Baggage in Marriage (You’ve Got it Too): Ron and Nan Deal
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On FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson host Ron & Nan Deal, who have led FamilyLife Blended for over a decade, but their story’s far from flawless. Like all of us, they carried baggage into marriage.
Baggage in Marriage (You’ve Got it Too): Ron and Nan Deal
Dave: Well, if there’s anything I underestimated when we got married, it would be the amount of baggage. [Laughter]
Ann: —that I was carrying? [Laughter]
Dave: I’d love to say you. Actually, I knew you were bringing baggage in because I knew your family; and I’m like, “Oh, boy.” But I had no idea I brought a whole plane-full/a truck-full. I mean, I would have told you—I probably did—“Oh, I’m good.”
Ann: You totally did.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
I thought, “Dave doesn’t have any baggage; he’s dealt with all of his stuff.”
Dave: I didn’t think I did—I mean, all you have to do is look at [my] bio and go: “Okay, two alcoholic parents, divorced, death of his brother,”—I mean—
Ann: But Dave, I think what happens is we assume and we think—because we’ve given our lives to Jesus—
Dave: Yes; “It’s all gone; it’s all cleaned up.”
Ann: Yes; it just magically disappears.
Ann: In God’s graciousness, He allows us to walk through unpacking the bags; but it’s hard.
Dave: Yes; and today, we get to walk through a pretty remarkable story that we got to hear at a dinner table one night in Little Rock with Ron and Nan Deal, who are in the studio with FamilyLife. It feels weird saying, “Welcome to FamilyLife Today,”—[Laughter]—because you’re such a part of FamilyLife—but “Welcome to FamilyLife Today, guys!”
Ron and Nan: Thank you.
Ron: Glad to be here.
Nan: It’s great to be here.
Dave: Many of you know Ron as the director of our FamilyLife Blended® ministry, for how many years?
Ron: Ten years now.
Dave: Yes, so you laugh when we talk about our baggage; but we get to hear your story today. A lot of your story was hidden; start from wherever. You can begin to tell us what we need to know.
Nan: Right; you said “truckloads”; I’d say I had a whole fleet of semis. [Laughter]
I did not grow up in a Christian home—it was toxic soup—my mom, and dad, and three girls; I’m the youngest of three girls. It was: fists through the wall, fights, unforgiveness, bitterness, rage, and shame; it was shame-based parenting. As soon as I could get out, I ran as fast as I could; there was just not a safe person to go to. There was a lot of abandonment there: there was a lot of emotional abandonment/physical abandonment.
There, I learned, very early on, I was on my own—nobody had my back, and I wasn’t worth much—I was told over and over again that they never should have had me, or I wouldn’t amount to much, which resulted in all three of us having eating disorders and issues of that nature. It was a hard place to grow up, and it was a very lonely home to grow up in.
Ann: Nan, was there any faith in your home?
Nan: No; and my dad and I started going to church when I was in junior high—but it was Easter and Christmas—and there was no Bible in the home. When we would go to church, Easter and Christmas, the music was the only thing really that spoke to me. I didn’t know God’s Word; I didn’t know that those words and those songs were actual Scriptures from God’s Word. I knew I wanted to be there.
And when I was six, I had a babysitter—and she was a Catholic lady—and she took me to Catholic mass. I remember kneeling on that mahogany bench; and I can see those crushed velvet cushions and holding her hand in church. Actually, I wanted her to be my mom. She taught me how to pray; she taught me the Lord’s Prayer. Her home felt safe, and going to mass with her felt safe.
So fast forward that to junior high. There was this girl, who went to my church with me, but she also double-dipped across town at the Assembly of God. One night, she said to me/she said, “Hey, would you like to go to a concert with me?” And this Joan Biaz-type girl comes out on the stage with her guitar in this Holly Hobby dress, up to her chin, and she starts singing; it was Amy Grant.
Dave: [Singing] “I may not be every mother’s dream for her little girl…”
Nan: Yes, Father’s Eyes.
Ron: It was the first song she started singing.
Dave: Oh, really?
Nan: It was! And those words: “I may not be every mother’s dream for her little girl,”—and I wept—because it was like: “That’s how I feel.” That was one of those moments, where I knew—at six, with my babysitter; and in that moment—God was always pursuing me.
Ron: You just didn’t know exactly what that meant.
Nan: I didn’t know what that meant.
Ron: You said a minute ago: “[You] ran as fast as [you] could, as soon as [you] could.”
Dave: Yes; I was thinking, “Ron, was that you?”
Nan: —to that guy, right there.
Dave: How did you come into her life?
Ron: She ran to me.
Nan: We met in seventh grade.
Dave: —seventh grade?
Ron: We went through junior high and high school together. We were friends long before we ever started dating.
Nan: Ron Deal, the nicest guy I had ever met.
Dave: He is a nice guy.
