Doing CPE: The Marriage Version

Maggie and Tim at their home in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Dawn Kolakoski.

Our conversation began innocently as I prepared dinner and she caught up on Facebook at the end of her workday. I’m not sure how comments about our days resulted in a deep conversation. Regardless, I confessed my feelings about being the emotional caretaker and nag to a woman with chronic asthma and other health issues.

One of the roles I play in our marriage is to nag Maggie to take care of herself. Sometimes it’s necessary; much of the time it’s not. I’m also a sounding board when her too-often struggles to breathe do not fit with her desire to lead an active lifestyle. For example, she struggles with the likelihood that there are places I have hiked that she may never be able to see firsthand.

But this conversation was more about my psyche than hers and, with my permission, Maggie was “doing CPE” on me. (CPE refers to clinical pastoral education. CPE is a touchy feely part of pastoral education in which delving into a deeper understanding of motivations is idolized. It’s a form of deep communication, listening to your inner voice, and helping others to do the same.)

“I often feel like I can’t share my needs because you’re sick so often.”

“What would it be like if you did?” she responded.

As I pondered my response I felt tears welling up. Tears are simultaneously a gift of the Holy Spirit and a psychological sign that I’m close to my core feelings. I replied that, “A good husband places the needs of his sick wife before his own needs. Some of my needs conflict with your health.”

Aware that I wasn’t yet done, she remained quiet. I continued, “I genuinely worry about you. At times, though, I feel like I have to play the role of ‘the good husband’ just as I played the role of ‘the good son’ for my mother growing up. Sometimes I feel like I cannot do things for me because of your health.”

Like a good therapist, Maggie waited attentively as I processed both internally and aloud. To even name my needs feels selfish, I thought. A pivotal moment came when I said, “I’d feel vulnerable if I shared my needs.”

“Tell me more about your feelings of vulnerability. What’s that about?”

Of course those pesky tears showed up again. To even name my feelings and needs that conflict with my wife’s health needs, would tarnish my self-image as the good husband, as the perfect husband, as the one who has it all together.

We both laughed out loud at the absurdity. Feelings are real. Needs are real. Naming feelings doesn’t give them power; it allows us to problem solve and work together to find ways to meet both of our needs. It is when we shove those feelings and needs deep inside that they are more likely to sneak out in destructive ways.

I sighed and smiled. Here we were after thirty-three years of marriage still learning and growing and working together.

See Also
The Core Secret of Our Marriage
Keeping Covenant When the Storms Roll In
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s God! No That’s My Wife

Keeping Covenant When the Storms Roll In

I was pissed. If I didn’t feel it emotionally, my hoarseness revealed it. The children had scattered to their rooms. Even Isaac who was foolishly brave during “knock-down, drag-outs,” had retreated to his bedroom. That’s when it happened. I yanked the suitcase out of the closet. 

How had it reached the point that, even a small part of me, would consider breaking covenant? How could I possibly survive without my beloved? 

I looked at the suitcase in my hand and slumped down to the floor; all energy draining from my body. I became uncharacteristically silent. 

It was in that moment that I was finally able to hear the loving pleading of my wife. “You need help.” Yes, she was right. Yes, I would call first thing Monday morning.


Nearly thirty-three years ago, my wife and I publicly entered into covenant with one another. With the covenant revealed in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) between God and the Israelites informing us about how to live in relationship, we were married. We covenanted with one another, and with God. (See “The Core Secret of Our Marriage for more about covenant.

The dripping humid day when we committed our lives to one another was only the beginning. Maintaining a relationship takes emotional energy and regular time spent focused on one another. Human beings are constantly evolving and changing. We have ups and downs. There are times when we’re not so much fun to be around.

The challenge for two people in a covenantal relationship is to choreograph growth and change. Finding ways to dance through the stormy weather is perhaps the most intricate choreography. The steps are not always obvious.  Uncomfortable emotions tempt us to leave the stage entirely.

This is the second in a series about living in
covenant with another person.

Living in Covenant Series
The Core Secret of Our Marriage
Keeping Covenant When the Storms Roll In
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, It’s My Wife!

That morning when I pulled the suitcase out of the closet was not our finest hour.   We’d bought an old 1850s house (think Tom Hanks’ Money Pit) in upstate New York. Both children were still living at home. I was working multiple jobs. We were both working too much. Our lifestyle was not sustainable. I know I was not fit to live with during those years. 

I was also unable to see that I was making poor choices. 


An unwavering commitment to one another–even during times when we’ve felt distant from one another–is indeed central to our long marriage. Our success is more than that, however. We truly like each other. We allow–no, we embrace–one another’s evolving growth and change. We truly want the other to be who they are called by God to be. 

We revel in one another’s joys and always have one another’s back. Yet, when one of us is not living into who we’re called to be as a unique human being, we speak forthrightly. That is, we call one another out.

During those years, my wife could see clearly that I was making poor choices. She knew I was working too hard and that I was physically exhausted. I couldn’t see it and would hear none of her pleadings.

