FamilyLife Today®

Choosing Marriage: Debra Fileta

with Debra Fileta | January 18, 2024
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Any married person will tell you there's a significant difference between what you expect marriage to be like and what marriage is...actually...like. Author Debra Fileta proposes that, while marriage may be challenging, it's worth the beauty on the other side.

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Marriage different—way different—than you hoped? Author Debra Fileta thinks it’s worth the beauty on the other side.

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Choosing Marriage: Debra Fileta

With Debra Fileta
|
January 18, 2024
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Dave: Well, a lot of our listeners know how great our marriage started out.

Ann: It did start out great—

Dave: It was great for about—

Ann: —because you were great!

Dave: —well, I mean for a month. [Laughter] It didn’t last.

Ann: —because they’ve heard our story. [Laughter]

Dave: I mean, we’re laughing now because we’re in year 41, but at the moment—

Ann: —at the moment, I thought, “There is nobody better in the world than Dave Wilson.”

Dave: I love those moments when you thought that.

Ann: Yes!

Dave: It didn’t last long. You didn’t think that for two months—

Ann: —because—

Dave: —three months.

Ann: No, I thought it for five months.

Dave: Okay.

Ann: And then at six months, I said, “Marrying you was the biggest mistake of my life.”

Dave: No, you yelled that. That was a great moment in our marriage.

Ann: Yes.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

Ann: The thing is, I feel like most people are unprepared going into marriage of what the reality will be like. So, they get to the point where we were. Maybe, it is year one, maybe, it is year twenty; but at some point, they think, “What in the world has happened?” They don’t know what to do with that, because what we thought was, “Oh, I married the wrong person.”

Dave: Yes, and “The right person is out there, and when I find them, then it will work,” right?

Ann: Yes.

Dave: But almost every marriage goes through our experience. Fortunately, we made it, but I think all marriages need help. And we’ve got help today in the studio. Welcome Debra Fileta with us. She’s the author of a book called Choosing Marriage. And you’re going to help us sort of help couples get through the tough—and it isn’t always the beginning of marriage, but it extends a long time, right?

Debra: Yes, it can be; any point in a marriage can be difficult. I think what you said is important—to realize that everybody is going to get to that hard place at some point—so that, when it comes, they’re not shocked; they’re prepared. I think there’s hope in that, so I am excited to talk about this.

Ann: Yes, I know.

Dave: Yes, we’re glad you’re here. You’ve not only written Choosing Marriage. You’ve written five books, and there are more to come. You know about marriage. We got to sit at lunch with you and John. You’ve got three kids; you’ve got a full life.

Debra: Four kids.

Dave: Four kids.

Ann: Four kids.

Debra: Remember our surprise number four.

Dave: That’s right.

Ann: One daughter, three sons.

Debra: Yes.

Ann: And you have a great podcast. Tell us a little bit about that.

Debra: Yes, it’s called Love and Relationships, and it’s a hotline-style podcast. People call in with their questions, and I answer their questions from my perspective as a licensed counselor. It’s a really fun show.

Ann: We had lunch with John and Debra. We feel like this is going to be so good for you to even call in with your questions. I’m going to call in sometime.

Debra: I would love it. [Laughter] That would be the best.

Dave: You’ve got to disguise your voice or something, so they don’t know it’s you.

Ann: No, I’m not. They’ll know that it’s me.

Dave: Well, tell us this—you know that’s our experience in marriage: did you guys have a similar journey, you and John?

Debra: Yes, I would say very similar in the sense that you go into marriage with rose-colored lenses. You just feel like, “This is going to be so easy,” and “This person is amazing,” and “Nothing could go wrong.”  But what’s so unique about that perspective [is], we don’t have that approach to any other area of our life.

For example, my husband, like we talked about at lunch, is a surgeon. For him to become a surgeon, he had to get 20,000 hours of training. I had to get 3,000 hours of training to get my license as a therapist. How many hours of training do we need to get a marriage license?

Ann: This girl is on my soapbox right now.

Dave: Yes, I’ve heard my wife say this so many times.

Ann: I say this all the time.

Debra: Zero.

Ann: Zero!

Dave: It really is.

