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Many years ago my husband was called to serve as the bishop of a seriously struggling ward. He spent many hours at the church, late nights visiting troubled members and endless hours on the telephone. It felt our marriage wouldn’t survive.
During a time of deep despair I attended a professional seminar with other Marriage and Family Therapists. This was a seminar where they arranged for some small group interaction where we could be therapeutic resources to one another. There was one woman at the seminar who wasn’t even a therapist and I kind of eyed her with suspicion and wondered why the presenters had allowed her to attend. But before long I was extremely glad she did.
One day we were sharing our concerns and I mentioned that I was married to an over-worked pastor (the phrase non-members understood) and I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of supporting him, and I felt like I was last on his list and I dare not say anything because he was engaged in such an important work. And then I burst into tears.
The woman I had been so suspicious of, rose to her full height over six feet tall, walked over and scooped me up and sat me in her lap, lay my head on her ample bosom and rocked me like a baby. I’m a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, so I truly felt like a child being cradled in a mother’s arms. She didn’t offer words of advice, but she made me feel loved. I felt like God was sending me an angel in these bizarre circumstances and it gave me courage.
I had to do something about the toll church service was taking on my marriage. I couldn’t ask my husband not to serve, or to serve with less commitment. I believed in what he was doing and I knew it was important. I had to find a way to save our marriage and still support my spouse in his calling.
My extensive soul-searching resulted in a book, Side by Side: Supporting a Spouse in Church Service which Deseret Book published in 2002. The solutions that came to me have enabled me to enthusiastically support my spouse in a number of church callings, including his call to serve as a Mission President beginning this coming July.
The things I learned can help any couple who are anxiously engaged in a good cause that competes with their marriage. Whether you’re the husband or wife of a busy student, the spouse of a committed businessman, the husband of a devoted Relief Society President, or married to someone caring for a sick loved one, the suggestions that follow can bless your marriage.
Serve Side by Side
I developed the attitude, “If it matters to you, it matters to me.” I found it was extremely important to know why I was sharing my husband on any particular occasion. It made it far easier to welcome him home two hours late if I could visualize what he had been doing. I knew he was anxiously engaged in a “good cause” but “good cause” was a little vague for me. I wanted to know what had been such a high priority that he would sacrifice time he had committed to the family.
Therefore, he began to share the nature of the commitments that kept him away. He never disclosed names or details that would violate confidentiality, but he shared circumstances that tugged at my heartstrings and made me care as much as he did.
Sharing the specific nature of his service helped him too. He got to de-brief after a taxing encounter. He could “dump” his cares on my shoulders, and then the burden he carried was spread out so he didn’t carry it all by himself. Knowing that I cared as much as he did also helped him feel less guilty about being gone so much. That, too, lifted his burden. He wasn’t so worried about neglecting his wife and children.
We grew closer as a couple when he shared with me because instead of living two separate lives, his at church and mine at home, we were both involved in one another’s lives. We had far more in common because we were both concerned about the same causes.
When the Stake President set my husband apart as the bishop of the ward, he told my husband to “use your wife as a third counselor.” Of course this was not an official calling, nor did it refer to my professional role. It was just an invitation for my husband to bounce ideas off his wife, to find out if another perspective would help him see things more clearly.
This practice proved to be a tremendous blessing. Often, the mere fact that my husband could articulate the problem out loud enabled him to recognize solutions before I even opened my mouth. Other times my feedback helped him see the direction he should take. Being a sounding board for my husband helped me feel necessary, not like I was burdening him with my presence by constantly pestering him for attention, but that my presence was a blessing that he sought out at every opportunity.
A Common Cause
We got into the habit of serving as companions. When I attended girls’ camp as a counselor he attended as a chaperone. When he was in charge of a stake Quest event, he invited me to attend as the official photographer. When the youth in our stake went on Trek, we were a “ma and pa.” When he served as the President of a YSA branch, we both attended the temple with the young adults who were receiving their endowment for the first time. When I was Young Women’s President my husband helped me design flyers (because he’s a wonderful artist).
As a Marriage and Family Therapist I have found that the couples I work with have stronger marriages when they have a common cause that they are both passionate about. Sometimes these couples run a business together. Sometimes they share the same hobby. Often their children are their common cause (which can present a problem when the children leave home.)
One of the common causes that has cemented our marriage together is service in the church. We have laughed together, cried together, celebrated together, struggled together, and grown closer together. We used to think that we served in church callings to bless the lives of others, but in reality, our church service has blessed us most of all.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and the author of four books that can be found at www.smithfamilytherapy.org and at www.amazon.com. She is suspending her psychotherapy practice to accompany her husband while he serves as a Mission President in the Dominican Republic.