By Gary Thomas, Crosswalk.com
“Your daughter has cancer. It looks like osteo sarcoma.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’re probably going to have to amputate her leg to save her life.”
This diagnosis came in 2017. It’s one of every parent’s worst nightmares. But more than a child’s health was at stake. Doug and Rochelle’s marriage was vulnerable. They are convinced that if the diagnosis had come just a couple of years earlier, they’d be divorced right now. Their family story is a powerful testimony of why we need to keep our marriages growing strong, as none of us can anticipate the challenges we may eventually face that threaten to undercut the very foundation of our marriages. An emotionally detached marriage might survive an easy season, but what about when it feels like the walls are caving in?
When a crisis hits your household, one of two things will be true: your marriage will be part of the solution, or it will become part of the problem, thus becoming perhaps your biggest problem.
A Naïve Beginning
Doug and Rochelle met in college, got married young, and then promptly began growing apart. Shortly after their wedding, Doug finished up his schooling and got a teaching job while Rochelle started grad school. The result? “My life was very separate from his. I was studying music, working rehearsals at night and at the opera on weekends. Doug worked during the day.” A husband who works during the day and a wife who is gone on evenings and weekends is a couple who can’t connect and who don’t have the energy to keep their relationship going. Thus began the slow crawl toward emotional alienation that led Doug to make some horrendous decisions.
The Best Worst Day
About eighteen months prior to their fourteen-year-old daughter’s diagnosis, Doug finally got “caught.” After years of Doug’s lying, Rochelle had incontrovertible proof that he had been unfaithful to her. Doug initially thought that getting caught would be the worst day of his life. Looking back, he now thinks it was one of the best days of his life because it led him into earnest and serious healing.
He began working with a professional licensed counselor. He joined and stayed involved in a twelve-step group. He listened to helpful podcasts, read insightful books, and agreed to periodic clinical polygraph tests during which Rochelle could ask him anything she wanted. Seeing Doug’s demonstrated repentance following a period of separation, Rochelle was finally able to forgive Doug and welcome him back home.
Doug explains why it was so crucial for him to enter recovery before his daughter’s devastating medical diagnosis: “God needed me to be sober before my daughter got sick. I couldn’t have been the father my daughter needed me to be, or the husband Rochelle needed me to be, if I wasn’t in recovery. We were able to sustain the marriage in spite of my lies when it wasn’t being tested, but there’s no way we could have gone through this with the new pressures of helping our daughter survive cancer treatments.
“When I was actively addicted, I made every moment about me. I wouldn’t have had the energy or focus to be there for my family if the addiction wasn’t behind me. I wouldn’t have been the husband or father I so desperately want to be.”
“We saw the other married couples on the cancer ward and it wasn’t pretty,” Rochelle adds. “Most couples do not make it through a serious cancer diagnosis. The nurses warned us that most couples end up breaking up, which is sad. Just when your child needs an intact home to be able to focus on her own health, the home falls apart.”
I plead with couples: whatever the addiction or dysfunction, be it porn, excessive spending, food, gambling, substance abuse, emotional affairs, or simply apathetic distance—keeping that addiction or dysfunction alive is like living with a ticking time bomb under your family’s home. You may seem to “get away” with that dysfunction while the marriage isn’t stressed, but life today means that additional stress is all but certain to come. You don’t know when, but it’s coming. Make your marriage a fortress that can stand strong in the face of life’s fiercest assault.
As Rochelle spent many days and nights at the hospital with their daughter, Doug was now able and willing to do everything at home that Rochelle used to do. “I can’t imagine how Doug was able to keep multiple affairs going and still be a husband and father. His organizational skills are off the charts,” Rochelle says. “But this would have broken even him. He couldn’t have kept the house running smoothly if he didn’t have his full focus on us.”
Doug reflects, “It scares me to think what would have happened, and how our daughter would have had to deal with divorcing parents even as she fought for her life. We saw other couples breaking up at the hospital and it was so awkward as they talked about who got to visit and when, and tried to handle other details while living apart. Our daughter didn’t need that, and I’m so thankful she didn’t have to go through that.”
Their daughter endured ten months of active treatment, including surgery, but the glorious news is that she is now cancer free and, by God’s mercy, has kept her leg.
1. To make your marriage a fortress, deal with your underlying personal issues.
1 Timothy 4:8 states, “Godliness has value for all things.”
When you grow in godliness, you grow in your ability to handle any number of different crises. When you live a life of compromise, you become spiritually vulnerable, as you may not have the necessary personal, emotional or relational resources to survive a life hurricane. A strong marriage requires two strong individuals because there will be times when you need to lean on each other.
Joe and Janell lost their only child just before his twentieth birthday. For the first year, Janell felt like she was living in a fog, so she leaned heavily on her husband. She remembers that, initially, it was “95% Joe and 5% me” offering the strength that kept them going. But the second year after the tragedy, Joe started to fall apart and it became, in Janell’s words, “75% me and 25% Joe” holding things together.
Take care of yourself now. Get help for bad habits and addictions or anything compromising your faith. Don’t you want to be as strong as possible, spiritually and otherwise, just when your loved ones need you most?
2. Store God’s Word in Your Heart
“The word of God is living and active” Hebrews 4:12.
