Restoring Health to Medical Marriages
by Beth Myers
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2008
I walked out of the school where I was teaching third grade, got into my car, and the tears began to flow. As my husband’s hurtful words played over and over in my head, all the pent up hurt and pain from our troubled marriage gave way to a desperate prayer: “God, if you don’t do something, this marriage is not going to survive.”
Steve was in his fourth year of surgical residency. He was exhausted and completely oblivious to the fact that there were problems in our marriage. The Bible indicates that God had designed marriage to be a place of refuge, a place that renews us and brings us strength. But instead, our marriage merely compounded the stress in our lives and made us feel even more drained. And, to make matters worse, we seemed incapable of communicating at anything above a superficial level. I felt trapped and alone.
It dawned on me during Steve’s chief year of residency that the light at the end of the tunnel was just a mirage. I concluded that this is what life would be like even after residency. Depression struck. My love bank was not only depleted, but the pattern of hurtful words declared to me a single message: Our marriage was bankrupt.
Later, as Steve was busy setting up his practice in Ohio, a process that consumed all his time and energy, I remember thinking after yet another argument: It’s got to be better to live apart than with all this strife. Ironically, the little church we were attending asked us to teach a Sunday school class on marriage to younger couples. I thought: If they only knew how bad ours was, they would have never asked us. We took up the challenge anyway, bought several books on the subject of marriage, and starting working together to develop a curriculum. While in the process of helping to “save” other people’s marriages, Steve and I discovered that the marriage God wanted to work on was our own. I considered this to be the answer to my desperate prayer three years earlier.
I never dreamed in all my wildest imagination that our marriage would end up so close and intimate. This is the story of how it happened.
Understanding the Differences in Intimacy Needs
Through the process of preparing to teach others, Steve and I woke up to the fact that we were clueless about how to bring passion back into our marriage and how to express love to each other. Our first breakthrough came from a video series on marriage by Dr. Richard Dobbins of Akron, Ohio. He encouraged us to ask each other the simple question, “How would you like to be loved?” He instructed us to write down three ways in which we would like our spouse to express love to us. Here we encountered for the first time the drastic differences in intimacy needs between husbands and wives.
As Steve made out his list, he wrote down sex as number one. Later he admitted he was hard pressed to think of another love need. He was tempted to write down the same answer three times. He did think of another one, however: take a nap so you have energy for me at night. We exchanged lists. Steve was surprised and disappointed to find that his all-encompassing need was not even on my list: bring me flowers, spend time with our children, and talk to me on a deeper level.
Years later Steve surprised me by taking me to London for a long weekend to celebrate our 29th anniversary. As we traveled, I read to him from the book, The Power That Women Have, by Christopher Johnson.1 I paused for a moment, inspired by something I read, and asked Steve how he had felt during the years when I either tolerated or rejected his desire for sex. His reply shocked me. He answered very slowly and thoughtfully, “I felt hurt, rejected, used, and unloved.” I was stunned. He went on to explain the depth of pain he felt. Part of my surprise was the fact that those were the same adjectives I used to describe the pain I felt because of our lack of emotional intimacy. I would cry myself to sleep at night wondering why he wouldn’t come hold me, talk with me, and show me tenderness. He was just a few feet away, watching television, afraid of rejection. We were so close and yet we might as well have been miles away. We were each enveloped in our own type of pain, and we were paralyzed by it.
As we continued to study, the differences between the genders became clearer. For example, men are vulnerable to unfaithfulness in the absence of physical connection, while women are vulnerable to unfaithfulness in the absence of emotional connection. Dr. Willard Harley explains to wives the nature of their husbands’ need for sex in his book, His Needs/Her Needs:
“When a man chooses a wife, he promises to remain faithful to her for life. This means that he believes his wife will be his only sexual partner ‘until death do us part.’ He makes this commitment because he trusts her to be sexually available to him whenever he needs to make love and to meet all his sexual needs, just as she trusts him to meet her emotional needs. Unfortunately in many marriages the man finds that putting his trust in this woman has turned into one of the biggest mistakes of his life. He has agreed to limit his sexual experience to a wife who is unwilling to meet that vital need. He finds himself up the proverbial creek without a paddle. If his religious or moral convictions are strong, he may try to make the best of it. Some husbands tough it out, but many cannot. They find sex elsewhere.”2
This was helpful, but I never truly understood a husband's “need” for sex, until I read about the physiological basis for this in Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, Five Signs of a Loving Family:
“The male sexual drive is rooted in his anatomy. The gonads are continually producing sperm cells. These are stored along with seminal fluid in the seminal vesicles. When the seminal vesicles are full, there is a physical push for release. This creates the heightened male sex drive. Her desire for sexual intimacy is far more rooted in her emotions. When she feels emotionally loved and close to her husband, she is far more likely to want to be sexually intimate. But when she does not feel loved and cared for, she may have little interest in the sexual part of marriage. . . .”3
Hopefully this will help wives to reconcile their husband’s perspective of their need for intimacy and love in marriage. But now, husbands please listen carefully – your wife’s needs are just as real, though they are different. Dr. Harley helps husbands by defining and describing the two key elements of the wife’s need for intimacy and love: affection and intimate conversation. “The need for affection,” Dr. Harley states, “is a craving for the expression of care in words, hugs, kisses, cards, gifts, and courtesies. The need for intimate conversation is a craving to talk about events of the day, personal feelings, problems, and plans for the future.”4
Steps Toward Restoring the Passion
What happened to the passion in your marriage? Do you remember when you were first in love – when you couldn’t wait to be together? You would talk for hours sharing your dreams, desires, and future. If things have changed, there’s hope for renewal by applying biblical principles.
