The day had come. I'd lasted as long as I could in my marriage. Once my husband, Bill, left for work, I packed a bag for myself and our 14-month-old son and left our home. It was the only year in our married life when we lived in the same town as my parents. Obviously the convenience of being able to run to Mom and Dad made my decision to leave Bill easier.
With a tear-stained, angry face, I walked into Mom's kitchen. She held the baby while I sobbed my declaration of independence. A washcloth and cup of coffee later, Mom told me she and Dad would help me. I was comforted to know they'd be there for me.
"But before you leave Bill," she said, "I have one task for you to complete."
Mom put down my sleeping son, took a sheet of paper and pen, and drew a vertical line down the middle of the page. She told me to list in the left column all the things Bill did that made him impossible to live with. As I looked at the dividing line, I thought she'd then tell me to list all his good qualities on the right hand side. I was determined to have a longer list of bad qualities on the left. This is going to be easy, I thought. My pen started immediately to scribble down the left column.
Bill never picked his clothes off the floor. He never told me when he was going outside. He slept in church. He had embarrassing, nasty habits such as blowing his nose or belching at the dinner table. He never bought me nice presents. He refused to match his clothes. He was tight with money. He wouldn't help with the housework. He didn't talk with me.
The list went on and on until I'd filled the page. I certainly had more than enough evidence to prove that no woman would be able to live with this man.
Smugly I said, "Now I guess you're going to ask me to list all Bill's good qualities on the right side."
"No," she said. "I already know Bill's good qualities. Instead, for each item on the left side, I want you to write how you respond. What do you do?"
This was even tougher than listing his good qualities. I'd been thinking about Bill's few, good qualities I could list. I hadn't considered thinking about myself. I knew Mom wasn't going to let me get by without completing her assignment. So I had to start writing.
I'd pout, cry, and get angry. I'd be embarrassed to be with him. I'd act like a "martyr." I'd wish I'd married someone else. I'd give him the silent treatment. I'd feel I was too good for him. The list seemed endless.
When I reached the bottom of the page, Mom picked up the paper and went to the drawer. She took scissors and cut the paper down the vertical line. Taking the left column, she wadded it in her hand and tossed it into the trash. Then she handed me the right column.
"Becky," she said, "take this list back to your house. Spend today reflecting on these things in your life. Pray about them. I'll keep the baby until this afternoon. If you sincerely do what I ask and still want to leave Bill, Dad and I will do all we can to assist you."
Leaving my luggage and son, I drove back to my house. When I sat on my couch with the piece of paper, I couldn't believe what I was facing. Without the balancing catalogue of Bill's annoying habits, the list looked horrifying.
I saw a record of petty behaviors, shameful practices, and destructive responses. I spent the next several hours asking God for forgiveness. I requested strength, guidance, and wisdom in the changes I needed to make. As I continued to pray, I realized how ridiculously I'd behaved. I could barely remember the transgressions I'd written for Bill. How absurd could I be? There was nothing immoral or horrible on that list. I'd honestly been blessed with a good man—not a perfect one, but a good one.
I thought back five years. I'd made a vow to Bill. I would love and honor him in sickness and health. I'd be with him for better or for worse. I said those words in the presence of God, my family, and friends. Yet only this morning, I'd been ready to leave him for trivial annoyances.
I jumped back in the car and drove to my parents' house. I marveled at how different I felt from when I'd first made the trip to see Mom. I now felt peace, relief, and gratitude.
When I picked up my son, I was dismayed by how willing I'd been to make such a drastic change in his life. My pettiness almost cost him the opportunity to be exposed daily to a wonderful father. Quickly, I thanked my mother and flew out the door to return home. By the time Bill returned from work, I was unpacked and waiting.
A new outlook
I'd love to say that Bill changed. He didn't. He still did all those things that embarrassed and annoyed me, and made me want to explode.
The difference came in me. From that day forward, I had to be responsible not only for my actions in our marriage, but also for my reactions.
I think back to one of the items: Bill slept in church. The minute he began to doze always marked the end of my worship time.
So often I thought he was rudely uninterested in the message—and my dad was the preacher! It didn't matter that Bill was unable to stay awake any time he sat for a longer period. The entire time he spent nodding, I spent fuming. I'd squirm in the pew, feeling humiliated. I'd wonder why I ever married this man. I knew he didn't deserve a wife as godly as I was.
Yet now I could see myself as I truly was. My pride was hampering a valuable portion of my life—my worship. This problem wasn't Bill's; it was mine. When Bill fell asleep in church, I began to bathe that time in gratitude and prayer. I took my eyes off Bill and myself and looked to God. Instead of leaving the services in anger, I left in joy.
It wasn't long before Bill noticed a difference. He remarked at lunch one Sunday, "You seem to be enjoying the services more lately. I was beginning to think you didn't like the preacher." My immediate instinct was to explain how he'd ruined so many services for me. But instead, I accepted his statement without defense.
Remaking the list
There have been many times through the years I've had to remake the list. I've continued to ask God to forgive my pathetic reactions and give me his wisdom in dealing with my marriage.
Fifteen years later, at the age of 49, Bill was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He had to quit his teaching job, leaving me to support our family, which has led to trying days and nights of worry. Watching him fight to maintain abilities to function daily has been inspiring to my sons, as well as to me. We've had to depend on our faith that God is in control—especially when we feel so out of control. We've searched the Bible for answers to questions we struggle to understand. We've spent hours with every emotion from anger to grief. We've asked, "Why?" We've claimed God's peace that passes all understanding.
Regrettably, many days I've run short on patience, even though I know Bill can't prevent himself from doing things that try my nerves. I realize my responsibility is to respond with the love God would have me show. I cry to God to love through me—because I know I'm not capable of loving Bill as God is capable of loving him.
Many times I've thanked God for a mother who was a spiritual mentor. Though she must have been tempted, she didn't preach to me or offer her opinion on my behavior. She guided me in discovering a truth that's saved a most treasured possession—my marriage. If I hadn't learned to respond as a Christian wife to Bill's small problems, I wouldn't be able to respond appropriately to his larger ones now.
My son came home one day and asked, "Mom, what are we going to do when Dad doesn't remember us?" My reply was, "We'll remember him. We'll remember the husband and father he was. We'll remember him for all the things he's taught us and the wonderful ways he's loved us."
After my son left the room, I chuckled. I was thinking of all the things I'd remember about this man who loved his family and his God. Many of those enduring memories are those same annoying little habits that made their way onto a list of bad qualities so many years ago.
Becky Zerbe touched many readers with her inspiring article, "The List that Saved My Marriage" (Fall 2005). We were saddened by the news that later that year Becky and her husband were killed instantly in an automobile accident. We are thankful for the powerful, ongoing legacy of Becky’s article.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.