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Thinking Your Way to a Better Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 05/02/2016

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Author Sheila Gregoire and her husband, Keith, offer couples great encouragement as they describe how God transformed their perspective on their relationship in a discussion based on her book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


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Sheila Gregoire: We think that the solution to a problem is that either God has to change it or our mate has to change and it makes us very passive--

Jim: Ah.

Sheila: --because we sit there and we pray for God to do something or for our mate to do something and maybe what God is asking you to do is, to do what is right in front of you and to change the way that you are thinking and acting.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: That's Sheila Gregoire and you'll hear more from her and her husband, Keith on today's "Focus on the Family" about the importance of your thought life and how that affects your marriage. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.

Jim: Hey, John, today we're gonna talk about how you can think your way to a better marriage and I'm sure we have skeptics already saying, how do you do that? I mean, there are so many external forces that pressure you in different directions. But you know what? In Scripture, it says right there in Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

And I think you could summarize that, saying the Lord is tellin' us there, think about these things, these positive things, 'cause it changes your behavior and that's what we want to talk about today, how you can think your way to a better marriage.

John: And I'm lookin' forward to it. I'll just say, Jim, that sometimes I can dwell on the negative and—

Jim: That's human.

John: --I—

Jim: That's all of us.

John: --I just really am looking forward to this conversation. Sheila Gregoire is the author of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage and she and her husband, Keith are with us. They've been married 24 years and live in Ontario, Canada. And Sheila's a very popular author and blogger and speaker and Keith is a pediatrician.


Jim: (Chuckling) That's great. Welcome both of you to "Focus on the Family."

Sheila: Thank you. We're really excited to be here.

Keith Gregoire: It's great to be here.

Jim: Okay, when you look at it, give us that big picture. How does how we think affect the way we act, the way we behave, the way we process life?

Sheila: I think that the actions that we take stem directly from our thoughts. And the problem is, I know for me, myself, when I went into marriage, I was thinkin' some really stupid things without—

Jim: Like what?

Sheila: --realizing it. Well, here's just one example. We're told growin' up in the church, if you have a problem, you just need to lay it at Jesus' feet and let go of it, because God is the Father of the fatherless. He cares for the brokenhearted and He cries with you when you cry. And so, just put those things at Jesus' feet. And so, every time I got upset at Keith, I thought God was totally on my side, because God is there with the brokenhearted.

Jim: Okay, wait a second. Isn't He on your side?

Sheila: No. (Laughter) You know, which side He's on; He's on His side, which means that He's on both of our sides. He's on the side of the marriage. And so, when I was upset, I was thinkin', oh, God is totally sympathizing with me. He is totally on my side and He thinks my husband is awful, just like I do. (Laughing) And that is not a very helpful thought.

Jim: All right, Keith, I'd like to bring you into the conversation. (Laughter)

Keith: Well, we always say when we're speaking with Family Life Canada, that we've been married for 24 years. We've been happily married for 19 years and it takes a while for the penny to drop on that. But I think early on in our marriage, we had a lot of thoughts and a lot of patterns that were not helpful. We kinda say that we did it our way for the first five years and we thought we'd do it God's way.

And I think the big thing that changes, the idea that God is on the side of our marriage, not on the side of each of us. We fought and like we still fight, but early on it was, who's gonna win, rather than, what's the right thing? What's something that God's calling me to do in this situation?

Jim: We call those "disagreements."

Sheila: Yeah. (Laughter)

Jim: That's the Christian version of that. We don't call it—

Keith: Yeah, sure.

Jim: --"fighting." But let me ask you. You mentioned that first five years. Was there a moment in which it really dawned on you? Was there a particular disagreement that you were having that you kinda went, wow, what are we doing? We're tearing each other apart and that's not honoring to the Lord.

Sheila: I know for me, it more or less completely had to do with sex. It really did. I mean, I had all these expectations going into marriage and you certainly had them, Keith. (Laughing) And then we got married and for me, it hurt. It was awkward. It was awful and the more he wanted it, the more I thought, you just love me for what I can do for you. And you don't—

Jim: And now you're just—

Sheila: --really love me.

