Greg Smalley: When You’re Lonely in Marriage
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Greg SmalleyDr. Greg Smalley serves as the vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as president of the National Institute of Marriage. He is the author of 17 books including “Fight Your Way to a...more
Feeling lonely in marriage? Dr. Greg Smalley offers ideas to help you resolve conflict, start talking about what you’re carrying — and move back together.
Greg Smalley: When You’re Lonely in Marriage
Greg: Erin and I usually, every day, will ask this question to each other: “What was the high of your day, and what was the low of your day?” That leads to other questions; and it keeps you aware of what’s going on in your spouse’s life—versus—if all we do is work-talk, you just start missing each other.
Ann: 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 our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
One of the things I love to do in our marriage is have conflict. [Laughter]
Ann: This is not true; this is not true. [Laughter]
Dave: I actually run to the other room when conflict starts. I don’t anymore; I used to.
Ann: No, you’re way better.
Dave: But I don’t think anybody—do they? Maybe you?—do you enjoy conflict?
Ann: I’m willing and anxious to get into it if I think that we will be better from it; but I don’t love the actual doing of the conflict.
Dave: Yes, but conflict is a part of every marriage; conflict is a part of every relationship. We all know how to have it; very few of us know how to resolve it.
Today, we have a chance to listen to Ron Deal and Dr. Greg Smalley from Focus on the Family® as they talk on Ron’s podcast called the FamilyLife Blended® podcast about this: about rest in marriage and, also, about how to navigate, and negotiate, and resolve conflict. It’s a great discussion. So let’s tune in to Ron and Greg, talking about married conflict.
[FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: Let’s talk a little bit about avoiding conflict, as a peacemaker; yes.
Greg: That’s my life!
Ron: I have a similar sort of innate thing in me. One of the things I did not know, when I said, “I do ‘til death do us part,” is that I did not know: I was going to have to learn how to manage conflict; I was going to have to learn how to stay engaged in the midst of conflict when everything inside of me says: “Run! Get away from this; withdraw. This is not good; there is no good to be found here. Get away!” Like developing that whole skill set has taken a lot of time/is taking a lot of time in me.
How dangerous is it for couples to avoid conflict?
Greg: It’s very dangerous. I mean, the/all the marriage experts, the researchers, will tell you that, if we don’t deal with our issues/if we don’t work through problems, then we just keep stuffing that—you bury all those hurtful emotions alive—they are going to come back up.
Ron: —buried alive; wow!
Greg: Yes; you’re going to have to deal with it sooner or later.
When it is later, then, there is a whole lot of resentment that gets built up; there is a whole lot of pain and hurt. Usually, it’s intensified at that point; it comes out as an explosion—versus—recognizing, I think it is James 1:2 that says, “When trials come your way….”—so another way to look at trials would be a conflict. So when trials come your way, consider that as an opportunity. Now, it’s talking about joy. So certainly, joy can come from when we work through problems. But honestly, healthy conflict—so when we are trying to work through conflict—it is going to produce some amazing things.
Near where FamilyLife originally was, down in Little Rock—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Murfreesboro—there is a state park called—
Greg: —the Diamond-something State Park.
Ron: Yes, and you can actually dig for diamonds; and if you find it, you keep it.
Greg: Exactly. It’s the only place in our country where you can actually dig for diamonds and actually keep whatever you find. We went there one time as a family. We had all this romanticized—what it’s going to look like and what it is going to be—and maybe, we find a diamond. [Laughter]
As you’ve been there, you know, it’s like a barren wasteland. It’s this big, dirty, dusty—
Greg: —field that they plow up. It was hot, humid; it was disastrous. [Laughter] We’re all sweaty; we are covered in mud. It was the worst experience; and we certainly didn’t find any diamonds, but people have.
Ron: That’s right.
Greg: The Uncle Sam diamond—it’s a 40-caret diamond—was found there.