Living in a covenantal relationship requires sticking it out when things are not going well. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel angry with one another. It doesn’t mean you don’t have good reason to dislike the other person. Likewise, part of a loving covenant – which includes God – is that we must each take care of ourselves. (There are times when leaving the relationship is the most appropriate thing to do. I will write about abusive relationships in a future blog.)

I was not taking care of myself during those times. The result was that I was taking it out on myself and those I loved the most. I am quite certain that my wife was irritated with me. I am quite certain that she was angry and worried about me.

In Judges 10, God is so frustrated with the Israelites poor behavior, with their breaking of covenant, that he laments, “Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress” (Judges 10:14 NRSV).  God was tempted to break covenant with God’s people. Who could blame God? The people had left and worshiped other gods until they were under attack by the Ammonites. Then they came running back begging for God’s help.

Ultimately, however, God honors covenant. Because God “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer” (Judges 10: 16b NRSV), God responds compassionately. I imagine this was not unlike my wife’s experience. She had every rational reason to break relationship. Who could blame her? But in the end, her compassion and her commitment, reigned supreme.  

During that difficult time, my wife offered up the truth about me, sometimes with a little sugar and sometimes with a little vinegar. But still I could not hear her. Still, she hung in there with me. My wife saw the imago dei (image of God) through my armor of hurt, fatigue, and nastiness. Her patience and compassion and her commitment – our covenant – waited for a time when I could hear her pleading.


I looked at the suitcase in my hand and slumped down to the floor; all energy draining from my body. I became uncharacteristically silent. 

And I sobbed. Her arms around me, I felt God’s presence in our covenant. Then, I could hear God in the voice of my wife. “You need help. You can’t keep this up. I love you.”


God of Covenants,

Thank you for the extravagant love,
   that puts up with us no matter what.

Thank you for the love that forgives,
   even when we’ve ignored gentle pleadings,
      and angry pleadings.

Help us to include you,
   to accept your presence,
      to hear your voice in our relationships.

Help us to see the imago dei,
   in ourselves,
      and in one another,
          that we might be more loving.

In the name of the love which flows,
   within and throughout creation.


The Core Secret of Our Marriage

The Core Secret of Our Marriage

My wife and I have been married for almost 33 years. I’m often asked, “What’s your secret?” Typically my answer is about being realistic, accepting highs & lows, or about a sense of humor. The core secret is about the covenant we made with one another on a sweltering midwest summer day.

About Covenant

The term covenant has a strong association with the Judeo-Christian tradition as a model for relationship. If you read the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), you are privy to a love story between God and the Israelites. 

Even when the people are unworthy of God’s love, and God has every reason to abandon them, God ultimately honors covenant. For example, in Judges 10, after years of idol worship, the Israelites seek God’s help when under threat from the Ammonites. God is rightfully angry with their newfound faith: “Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress” (Judges 10:14 NRSV). 

Despite rightful frustration, God “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer” (Judges 10: 16b NRSV). God responds in compassion and honors covenant. It is this covenantal relationship that serves as a model for our human relationships, including marriage.

The core success of our marriage, then, is that we stood before family, friends, and clergy on that day, publicly entering covenant. We invoked the Divine blessing and covenanted to work at our relationship. Our marriage covenant is with one another and with God.

Divine Presence

Created as physical and spiritual beings, to live into the image of God requires that we open ourselves to the spiritual. Life is an arduous, challenging experience. It is evidence of divinity when any of us are able to connect with other human beings.

A UCC minister and his wife, friends of my parents from their days at seminary, gave us a simple but powerful wedding gift thirty-three years ago. The physical gift was a golden cross with two rings. 

This is the first in a series about living in
covenant with another person.

The physical cross, however, was not the gift. The gift was the comment from Uncle Harold that our love and marriage are a gift from God. The implication being that we must treat our love and marriage with reverence.

My beloved Maggie and I have both sought to remember that our marriage is a sacred covenant. We seek to afford one another the respect that we afford God. For example, I know that Maggie doesn’t rake me through the coals with co-workers. Likewise, her most sensitive secrets will never appear in one of my blogs. 

We have both made mistakes. (God knows I have!) But to have slept with another woman or man, would be no more a failure to keep covenant with my beloved than if I betrayed our private conversations. As such, neither of us -regardless of temptations – have strayed or long-avoided the hard work of living as a married couple.

Keeper of Covenants,

Thank you for your love,
   that flows within all of creation.
Thank you for the forgiveness,
   even when it is undeserved.

Flow through my relationships with others:
   with Maggie,
   with those whom I meet at the market,
      at the gas station,
         or who are begging on the street.

When I fail to be who you,
   created me to be,
      forgive me,
         and empower me to confess,
             and make amends.

For it is in following your loving lure,
   that the world reflects you.
It is in your love,
   that I am who you desire me to be.


This is the first of several blog posts about what it means to live in covenant with another human being. The next will be about dealing with change and growth in one another.