Debra: No training; there is no requirement. And I think the assumption is, because we’re Christians, we’re somehow going to be good at relationships. We forget there’s past baggage/issues; there are things that we don’t know how to deal with: conflict, communication, and the roots that run a little bit deeper.

My hope for the message of Choosing Marriage is that we realize that a good marriage is made up of choices—daily choices—sometimes really hard, sometimes simple. But there are things we can actually do to begin to train for the process of a healthy marriage. It’s almost like a muscle. You’ve got to train that muscle, or its going to atrophy. It’s not just going to be strong on its own. So, what does it look like to train that muscle in our marriage?

Dave: What is it about being a Christ-follower [that] makes us think it’s going to be easier for us?

Debra: I think sometimes we tend to compartmentalize what it looks like to be a Christ-follower. We focus in on our spiritual health, but relational health isn’t necessarily the overflow of that, because the roots run deep of things from our family of origin that we bring into relationships.

In one of the chapters in Choosing Marriage, I talk about the fact that we all come to marriage with certain walls—ways that we communicate or don’t communicate; those walls are not healthy. For example, the wall of withdrawal; maybe you’re in the middle of a conversation that’s starting to get uncomfortable, so your default is to withdraw.

Ann: This was Dave. Yes, keep going.

Dave: You don’t have to bring that up. [Laughter] I want to withdraw right now. [Laughter]

Debra: Dave is about to walk out: “I’ve got to go, guys.”

Ann: You said, John, your husband was like that.

Debra: Yes, it’s a withdrawal tendency. It’s like the inability to deal with these difficult emotions, so it’s easier to kind of withdraw.

Dave: Yes, I had that. So, talk about the wall of withdrawal, or this thing you bring into marriage: what do we do with it?

Debra: Well, I think first of all, recognizing that we have it, you know? And understanding that some of those roots are things that you learn along the way.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: When it comes to dealing with conflict and communication, you’re not born a natural communicator. You’re not born knowing how to do conflict well. You learn based on what’s been modeled to you; you learn based on your experiences. So many times, the things that we bring into marriage, we’ve got to unlearn and begin learning a healthier approach of what it looks like to say what we need.


Another wall is displacement. Displacement is when we have stress or emotional discomfort from something else, but then we take it out on our spouse. For example, one day I remember I was home with the kids. I didn’t have four at the time—three kids—they were all sick.

Ann: Oh!

Debra: You know what that is like, right?

Ann: Oh, no! Yes.

Debra: Three little sick kids.

Dave: They are little, and they are young.

Debra: They are little. There are diapers and noses, and everyone is clingy. John was like 15 minutes late coming home from work.

Ann: Which feels like three hours.

Debra: Exactly. He calls me on the phone, and he said something wrong—I don’t remember what it was, and it was probably something mild.

Ann: Yes.


Debra: But whatever it was, I was ready for a fight. You know, I was frustrated, annoyed. I had so much built-up emotion from the day. I took it out on him; I’m displacing. That is the wall I bring into my relationship—this displacement. I’m going to put it on him. Another wall that I—

Dave: —wait, wait, wait.

Ann: Let’s go back to this one.

Debra: Oh, you want to dive into this one?

Ann: Well, even with that, I’m thinking of wounds from our childhood—

Debra: —yes.

Ann: —that we bring into marriage, that maybe we haven’t even talked about or acknowledged or know about, but they are back there. Is that displacement? Maybe we have anger issues or wounds. Can that carry through?

Debra: 100 percent. I mean, think of some of the insecurities we carry from our childhood. I worked with a gentleman who grew up with a father who, in his household, it was dad’s way or the highway.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: He never felt heard; he never felt like he was good enough. Years later, he carries that same wound into his marriage. Whenever his wife gets close: “Hey, can you do this differently?” It’s like, “Oh, you think I’m not good enough,”—

Ann: —yes.

Debra: —because it’s that displacement from the past that he is putting on her, you know?

Dave: Yes, I just want to stick up for John here. Did you apologize to him later—

Debra: —I did.

Dave: —because it wasn’t his problem?

Debra: It wasn’t his fault.

Dave: You’re a therapist.