Greg: I think the point is that that’s kind of what can happen from conflict. Conflict can feel like this dusty, barren wasteland—we don’t want to be there; we want to avoid—but there are diamonds buried there. Sometimes, through conflict—as we walk through it, and communicate, and resolve, and manage whatever is going on—it’s like finding that diamond; there are benefits.
As a peacemaker/a conflict avoider—that’s now my true belief—is that I don’t want to have conflict. But if Erin and I are in conflict, I am so confident that God’s going to put/there are some diamonds there; it’s up to us to find them. That’s made a huge difference. I still don’t ever want to fight, but inevitably we will.
Now, I’m willing to kind of, as our buttons are triggered and we’re reacting, as we take some time to settle down and come back, as our hearts are opened and actually talk through, I know I’m going to learn something about me, or Erin, or our marriage—something. There is some benefit/some diamond that is waiting for us. I think that is what has helped me really learn how to deal with conflict differently.
Ron: I can imagine somebody going, digging for diamonds, and finding nothing, like you guys did—
Greg: Yes, it’s possible.
Ron: —and then, somebody says, “You want to go back?” “No, that’s a waste of time.”
But if you did find something: “Do you want to go back?” “Oh, yes! Let’s go back.” All of a sudden, your confidence/your trust in your us-ness, and your ability to eventually do conflict well, goes up. Success breeds success.
Sometimes, I think—and I know looking back at our marriage—it was so hard to be willing to try to engage in conflict in a constructive way until we learned how to do it.
Ron: I had no confidence in our ability, as a couple, to do it—my ability to just manage me, let alone our ability as a couple—but as we were able to find those little success moments, then my confidence takes a boost. I’ve got a diamond; I’m like, “Okay; I can go back with the hope and possibility,” believing that it gets better over time.
I think finding that first diamond is what is so hard. It’s like, “Yes, they say it’s helpful to deal with conflict; but I haven’t experienced that yet.” And it’s so hard sometimes, but I just want to say to those who are listening: “If that’s where you are at—manage you: learn what you need to learn; start working hard on that part of it—and just see if it doesn’t lead to the discovery of a little diamond.
Greg: I’m telling you—it/they are there, because God says, as we go through hard times, that He is always going to give us something. The diamonds are there; it’s just up to us to look for them.
Ron: So what are some of those things that people can do to help move them in a better direction?
Greg: I would say one of my very favorites is a woman researcher followed, I think,
300 couples for over 20 years, and just studied them. What I like—she looked at those, who had a strong marriage/a successful marriage, and what was different about them.
Greg: One of the things she found is that the couples—who were happy, satisfied, moving in the direction they both loved—spent about ten minutes a day exploring the inner life of their spouse. In other words, all of us have to work-talk—we’ve got to administrate out marriage—we’ve got to talk about the to-do list and the tasks, and “Who’s picking Annie up?” and “Who’s going to the store?” We all have to have a business meeting, because it takes a lot to run a family.
Ron: Yes, it does.
Greg: But the problem is the work kind of stuff will always come—you don’t have to even try to talk about that stuff—it’s just going to happen. If that’s all you ever talk about, the relationship becomes super boring. As a matter of fact, we’ve seen that couples get trained over time that: “Anytime we have a conversation, it’s just going to be a business meeting.” They quit talking—versus—Erin and I have to be intentional to go, “We need, at least, ten minutes a day, exploring the inner life.” In other words, the emotions, the fears, the anxieties, the dreams, the good—just that kind of stuff—and we’ve really been intentional about finding ten minutes a day.
Ron: Okay, so like—
Greg: We go on a walk or something; yes.
Ron: Let me just kind of unpack that for somebody, who is thinking, “Oh, well, we tend to talk about what happened in the day. How would we take that conversation and go deeper with it?”
Greg: A great example is Erin and I usually, every day, will ask this question to each other: “What was the high of your day?” and “What was the low of your day?” It just opens up the conversation about: “Okay, the high of my day; this was it…” “Why? What about/why did that fill you up so much?”
Ron: You get curious about it.