Bible study can sometimes feel like a luxury in that it may feel like more of an obligation rather than something that is necessary for us to survive—until, that is, the storm hits.
Janell faced the loss of her son with a tremendous testimony of faith. She has been a lifelong student of the Scriptures, so when she needed to call on one to keep from drowning in despair, she pulled up 2 Corinthians 5:8, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”
“God didn’t just take Garrett from us,” Janell told me with deep conviction. “He called Garrett to something. It’s God’s will that Garrett is in heaven this day. I believe that Garret Luce is fulfilling his heavenly calling in a glorious way.”
The real promise of heaven Scripture promises us holds up Joe and Janell so strongly that, in one sense, they can see even the benefits of Garrett’s death. “I don’t have to deal with a difficult daughter-in-law or the other issues that arise for parents of adult kids,” Janell says. “I’ve seen how some of my friends struggle over the problems faced by their adult children—the poor choices they make, struggling marriages, serious health concerns over their grandchildren. Some watch adult children become dependent on alcohol or get divorced.
“I will never have to deal with that pain. Instead, I get to imagine the glorious things that Garrett is doing in heaven right now. He is fulfilling God’s purpose for him in the heavenly realm in a perfect and wonderful way.”
Emma leaned on God’s word when her husband’s business collapsed and their family’s finances cratered. Though she and her husband lost their house, she didn’t want to lose her marriage. It’s so easy for couples to start fighting when bills arrive and paychecks don’t, but Emma found great solace in Psalm 23:1, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.” She pointed out to me that she knew she wouldn’t lack not because her husband is a good businessman, but because the Creator of the Universe is her shepherd. That kept Emma and Billy moving toward each other and depending on God instead of turning on each other and becoming angry at God.
We need to store Scripture in our hearts because there is no better balm to sustain us during a crisis. Don’t wait to start building up your reservoir of healing truth.
3. Build Your Community
“Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecc. 4:12).
How did Rochelle eventually move toward forgiveness? She explains, “Having a community of people who understood what I’ve been through, and that I could be completely open and honest with, and know that they ‘got’ it, was invaluable.”
Doug points out that the church in general often isn’t prepared or equipped to deal with couples in crisis. “Allowing yourself to have a support group is vital whether you are the partner or the addict. Addiction is so shame-based that it makes you want to hide from people, but being honest and vulnerable is the key to recovery and healing.”
The lack of relationships in today’s church is troubling and dangerous. Both Doug and Rochelle share how much deeper their relationships were with those in recovery. Doug reflects, “I know every guy in my twelve-step group really well—where they struggle, their character defects and strengths, their past, their family. But I may not know anything about their occupation, favorite sports team, or even their last name. At church, it’s just the opposite. I know all the surface stuff, but none of the real stuff, none of the spiritual struggles.”
Janell will never forget how their house filled with people from their church, who came as soon as they heard the news about Garrett’s death. She grabbed hold of the lapel of one of her friends and said, “I know seventy percent of couples will get a divorce when they go through this. I’ve already lost my son. You’ve got to help me make sure I don’t lose my marriage.”
Through the next several years, Janell would receive many texts throughout the day with scriptural encouragements and written prayers. And when Joe hit his low point eighteen months after they lost their son, Janell had a group of men she could call and say, “Ya’ll gotta go get him.”
So often, we treat church as an obligation. When things are going well, we don’t think we “need” it, it’s just something we’re supposed to do, so we can be haphazard about our attendance. Church is important for a lot of reasons, not just when we need it, but for the purposes of this article, let me point out, there will be a time when you need a community of faith to wrap its arms around you. It’ll be too late to try to build that community if you wait until the crisis hits. Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Lisa and I recently moved from Houston, Texas, a place that basically has two seasons (hot and warm), to Colorado, which boasts four seasons. Your marriage might be enjoying spring weather, but don’t sit back and wait. Winter is on its way. Eventually, a storm is coming. Evaluate where the two of you are at and ask yourselves, “If an unexpected storm hits our family, will our marriage be part of the problem or part of the solution?”
If you’ve got a bad habit that is making you weak, deal with it now so that you can be there for your spouse and family just when they need you most. Fall in love with God’s word. It is powerful, true, healing, and encouraging and will protect you from the enemy’s lies when times get tough.
Get more serious about church relationships. You may not feel like you need them now, but there are others who need you now, and there will come a day when you need others. We’re not meant to live this life alone.
Prepare now so that when the storms hit, your marriage can be a refuge that sees you through rather than a crumbling mass that threatens to bring you down with it.
Related Resource: Listen to our new, FREE podcast on marriage: Team Us. The best marriages have a teamwork mentality. Find practical, realistic ideas for strengthening your marriage. Listen to an episode here, and then head over to LifeAudio.com to check out all of our episodes:
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Photo by Hanneke Luijting
Gary Thomas's writing and speaking draw people closer to Christ and closer to others. He is the author of twenty books that together have sold more than two million copies and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. These books include Sacred Marriage, Cherish, Married Sex, and the Gold Medallion-award-winning Authentic Faith.
Gary holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Western Washington University, a master's degree in systematic theology from Regent College (Vancouver, BC), and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Western Seminary (Portland, OR). He serves as a teaching pastor at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.