Jim: --you're hitting about 90 percent of people listening, 'cause they've all struggled in this area probably. And so, yeah, how did you begin to discuss it and not just irritate each other with the problem?

Sheila: Well, I think what happened was, about four years in, I had this thought, which is, if God created sex to be good and the whole world thinks that sex is good, then why in the world would I settle for less than God intended? And so, I spent all this time praying that Keith's sex drive would go away and that he would finally love me. And I realized, maybe I should start praying about how sex can be good. And that changed everything for me.

Keith: For me, it was very similar. We had these conflicts or disagreements (Laughter). And what would happen is, we'd get into this destructive pattern where I would feel like my needs in the marriage weren't being met. And as a result, I disengaged from Sheila. And of course, the more I did that, the more difficult it was for her to be in a situation where she felt like she could meet my needs. And so, we had this downward spiral, where each of us were feeling hurt, each of us feeling like we had legitimate needs in the relationship that were not being met. And instead of building each other up, we were digging our heels in more and more.

And the thing that happened to me is, one day when I was pouring out my heart to God, the way Sheila was talking about earlier, God said to me, "That's great, Keith. Thanks for sharing all that with Me. But what I really want to talk about is the verse that says, 'Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. And I want to talk about how you're living in disobedience to Me, because you're not loving your wife as I love the church. You're waiting for her to do something or change something or be something different before you love her." And this was really an issue of obedience and that was a real hard place for me to be at.

Jim: How did you walk away from that encounter with the Lord? Because I think what you're saying is absolutely true and that if we're just talking from the man's perspective for a minute, that's the equation that we run through our head. You know, this area is not being met. You then get resentful and you don't warm up to your wife. You don't say things. You don't do things that actually help create the environment to have that intimacy.

And then she's upset, 'cause you're not meeting my emotional needs. And her prayer is, "God, how come You gave me this deadbeat husband, who never talks to me, who never puts his arm around me, who never says he loves me and then just expects me to give over my body?"

Keith: Yeah, I think the first thing I would say is, I don't think it has to be this particular issue. I think that overall the pattern in marriage is that often we justify ourselves when we say that, because I'm not getting such and such a need met, I don't have to meet that need.

And I think that the Lord calls us to a sacrificial love in marriage. And I'll tell you honestly what happened to me in that situation is, I said to God, "I can't do that." (Laughter)

Jim: No, I appreciate that.

Keith: There is no way in my strength that I can put my needs aside and love selflessly. I just know in my heart that I can't do that without Your help.

Jim: Was there that moment though that happened sometime later?

Keith: Yeah, well, what I said was, I said, "So, if we're gonna do this, God (Laughing), 'cause I want to live in obedience, too."

Jim: Now you're brokering a deal with God.

Keith: Yeah, well, not brokering (Laughter), but I'm saying, "If we're gonna do this, God, because I do want to live in obedience to You, then, you know, You're gonna need to be there with me and You're gonna need to help and I'm gonna need Your Spirit." And I guess I would say that, you know, God's been faithful in that He's helped me to learn to love my wife, 'cause I still don't love her as much as I should or as well as I should.

But He's helped me to grow in that every year. And the wonderful thing was, that while God was dealing with me in my issue of disobedience, not loving my wife, as Sheila already said, He was already in her heart, shaping her and changing her and making us both grow together.

And so, what happened after that is, we got into the pattern where, when we put our mate's need ahead of our own, then that person then felt more empowered to help us with our need. And so, it's a spiral that goes upwards and builds us closer.

Jim: Oh, that's good and we're talking about nine different thoughts that are helpful in a marriage to think your way into a better marriage and this is only one of them. And so, for folks who are goin', okay, yeah, we know the physical intimacy issue. We got that. What are a couple of others?