Greg: You just explore that. So you’re—in your mind, you’re going, “This is not the time to have a business meeting, so I’m going to stay away from any of the to-do lists and all that stuff—budget—all that; we’re not going to talk about that. I’m just going to stay focused on what was going on deep in your heart: ‘How did you feel?’ and ‘What was the low of your day? Why? What happened? Oh, that happened! How did that make you feel? Oh, what’s going…’” It’s super simple.
That’s been our go-to. We just say, “What was the high of your day and the low of your day?” That leads to/you just explore that. That leads to other questions. Here is the value of that: it keeps you current; it keeps you updated. It keeps you aware of what’s going on in your spouse’s life—versus—if all we do is work-talk and have a business meeting, you just start missing each other. And we’re always changing, and things are happening; and I want to stay attuned to what’s going on in Erin’s life.
Dave: We’re listening to Ron Deal on the FamilyLife Blended podcast, his conversation with Greg Smalley. Man, o man! Was that so true?!
Dave: And you have told me 1,000 times in our marriage, over 40 years, how you long for me to just ask you questions—listen, don’t solve or fix your issues, just—like Greg just said there—“Oh, that must have been hard.” That builds intimacy in a marriage; right?
Ann: I mean, if we were just putting into action that principle of: “Tell me the high [and] low of your day,”—and then those next questions of—“How did that make you feel?”—wow!—that kind of pondering with your spouse/that could change everything. But we just get in the grind of: “What’s going on with this kid?” “What’s happening at work?” instead of going deeper into: “How do we feel?”
Dave: Yes; so if you want an action step, you could do that right now; but a better action step would be to listen to the rest of this, because there is more gold in this that Greg and Ron talk about. We’re going to go back to the FamilyLife Blended podcast right now. Enjoy!
[FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: Okay, let’s talk about one little wrinkle in that; because I could imagine somebody listening, going, “Okay, if my spouse started getting really curious about my inner life—wanted to understand my day better/how I felt about it—I don’t know that I trust them. We’ve just sort of drifted, and we’ve been in that space.”
Greg: “Doesn’t feel safe”; yes.
Ron: “I don’t feel safe. It would be hard for me to give them that information.” What would you suggest that person do?
Greg: That’s the paradox in marriage, actually, is that it is full of risk. When we open our hearts—we put our heart out there—the risk is: “How will my spouse handle my heart? What will they do? Will they unconditionally love me? Understand?”—all that—versus—“Use that against me,” or “Judge me,” or “Try to fix me,” or whatever.
I would say: absolutely; all of us have to face the risk of putting ourselves out there. I would say to that person, who is going, “That makes me a little nervous”; I would actually have that conversation, then, with your spouse, going, “If we are having our ten minutes, how can we really protect that time?” For example, Erin and I have agreed that, when we are having this ten minutes—and we’ll call it out—“Hey, let’s have our ten minutes,”—so we know what we are doing; we know it’s intentional.
One of our rules is: “This is not the time to try to solve or fix something.”
Greg: So if Erin shares, “Man, I’ve just been discouraged. I just saw Annie’s grades, and she is just doing really bad,” this is not a time for me to go, “Well, okay; how about we do this..? Let’s try this…” It’s just to go: “Yes, tell me more about that. It sounds like it’s really bothering you. What is it about that?” But it’s just recognizing the true value of staying present with Erin around the emotions.
So, if she is sharing that she just saw that Annie’s not doing well in school, I can jump into problem-solving, “Let’s get a tutor,” or “Let’s do this”; or I can say, “Help me to better understand. I can see that is really bothering you. What do you think? What’s getting stirred up for you? How does that make you feel to see her grades?” “I feel failed as a mom.” “Ooh, I had no—tell me more about that; what does that feel like? What does that mean?”
If you are willing to just be present and just dial into the emotion, you can always just say, “Okay, so it sounds like, maybe, I’m hearing this…Tell me more about that emotion.” Or you can just guess and throw it out there; and she’ll go, “No, not really. It’s more this…” “Whoa! Tell me more about that.” That’s when I learn stuff about my wife when I keep her focused on the emotion versus problem-solving, or whatever, or opinions or discussing facts, or whatever. It’s dialing into the emotion that will make/that ten minutes really strengthen the connection that you guys are longing for.