 

Debra: I mean, I’m sure he did say something wrong. [Laughter] One thing that we’ve learned to do over the years is to be quick to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong and quick to apologize.

In Choosing Marriage, I say that a litmus test of your humility is how quick you are to apologize and how quick you are to forgive. I also spend some time talking about: “A proper apology isn’t just ‘I’m sorry.’”

Ann: Or “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Debra: Or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” exactly. [Laughter]

There are steps to really owning your role in the conflict. And where there is a conflict that involves two people, there are two people who need to own something. Maybe that percentage looks different; maybe, it’s not always 50-50; maybe in some cases it’s 5-95; but if you don’t have a role in the problem, then you also have no control.

You’ve got to see that ownership as a positive thing. I think sometimes we want to [say], “Well, I don’t have walls. I didn’t really do anything. This was all your fault.” But if that’s the case, then you actually have no control in the relationship.

Ann: That’s really wise.

Dave: How do you identify that? Even as you were talking earlier—I don’t know if you noticed this, and maybe it wasn’t true, but I felt like—when you said, “withdrawal wall,” my wife looked at me. When you said, “displacement,” my wife looked at me. When you said—[Laughter]

Ann: Oh, I have those, too, though, Dave.

Dave: I’m just kidding, but it’s like there were years of my marriage I didn’t even see it. I didn’t know I had them. And one of the gifts God gave us is your spouse can help you see things. But what if you don’t see it? How do you identify that you have some of these things in your marriage?

Debra: Well, I think that’s my hope: that I can help you identify some of these things from a therapist’s perspective. It’s not your wife, [and] it’s not your husband telling you; but it’s like, “Hey, here are some things to be on the lookout for. Do you do this in conflict? Do you handle things this way?” There are reflection questions.

There is no cookie cutter. Everybody looks different; everybody brings different walls into a relationship; and you’ve got to be able to recognize them by learning about them. If you don’t even know what they look like—if you don’t have a name for these walls—you’re not going to recognize them.

Ann: I think that is the beauty of marriage. When God brings two people together, we do recognize things in our spouse, and they call it out. And we have a choice: if we are going to be defensive, or if we are going to receive it. I think the key is, too, how we respond to our spouse. I’ll never forget the first time that I apologized to Dave in our marriage. He stopped. He was like, “Wait! Wait! What just happened?! Did my wife apologize to me?”

Dave: I actually wrote down the date. [Laughter]

Debra: Oh, my goodness!

Dave: “This is January 3rd,” or whatever. That was terrible, but I did.

Ann: I didn’t even realize I had never done it [apologized], but there was this sense of pride in me.

Debra: Right.

Ann: I had this from my background—this winner [mentality]—like, “You have to win at everything.” To apologize meant, “Oh, I had failed,”—

Debra: —right.


Ann: —which made me a failure. It would take me into shame. I remember just thinking, “Have I not apologized to Dave?” He was so much more quick to apologize than I was.

I love that you—maybe you didn’t say it in the right way—but I think, when our spouse can draw attention to like, “Hmm, I’m noticing something,”—instead of pointing a finger and accusing our spouse in a mad, angry voice, I think just to kind of point things out could be, really, a sweet gift from God.

Debra: It can be. I think part of the problem is, in many marriages, we try to withdraw before we deposit.

Ann: What do you mean?

Debra: We call out the things we want them to change, which I consider an emotional withdrawal—

Ann: —oh!

Debra: —before we’ve made an emotional deposit of the things we love and appreciate. When your bank account is not filled up emotionally, it is harder to make those withdrawals.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: That’s an area I think we all have to be very cautious. Sure, it’s easier to call out your spouse, but have you filled them up? Have you built them up? Do you have enough in the bank to be able to make this withdrawal—this request, or point out this issue—that needs to be changed? I think, if we start there,—

Ann: —yes.

Debra: —it would make a world of difference in our relationships.

Ann: —which is so interesting, because when we are dating, we deposit all day long, all the time. When you get married, you truly see one another. I know that it was really easy for me to point out all of Dave’s flaws without making those needed deposits. I think that’s really wise.