Sheila: I think all of them though do relate to this one point, which is that often, especially Christians, we think that the solution to a problem is that either God has to change it or our mate has to change. And it makes us very passive, because we sit there and we pray for God to do something or for our mate to do something. And maybe what God is asking you to do is to do what is right in front of you and to change the way that you are thinking and acting.

Jim: It's more difficult to do that though.

Sheila: Yeah, because then (Laughter) we might actually be responsible for something and—

Jim: Well, but—

Sheila: --who wants that?

Jim: --seriously though, you look at the culture that we're all in, Canada, the U.S., all of humanity. It is a "me-centric" life that we life. We're selfish people by nature. It's, I'm sure, the sin aspect of living in this world. So, you have to fight that, correct? I mean, how do you do this practically, when you've got all this inside of you saying, "Me, me, me, me, me, it's about me." Where do you find the strength to do that?

Sheila: You understand that your life is not about you, it's about God and that means that every day you need to be in submission to Him. And that's not an easy thing and that's why the first four thoughts in my book are all about changin' you and your heart, before we even get to addressing the real conflicts in marriage.

But I like the one that we were talkin' about, right as you opened the segment, about that verse in Philippians, to think about the good stuff. You know, it isn't that hard, people. Just think about the good stuff and that's one of the things that I want women especially to understand, is that your spouse cannot tick you off. Your spouse does not have that power.

Jim: They're saying, that's not even true. He ticks me off—

John: You don't know my spouse.

Jim: --every day. (Laughter)

Sheila: Your spouse does not have the power to make you angry or to tick you off. You give them that power.

Jim: That's interesting. There's a distinction there. Explain that, because you are right on the mark. They can't. They can behave, but you're the one choosing to be ticked off at the behavior.

Sheila: Exactly and if you want to stop being ticked off at your spouse, there's certain things you can do. We tend to notice the things that we are thinking about. It's called "confirmation bias." That's what scientists call it. But for instance, full moon, okay. When there's a full moon, we expect people to act weirder and so, when we see people acting weird and we look up and there's a full moon, we say, "There, you see?" But when we look up and there's no full moon, it doesn't register.

And so, in our marriages, I think we're lookin' for that full moon, like we're expecting our husband to do somethin' wrong and every time he does it, we notice it. And yet, if you were to retrain your brain to look for the good things and start speakin' them out loud, the interesting thing is, that you would start thinking those things about your husband.

Jim: Well, it's also leaning into this idea of expectations though, too, that a person has a certain expectation of what the spouse is going to provide. And it can be in all areas. I mean, it doesn't have to be physical, but so, you have this expectation. When those expectations aren't met, then you're upset. So, how do you control that expectation bias?

Sheila: I don't know that that's an easy thing to do except to just simply challenge yourself this way. Every day, look for two things that you can thank your spouse for or say something nice about.

Jim: So, it keeps you on the positive track.

Sheila: Exactly, because when you are lookin' for those things, that's what you're gonna think about. And it changes the way that you think about your spouse. And you know what? If they're doin' somethin' really bad, like watching porn or refusing to get a job or something, yes, you need to deal with those things. But don't deal with them until you have changed the dynamic yourself and you're noticin' the good stuff, so that you can build them up. Get your own heart right and then yes, of course, we're gonna deal with those big things, but work on this first.

Jim: It's well-said. I think emotionally it's hard to be in the moment and to pull back and that's where you need that God-encounter, like you had Keith. And how does a person with all those layers of emotion, I mean, you're in the thick of it and you say, "Okay, I heard Sheila on 'Focus on the Family' say, 'Think about good things.' But he's really makin' me mad right now." (Laughter) What kind of trigger word? Did you use something like to say, okay, I'm not gonna think negatively about Keith. I'm gonna pull back and think those two positive thoughts right now, even though you want to wring his neck maybe. I don't know.

