A Marriage of Convenience and Surviving Difficulties

surviving marriage difficulties - Denis and Joyce embracing one another and smiling
Jana Butman
Could a marriage that started as an agreement between two strangers survive?

Our story of surviving difficulties and finding love within what began as a convenient marriage may be inspiring enough for you to make changes in your own relationship and discover the importance of reiterating Christ’s love to your spouse.

It was cold, clear and hopeless the night Denis left. The moon was bright and his heart bereft. The temperature hovered around 30 below when he finally stepped outside and shut the door to the past. Denis didn’t want to leave, not really, but that’s what they had decided, he and the woman he’d married out of convenience. They’d agreed that it just wasn’t working, that they were both tired of the harsh words and the horrible fights.

To be fair, it was mutual—the arguing and name-calling—but Joyce was the one who kept bringing it up: the idea that she didn’t need Denis, never had, and that things would be better if he walked out the door and didn’t come back. Denis eventually agreed—or at least accepted—that it was time to go, so he packed his bags. He filled up the water for Joyce and their two little girls. He stocked up on propane for the stove, gas for the lanterns and coal for the heaters.

Their cabin in the Alaskan wilderness had no phone, no running water and no electricity, but at least his young family wouldn’t freeze to death in the dark. At least not right away.

So Denis trudged through the snow to his pickup truck—the family’s only vehicle. The nearest road was 3 miles away, the nearest town several miles farther. Even if he had looked back, there were no windows on that wall of the cabin; no way to see if Joyce was watching him one last time.

“I stood out there in the driveway looking up at the moon,” Denis says, “incredulous that I was leaving my wife and children. I sensed the wasted years and briefly thought, What will I do now?

“[Part of me] felt like a portion of my body was being torn away. I said something to God; I’m not sure what. I wasn’t angry, just sad and defeated.”

A convenient business arrangement

It was never supposed to go this far, to last this long. From the day they met, Denis says, the relationship was little more than a business arrangement.

He joined the Air Force in 1976, Joyce a year or so later, and in 1978 they ended up in the same squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. The military itself wasn’t bad, but they both despised the accommodations. 

“I hated living in the barracks,” Joyce says. “We had to eat in the chow hall, and it was like high school all over again. I didn’t belong to a group and had no one to sit with. It was so awkward.”

Denis wanted out, too, and he had a plan. Not only did married couples get to live off base, they also received extra pay for the added living expenses. No more barracks, no more communal bathroom, and—bonus!—no more chow hall. Marriage, Denis figured, was his ticket to some semblance of freedom.

It took two to work the system, however, so Denis began making his way through the squadron housing in search of a co-conspirator. He racked up quite a few rejections before arriving at one of the last rooms on the women’s floor.

“There was a knock at my door,” Joyce says, “and there stood a man who asked if I’d be interested in marrying him for the purpose of moving off base and collecting more pay. He said all the right words to pique my interest. My only real thought was to get out of the barracks. I did think he was nice-looking,
but I honestly didn’t put too much thought into what I was doing.”

They went on precisely one date—Leroy’s Pancake House—where they hashed out the particulars. Their biggest decision was to wait until their next payday. And so it was, on Jan. 16, 1979, that Joyce paused in mopping the latrines, changed into her cream-colored dress with the floral pattern and headed to the courthouse with Denis and the required two witnesses. The ceremony was brief, and Denis perspired profusely—but that’s about it. They said their vows without intending to keep them. There were no rings, no photographers, no name changes and no congratulations.

They emerged from the courthouse to find their car stuck in the snow. “Denis pushed while I tried to drive,” Joyce says. “After some sweating and swearing, we headed back to the base where I resumed my cleaning duties. And that was my wedding day.”

Decision time

The relationship was designed to fail. As soon as one of them (it didn’t matter which) received a new duty assignment, the marriage would dissolve, no questions asked.

Divorce wasn’t part of the plan; it was the entire plan.

The whole separate bedrooms thing lasted maybe a few weeks. Maybe. After all, they were young, living together and legally married. What could possibly be wrong with sharing a bed? The good times were so good that when it came time for Denis to transfer, he chose a discharge rather than leave Joyce behind.

“All was fun and games until I got pregnant,” Joyce says. “Denis and I decided we needed to be married for real for the sake of the baby. That decision ruined everything.”

Expectations shifted. Priorities changed. Denis had very distinct ideas about what a spouse should do, and Joyce had a few of her own. And when Denis didn’t meet those expectations, she made sure to let him know.

They fought without ceasing, Joyce says. The baby came, and they argued. Joyce got out of the military, and they argued. They built a cabin near Healy, Alaska, and they argued. They had a second daughter, and they argued some more.

“We argued about everything,” Joyce says. “About parenting the kids. About money, which we didn’t have any of. And all the time we would say—especially me—‘I don’t need you. I’m going to get that divorce we said we were going to get.’ ”

They can’t even recall what they disagreed about in December 1983, but it must have been a doozy, because just before Christmas Joyce took the girls and went to see Denis’ parents in Montana. By the time she returned to Alaska in January, the couple were no longer speaking.

“We had already agreed prior to her coming back that I was going to leave,” Denis says. “We had been married five years, and I couldn’t believe that I was throwing this away.”

Joyce’s bravado evaporated the moment the cabin door shut behind Denis. The harsh reality of her situation presented itself, and hopelessness took over. Denis was still out there in his truck, but Joyce didn’t move. She could have asked him to come back inside, but she didn’t. Pride wouldn’t let her. Fear of rejection wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she crumpled to the floor and wept.

How long was Denis out there, sitting in his truck? Maybe 10 minutes. Maybe 30. Neither one remembers for sure.

The couple had become Christians a few years prior, mostly out of desperation, but Denis says the Lord’s presence that night was undeniable. All he can say for sure is that God impressed upon him the need to go back.

“So I did. I walked back in the house, and I know the tenor of our conversation completely changed that night.”

Another chance

Joyce remembers Denis opening the door. He asked if they could talk. The old Joyce wanted to say she didn’t need him. The new Joyce felt only relief. 

“I felt like we were given another chance,” she says. “God met us at that moment.”

For once they didn’t argue. Not only did they talk that evening, but they kept on talking.

“In those days,” Denis says, “we made two decisions: We were going to take this Christian life seriously, and we were never going to use the word divorce again.”

Change came slowly at first, but they were committed to making it work. They had a son in 1984 and another in 1987. They moved to Fairbanks and found a good church and good friends, some of whom introduced them to Focus on the Family. 

“We subscribed to Focus on the Family magazine, and I started learning about what it means to be a Christian home,” Joyce says. “Things that were important to the family—eating meals and sharing that time together . . . spending a lot of time with your children and doing family devotions.”

Denis can still recall tuning in to the Focus radio broadcast every day at
4 p.m. “Believe it or not,” he adds, “I also loved Adventures in Odyssey, and I still listen to it.”

Joyce and Denis now have 19 grandchildren and counting. In 2013, several of them were living in Colorado, which gave Joyce the perfect excuse to stop by Focus on the Family’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. That visit, she says, brought her to tears.

“It was special for me because Focus is so much about preserving families and helping them prosper. And my family was one of those.”

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