiving unconditional love. They don’t feel like they’re worthy of unconditional love. But marriage helps you realize that you are worthy of that and that you should receive that just as much as you give it. So it teaches you to give unconditional love. It also teaches you to receive that kind of love for yourself.
Jim: I think, also, that taking of responsibility is another thing you mentioned, which is great. And then it reminds you that you need Jesus. I mean, those are good. One of the things you said that caught my attention is a quick assessment. And you can just do this from your gut. Are you a better person today than you were before you’re married? And that’s a great kind of quick assessment.
Debra: It is.
Jim: And I love that idea. You don’t need personality profile test to determine that. You just know when you ask yourself that question, “Yeah, I am a better person because of my spouse.”
Debra: And you know what else, Jim? I really believe that if you are listening to this and you answer, “No, no, I’m not,” then maybe the problem is you, and maybe the problem is, “Okay, how can I become a better person through this process of marriage? It’s not that my spouse isn’t making me a better person. How is the Lord working in my life? How am I allowing Him to make me a better person through this process?”
Jim: Well, and what you’re saying there is you have to have a listening soul. You have to hear your spouse, not just be a roommate, right? So when they’re speaking truth into your heart, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it could just be, you know, “It really would make me happy if you don’t put your pants back over the mirror.” You know, are you – and it could be more serious, obviously, but it’s all of that added up to whether or not you’re – you’re in a better place. Um, in fact, your grandparents – there was a little story in your book that caught my attention about your grandparents and the role of selflessness, getting back to that theme. And I love this because of what your grandfather, asked of your grandmother every night. Describe it.
Debra: Yeah, because selflessness is not a convenient thing, right? It is never convenient. It’s always about sacrifice. And one story that I love so much – my grandma and grandpa grew up in Cairo. And you know, back then, there was not a refrigerator where you could just go and grab a bottle of water, and there wasn’t the modern conveniences that we have today. So my grandfather was a hardworking man. And every night he would go to bed, and he would ask my grandmother, “Could you go get me a cup of water?” And mind you, it was middle of winter. And Egypt isn’t, like, freezing cold in the middle of winter, but it’s cold. They don’t have heating. So she has to get out of her comfortable bed and walk out and go into the cold and bring him a cup of water in the night. And after a while this act of unconditional sacrifice, every night, she finally was like, “I’m going to get smart with this,” you know? “What if I just bring a pitcher of water and put it next to the bed and then I pre-emptively meet his need.” So once in the middle of the night his phone rings, and he forgets there’s a pitcher of water right next to the nightstand. So he grabs that pitcher of water and he ends up completely and thoroughly drenched.
Jim: Thinking it’s the phone.
Debra: Thinking it’s the phone.
Jim: So a good plan gone awry.
Debra: A good plan gone awry, exactly. But really, the idea is that sacrifice and selflessness is never convenient, you know? And I think sometimes we want it to be convenient. You know, we want it to be easy. We want it to be just something that happens naturally. But we don’t have those muscles naturally. We’re just like the Olympian that needs to train for this big thing. This selflessness and sacrifice requires training.
Jim: And it’s really important. I wanted to touch again on that passivity comment that you mentioned because a lot of people – and I think I can tend to be this way sometimes, especially if you have a Christian faith because you think by laying down your life you’re doing the right thing, but sometimes it’s not from the right motivation. Describe that.
Debra: Well, usually when I work with a couple and there’s some level of very significant conflict, usually you find out that one person in the relationship thinks they’re being selfless, but they’re actually being passive. They are sitting there and absorbing the conflict rather than dealing with the conflict. They are always saying yes, they are not expressing what they need. They’re just absorbing it all. But you can’t do that for a long period of time without the problems starting to come out in different ways. And just because you are being passive, it’s not the same thing as being selfless.
Jim: So how does a passive person, or a somewhat passive person, get into a healthier place? In their marital relationship, what should they do, you know, if they’re hearing this going, “Oh, I might be more passive than I am being unconditional or sacrificial.” So how do you determine when you’re – you’re being passive?
Debra: Yeah, well, first of all, I think you’ve got to get really good at communicating your needs and thinking about how often do I communicate my needs. Am I even aware of my emotions? And do I express those things to my spouse, you know? Or do I just absorb it? Do I just let it go because it’s easier not to talk about it sometimes? But I think at the end of the day, a lot of us are – the reason we’re passive is rooted in different things. You know, maybe we’re afraid of conflict, or maybe we’ve been told, you know, what you’ve got to say isn’t really meaningful. So we just – we’re used to that process. And – and for some of us I really believe that requires the help of a professional counselor.
Jim: Um, moving to the walls that we’ve put up to protect ourselves – and I think that happens in marriage. And I think for men, particularly, Debra, if I could say it this way – and I want you to speak to this – but we can compartmentalize. And that is the definition of putting up a wall, right? So we don’t want to go there. Especially if we’re shamed or we’re booed in our marriage, we create a wall, and we look in different then. And I know many, I think, wives right now are probably thinking, “That’s my husband. We’re not connected. He comes and watches news, weather and sports and doesn’t really connect with me emotionally.” That’s a walled up husband. Is that a fair comment?
Jim: How do you help those walls to crumble?
Debra: We’ve got so many walls that we bring into marriage. And we bring them into marriage without realizing it, based on the things we have seen in our family of origin, the way we have learned to love growing up. And we bring these walls in, walls such as isolation, like you said, boxing up your emotions; compartmentalizing, walls such as denial, where you’re, like, you’re not really good at taking your role in the conflict or argument; withdrawal, avoiding conflict at all costs, even the wall of fantasy, where – where you’re allowing something else to take the place of marriage. There’s so many different walls. One recent wall that came up in our marriage, which I actually don’t write about in Choosing Marriage – so this is a bonus.
