The Marriage Viewpoint
by Ed Read, MD, and Debby Read, RN
Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2012
George MacDonald, mentor to C. S. Lewis, penned these words many years ago: “The highest calling of every husband and wife is to help each other to do the will of God.” While most of us would wholeheartedly agree, we struggle to apply this principle to the unique challenges of medical marriages. Few professions have the myriad of obstacles facing a vibrant marriage that a medical career brings. At the same time, medicine is a vocation with great potential benefits—both to the couple and the lives they touch—as God works through their union. How crucial it is for us to focus on helping each other be all God has intended for us to be as individuals and as a couple.
We were married in 1973, three days before Ed started medical school and during Debby’s junior year of nursing school. Since then, we have had numerous opportunities to personally experience the delights and difficulties of a doctor’s marriage. Early on, we observed three out of eight marriages fail among the group of residents Ed trained with during school. We began to seriously consider the goals for our own marriage. God worked in our lives to burden our hearts for medical marriages, as well as to give us a deep desire to have the relationship exclaimed in Psalm 34:3, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.”
We fully admit we have made countless mistakes along the way and appreciated the grace of God and the wisdom of His Word to get us back on the right course. Throughout our marriage, Scripture has reminded us to respond to one another in a way that honors God. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).
God continues to teach us through real-life examples of couples who have successfully navigated the roadblocks standing in the way of a strong medical marriage. We’ll be examining three articles previously published in the Christian Medical Society Journal. Through these historical articles, we can glean insight from those who have traveled this path before us, and we can also examine ways those same truths still apply today despite the many changes in our culture over the years.
In “The Doctor’s Home and His Own Matrimonial Problems” published in 1951, Dr. Paul Tournier began, “A pure and holy life . . . . Such is the terrible demand of our vocation. We can help a patient solve his problems only in the measure in which we solve our own, especially if it is a marital problem.”
He understood the need to balance the scheduling demands of this profession with the necessary time to solve conflicts at home. Dr. Tournier summed this up when he stated:
“To come to this absolute unity which the Bible speaks of, the two spouses must consecrate an indispensible minimum of time to each other, which many doctors do not wish to reserve for their wives. Let us confess this. It is more flattering to run continually in the face of all the distresses than to chat intimately with a spouse who knows the faults which the public does not know and of which she wants to free us . . . [the doctor] has an excellent means of quieting his conscience, if it reproaches him of neglecting his wife. The time during which he is away from her, he persuades himself, is not for himself but for the benefit of others to whom he is devoted.”
A vicious cycle begins with a struggle over the amount of time spent together versus apart. Our fast-paced culture and the fact that more women are pursuing careers, including careers in medicine, makes the following advice of the author even more crucial today: “The important thing is to search for God’s plan for our lives for the organization of our time. And when one is married, it cannot be searched for alone.” The doctor cannot sacrifice his or her spouse to the profession and the spouse cannot criticize and resent the time spent away. Instead, they both need to seek with their hearts to allow God to accomplish His plans in their lives as individuals and as a couple. Tournier rightly said: “It is not then a question of systematically sacrificing our family to our vocation nor the reverse, but a sincere search for the will of God in each instance . . . . It does not suffice to give some time to one’s wife—it is necessary to give oneself truly to her.”
We find this to be quite evident in our own marriage. As we seek to take the time to truly share our lives and reconcile with one another, we find we are more prepared by God to use the difficulties in our lives to help others facing similar issues. Our healthy “couple time” greatly enhances our “vocation time.”
While Dr. Tournier offers the perspective of a husband physician, “I’m Glad I am a Doctor’s Wife,” by Rose Van Reken in 1960, gives us the wife’s perspective. How we wish we had the opportunity to sit and learn from this couple about how to have a godly medical marriage! She showed in the opening paragraph that she understood the calling to unity when she wrote:
“I am sure that near the top of the list of my many blessings I would put my husband, who is a Christian medical doctor. First and foremost, he is one who loves the Lord, and then he is engaged in the practice of medicine which to me is a noble and wonderful profession. Not only can he offer help, comfort, and relief to those suffering from bodily ills but he also has a great opportunity to say a word for his Lord just when people are often most ready to receive it.”
