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Connecting Spiritually With Your Spouse

Original Air Date 04/10/2015

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Authors Greg and Erin Smalley describe how couples can develop spiritual and relational intimacy.

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Episode Transcript



Jim Daly: Erin, let me ask you what you think of the term "soul mate."

Erin Smalley: You know, I really feel like soul mate is really, it's kind of pure fantasy. It's an illusion, because really spiritual connection between a couple is real.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Well, "soul mate" is used so often it seems and there are a lot of different perspectives about it. We're gonna unpack what it might mean and how you can have a close intimate relationship with your spouse and be more spiritually connected in the way that Erin was just saying. This is "Focus on the Family" with Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.

Jim: John, I'm looking forward to the program today, because this is the tune-up kind of program, where we, particularly in the Christian community, need to think about our marriages and need to pay attention to 'em. And I'm guilty of sometimes letting that go. Jean and I, we get on a pace, a certain track, where we're busy. We've got the kids goin' different directions. We've got the boys doin' their sports and you know, we accept a little bit of laziness when it comes to working on our marriage. And I think many, many of us are in that boat. And today we want to just remind you that it is important to work on it and put some tools in your hands so you can do it.

John: And our guests are Greg and Erin Smalley. They're both on staff here at Focus on the Family. They're authors and speakers about a variety of subjects and one of their specialties is talking about marriage.


Jim: Greg and Erin, let me welcome you back to the program.

Erin: Always a joy.

Greg Smalley: Thanks for havin' us.

Jim: Okay, I want to start with a funny story, because this is one I remember. You guys have so many good stories. But you were just married--and I'll have you fill in the blanks—not very long. And you had an assignment that Erin had given you, Greg to do the laundry.

Greg: (Laughing)

Jim: What happened with the laundry story?

Erin: (Laughing)

Greg: We had a minor argument (Laughter) right before Erin was leaving to go out the door.

Erin: Uh-hm, I was heading out to work in the morning and it was a Saturday.

Jim: How long had you been married at this point?

Erin: Maybe six months.

Jim: Okay, good.

Greg: So, we were very experienced—

Jim: Yeah.

Greg: --by then.

Erin: Yeah and we were bickering, pickin' at each other and I got to the front door with my work stuff in hand and I took one step out the front door and popped my head back in and made one more smart comment and off I went.

Jim: Okay.

Greg: So, I'm just standing there in our little apartment after she has now had the last word. And this irritated me, 'cause I had so much more that I was really ready to say, but she's gone, so I was getting all of our laundry together. And the way that I did it is, we lived up on the fourth floor. On the first floor underneath us was the laundry room.

Well, I hated carrying that big, you know, basket full of laundry. And so, what I did is, I just bought a big mesh bag. I put all of our laundry in and I would just drag it out, put it on the railing and then just drop it to the ground. So, I get this all, you know, stuffed in. I'm draggin' it outside. I was so mad at her and as I put it up on the railing, I see her walking on the ground floor.

Jim: And what did you think about?

Greg: Well, I thought, wouldn't it be funny if, as she walked by, I dropped it near her and then she would kinda, you know, jump and look up. And I'd be like, "Last word back, ha ha," you know, thought it was a great idea.

Jim: Good icebreaker.

Greg: Thank you. It all made sense in my mind. So, when I let the laundry bag go, my aim was on or off, depending on your perspective, but I hit her.

John: Oh.

Jim: Okay, so, you're not an engineer.

Greg: Yeah, not at all. You wouldn't want me in the--

Jim: And what did you think—

Greg: --Air Force.

Jim: --Erin, when you were hit by this flying bag of laundry by your inflamed husband upstairs?

Erin: You know, in that season of our marriage, it wasn't too surprising, sadly. (Laughing) And I mean, I fell back and looked up and he was looking down. And so, I jumped up and I ran up the stairs, 'cause I was gonna maybe throw him off the balcony. (Laughter)

Greg: I mean, literally, I've never seen her move (Laughter) that fast.