Ann: He is a nice guy; [Laughter] I could totally see that.
Ron: What you didn’t know was her family was toxic soup and mine was a healthy, loving, Christ-centered family, in which I never, ever, ever doubted that I was loved or cared for; and yet, at the same time, always wondered if I was one mistake away from sort of losing my dad’s heart. You know, sometimes, when things are out in the open, you know what you’re dealing with.
The baggage I brought into our marriage was what I didn’t know I was dealing with; and that was just this: “I felt like everything is a test,” and “Perform well is the name of the game”; that’s how I coped. I was good as an athlete; I was okay as a student—that was a big message, within my family, that drove us to be good—being good was like really super important to me.
And you know, you fast forward a few years; and Nan and I are married and together. I’m trying to be good at everything I do—in life/in work—and I’m so focused there that I’m not focused on her.
Ann: Ron, let me go back for a minute. Did you know about what Nan’s life was, growing up?
Ron: I mean, yes; but let me just say: “After, even in my mid-50s, 36 years of marriage—I’m still figuring out me; we’re still figuring out her/what she grew up in—the lingering impact of baggage is something that I think, for most of us, is a life-long endeavor.”
So yes, I had been there; I’d seen it; I’d interacted with her parents, even before we started dating. So I’ve known them a very, very long time.
Dave: In some ways, it’s like you see the bags; but you don’t know how heavy they are.
Ron: —well said.
Nan: And my oldest sister passed away of anorexia at 45; and I mean, Ron saw that whole thing; he knew that that was there. He knew my mom and dad’s relationship, and he knew that there wasn’t faith in the home. And God actually used him to bring me to the Lord. I mean, we studied the Bible; and I became a Christian, and I was baptized.
Ann: Did you think Ron would kind of be your saving grace?
Nan: You betcha.
Ann: Ron was your escape.
Nan: You betcha.
Ann: You knew Jesus; but maybe, you didn’t know how to have Jesus interact with all of those hard things.
Nan: Exactly; exactly. I wanted Ron to rescue me—I put him on that horse and gave him that shield and that sword—and I wanted him to fight every battle.
Ann: And Ron, you probably wanted to; because you said you were a good guy.
Ron: Yes; I mean, I did want to rescue, and help, and serve, and love her well. At the same time, I wanted to please everybody under the sun. I wanted—you know, the fear of man—if I have an idol, that’s my weak spot. I want people to approve of me; I want them to be thrilled or impressed with my work, and so I was driven and perfectionistic. In the back of my mind, it was all serving the kingdom; so how do you argue with that?
Ron: Nan and I have had this conversation, so many times—like she’s opened my eyes to: “How do you win?”—when you’re in her shoes, and I’m chasing stuff for God?
Ann: And God should always be first—right?—so you take a back seat, as a wife.
Nan: Right; for sure.
Ron: And I had a pride in that—that I didn’t know I had—again, part of my baggage was I took pride in doing well, performing well, ministering well; everything related to that. I couldn’t wrap my mind around why she wasn’t thrilled. [Laughter] Everybody else seems to be thrilled; why aren’t you thrilled? [Laughter]
Ann: And Nan, what was it like for you?
Nan: Once again, there is the abandonment: “I’m not enough,” “You’re chasing after something else,” or “After you have worked all day long, you’re exhausted; and so there’s nothing left for me.”
When I was at home, and I was growing up, I learned I needed to do things by myself/become self-reliant. I became very resentful towards my family; and it was like: “Peace out! I’m going to go to him and see you later. I’ll take care of my college; I’ll pay for it,” and “I’ve got this guy now, and I’ll show you how to parent.”
And then, as Ron’s in ministry—and I was never the typical minister’s wife—oh, my goodness; you know, I didn’t come from anything/I didn’t come from a Christian home. I always felt like I was never enough. Here’s this guy, chasing after work and other things; and I’m like, “Well, then, I’ll do it; forget you,” and “I’ll wall myself off.”
Nan: —self-protect, for sure.
And especially, when the boys came along, if anything that I was good at—I did not want to parent like they had parented me—and I hope I did that. [Emotion in voice] I never wanted them, for one moment, to not think they were wanted, loved, or anything but amazing; and that I was all in, as their mother. And that there was nothing they could do to make me not love them. You know, part of that was my pride; part of that was I was going to show my parents how to do it; and part of that was this love for these three little guys that, you know I’m like, “How could you not?” I loved/and I loved every moment of it, so there was a safe and wonderful place.
As Ron is going and blowing—“You know I’m doing this for God,”—well, I’m like: “I’m going to protect these boys at all costs,” and “I’m going to protect myself.” And more walling off, more bitterness, more resentment and anger—and you’ve got abandonment from that and abandonment in this—and you add fuel to that, and it’s just going to go.