Rose understood the ministry her physician husband had in his career. She also discerned ways she could minister to him in the difficult balance he had in his life. “What about you, his wife—the one who stays at home, the one who is alone much of the time. His practice, his patients, have first claim on him morning, noon, and night.” Wise advice followed for this struggling wife:
“Remember, he doesn’t like these interruptions any more than I do. My complaining isn’t going to make his work any easier. Feeling sorry for myself is no solution. After all, he is the one who has to go out. His work demands this service from him. It is not that he loves me less or that he loves his patients more. A doctor’s hours are just uncertain, unpredictable, and unlovely.”
She clearly knew how to do her part in the marriage team by making their home a safe haven. She stated, “Cheerfulness and happiness should prevail so that the man who steps into the door at night will find welcome relief from the complaints and symptoms he has been listening to all day.”
It is interesting to note that relationship needs and the struggle to meet them have remained much the same over the years. This is in stark contrast to how very rapidly some other aspects of medicine have changed. Technology has transformed how medicine is practiced; however, connecting with others in a meaningful way continues to remain at the core of who we are as people created in the image of God. The joys and challenges of balancing these relationships continue to lead us to God and His Word for wisdom. In order to be healthy spiritually and emotionally, we thrive on our relationship primarily with our Lord and secondarily with our spouse. As a couple in a medical marriage seeks to care for one another and make their relationship a priority, they are often more fulfilled as individuals and in finding they are more effective in ministering to others.
But a strong marriage isn’t the result of simply the individuals’ viewpoints. The health of a marriage is based on the marriage relationship. In “Marriages That Last” from 1967, John F. Cuber and Peggy B. Harroff studied five different kinds of marriage relationships still relevant today. (Please read the historical article for a complete listing.)
The Devitalized Marriage describes the marriages we often see today where daily demands have squeezed the life out of the marriage. It is characterized by a couple who used to be in love, but now “little time is spent together, sexual relationships are far less satisfying qualitatively or quantitatively, and interests and activities are not shared.” The fifth marriage is the one we all desire, the Total Relationship. It is characterized by few areas of tension because the: “differences which have arisen over the years have been settled as they arose . . . the primary consideration was not who was right and who was wrong, only how the problem could be resolved without tarnishing the relationship. When faced with differences, they can and do dispose of the difficulties without losing their feeling of unity or their sense of the vitality and centrality of their relationship.”
Fortunately, wherever you may find your marriage on this list, there is great hope for improvement as we seek God’s Word for guidance. Ephesians gives us direction, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen . . . Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29-32). “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:33). Controlling our tongue, forgiving, loving and respecting—these are indeed potent prescriptions for a godly way to a healthier relationship.
To reach this level, we must remind ourselves that marriage is a divinely designed institution. God created the husband and wife union before giving “work” to do. Seeking His priorities is definitely best, but certainly not easy with our busy lifestyles. What creative plan can you implement to restore your marriage if it is struggling or to enrich it if it is already vibrant? One practical solution we began several years ago has been extremely helpful to us. We set aside one hour every Sunday evening to look at each other’s schedules for the week and pray together. Expectations are much more realistic when we are aware of the tasks already on our “plates” for the week. We are sure to fit in time with God and one another before our busy schedules squeeze out these crucial priorities. The sweet time of prayer that follows sets the stage for a week much better balanced and certainly more God-honoring.
We encourage you to read these three historical articles in their entirety as they remind us that the time pressures of a medical career 60 years ago still exist today. In fact, they are even more pronounced today, causing us to earnestly seek God in restoring balance. CMDA has great resources to aid us in this pursuit, including Marriage Enrichment weekends, book resources, the Side By Side ministry and staff members who come alongside medical couples through Campus & Community Ministries.
How blessed we are to have God’s Word as the guide for our medical marriages. Add to that how grateful we are for the wisdom of godly couples and the enriching resources available today. These teach us how to have a union that fulfills us personally, and also allows us to be a light for Christ in a profession and a culture that desperately need to see Him. Our humble, unconditional love toward our spouse reflects Christ, our perfect example. Let us encourage one another to build marriages that strive to help each other do the will of God as we seek to glorify Him.