Ron: I’m really curious about the COVID world that you guys have been living in. Have there been any opportunities for you to learn anything—
Ron: —about your marriage in this?
Greg: When everything got shut down—actually, our adult kids came back home—and we all just wanted to be together. It was fantastic; I loved that. But a couple days in, Erin sat all of us down and said, “Okay, hear me. I have been cooking three meals a day for all of y’all. [Laughter] I’m done. That’s too much; I’m exhausted. I’m done; someone else has to do the cooking.”
So being the spiritual leader of our family, I cast lots, of course. [Laughter] I lost.
Ron: You lost. [Laughter]
Greg: I became the default chef in our family. Actually, I was like, “I always kind of wanted to do that. What a great time!” I began to cook. Here is what I quickly discovered. I would get up in the morning. I would rummage through our freezer, looking for some meat; and then I would find it and go. Then I would go on Pinterest® and just type in whatever the meat was, and I’d find all of these really cool recipes. That was kind of what I was doing; but throughout the day, then, I would worry, like, “What time do I have to de-thaw the meat? Do I have all the ingredients? Oh man! When can I go to the store?”
I just found that I would worry and fret, seriously, all day long, preparing for dinner. One day, I was looking for some recipe on pork chops; and Erin walks in. I’m like, “Hey, help me decide here. It’s either honey pork ribs or garlic pork ribs. I can’t decide. What do you think I should cook?” She literally pats me on the bottom, which I was totally fine with—kind of smacks me on the bottom and goes—“Hey, you got this, chef!” And she kept going. I was so offended—not because of the patting me on the hiney—but because she wasn’t willing to help me.
I literally said to her, “Hey, no, no, no! I can’t make all these decisions. Help me. Just choose one, and I’ll cook it.” She was really going, “You’ve got this.” All of a sudden, it was like a light bulb went off; and I went, “Is this what you’ve felt like for the past
20 years? Did you used to worry throughout the day on what to cook and all the details of cooking?” She just gave me this beautiful smile.
Honestly, Ron, it was in that moment that I went, “Oh my goodness! My wife has felt totally alone for many, many, many years around cooking.” It just made me realize there were areas of our marriage that either one of us felt super alone, and it led to such a good conversation. I said, “Tell me more. What has that been like for you to feel like you’ve [borne] this burden of cooking all by yourself?” It is such a simple thing; that had such a profound effect, because it just led into a good conversation about: “What was that like?” and then “What other areas of our marriage do you feel alone?”
Actually, she even asked me that. And paying the bills was one—exactly, for me, the same thing is that I had to do that all on my own—I did it; she cooked. I did that, but it became such a cool thing between us, going, “We don’t want either of us feeling alone.” So what would connecting around some of that—even if I was going to be doing the cooking, even if she was going to start paying bills—we didn’t want to create another system, to where someone felt truly alone in that.
Greg: I would encourage you: Be courageous enough to ask your spouse: “Are there areas in our life together—in our marriage/in our family—where you feel alone?—like you are doing something all by yourself? You’re bearing that burden fully?”
When it talks about in the Scriptures—“to bear one another’s burdens”—it means two things: either we assist—it would be the difference between a backpack and a steamer trunk that we’re trying to carry around—so if Erin feels alone and feels like something is beyond her ability, like she’s carrying around a big, old steamer trunk—“How can I help her? How can I bear that with her?” We could either assist or remove that thing completely.
Cooking now has become something I said, “I want that.” Yet, we figured out how to do that to where I don’t feel alone; and it’s been great.
Be courageous enough—have that conversation, and really talk about that—and discover there are probably some areas that you guys are just doing what you do, and you’re going to do it probably without complaining; but it’s that we don’t want our spouse to feel alone in doing that stuff—so: “How can I either assist or even remove that thing completely?”—that would be the goal.
