Who’s in Control?
About the Guest
She was a successful, high-powered attorney. And then she got married. Sarah Parshall Perry, a wife and mother of three, realized soon after getting married how much of a control freak she really was, and the effects of it on her marriage weren't pretty. For a number of years her marriage was hit with trial after trial, including two sons being diagnosed with autism. Sarah shares what she's learned about letting go while facing life's hardest setbacks.
Sarah Parshall PerrySarah Parshall Perry (JD, University of Virginia School of Law) is a wife and mother of three young children. She is the coauthor of When the Fairy Dust Settles (with her mother, Janet Parshall) and the author of numerous magazine articles, award-winning short stories, and poetry. Sarah has served in youth ministry for over ten years and is currently writing for www.ChosenFamilies.org where she encourages other families living with disabilities....more
Sarah Parshall Perry, a wife and mother of three, realized soon after getting married how much of a control freak she really was, and the effects of it on her marriage weren’t pretty.
Who’s in Control?
Bob: There was a season not that long ago when Sarah Parshall Perry and her husband Matt went through a whole series of trials.
Sarah: We lost both grandparents at the same time. Matt lost his job. When he got another job, we made a few real estate investments with the money that his father had left us. The real estate market crashed—lost everything, including our main residence. We filed for bankruptcy; and in the midst of this, I’m diagnosed with a very rare autoimmune disorder, Behcet's disease. So, it has been one thing after another to the point where our friends would say, “Only you two!”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, April 25th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. When trials come in a marriage relationship, they will either push you apart or push you together. We’ll find out what happened for Matt and Sarah Perry on today’s program.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You would think that, if you’d been to law school, that would give you a leg up on being a parent; wouldn’t you? That you’d have at least a little—a little—
Dennis: Yes, you’d expect a woman who has been to law school to be able to persecute and prosecute kids before they got to her!
Bob: You would think that by the time that they’re eight or nine, you’d be able to corral them.
Dennis: Let’s just ask her—
Bob: —if that works?
Dennis: —if it works. Sarah Parshall Perry joins us on FamilyLife Today. Sarah, welcome to the broadcast.
Sarah: Thank you.
Dennis: I’ve got to ask you—you went to UVA—
Sarah: I did.
Dennis: —University of Virginia School of Law.
Sarah: I did.
Dennis: You got the degree there. How well did it prepare you for what you have faced as a wife and a mom?
Sarah: Not nearly well enough. [Laughter] I mean, you would think that being paid to argue for a living—
Sarah: —would make me the victor in every one of our fights, and that’s not the case!
Bob: A seven-year-old can take you down!
Sarah: A seven-year-old could beat me every time.
Dennis: Oh, yes. Well, you and your husband Matt have been married since 2001. You live in Maryland. You are the mom of three children—young children, as you said.
And I want to take you to a scene in your marriage—and we’re going to ultimately go back and rebuild to this scene so the listeners kind of have a context for this—but you talk about in the first ten years of your marriage—how you fought over all kinds of things with your husband Matt and you faced all kinds of circumstances that were no laughing matter. They can take down a couple of grown human beings and divide them permanently through divorce, if not through emotional separation.
But I want to take you to the moment when Matt threw his wedding ring at you. What was the cause of—[Laughter]
Bob: I’m glad you can laugh about it now.
Sarah: Oh, I can laugh about it now because whatever it was—was so stupid. I can’t remember what it was that caused him to get so angry; but like many marital fights, it was something that we can look back in retrospect and say, “Remember that time you got so angry that you did ‘x,’ ‘y,’ ‘z’?”
I just remember a fight—we were probably six months into our marriage—that was so earth-shattering that he said, “I didn’t sign on for this!” and threw his wedding ring across the room so hard it dented the drywall, picked up a duffle bag, and walked out the door. I thought: “I don’t think this is supposed to happen in the first couple months of marriage. Isn’t this all the shiny, happy, romantic, ‘We’re getting to know each other, and it’s all very precious’?”
I did not experience a lot of that.
I think—because we had gotten married so quickly, and were so passionately in love, and we had met and were married within one year—we had a lot of adjusting to do. And we were married later in life—both close to 30. We had our own particular way of doing things. And that didn’t quite gel when we were first married. I would say, “Probably, still doesn’t all the time; but we’re definitely learning to manage it.”
Dennis: Well, you have written a book called Sand in My Sandwich. It sounds like you had a good half of pick up load there in your sandwich early on in your marriage.
Sarah: Oh, yes.
Dennis: Most couples, when they get married, don’t have any idea what they are signing up for—
Sarah: No. [Laughter]
Dennis: —and you really didn’t. I want to just read how you summarized the first ten years of your marriage. You said: “In the first ten years of marriage, Matt and I experienced trials that some people would never see in a lifetime.