How can we restore the passion to our marriages? We can start by recognizing the inherent differences in the intimacy needs of husbands and wives. Next, we should review the differences in the roles of husband and wife as articulated by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33. Since marriage ultimately serves as a reflection of the union between Christ, the Bridegroom, and His church, the Bride, the roles of husbands and wives are not simply interchangeable, but rather they complement each other in mutually enriching ways. These roles reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, such that husbands are to exercise headship in ways that display the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and wives are to respect their husbands in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord.
We should also look at the steps Christ prescribed for the Church to restore her passion for Him in Revelation chapter two. First note how Christ commends the church: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance” (verse 2). Here we should recognize and express appreciation for our spouse’s hard work on behalf of the marriage and family. Next, Christ puts His finger on the pulse of the problem in the church. “Yet I hold this against you, you have forsaken your first love” (verse 4). He then goes on to explain the steps she can take to restore her passion for their relationship:
- Remember. “Remember the height from which you have fallen” (verse 5a). You and your spouse need to remember the intimacy and passion you enjoyed when you were first in love. Stop a moment and remember together what attracted you to each other, a favorite date you had, and why you choose to marry each other.
- Repent. “Repent and do the things you did at first” (verse 5b). How do we apply this directive to our marriage? Ask your spouse to forgive you for not making your marriage a priority. Be willing, by faith, to change in ways that will honor God by selflessly serving your spouse in an understanding way.
- Take Action. “. . . do the things you did at first.” Think about the things you did for your spouse at first, and do it again. Your wife fell in love with you because you met certain love needs that she had; you talked to her, shared your dreams with her, gave her flowers, gifts, kissed her, and treated her with tenderness. Your husband fell in love with you, ladies, because he saw in your eyes that you believed in him, respected him, rubbed his back when he was tired from studying or working long hours, had fun watching football with him, and you were playful and fun.
Restoring Health to Physician Marriages
Physicians live in a world of constant stress – busy schedules, long hours, and the ever-present potential of a malpractice claim. But according to research on 700 marriages, these issues are not the basis of physician burn out. Research shows that physicians suffer exhaustion “when their relationships with the people they work with and live with fill with conflict, causing tension, feelings of inadequacy, obsessive worry, or social anxiety.”6
Instead, for believers empowered by biblical truth and God-enabled grace, as we work on our marriages they can become a refuge for those who live amidst the stresses of physician life. The book, Intimacy Ignited7 describes this refuge as En Gedi – a beautiful and verdant oasis in Israel, watered by a refreshing spring. It is located in the middle of a dessert filled with rocks and dry ground symbolizing the areas of difficulty: bills that need paying, charts that need finishing, the demands, the long hours. En Gedi is a retreat, a place where you are filled and strengthened and renewed so you are able to give again. Intimacy within your marriage is one of the ways God provides us with En Gedi, the refreshment we need in the midst of the difficulties of a medical practice.
Why settle for less? What will you do this week to bring refreshment into your life through intimacy in your marriage? Start today by expressing love to your mate in the way your spouse will receive and benefit from it.
1 Johnson, Christopher. The Power that Women Have. Indianapolis: Fishnet Publications, 1998.
2 Harley, Willard. His Needs, Her Needs. Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 2001, 49-50.
3 Chapman, Gary, Five Signs of a Functional Family. Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 1997, 198-199.
4 Harley, Willard. I Promise You. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2006, 30-33.
5 Sotile, Wayne and Mary. Beat Stress Together. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.
6 Dillow, Joseph and Linda; Pintux, Peter and Lorraine. Intimacy Ignited. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004, 55-56.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Myers lives with her husband, Steve, a general surgeon, in Columbus, Ohio. Steve has been a member of CMDA for about twenty years. They have participated in several short-term missions. Beth has led or taught many women’s Bible study groups. Together they conduct “Restoring the Passion” marriage retreats, most recently in conjunction with the Columbus CMDA chapter.