Dave: I mean, Ron, did you see what was happening in your home? Because in my life, it’s a little different but similar; and I couldn’t see it. I was so—
Ann: —focused on your job.
Dave: —building the ministry/building a successful ministry—that even, when she would say it—I sort of looked at her like she was needy, like: “Come on; you’ve got…”
Ron: No, I didn’t.
Dave: I couldn’t see it; could you?
Ron: I didn’t see it.
We kind of divide our 36 years up into—the first 10 or 15, I was completely consumed in my own endeavors—I thought I was building God’s kingdom, and that’s, I think, the way it got started. I had really good intentions; and somewhere, along the way, I started building my kingdom and could not see it. As a matter of fact, I probably—I know I did, because we processed this—I gave her the look and the speech, and the, “Come on; what are you complaining about? Why are you…”
I just have to say: “I was terrible; I was a pride-aholic”—that was my drink of choice—was: “I’m right; and you’ve just got to figure this out, and you’ve got to start performing well.” Again, that’s the standard I had grown up with, and put on myself, and had adopted in my life as my approach to life; and I was pushing that off on her. And “Oh, by the way, since I’m so good at what I do, I have the right to tell you the mistakes you’re making.” And I needed to correct her and help her see the parts of her that were lacking.
What did that do?
Nan: There was one time he traveled, and he was gone from Tuesday to Sunday.
Ron: It’s a long week
Nan: I’m home with three little boys, and he’s gone from Tuesday to Sunday. He comes home that Sunday night late. I said to him/I said, “If you could just stay home Monday morning and have breakfast with us”; and he’s like, “You have no idea what you’re asking of me.”
What I heard was: “You all are not as important as what I just did out there and what I’m going to be doing at church.” That’s when I started to think, “Yes, I’m not going to open myself up to you; I am going to continue to wall off.” I really got angry, bitter, resentful. And I started to hate his work—every book that came out; every conference he went to; everything he did—I wanted to get on the radio with him, and say, “Y’all don’t know how bad he is to me.” I mean, really, with every passing year, I was off-the-chain angry.
Dave: But you never did.
Nan: I never did on air or—
Dave: —that’s what I mean. [Laughter]
Nan: I did enough;—
Dave: But I mean, in some ways,—
Nan: —I did enough of that at home.
Dave: Yes; but out in the public,—
Nan: He walked on eggshells around me forever;—
Dave: Yes, that’s what I was wondering—because the public sees the Deal family as they’re the image of: “What we all want,”—
Ron: Sure; sure.
Nan: But he—
Dave: —and that was the reality behind the—
Nan: —but he knew.
Ann: So Ron, you knew; but were you thinking, “This is Nan’s fault”?
Ron: Yes; at least, a big part of it was her fault. Yes, I had things I needed to grow in—okay, so one of the advantages of being a family therapist is you preach to yourself a lot—you’re reading stuff all the time; I mean, you’re going, “Oh, my God; I think I need to work on that.”
But here’s the way I would say it—in hindsight—if I found something I needed to work on, it was sort of like a 3 on a 10 scale, like I had a little problem; I didn’t have a serious problem.
Ann: And you probably weren’t verbally abusive, in terms of what you said to Nan.
Ann: Right—so none of that—so you’re probably thinking, “I’m a good husband.”
Nan: You know, he just kept learning all these things and had all of these wonderful tools; and he, really, was helping the masses/all these other people.
Now, I will say, he tried to bring it home; and I’d be saying, “Yes, go help all your little friends out there; but don’t be trying to help me.” My heart was stone.
Ron: Resentment got in the way; anger got in the way.
Nan: —for sure.
Ron: And of course—okay, think about this—I would see her anger; and I would think, “Man, she’s got problems. We’ve got to work on this; we’ve got to try and work through this,”—and we would try to work through this; but that wall was there, that was evident to me. Again, it fueled my little narrative that: “She’s the problem. I’ve got stuff to work on, but there’s real problems over there.” Every time I took that posture, I was more distant; I was more unavailable; I was less in tune. And what’s her big baggage?—abandonment; I was feeding into the abandonment.
This is one of the crazy things I think about—it’s true for us, and I think it’s true for a lot of couples—a lot of us walk in with two or three really big things, that are kind of great sensitivities to us; and life would just have it that our spouse sort of pecks away at those very things. And we absolutely did that to each other:
- I became somebody who abandoned her/another person who added to that life experience; that’s terrible. I’m sitting here, just listening to her talk a minute ago; and I’m just thinking, “That’s awful!” I was blind—that’s what pride does—it blinds you to yourself, so I couldn’t see it; and I was just contributing to it.
- Likewise, she’s being angry and constantly telling me that I’m not measuring up. Well, what’s my goal in life?—to measure up; [Laughter] right?—to be enough. She’s telling me: “You’re not enough”; so I work harder and worked harder, and we’re both constantly failing.