Jim: (Laughter) This is extra content.
Debra: This is extra bonus content – the wall of humor. You know, sometimes my husband and I will be talking about something, and I’m really serious. And, you know, I’m telling him something that I need. And he’ll crack a joke because sometimes it’s easier to deal with humor and put that wall up, make it light, make it funny rather than embrace that and go deeper. And so we bring these walls into marriage. And – and a lot of times we don’t even realize how they are keeping our spouse out.
Jim: You and your husband John, a few years ago, had some difficulty – I guess some stresses that come with the seasons of marriage. What was going on? And how did you resolve that?
Debra: You know, one of the main things that I realized in that season of our life was how we were sort of defaulting to negative behaviors. And you know when you’re stressed – he had his own stress. He was a resident and working so many hours. I was at home with two little babies and trying to juggle my career. And there’s all these different things going on. And you don’t realize the slow drift that begins to happen. The slow drift – kind of like when you’re at the ocean and you’re swimming and all of a sudden you find that you’re miles away from where you started because the slow drift when you’re not being active to move toward each other. And not only were we not being active to move toward each other, we were not being active to move toward God. And really, I talk – in Choosing Marriage, I talk about this concept called the triangle theory and that when we move toward God – you know, if you think about a triangle – and I move towards God and my spouse moves towards God, the closer we each move toward God, the closer we are to each other.
Jim: Oh, that’s interesting, yeah, being on either side of the base and moving up that triangle toward God, you’re closer together. That’s good imagery.
Debra: And that’s something we were really disconnecting on. And so this is what takes work, recognizing that drift, and sometimes coming to a crucial point in your relationship where you’ve really got to sit down and communicate about these things.
Jim: And I think in the last couple of minutes here that’s so important and practical to say, “Okay, I get that triangle idea. I like that imagery. How do I do that? How do I” – and then, “How do I motivate my spouse who doesn’t quite get it? How do I help him or her move closer to God, therefore, closer to me,” and it’s all healthier.
Debra: Yeah, well, one survey I took showed me that the majority of couples are actually interacting in significant communication less than 30 minutes a week – less than 30 minutes a week.
Jim: That doesn’t surprise me, but it’s too little.
Debra: It doesn’t surprise – it’s too little. And that’s the problem. We’re expecting to do these great grandiose things and have these intimate marriages with only 30 minutes a week. And that’s where it really has to begin, is learning to connect. One thing John and I have done that has revolutionized our relationship is our weekly couch time. Every Sunday night at 9 PM, his iPhone alarm goes off – because we’ve got to schedule it, let’s be honest, or we’re going to forget. And it’s our time to connect. It’s our time to confess. It’s our time to talk through what we’re struggling with, what we need prayer with, how our marriage is doing, where we’re at with our relationship with God. And that time has just been so crucial for us to continuing the process of moving toward God and moving toward one another.
Jim: Yeah, Debra, this is flown by. I mean, wow, we have covered so much in 30 minutes. And it’s amazing. This is the kind of theme I’ve always talked about. You can look at improving your marriage and your relationship, but it gets down to that unconditional, kind of sacrificial love that you have for your spouse. And it really starts, what I’m hearing you say, rightly, is it starts with looking at yourself. And it’s powerful.
Debra: And this isn’t about saying you are greater than me, right? A lot of times we’ve confused that. It’s not, “You are greater than me, I’m greater than you, he’s greater than she.” It’s learning to see that “we” is greater than “me”. This is for the benefit of both of us. When I am sacrificial, when I lay down my life, it is for the benefit of the “we”. And in the end, you benefit from that, you know?
Jim: That’s the irony. And that’s what Jesus taught us – wasn’t it? That if you want to be something in the kingdom, then be a servant. And that certainly – and mostly, I think – applies to your marriage, doesn’t it?
Jim: Debra, so good to have you with us. Focus on the Family cares about you and your marriage. We want your relationship with your spouse to be thriving along with your relationship with Christ because when those two things are happening, we’re a much better family and we’re a much better culture. And that’s why we are doing what we’re doing here at Focus. One thing that we’ve done is create the Focus Marriage Assessment. And it’s free. You can go online and take it. It takes about five minutes, I think, John?
John: Five or six, yeah.
Jim: Okay, and you can get an idea of where you’re doing well and where you might need to strengthen your ability in your marriage and your tools for your marriage. And I hope you’ll take us up on that and go take the assessment.
John: Be one of those who takes that little quiz. It’s free. As Jim said, it’s online. And it’s very practical. You’ll find that and also Debra’s book, Choosing Marriage, we’ve got that available for you and a CD or download or our mobile app so you can listen on the go to this conversation, all of it available at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Or give a call and we’ll tell you more, 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: And of course, John, if the folks can help us by supporting the ministry, we’ll send you a copy of Debra’s book, Choosing Marriage: Why It Has To Start With We Is Greater Than Me. That is a wonderful resource. And we will send that to you as our way of saying thank you for a one-time gift or as becoming a – a monthly giver.
John: Yeah, those monthly gifts really sustain us and allow us to ride out the summer months when things get a little bit tight financially. And so we’d invite you to consider becoming a monthly partner today. There’s some great benefits. And we’ll describe those online. But if you’re not in a spot to do that, a one-time gift is very much appreciated. We are grateful for anything you can donate today. And once again, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Debra, thanks for writing this book and for doing what you’re doing as a counselor to help couples live a life that is God-centered and healthy. Thank you.
Debra: Thank you so much for having me.
John: Yeah, it’s been a real joy to have you. And be sure to join us next time on this broadcast as Karla Akins shares about the day to day struggle of raising sons with autism.
Karla Akins: If I hadn’t had my faith, I don’t think I could’ve survived. Because when they were small, I was doing everything I could to get through the day, each day.
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