Don’t you [Dave] wish I would have done that a little more? [Laughter]

Dave: Well, you know what is interesting about our journey over four decades is, she is my biggest cheerleader. There is nobody in my life who believes in me [and] affirms me. That wasn’t always true. That did not happen for the first ten or so years,, but after we had some hard conversations, and we understood some of the things you are saying—not perfectly—I’m not kidding, I can’t wait to get home. This woman loves me. She believes in me more than anybody.

At times, I’m like, “I’m not that good, honey,” but she—and that is a deposit, deposit, deposit, right?

Debra: Yes, absolutely, that is.

Ann: So, we have the wall of withdrawal, the wall of displacement; what else?

Debra: Well, let’s talk about one more wall, and that is one that I often see that people don’t recognize: sarcasm and humor. Sometimes, you come from a family, whose love language is humor and sarcasm. There is a place for that, and actually, that is one of the things I loved about my husband: he is so funny and witty.

But then you realize that that can actually be used as a defense mechanism to keep out the hard conversations. It’s like, “Well, let’s just crack a joke. Let’s kind of be light and fluffy and fun without taking the time to go deep and really work on the things that need to be worked on.” I think that’s something people don’t even recognize.

But all of these walls—there are many more we could talk about—but I think the key is understanding that we are not victims to these walls. One of my favorite verses—this is all in one specific chapter in Choosing Marriage; one my favorite things was towards the end of writing that chapter, I was in the Psalms—Psalm 18: “With my God, I can scale any wall,”—I was like, “What a perfect verse to end that chapter with,”—

Ann: —that’s good.

Debra: —“because it doesn’t matter what you bring to the table from your family of origin. With some work and effort, you can scale those walls.” God can help you bring down those walls in your relationship; just like with you guys, ten years in. For some people, maybe, it doesn’t even have to take ten years.

Ann: Yes.

Debra: If we can get to a point where we are intentional and deliberate: “The more you know, the better you are going to do in marriage.”

Ann: As you speak to singles, what are the things you advise them to do? They may not even know any of these walls or their past history. What is your advice for them?

Debra: Well, one of my favorite things about this specific book was that I actually did research to back up some of these chapters. The chapters are laid out in choices you can make each day, you know? Moving from pride to humility: “What does that look like?”

The walls chapter—they are all kind of laid out as these choices you can make daily—but I took surveys of 1,000 singles and 1,000 married couples and compared their answers. Then, at the end of each chapter, there are reflection questions for couples, but there are also reflection questions for singles, because I believe that so much heartache can be saved if we start doing the work, standing alone. Can you imagine, if you can identify your struggles, standing alone, what you’re going to bring to the table?

Ann: Oh, yes!

Debra: And deal with some of that baggage, standing alone. You don’t have to wait until you’re married to start the training process. That’s like joining the Olympics and then deciding to train that day. Who does that? [Laughter]

Ann: Right.

Debra: I mean, most of us do that with marriage, [Laughter] but that’s not how you’re supposed to do it.

Ann: If anything, we’ve had training from the culture. Think about social media [and] what that has done. It gives us these expectations. And we all also carry training in from, maybe, our own families, which aren’t always healthy.

Debra: Exactly. Some of that has to be untrained, unlearned

Ann: Yes, yes.

Debra: —so that we can learn things the right way.

I think singleness is the time to begin the process of dealing with the emotional baggage that we carry, recognizing our conflict styles, our walls, what we bring to the table, [and] any hidden sins in our life. This is the type of stuff that I would love to see, almost like a couples therapy session—whether or not you’re married—walking you through some of the most important things you need to work on in the process of choosing marriage.

Ann: We’ve always said that, too: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we were teaching this in our school systems: how to get along with people; what is your conflict resolution bent?” It would be so good instead of learning some of this long, crazy—what did we learn in school? [Laughter]

Debra: I know. I wish they would.

Ann: Some of our mathematics, yes.

Debra: One thing that I found really interesting was that one of the questions I asked singles is: “How often do you think married couples spend time in quality conversation in marriage?” The majority of singles said, “Hours per week, It has to be hours per week.” But the majority of married couples reported 60 minutes or less,  and the majority of them actually said it was more like 30 minutes or less per week

Dave: —per week, yes.