Sheila: It's training your brain. You can train your brain. Here's this little example. Every time you hear an ambulance siren, that can be your signal, okay, today I'm gonna pray for strength for my husband. Or I'm gonna pray a blessing on my husband. When I'm at a stop sign, I'm gonna pray for somethin' specific. So, you can put little things in your day that trigger you. Okay, I'm gonna pray blessing on my spouse.

And you know, it's interesting. Keith and I were speaking at a marriage conference last weekend. And we started debating this question. We're always talkin' about how marriage is hard. Marriage is hard. Marriage is just so hard. And I don't think it actually is for us right now. Like all this stuff about saying nice things to each other, we do that naturally now.

Jim: So, you've groomed yourself to do this.

Sheila: Exactly, but it wasn't natural at the beginning. And so, at the beginning, yes, you're gonna have to say, okay, I have to think about two things and it's hard. (Laughter) But if you do that for long enough, it just becomes natural and it's actually really fun.

John: Well, those thoughts and words, two key components of a really making some steps toward improving your marriage and frankly, all of your relationships. These are some really good life principles we're hearing today from Sheila Gregoire and her husband, Keith. And they're our guests on "Focus on the Family." If you'd like a CD of the conversation or you'd like to see the book that Sheila has written, called Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, I'll invite you to call 800-A-FAMILY or you can get the download and other resources at

Jim: In the book, you talk about how culture kind of twists us into believing, I deserve happiness. And then we kinda put that Christian spin on it, you called it. Tell us more about that. What do you mean? And I think I get it, but how does culture, I guess warp even our Christian application?

Sheila: One of the big lies that we believe, I think, is that God has chosen one specific person for us to marry. That person is our soul mate. They complete us. They are God's will for us and--

Jim: They'll never irritate us.

Sheila: --because (Laughter), yes, because they are God's will, that life is just gonna be so lovely. And then when things don't work well, we figure we just married the wrong person—

Jim: Right.

Sheila: --and that we weren't in God's will.

Jim: Boy, that is powerful though, because here you are, the newlywed couple. You're thinking that is the foundation.

Sheila: Uh-hm.

Jim: Our happiness is gonna be the foundation of our marriage. What replaces that foundation?

Sheila: Running after Jesus, saying we are gonna run after Jesus together. And interestingly, when you do that, you get happy.

Jim: Right.

Sheila: It's not that happiness is impossible at all, it's just happiness is something which you'll never find if you're aimin' for it, because if I'm always sayin', "Is Keith makin' me happy?" then I'm always gonna be noticing all the ways that he's not.

You know, he didn't get up with the baby last night. He can't change a toilet paper roll. He never (Laughter) gives me any time to myself. He's actually very good at changing the toilet paper roll.

Jim: That's making me feel better already. (Laughter)

Sheila: But you're always gonna list all the reasons why he's not making you happy. Whereas, if you can say, you know, how can we run after Jesus together? How can I encourage what God is doing in His life? How can I support him? And how can I pray for him? And when you start to ask those questions and act on those thoughts, it's amazing how happy your marriage actually gets.

Jim: You know, I'm thinkin' about the person that struggles in this area. Sometimes you can say, oh, that person's optimistic. Or they always see the cup half full. Speak to that person that sees life a little more, I don't know, sarcastically, a little less optimistic. How can they find the joy of the Lord where it goes deep into their soul, where other things around them won't affect them the way it has perhaps in the past?

Sheila: When Keith was in medical school, he got into a real funk. School was hard. He wasn't sure he even wanted to be a doctor and he just got so negative about life. And this is one of the times that God used me to talk to him, although I don't think God taught me how to be gentle yet, so I didn't excel in the gentleness part.

But I told him that, you have so much to be grateful for and you need to start thinking specifically about things that you can thank God for on a daily basis. And I think that really changed things for you.

Keith: Absolutely, I mean, also I was totally sleep-deprived at the time, too, 'cause medical school is very grueling.

Jim: That's probably true.