Jim: You have grown a lot since then. This is many years ago. And the reason I like that story is, that there's a certain (Laughing) realness to it, a grittiness. Some people, even those of us that claim Christ, live in that veneer, if I could say it that way. There may be a lot of good things going on, on the outside, but when you close the door, there's laundry bags flying, if I could use the metaphor.

But let's talk about that spiritual connection. Now that you've grown and you have really gotten over those obstacles early in your marriage and you certainly can certainly refer to that, but that spiritual connection and the importance of it, talk about that. Why is spiritual connection the ground floor for everything in your marriage?

Greg: There are so many things that people misunderstand this idea of spiritual intimacy between a couple. And for me, it's more than reading the Bible together. It's more than memorizing Scripture together. It's more than going to church together. Those are doing kinds of things.

Jim: Those are functions.

Greg: Exactly, I think you know, we're human beings; we're not human "doings." And I think it's that word "being," that really has helped Erin and I more than anything understand what it really means to have a spiritual relationship.

I believe that real spiritual intimacy means that we understand that Christ is the cornerstone of our marriage. I love that verse in Ephesians 2:20 that, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. So, He is our cornerstone. He is our foundation.

But built upon that, I think it's really about connecting all of your being—your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength with your spouse as we pursue God together. To me, that's it. It's not a bunch of these things that we do. It's offering one another all of who we are, you know, the deepest parts of our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength.

And that has become the thing that we pursue together. How do I live that out, versus just thinking, well, as long as we pray together, as long as we go to church together, I don't think that's what it's about at all.

Jim: Let me ask you this again, for context. How many years in your marriage did it take for you to begin to understand that and for the both of you? Did you kind of arrive at that point seven years in? Ten years in? What was your situation? That way I can hear it and maybe apply it to my own.

Erin: I would say that for us, it became that we started to pursue God individually, you know wholeheartedly. And then that really, for me, impacted my marriage relationship.

Jim: How? What was going on spiritually for you that impacted your marriage in the material sense—

Erin: Because—

Jim: --in the physical sense?

Erin: --what ended up happening was, that I was expecting Greg to meet so many needs in me that really he wasn't created to meet, that really those were things that only God could be doing in my life. So, as I grew in my faith in the Lord, then I was free to love Greg without these unrealistic expectations. And I think many women, because we get so much from relationships and people and places and things, that you know, that we're looking to all these things to fill us, versus allowing God to fill us first and foremost. And then we come together. And when he's doing that, I'm doing that, we come together and wow.

Jim: There are couples I'm sure that are 10, 20 years into their marriage, maybe more, that they still haven't come to this conclusion of [the fact that] spiritual depth will provide what they need and then they're free to love each other. Talk to me about that context. Where were you when you began to really understand God in your marriage?

Greg: You know, it's not a linear straight line pursuit. It's a journey that's messy, that steps forward, steps backward. I mean, I tell you, that this was the most painful part of our marriage for me in the beginning.

And I could tell you that we struggled with conflict, but privately, deep inside my soul, I felt like such an utter failure when it came to connecting with Erin spiritually. And for me, I think what was going on is that, you know, my dad, Gary Smalley, he is such a spiritual giant in my mind. He still is, but boy back there, that cast such a big shadow that I never ever felt like I could measure up to that ever.

Jim: Did you ever talk to him about that?

Greg: We had conversations about it. The problem was, see, I had such fond memories of getting up in the morning. And I would find my dad on his knees, you know, just praying and as a young husband, then I thought that that's what I needed to do. I needed to be up early in the morning on my knees. I needed to be leading my family in a certain way like he did, doing devotional[s]. I mean, I so admired that. That was such a good thing. I loved that. I love those memories. I just never felt that I could measure up.