Nan: And there was a season in there, where Ron had just written his first book; and I was still staying at home. I was boxing up those books. We had three little levels; and in the basement, we this little office. I was taking those books, with our youngest, to the post office, and delivering them—and working part-time for him, to just try to help his ministry—I was really trying to do and be a support.
And yet, the travel wouldn’t stop—and the walking into church, and I’m by myself with three little boys; and he’s off to go teach another class—and: “See you afterwards.” It just kept going and going. In my mind, I thought, “If I’ll do enough for you, and show you how wonderful I am, and supportive, then, you’ll come back to me.” And it never happened; so then, it’s like, “Well, this isn’t working; why don’t I get angry?”
Well, does that ever help? And I will say this—I bet there are people listening, going, “Wow, why didn’t you just hang it up?”—we genuinely have always loved each other.
Nan: And we have quite the chemistry together.
Nan: But we genuinely love each other; and we loved and love our children. There were seasons in there when it was good/it was really, really good.
Ron: Oh, yes—that’s the thing—there’s so much good in the midst of all of this. But there’s just sort of this under-the-surface—
Nan: —dysfunctional dance that we—
Ron: —narrative that we just couldn’t ever outrun—
Nan: —never stop doing.
Ron: —sort of figured out how to tiptoe around—and yet, there were good things in the middle of all of that. You just sort of keep going, not realizing that the distance was growing tremendously.
Ann: I know that your story is resonating with so many.
Dave: Yes; I was thinking, “You have unique circumstances you’ve already shared, that are so different than many couples; but yet, the result is everybody’s story.” I mean, Ron, I’ve done that; Ann’s done that.
Ann: —put my life in my kids.
Dave: I know every listener is like: “I’ve felt like you’ve felt.”
Ron: Well, here’s the thing—and we can tell more of this story next time—we haven’t even gotten to the hard part.
Dave: I know; I know.
Ron: We haven’t even gotten to the real hard and the devastating impact that it had on us.
So here’s the bottom line—if you were to ask me: “What is this story?”—I would say, “This is a story of God’s mercy.”
Ron: We love each other like crazy, and we’re not enough for one another; we rely on Him in every single day in this season of our life. We are incredibly grateful for God’s kindness to us, in seeing us through this and continuing—like we don’t think we’re done—
Ron: —marriage isn’t done with us.
Ann: We’re never done.
Ron: We’re never done, this side of heaven—we’re still going—but that’s this story: “God has been very kind to us.”
Dave: And you didn’t quit.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron and Nan Deal on FamilyLife Today. Now, there’s some really honest and heavy stuff we’re tackling here today; but that’s where we genuinely want to live in the ministry of FamilyLife—reality, not pretend—so share some of your thoughts on this with us, Dave.
Dave: You know, Ron and Nan really hit on something that’s core to all of us: we long to be seen, to be heard, to be valued. Boy; oh, boy; it’s at the core of our being: “Would somebody know me, see me, and understand what I’m going through?”
I really think that’s what FamilyLife Today does; we are a ministry that helps you be seen as we go to God’s Word, as we tell our stories—and stories like Ron and Nan’s—hopefully, you’re going, “They see me; they know exactly the same struggles that I’m going through.”
Ann: And I think, too, Dave, in those good times and hard times, FamilyLife is here to help you every single day. You often hear us, at the beginning of the program, say this—and this is what’s true—we’re all about helping families pursue the relationships that matter the most.
Dave: Yes, and the relationships that matter most are the people sitting beside you in your home every single day.
You know, we really don’t talk about this all that often; but this ministry is fueled by people, like you, who pray for us and give, financially, to make this ministry do what we do. I’m sure that it impacts you, and I’m sure you want it to impact others as well as. Today, we’re talking about it: we need you, not only to pray for us—and we value that—but we’d like for you to join us, financially, and contribute to make this ministry continue to go and to thrive.
Here’s the good news: if you want to give right now, your gift is going to be doubled. We have a matching gift happening right now. So think about that: you give some money—you just doubled what you gave to impact, not only your life and your neighborhood, but your city and the world—to help other people be seen and known and find Christ in the middle of their struggle.
Shelby: Yes, that’s right. I’m so grateful to be a part of this incredible ministry. And you could partner with us, right now, by giving to FamilyLife. And when you do, your gift will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $2 million. You can give today at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
As I said, we’ve gone deep today. You can dive deeper into this topic with Ron and Nan by joining them Valentine’s week for FamilyLife’s Empowered to Love beach resort getaway, at Sandestin, Florida, February 13-17 next year in 2023. Head over to FamilyLifeToday.com for more details.
Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined, again, by Nan and Ron Deal as she continues the conversation, which takes an even darker turn when her 12-year-old son dies, which spirals her into alcohol abuse and becoming unrecognizable to Ron; that’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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