Keith: But yeah, I was in a very dark place at that point. And although a Christian, I was feeling very, very pessimistic and not having a lot of hope for the future. And Sheila's right. She was very blunt (Laughing), but she was right and so, I listened. And I consciously made a list. Every morning I got up and I thanked God for 10 things that I was grateful in my life. And it completely revolutionized [things]. The concept is called "cognitive behavioral therapy." It's well-known in science that if you change the way you think, you will change the way you react in situations and you will, you know, improve your relationships and all the other things in your life around you.

Jim: You know, Keith, the difference though in what I hear you saying, even in that funk that you were in, that cloudy space, having everything going on in your life and all the pressure and all that, when she spoke it to you, you were able to respond. Why did you respond favorably to the critical contrastive (Laughter) comment that Sheila was providing you?

Keith: I think a lot of times, people get defensive. We hear our spouse saying something to us and we get our back up and we instantly go into defense mode. And I think that we need to remember that God has put this person in your life for a reason.

Jim: (Laughing) It's not the reason you thought. (Laughter)

Keith: And the reason is not to torment you and to cause you heartache. The reason is, to shape you and to make you more Christ-like. And we always say that, you know, your mate is a gift from God.

Jim: Yeah.

Keith: Sometimes it doesn't feel that way or sometimes you want to, you know, return it (Laughter) to the store maybe. But God has given Sheila to me to mold me into a better person. And I've always wanted to be open to listening to what God is trying to say through my spouse.

Jim: Yeah, you talk in your book about the distinction between happiness, joy, contentment. Tell us about that, because a lot of people will blend that. I think of joy as something deeper and happiness is something more superficial. Tell me what you think about the distinction between joy, happiness and contentment.

Sheila: I like to say that joy looks up. Joy sees God and joy is like what C.S. Lewis called "that glimpse of heaven," when you feel like you're in sync with God and He's moving and you can feel Him and it's just amazing.

Contentment then looks inward and it says, okay, because I have joy, because I know God, I really am at peace and I can handle whatever comes. But happiness looks outward and happiness is really about how we see our circumstances.

And the issue to me is, that you can't truly find happiness unless you have that joy and contentment first. When you know God, when you can feel Him working in you, when you're part of what He's doing in this world and then you get that kind of contentment, that inner peace, it's not so hard to find happiness in your circumstances.

But when you're lookin' to your circumstances first, you're always gonna be miserable, because our circumstances, this is a fallen world. It is not always a great place.

Jim: Well, and someone hearing this might be thinking, okay, you're a pediatrician, Keith. And you're a writer and blogger and you're successful. You have two wonderful daughters, one just married. Things are going well in your life. But that wasn't always the case. You had the loss of a son.

Sheila: We did.

Jim: You had that dark spot and you had to grapple with that. Tell me how this played out in your marriage, the loss of your son and describe what happened.

Sheila: When we were pregnant with our second child, I think I was around 18-weeks pregnant. We had the ultrasound and what they told us was, our son had a really serious heart defect, which likely would not cause me to miscarry, 'cause while he was inside me, he was fine. But as soon as he was born, he was gonna need a whole series of surgeries that wouldn't necessarily save his life. They would just prolong his death.

And so, for the next 20-odd weeks of pregnancy, we were just on tenterhooks the whole time. We were thinkin', okay, what if this happens? What decision are we gonna make about a heart transplant? Or are we gonna do this operation or are we not? And it was torture. It was awful.

But when Christopher was born, you know, we got to hold him and we got to bond with him and the decisions weren't as hard as we thought they were gonna be, because God really made everything very clear. And then we did have surgery at three weeks and then he passed away five days later from complications.

And there was a doctor who told us afterwards that, "I think you should know that 50 percent of couples divorce in a year after somethin' like this," which I thought was not the most helpful thing to say at that point in time. (Laughing)

Jim: What motivates him to say something like that?

Sheila: Well, it was actually a "her," but I'm not sure, lack of personality or I don't know what it would've been, but I think empathy is really hard when you're in that difficult [of] a specialty, 'cause a lot of her patients would've died. So, I'm not … I'm not sure exactly where she was coming from.