I had another mentor in my life, so my dad, Gary Smalley, another guy named Gary Oliver, same thing. And so, I thought there was something wrong with me. I remembered feeling like such an utter failure that what it did to me is, it paralyzed me. And thus, I became very passive and so, I didn't do anything.

Jim: Well, you're saying something that a lot of men are gonna connect to, which is that feeling of spiritual paralysis. So often in homes today and what we hear at Focus on the Family from married couples, particularly wives that are struggling as you said, Erin with those expectations, especially around that area of family devotions, my husband taking the lead spiritually. I feel like, you know, he gets home from work. He's tired. He tunes into sports and news and weather and he just doesn't take the lead here.

Therefore, I've gotta do it and I've got my own things going on. There seems to be a lot of friction in that area. But it is that spiritual paralysis. How does a woman, a wife interact with the husband who seems nonchalant? He's not connecting there. And what's happening for that woman, as well?

Erin: You know, that is very typical for women to look at what their husband isn't doing, versus what he is doing. Because I had great expectations around what this was gonna look like. You know, I was marrying Gary Smalley's son and he was gonna lead these phenomenal devos for me and guide me spiritually. What I didn't account for is, I'm a pretty strong-willed wife.

I think the other thing that played into our relationship was, I was a newer Christian when we got married. And so, I was wholeheartedly pursuing God. And so. as I was doing that, Greg is working and in school and, you know, trying to make it all work over here. I had more time. I was at home with our first child and going to Bible studies and being mentored by older women. And you know, so it really was that I was growing and learning, that I expected him to be doing the same thing, which really wasn't fair, because his life looked much different than mine.

Greg: You know, we didn't talk much about this.

Erin: Uh-hm.

Greg: Again, I sort of showed up very passively and because I had these high expectations of what I should be doing, it just shut me down. And we just sorta drifted along, having great fun times and there was a lot that we were doing.

I'll tell you, Jim, that the freedom for me, I'll never forget this, is when my dad, it was one of those moments where he kinda, he literally grabbed me, but he might as well have, kinda grabbed me, you know, his hands with my cheeks and just kinda stare[d] at me.

And he said, "Son," he said, "the way that I live out my faith is gonna be very different than yours." He says, "Here's what I see in you. (Emotion) He said that, "I watch you love your wife and your children unconditionally, that I see you serving them. I see you sacrificing for them. I see you providing financially. I see you protecting them." He says, "I see how you guys walk through conflict in a biblical way. I see, you know, you're asking forgiveness when you screw up." He said, "That is you living out what God has called you to do."

And what he did, the gift that he gave me was that he expanded my view of what it means to be a spiritual leader. Whereas, I thought it was just simply that I had to do a devo or I had to initiate being on a committee at church or somethin'—

Jim: Kind of a task.

Greg: --like that. Yeah, that what it did is, it gave me a perspective that all the things that I was doing for my wife and for my family, that, that was a part of me being a spiritual leader. I think it just freed me.

Jim: Greg, I can appreciate, you know, that moment. That had to be profound for you and you described it that way. But Erin, I've gotta ask, you know, for so many wives in this illustration, when the husband comes home and feels, you know, maybe I am doing a better job than I realized, how did that make you feel? Were you connecting to that? Or did you have suspicion about it?

Erin: Uh-hm, you know, I don't know that we ever had like a formalized discussion about this, but just as we continued to learn and I know for me, as I continued to learn and expand my understanding of this, 'cause as a young wife, I didn't understand that. I had expectations that were you know, way up high and—

Jim: Right.

Erin: --didn't understand that as a young man, he was gonna grow into this role and he was gonna mature and morph. And really I married the potential of what he could become. My job is to encourage that and to look for what he was doing. And so, as I grew, you know, he had this conversation with his dad. As I began to understand what a spiritual leader was, I began to look for those things versus before I was looking for what he wasn't doing. Therefore, I saw what he wasn't doing.

And so, as I expanded and opened my mind to, you know, the deep conversations he had with our kids, you know, just in the everyday moment, they're huge, because that's what our kids, you know, hold onto. They know that that's their dad's heart and their dad's teaching to them.

Versus my kids know they can come to me when they want me to pray on the spot with them. They know that, you know, mom is gonna do that, because in my more traditional ways, that's what I do. He will pray with them, but then he will talk to them in everyday terms. So, I think for me, it was an expanding of my mind as I understood that there's more to this than my original thoughts and—

Jim: Yeah.

Erin: --my original definition of what a spiritual leader is.

Greg: And I tell you, for me, the freedom that I was able to get when I realized that there were a lot of things that I was doing to lead my family, to lead my wife spiritually, over the years, we've added in those different spiritual disciplines. We pray and one of my most favorite things about our spiritual relationship now is that before we go to bed, we pray together.

Jim: Yeah.

Greg: And you know, we go to church together. We are in a small group. You know, we will talk about Bible verses and things like that. So, I mean, that took a while. The part that was really where I struggled was again, that I thought it had to look a certain way. So, please don't hear me as saying those spiritual disciplines aren't important. They become the fabric and the fiber also of our relationship.

Jim: Well, and that speaks to maturity and that's partly what you're talking about. You learn in the early years of your marriage where the shortcomings are and hopefully, you have the tools or can acquire the tools through counseling, through mentoring, to be able to communicate more effectively and to love each other more deeply and therefore, be more successful in your marriage and commitment to each other, which again, your children are gonna see and it all fits and works together.

Jim: Let me ask you this. So often in a marriage commitment, there are ebbs and flows, mountains and valleys. Talk to us about that. You both kind of were in the valley at the same time. Describe what that was like, what it felt like and how you found a way up above the clouds.

Greg: For me, it happened when that spiritual mentor that I was telling you about, Gary Oliver, when his first wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I've never seen one person prayed over more in my entire life.

And I literally remember a conversation I had with God, just goin', you know, "God, I know that's a pretty bleak diagnosis, but God, I mean, You say that when we pray and persistently pray, that You will move and You will act upon that. And You really don't have a choice here. I mean, She has to be healed or everything You say wouldn't make sense to me."

And I'll never forget that day that I got the word that she had passed away. And I couldn't come to terms with, You say, You make it so clear, God that when we pray and we're united and we're coming before You and persistently praying, that we will receive.

And it wasn't that I didn't believe in God any longer. It wasn't that I thought prayer was, you know, didn't work. The only way to describe it is, almost I fell into this place of just despair, almost apathy, goin', you know, prayer is like a slot machine. You put your little prayer token in and (Sound of ch-ch), you know, pull the lever and you might get a payoff and you might not. You never really know, but there's no logic to any of this, because look what He said in the Bible and look what happened to her.

And I just slipped into a very dark, it actually, I mean, lasted months and months and months, a very dark season that I couldn't reconcile this. It just shut me down and I didn't have any desire to pray with my wife, with my family. I pulled back from all of that. It was a tough season. As you can imagine, it had a huge impact on our marriage.

Erin: Uh-hm, well, because during that season, I lost my mom in like two months before Carrie Oliver passed away, too. And it was several deaths; it was a very dark season of life. And Greg was distant and I could distant from the Lord. And I was also crying out to God, just going, "God, where are You?" Amidst all of this loss, where are You, because You sure seem quiet.

And I kind of went to the same place of just goin', you know what? "You said You'd be here. Where are You?" And you know, and between talking to the Lord and Greg and you know, you know, trying to find Scripture to help Greg, but also trying to pull myself out of this dark--

Greg: And I'm like--

Erin: --place.

Greg: --don't throw Scripture at me. I know it all and it didn't work."

Jim: Wow.

Greg: That's how I felt.

Erin: But I can--

Jim: No, it's real.

Erin: --I can remember clear as day, I was driving down this one road, this one windy road in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. And I literally, I was driving and I just went, "You know what, God? Reveal Yourself to me." I mean, I was desperate. I was just in this dark place. I said, "God, just show Yourself to me. You know, let me see that You care and that You're here, that You see us, that You're real."

And lo and behold, the next week, we had been praying for adoption. We'd been praying by name for an "Annie" for years, for seven years and never would've tied the two together, but literally after driving down that road, the next week is when we found out about this little girl in China, whose name happened to be Annie.

Jim: Hm.

Greg: And here's what's cool about this story. So, as Erin's going through this, I'm going through my own dark season, just wrestling with God around prayer and "God, what does it mean?" and all of that. We were working at John Brown University and there was a set of stairs, concrete steps that separated kind of the upper campus, lower campus, hundred[s] of 'em.

I'd get up in the morning and just kinda run up and down those, kind of like the whole Rocky thing, but I don't look like him anyway. And I'll never forget where I was just thinkin' about the Lord and just my relationship with Him and just my frustrations.

And I broke down. I started to cry. And no one else was there and I just kinda sat there on the steps and just wept and wept and wept. And it was such a breaking moment for me, because the verse that really came to mind was Romans 8:26 and 27, basically saying as we pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf with groans, with words that we can't express.

And that was the breaking moment. I mean, that's the cool part of how God is so patient and He just walked with me and used that verse, 'cause I think what I began to understand is, that you know what? As I pray, the good news is, that the Holy Spirit's goin', "You know, God, all right. Greg's saying this, but let me tell You. That's not what He needs; this is what he needs." And it really, I had such confidence that, you know what? Whatever I'm saying, the Holy Spirit's gonna clean all that up and ultimately, what God does is what I need anyway. So, I can't make sense of why she died and why God didn't heal her when all these people prayed. But it didn't matter and it was a moment of just real breaking, of just saying, I just want to be obedient.

And I kid you not, I'm not making this up, it was the next day that a friend of ours came into my office and Erin was there with me. And as she was just saying, he told us about this little girl that he had held in China and as he told this story, we found out that her name was Annie, the very name that we'd been praying for, for seven years.

And I believe that why all that happened in the way it happened, was that really truly, the only way that we were gonna be able to adopt this little girl, it was gonna be because I was able to lead my family through prayer. And see, and I wasn't at a spot where I was even willing to do that and I had to be broken.

And once that happened, I'm tellin' you, it's just the timing is so eerie, but it's so God. And we spent as a family, the next year and a half praying every single day that we'd be able to adopt this little girl.

Jim: Well, and the word that comes to my mind is "faith." That's what faith is. Faith is hoping in those things that aren't seen or experienced.

Greg: Yeah.

Jim: And that's what it's about. Let me get your response to this. It caught my attention. It said, "Marriages that lack spiritual connection almost always create pain and loneliness." Okay, I know that just hooked a number of wives particularly, 'cause they feel they're in a marriage that feels spiritually dead. They're going through the routines. They know it's right to stay married. They know they love the Lord and they love their husband out of obligation perhaps, but it's dry and that catches 'em. There's no spiritual connection and it has created a place of pain and loneliness.

Erin: Or they're married to someone who's not a believer and I've interacted with both types of women. And I found for both, that exact thing to be true, that the loneliness is there and there's pain when there's not that deep spiritual—

Jim: So, the—

Erin: --connection.

Jim: --outcome's the same.

Erin: Yes.

Jim: That's interesting.

Erin: Isn't that interesting?

Jim: 'Cause you're not living your faith as a husband perhaps or the wife. I know the—

Erin: Right.

Jim: --shoe can go on either foot, husband or wife. But because they're behaving almost like a non-believer, their marriage reflects—

Erin: Yes.

Jim: --that attribute.