Dave: We’ve been listening to Ron Deal on the FamilyLife Blended podcast talk with
Dr. Greg Smalley from Focus on the Family. I just have to say: I saw you over there, like, you’re going to get me in the kitchen; so you don’t feel alone when you are cooking.
Ann: Did you hear that?
Dave: I’m not going to do it.
Ann: Did you hear it?
Dave: I’ve just got to tell you right now, honey.
Ann: Let’s just talk about areas where we both feel alone.
Dave: You got all excited, like, “Oh, Dave is going to hear this, and he is going to do it.”
Ann: I hate being alone in the kitchen.
Dave: I know; you’ve told me. Do I need to confess right now that I’ll do this?
Ann: Ah! Oh, that means accountability.
Dave: I didn’t say I will do this; I said, “Do I need to confess that I will do this?” [Laughter] If it makes you that excited if I—okay, I’ll make you a deal—I’ll jump in the kitchen and help you cook if you start golfing with me. We said earlier you get on the golf cart, and that is great; but man, if you actually started swinging the club—okay, that’s not going to happen.
Ann: Maybe—I could totally—
Dave: I can see it’s not going to happen.
Ann: No, it’s totally going to happen if you’ll come in the kitchen.
Dave: Here is the thing: “What they were saying is so true; because you can really feel lonely in a marriage, even in a good marriage. I think men often feel this because we carry things that we don’t often verbalize. I’m telling you guys: ‘You need to verbalize, because I think your wife wants to carry that with you’”; am I right?
Ann: Yes; and women feel alone, too, especially when they were talking about in roles. I think that’s just a great conversation to ask one another: “How, in our marriage, do you feel alone?”
Dave: This would be a good podcast to listen to together. If you listened without your spouse, go back, find it on FamilyLife Blended. It’s called “Roommate Marriages.” You don’t want a roommate marriage; you want a real, intimate marriage. Listen to this and then have a conversation and talk about what it would look like to rest together and to share activities so we don’t feel alone.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to FamilyLife Today with Dave and Ann Wilson. In the past two days, we’ve been hearing clips from Ron Deal’s podcast, FamilyLife Blended. Now, each episode provides practical help and encouragement to blended families and those who love them. You can hear the full episode with Greg Smalley when you search for FamilyLife Blended wherever you get your podcasts. Look for Episode Number 76; that will lead you there, or you can get the link at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, you might know this; but FamilyLife is so much more than a daily podcast. We’ve got a lot going on here, including what we call the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. And I’ve got the president of FamilyLife, David Robbins, here. David, we’ve got some of these events getting ready to start like right now. Where are those happening?
David: Well, this weekend, we have a few Weekend to Remember getaways happening across the country in Atlanta and Washington, DC. And over the next few months, we have dozens of locations that you can go check out. The great thing about these getaways is that, no matter where your marriage is—whether it just needs a romantic getaway, whether it needs a tune up and some re-firing, or whether you are in a really hard place—it can meet you right where you are. We see it happen every weekend.
I was recently at a Weekend to Remember getaway, where there was a couple who had been married for four years. The wife wrote our team and told us, as they were leaving the getaway, she said, “We came here, not speaking to each other with years of compiled hurts, despondence, and stuck in the cycle of hurt; and we are leaving, not fixed, but with lots of tools in our toolbox, and eager to get to work on all the things that we’ve learned. We are leaving here with hope, and I am forever grateful for this Weekend to Remember.”
I love hearing stories like that, where God intervenes in a very specific way. I also love hearing stories of couples that just retreated and got away, and the good that was happening in their lives, leveled up to something great to help tackle this next season. I want to encourage you: if you haven’t gotten away recently and invested in your marriage, you will never regret taking time to focus on the most important relationship in your life.
Shelby: That’s right, and you can find out more and register for a Weekend to Remember. Just head to FamilyLifeToday.com, scroll down, and look for the Weekend to Remember tab; or you can give us a call at 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, coming up next week, we’re going to hear from Gretchen Saffles and how important it is for women—and men, for that matter—to find peace in Christ, not your circumstances. That’s next week.
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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