But Keith and I had gone through all this stuff earlier in our marriage. You know, this was at about year five and our difficult years really were two and three. And we just made the decision, there is no way that we're gonna lose each other. We just lost our son. We're not gonna lose each other, too.

And we clung to each other more than we ever had before and even though it was really heartbreaking, there were a lot of God-moments then. And God really showed up in a big way.

Jim: Keith, how did you process that moment in your marriage with the death of your son, of course, being a pediatrician?

Keith: Well, it was very difficult, too, because you know, I knew exactly when they were talking about what they were finding in the ultrasound and all the tests. I knew exactly what those things meant. I knew exactly what the future held and I knew how rough the road ahead of us was and how rough the road was ahead of Christopher, too.

And the decisions are so tough, because there's so many different options and none of them is guaranteed. And that's what I wrestled with mostly is, well, what's the right thing to do? And how dramatic and how drastic shall we be in trying things? It was really hard. And then trying to support Sheila through that when you don't even know how you're gonna take your next breath. You're so overwhelmed with the sadness and sorrow of it.

I'd have to say that, if that had happened to us in those first years of our marriage when we were distant, I don't know what would've happened to us. I just thank God that it came after that season of difficulty, where we had learned the skills. We had started to put into practice the mind-set that we've been talking about this morning, about you know, clinging to each other, putting each other ahead of yourself, building into your relationship on a daily basis.

And we just used this as another way to cling to each other, because no one else in the world understood what we were going through, except for my spouse.

Jim: Well, and it's that beautiful Scripture that talks about not being conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, right there in Romans. And that's really what you're aiming at. But the reality is, you might not have had that moment where you and your spouse have healed in some of these areas.

And you might be hitting a catastrophe that's pulling your relationship apart. Know that Focus on the Family is here for you and we want you to call us and to allow us the privilege of giving you some perspective and some guidance on what you can do. And we're here for you. That's why people support the ministry, is to provide those counselors on the phones for you. So, don't hesitate to call us. Let us know where you're struggling and again, let us be there for you and share with you God's perspective in that regard.

Keith and Sheila, we have more to cover. We've only really hit a couple of the nine thoughts. Can we come back next time and highlight a couple of the others and talk more about the Nine Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage? And I think this has been terrific and I'd like to keep goin'. Let's do it.

Sheila: That would be wonderful.

Keith: We'd love to.


John: And we do look forward to hearing more from you next time and beyond calling to speak with one of our counselors, if your marriage is on the brink of divorce or separation. Let me recommend our Hope Restored Marriage intensive experience. You can ask for details when you call 800-A-FAMILY. And you'll want a copy of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, which as you've heard, gives some very practical action items that you can apply to make your marriage stronger and healthier. Get a copy of the book and a CD or instant download of this two-part conversation with our guests at or when you call that 800 number.

And as Jim mentioned, we need your generous financial support as we help marriages. Last year alone, we helped over 130,000 marriages that were in crisis. And we can only do that because of your faithful support. Please make a generous donation today. And when you do, we'll send a copy of the book by Sheila as our way of saying thanks and putting a great tool in your hands. Donate when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow, as we hear more from Keith and Sheila Gregoire on some interesting insights about how we approach arguments with our spouse.


Sheila: And the problem is, if you win every disagreement with your spouse, you're gonna be married to a loser.

End of Excerpt

John: Well, that's an interesting perspective, isn't it? And you'll hear more tomorrow, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

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Keith and Sheila Gregoire

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Sheila Gregoire is a syndicated columnist, a popular blogger and public speaker, and an award-winning author. Her books include To Love, Honor and Vacuum31 Days to Great Sex and Another Reality Check. Sheila's husband, Keith, is a pediatrician, and the two frequently address audiences together at marriage retreats and FamilyLife Canada weekend conferences. Keith and Sheila reside in Ontario, Canada, and have two grown daughters. Learn more about Sheila by visiting her website: