When Your Spouse Complains...

"Do I have to make an appointment with you?"

Will Eva is the editor of Ministry magazine. Born in Zimbabwe, he and his wife, Claire, now live in the Washington, D.C. area.

The question might have been expressed in a cry of anguish or in the silence of a deep inner desperation . "What's happened to ourmarriage?" or "What's the matter with us?" There are probably only a few pastors or pastors' spouses who have not asked such questions in the frightening moments that accompany the confusion of marital stress.

The feelings of pain and distress that accompany these questions are often carefully hidden far back in the recesses of the guarded private world of the pastoral couple. There are times when such experiences and feelings arc symptomatic of serious marital difficulty. Often, however, things are not as serious as they appear during a time of conflict.

In the physical realm, pain, among other things is a warning pointing to the need of appro­priate intervention, be it a more or a less serious intervention . . major surgery done by a professional surgeon or a Band-Aid applied to one's own finger. We need honesty, courage and the ability to distinguish and initiate what is actually needed in a given set of circumstances.

When we are in the throws of relational anguish and we have to decide how serious our symptoms really are and there­fore which intervention is appropriate, we should not (as may be the tendency in today's sometimes over-professionalistic world) despise the small, more home-spun interventions.

Recently I came across one of these that could prove helpful to our marriages.

Dean Merrill's book, Clergy Couples in Crisis (Volume 3 of the Leadership Library series, published by Word Books, 1985), consists of a number of carefully chosen examples of typical clergy couples wrestling with the common (though never ordinary!) challenges that come to a married couple in ministry. In one chapter entitled, "Do I need an Appointment?" Merrill describes Austin and Lois Hunter, a pastoral couple who began ministry in an Appalachian parish that allowed them time together, but who later moved to a more demanding urban setting which left them very little time for each other.

In Merrill's example, Lois Hunter describes how she felt at one time when she was acting as her husband's temporary secretary in the new church. She tells of a certain woman who had a standing one-and-a-half hour appointment with Austin each Tuesday afternoon. Although Lois could not hear what was being said during the counseling sessions with this woman, from where she sat she could hear the quiet, attentive tone of the conversation, and once in a while the laughter as her husband and this woman talked together.

Lois says (page 120), "I'd try to keep my mind on my typing, but it was tearing my heart out, because I didn't feel even I could talk to him an hour and a half a week. I didn't have his undivided attention."

Lois later confronted Austin this way: "Do I have to make an appointment with you in order to receive what I see you giving so generously to others?" (Ibid., p. 121).

"That confrontation led to the establishing of a weekly date each Friday from noon to two o'clock, time reserved for the marriage alone" (ibid.). During this time (probably not the best time for an Adventist pastoral couple!), Lois had control over the "agenda." She could cancel the appointment, but Austin could not. If Lois wanted Austin to go shopping with her, fold the clothes with her, read a book aloud, go for a boat ride, work in the yard, "or whatever" that is what the Hunters would do.

This practical approach does not frontally spotlight a couple's actual points of conflict, rather it centers on that which we human beings need as much as we need anything else. It is something that is utterly Christian and truly godly in the best sense of those words: Time, and not necessarily that much of it, to concentrate unselfishly and unselfcon­sciously on those we love and depend on most, and time for them and for us to be recipients of this undivided attention.