“In addition to a number of deaths, illnesses, job losses, financial devastations, we had yet another series of trials to endure—those packaged neatly in the form of three tow-headed, blue-eyed, dimpled children, looking perfect,—
Dennis: —“but some challenges underneath the surface.”
Dennis: So, as you look back on starting out your marriage, what would someone have needed to have shared with you that would have better prepared you for what you ended up facing?
Sarah: If someone had said to me: “God does not make mistakes. So, whatever is coming is exactly what He wants,” that might have changed the perspective on how I weathered difficulty. Instead, what I ended up doing was learning the hard way because I didn’t want to give up the reigns. I love that analogy. I’m a horseback rider, and I’m competitive by nature; but I’m also a control freak.
I was not willing to let the Lord take over. And for me, it was as much a personal journey about my relationship with the Lord as it was managing three kids who did not enter the world the way I thought they would.
Bob: So, let me pull back to that six months and ring across the room, as a young wife, with a husband who says, “I didn’t sign up for this,” and grabs a duffle bag, were you thinking, “This is over”?
Sarah: I did have that thought. He came back the next day—had spent the night at a friend’s house. And I remember getting on my knees, and praying, and thinking: “Lord, I had such clarity about this decision. Could I have misheard You? Could I possibly have made the wrong choice?” And that’s never what anyone wants to think, six months into their marriage.
Now, I can look back on it, 14 years later, and say, “We were definitely supposed to be together.”
The Lord has blessed us tremendously in spite of our own failings. But we went into this with our own way of doing things and our own perspectives. The Lord, piece by piece, has taken apart what we were so set in our ways about.
Dennis: How were you trying to control your husband? I mean, if he came to the point of throwing a ring across the room / grabbing a duffle bag, he must have felt something profoundly painful to cause him to want to flee.
Sarah: I will tell you—we have two very different ways of handling conflict. My husband is very engaging—he’s a yeller / he’s very demonstrative. I am someone who shuts down in the face of conflict. I will get very quiet and will not speak at all—which, when you are married to someone who thrives on engagement, is the worst possible way to handle it. When I went silent, and avoided eye contact, and went to another room, he would follow me and continue yelling: “I want to talk about this!
“I don’t care how long it takes! We’re going to work through it.” And I would agree for the sake of agreeing, which all that made me do was be resentful. I would stew at night, thinking, “I didn’t really agree, but I want it to be over.” And that cycle would continue over and over again.
Dennis: So, how were you controlling him? I still want to hear, early in your marriage, how your controlling personality—wanting the reigns, pulling back on him, steering him in this direction or the other—how was that taking place?
Sarah: His manner of fighting with me and my response to it was my way of saying: “This is how it’s going to be done—if you want to yell, I’m going to shut down. We’re going to handle it this way because I cannot handle the blistering I’m getting right now.” So, he would come toward me—it would be yelling / it would be screaming—and I would stand there, silent as a stone. I thought: “I’m not going to fight with you like this. It’s impossible for me to deal with you”; and I would leave the room.
Dennis: That’s really interesting because—and I appreciate your honesty at that point—it really is controlling, once you describe it—
Dennis: —like that.
Sarah: Doesn’t seem that way, but it really was.
Dennis: No, it doesn’t. You don’t think of silence being that overly oppressive to another person—
Dennis: —but it can be.
Dennis: And to that person, who is a controller, using silence, you would say?
Sarah: Oh my goodness! I would say, “Know your ‘adversary,’”—I’m going to use air quotes here because, obviously, we’re not in an adversarial relationship if you are talking about marriage—this is a partnership / it’s a team—but know the person that you’re engaging with.
It took me a while to figure out what I was doing was ultimately damaging him because his upbringing involved exactly the same manner of fighting—one would yell / the other would retreat. They would get in their car, and they would leave. He would be afraid, “That person’s not coming back.” It made him feel unstable in the affection and love of that other person because he thought, “Well, if that person’s going away because they’re so upset and they don’t want to talk to me about it, what does the future hold for me?”
So, knowing him, after all of these years—I think the person that I’m talking to—I would say, “Ask them a question: ‘Do you want to be right, or do you want to resolve things?’ and ‘What do you need from me to resolve it?’”
Bob: You know, our listeners, who have been to our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, hear you talking about this isolation that was occurring early in your marriage—and they know that on Friday night we talk about how this is the natural drift in every relationship. Unless you are intentional / unless you are pursuing oneness, you will drift apart. It’s the way things are going to go.
And we often have different ways of dealing with conflict in a marriage relationship, but you touched on one other thing—and we talk about this on Friday night at the Weekend to Remember as well—when we face, together, the inevitable trials and difficulties that are going to come into a relationship, if we’re not prepared for that / if our relationship isn’t ready for that—
—that can put cracks and fissures in the marriage relationship.
Dennis: And Bob, speaking of the relationship, it begins with the person’s relationship with Jesus Christ—
Sarah: Absolutely; no question.
Dennis: —because if that’s not settled—if you’ve not surrendered to Christ—how else are you going to build that relationship that you’re talking about?
Bob: So, explain for our listeners about some of these trials and difficulties that came your way as you were in the early years of your marriage.
Sarah: So, we came at all of these tribulations with two disadvantages. First, we handled conflict differently. So, that was disadvantage number one. Second, we were at different places spiritually—that was disadvantage number two.
Our relationship with the Lord was very unique for each of us. I am more of an analytical thinker—I can get into the Scripture / I like to take it apart—I really like to get into the Word. My relationship with the Lord is based on what I know.
My husband’s relationship with the Lord is based more on how he feels. He feels the Lord very present in his life when he is blessed. He feels the Lord has let him down when things are difficult. So, we came at it—and I would say, “Well, we know this is true;” and my husband would say: “But I don’t feel that it’s true. I feel like He’s turned Himself away from me.”
His father died two years into our marriage, and that’s very difficult to lose a parent when you’re that young. We had our son two years after that. We lost both grandparents at the same time. Matt lost his job. When he got another job, we made a few real estate investments with the money that his father had left us. The real estate market crashed—lost everything, including our main residence. We filed for bankruptcy. Our three children—as they begin to develop, I look at them and I say to my husband, “I see something here,”—
—the first one to get diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder was Noah, our oldest, followed shortly thereafter by Jesse, our youngest. In the midst of this, I’m diagnosed with a very rare autoimmune disorder called Behcet's disease—so rare that it took us three years to find a diagnosis.
Then, on top of that, I just lost my brother, 36, to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma about a year-and-a-half ago. So, it has been one thing after another—to the point where our friends would say: “Only you two! Only Sarah and Matt would have this happen to them.” It was virtually comedic—except for us—we felt as if we couldn’t take another grain of sand.
Bob: When all of that’s coming at you in a marriage relationship, if the issue of oneness is not settled, that will push you in opposite corners and cause you to look and go, “I don’t know that I want to hang out with you / I want to be with you.”
Sarah: Oh, without question—
—particularly because both of us were experiencing different levels of difficulty at different times. So, you’d have the real estate issue—which affected us both / the money issues, which affected us both—but Matt’s response to things like losing a job was different than mine because it went to the issue of his success, from an employment standpoint. I would say: “I believe in you. I know that this is temporary. The Lord has never let us want for anything. It’s going to be okay.” Again, as a feeler, he would say: “Yes, but I don’t feel like it. I feel like the Lord has let us down.” In that respect, we have sort of a non-traditional relationship with one another because I’m the thinker and he’s the feeler—so he’s emotions first, and I’m analytical understanding first.
I would say to him: “Look at what this verse says—look at what James says about rejoicing, and perseverance, and trials, and waiting for that crown of life that’s been promised us. It’s going to be okay! There are verses upon verses…”
He would say: “I don’t care. I don’t feel it. I feel, right now, like God is a genie; and I have to rub the lamp the right way to get Him to pay attention to me. I feel lost.” So, that was very hard.
Dennis: And I want to underscore what you’re modeling here for some of our listeners. You’re taking a gift or a strength you have—and instead of turning against your husband in those circumstances, you turn toward him to respect him—to believe in him / to express trust in him. I mean, it’s a big deal for a woman to lose her house.
Dennis: I mean, you lost it to bankruptcy.
Dennis: It would be easy to become very resentful / embittered toward him, but you weren’t. You kept on believing and expressing love to him. And I just want to say to listeners, who are peering into your story—and they are in circumstances, right now, they can’t control either. And by the way, we are all in circumstances we can’t control.
Sarah: No question.
Dennis: It’s just an illusion if you think you are in control at this very moment. But take your circumstances and decide: “You know what? I am going to choose to come alongside my spouse in his or her weakness—where they don’t match up / where they are struggling—and instead, hang in there with them and take my covenant that I made with my spouse and make it good,” because—
Dennis: —that’s what you were doing.
Bob: But the stereotype, as you’ve acknowledged, is that it’s the wife, who is going to be the emotional feeler / —
Bob: —the husband is the fixer, who comes along and says, “No, this is what’s true; and we’ll get through this.” You’re in reversed roles here. Did you ever stop and think that, maybe, to come to your husband and say, “You know, tell me more about what you’re feeling”?
Sarah: Very interesting you should say that. I actually, finally—and I would say probably too late in the process—if I had done it earlier, we might have avoided more internal turmoil underneath our roof. I finally decided:
“Listen, I’m going to come to you and ask you a simple question: ‘Tell me how you feel.” “I feel like a failure. I feel like God’s abandoned me. I feel as though I’m never going to get a job again. I feel like I’m unemployable. I feel anxious because I worry about providing for the family.” And I said to him, “Do you want me to offer you advice, or do you want me to just sit here and listen to you?”
Dennis: So, you asked him permission?
Sarah: Absolutely; that was huge. He’s learned to do the same thing for me because I still have the female/wifely tendency to want to unload things and talk, and talk, and talk, and then, realize that I don’t necessarily want that solution / I don’t want the equation solved—I just want to get it off my chest. So, in that respect, I am still very much a typical female. He’s learned to ask me the same question. We preface situations, where we know there is conflict brewing, with the same question for each other:
“Do you want me to just listen, or do you want me to offer advice?”
Bob: And there are times when neither of you want advice; you just want—
Bob: —somebody to listen; right?
Sarah: Absolutely! No question; right.
Bob: And that’s okay—
Bob: —because sometimes, the best thing we can do for one another—think about Job’s friends.
Bob: The best thing they did for Job was they sat with him and listened. In fact, when they started to speak, things got worse—
Sarah: And I would say it was his wife who made the mistake of saying, “Just curse God and die.”
Sarah: So, not always is the advice of a spouse the best advice.
Dennis: Well, we want things fixed—
Dennis: —and life is a journey.
Sarah: Yes, it is.
Dennis: Two autistic children—it’s not like you are going to fix that.
Dennis: I mean, there are pragmatics to what’s taking place because your normal is a different normal than most of us ever experience in a family.
Sarah: Yes. Probably, above and beyond regular parenting—
—we have to recognize the tiny manifestations of a disability that will be with them their entire life. In fact, our neurologist has said: “Listen—there is no cure for autism. There is a management for autism. We can send them to speech therapy, and physical therapy, and we can talk about medication. There are ways to take care of it but not a way to cure it.” So, we have had to watch very closely so that, if one of us doesn’t see it coming, the other one can see it coming. And in that case, we work together, as a team, to ward off what we know is going to make things harder.
Dennis: And what I really got, as a takeaway from your book, Sand in My Sandwich, is beginning to look at life through the eyes of Scripture and realize, “God’s in control—
Dennis: —“that what I think ought to be normal for my family / my marriage may not be what other people are experiencing.” And I thought of this passage in Philippians, Chapter 4—
—Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be content.”
Sarah: —content; absolutely.
Dennis: To be content. And that’s what I heard you expressing. He went on to say—he said, “I know how to be brought low”—and I bet you / you do—
Sarah: Oh, yes.
Dennis: —“and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him”—speaking of Christ—“who strengthens me.”
Marriage is not just two physical human beings. It is a true reality that we are spiritual beings made in the image of God. In these moments—like you are facing in your family—you have to learn what it means to be a follower of Christ and allow Him to live His life in and through you. And I’m going to promise you something: “These are not just words in a book called the Bible—these are reality /—
—back to what you said—“these are the truth.
Dennis: “You have to embrace the truth and live it out.”
Bob: Yes; and what you’ve done in this book is—you have talked very candidly about the challenges and the trials you’ve faced. I think, in the process, you are offering young wives and young moms a picture of how you do this—what happens when trials come / how you learn to find Jesus in the midst of the challenges you’re going through.
We’ve got copies of Sarah Parshall Perry’s book, Sand in My Sandwich: And Other Motherhood Messes I’m Learning to Love. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to request your copy of the book. You can order online if you’d like, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and order by phone. So, again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can, also, get in touch with us when you call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, do you know what was happening a year ago today? Well, Vernelius and Victoria Hendricks, who live in Decatur, Alabama, remember because it was one year ago today that they got married.
This is their first wedding anniversary. We just wanted to pop in here and say: “Happy anniversary!” to the Hendricks. “Thanks for listening to FamilyLife Today, and we’re cheering you guys all the way to the finish line. We want to be here to provide you with ongoing hope and help for your marriage and your family.”
And we want to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who help make all of this possible, as sponsors of FamilyLife Today—those of you who are Legacy Partners / those of you who donate from time to time. We’re grateful for your financial support of this ministry.
In fact, if you can make a donation today, we’d like to show our thanks by sending you a copy of Barbara Rainey’s new book, Letters to My Daughters: The Art of Being a Wife. It’s our thank-you gift when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com / make an online donation; or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY / make a donation over the phone; or when you mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about some of the challenges that parents face, as we raise our kids, and how being a mom with kids who have needs can be a challenge—especially, if you have a control obsession, which is what Sarah Parshall Perry says she has. I hope you’ll be back tomorrow as we talk with her about that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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