Erin: And you know, it's interesting, 'cause in The Wholehearted Wife, we talk a lot about who you can control. I mean, the more that I hound Greg, you know, we gotta be doin' this devotion; we gotta do it this way; we gotta be in church; we got--the more that he's probably gonna resent me and push away from that.

And so, instead there's a different way to look at it, but I can control me, in that I can focus on my spiritual relationship with the Lord and model that. You know, there's that Scripture that talks about, that you're gonna win your husband over to the Lord based on your behavior as a woman and that I can model a vibrant spiritual faith and that is gonna influence him. He's gonna see that. He's gonna notice that. He's gonna maybe even desire that.

And you know, and then, you know, pursuing him in that connection and in pursuing him to pray together, pursuing him to have spiritual discussion. You know, there's things that I can be doing that I can control that are about me. I can pray for him and allow the Lord to do the work in him that He wants to do, instead of me impacting the relationship in a negative way.

In fact, John, that reminds me of Focus on the Family's National Institute of Marriage. We've talked about from time to time, but this feels like a perfect place to remind you of the fact that we do have a place for wounded marriages to come and to find that healing. And it's a counseling center in Branson, Missouri. In fact, Greg, your father, Gary started it. And Focus on the Family took it over not long ago and we are there for you. We have wonderfully trained counselors.

It's an intensive approach to marriage counseling. You can go for a few days and it's eight to 10 hours per day. But the success rate two years after, they'll come back and ask the couples how they're doing. It's an almost 85 percent success rate. And I would encourage you; if you're in that spot where your marriage is hangin' by a thread and there's maybe only one or two knots left in the rope that you're hangin' onto, this is the place for you. Don't shy back. Do what you need to do. Commit to making it work. Find a way to get there. Call us; talk to us. I don't know what else to say. Save your marriage and let us be a part of that and we are there for you today. So, John, you can give more details of that.

John: Sure.

Jim: Let me say to Greg and Erin as we're wrapping up here, thank you so much for that vulnerability. Thank you for sharing those experiences, for talking about your journey of coming from a place of pain, when you were hoping for much more, but then ending in the right place. You guys, you're such a great model around Focus on the Family in terms of your marriage and commitment. Thanks for modeling it for everyone here and for our listeners. God bless you guys.

Greg: Thank you.

Erin: Yeah, thank you.


John: Well, it's so good to have the insights from the Smalleys. Every time they're here we get into some really good thoughtful material. And they bring some great humor along the way, as well. And I'm glad they could share with us and hope that you're gonna be looking for their book, The Wholehearted Wife when you swing by our website.

That book is full of great information and very practical advice that goes into the spiritual connection that you can have with your spouse and handling conflict and addresses intimacy, communication and forgiveness. And there are nuggets of wisdom from Greg's father, Gary Smalley, that are woven in and I think this'd be a great resource for any couple to work through.

Learn more about The Wholehearted Wife and Focus on the Family's National Institute of Marriage, which we mentioned earlier, as well, and a way that you can help us continue this outreach to strengthen marriages, by being a part of our support team, at or when you call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And when you make a donation to the ministry here of any amount, we'll send you a copy of The Wholehearted Wife as our way of saying thank you and putting this practical tool into your hand to help strengthen your marriage.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, wishing you a great weekend and inviting you to join us again on Monday as we hear from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He'll talk about his family heritage, issues that families care about, and the importance of strong families. And we'll once again share more trusted advice to help your family thrive in Christ!

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Greg Smalley

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Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the vice president of Marriage 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 12 books including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage, Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage and The DNA of Relationships.


Erin Smalley

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Erin Smalley serves as the Marriage Strategic Spokesperson for Focus on the Family's marriage ministry and develops content for the marriage department. In addition to her work at Focus, Smalley is a conference speaker. She presents with her husband, Dr. Greg Smalley, at marriage enrichment seminars where they guide husbands and wives in taking steps toward enjoying deeply satisfying marriages. She also speaks to women on faith, family and the importance of healthy friendships.