Debra: —of quality conversation. I mean, think about that. Think about the expectations we have going into marriage—

Ann: Yes, especially for women, like, “We’re going to have these”—

Debra: —versus the reality.

Ann: Yes! “We’re going to have these long conversations. It’s going to be amazing.” Then we find our husband watching ESPN all day, and you are thinking—

Dave: Whoa, whoa, whoa!

Ann: Not you. [Laughter]

Dave: Oh, not me of course; some other husband.

Ann: But you’re right, we walk in with expectations.

Dave: But what would you say to a couple listening right now, and they are stuck? Besides get Choosing Marriage, and read it, and walk through the questions—but a lot of times, when we get stuck—

We hear this a lot when we are speaking at conferences; the couple—well, usually one of them, will come up and say, “All the stuff you talked about, my husband does.” They won’t apply it to themselves. They apply it to their spouse.

Debra: Which is the easier thing to do.

Dave: You see it in your spouse; it’s hard to see it in yourself. Talk to that spouse that maybe can’t see it. What do you tell them to do? How do they get out of ground zero and take some steps toward choosing marriage?

Debra: We’re so connected in marriage; we’re so intimately connected. It’s almost like—can you imagine with me two gears that are kind of working together, like in a clock? You’ve got these gears. Think of you and your spouse like two gears that are interconnected.

When you begin to move in the right direction, it naturally causes your spouse to move in the right direction. When you begin to make those deposits; when you begin working on yourself—and your responses, and your forgiveness, and your ability to apologize; when you begin doing the work, it will begin to change the narrative of your relationship and the patterns in your relationship, because it takes two to have a pattern of some sort.

If you are feeling stuck, realize that the one thing you have the most control of is your actions and reactions in your relationship—

Ann: That’s good.

Debra: —your ability to share what you need, your ability to affirm your spouse, your ability to begin to heal and grow on your own. Nobody can stop you from doing that. I truly believe it will begin to have a significant impact on your marriage as well.

Dave: That’s a good word. It’s like: “Look in a mirror and start with me.” Take your eyes off your spouse—not in a bad way, but in a negative way, in a critical way—and put your eyes on yourself and say, “God, change me.” And in time, hopefully, that will change my spouse.

Ann: I would add, Dave, too, to that:Jesus is cheering you on. Your spouse may not notice at first, or may not acknowledge what you’re doing at first, but God does. He sees your obedience; He sees you praying; He sees you following Him. I would just add: “Ask God for help, because He hears every time we call out. He hears us.”

Shelby: That’s a really good word from Ann there at the end, because I know so many people who are doing the work of trying to work on themselves and being intentional about addressing the sin in their own life, and they just feel alone because their spouse, maybe, isn’t responding, or they’re still being critical and things really aren’t shifting the way they’d like to see in the relationship. Ann reminded us, right there, that regardless of whether or not anyone here on this planet sees, God sees, and He’s cheering us on. That is such a great perspective because He is in our corner. The King of the universe is rooting for us. He really is pleased when we begin to look at ourselves and work on the flaws that are in our own life.

I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Debra Fileta on FamilyLife Today. Debra has written a book called Choosing Marriage: Why It Has to Start With We > Me. This is a great book at combining professional expertise, real world examples, and then practical advice on how to work on your marriage and choose your marriage. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com to get your copy. Just click on the “Today’s Resources” link, or you can get the link in the Show Notes. Or you can give us a call to request your copy at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Now, obviously, you hear us—or me, really—talk often about marriages and how that foundation affects everything else in our lives. One thing I think we all would agree on is that great marriages don’t just happen; they don’t just magically form out of nothing. They’re built with intentionality. Whether we see it or not, we’re either drifting in marriage or we’re intentionally moving toward one another, and at the same time, toward God.

Here's the amazing news for your relationship: FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway has events all over the country that will help you move toward each other and toward God. Even better, right now through January 22, registrations are

50 percent off. That’s right! Half off between now and Monday, January 22. You can head over to WeekendtoRemember.com to find a date and location near you.

There is an amazing transformative power in selflessness. When selflessness is applied, specifically to marriage, you’re going to start to see things change within your relationship, too. Coming up tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined again by Debra Fileta to talk about the power of selflessness in your marriage. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.

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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