How Marriage Counseling and Communication Revived a Relationship

Contributing Editor Marion Bond West worried that her marriage had gone stale, but a pair of lists and a wise counselor helped her reconnect with her husband.

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- Posted on Jun 23, 2017

Marion and Gene revisited the things that made them each fall in love.

Are you generally happy?

“NO!” I printed boldly on my rheumatologist’s patient questionnaire. Maybe too boldly. I added a note to explain. “I’ve lost my joy.”

Of course my doctor questioned me about it. “What’s going on, Marion?” he said.

I told him the truth: “I don’t feel cherished anymore.” My husband, Gene, and I didn’t talk much. Didn’t leave the house much. Didn’t do much of anything. We used to be vibrant and active. Now we were in our eighties, both of us coping with chronic pain. I have a trio of autoimmune diseases. Gene had just recovered from a bad fall that left him with a broken leg and hip, and he was still dealing with the depression that came after the accident. Gene watched television. A lot. He slept a lot too. Most of the time, we sat in our respective recliners, stiff and silent as store mannequins, and watched the news. Well into the afternoon, we’d still be in our pajamas. Why not? There was no reason to dress.

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My doctor didn’t seem troubled by all the things I’d told him. “That can be easily fixed,” he said. “You and Gene should get some counseling.” Counseling? Gene’s doctor had recommended that he see a therapist for his depression. Gene had finally agreed to go, but only if it could be with our friend Jimmy Bamberg, who was a church counselor. I doubted Gene would want me to tag along.

“Just ask him, Marion,” my doctor said.

I drove home wondering how to do that. We’d had quite the romance, Gene and I. We’d met in our fifties, after we’d both lost our spouses, and we would talk on the phone for three or four hours at a time. He’d wooed me with long letters written on legal-size yellow paper in his distinctive chicken scratch. Now, however, Gene barely made eye contact with me. I missed our conversations. I missed the laughter too. If marriage counseling was what it would take to get us back on track, I had to give it a go.

I walked in the house and, before even putting down my purse, announced, “My rheumatologist thinks we should go to marriage counseling. He said to ask if I could go with you to your therapist.” Please, dear God, let him say yes!


Gene looked up from the television. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll call Jimmy and let him know you’re coming to my appointment tomorrow.” Well, this was a surprise. Maybe just the thought of counseling would be enough to snap us out of our funk. Then again, maybe not—we spent the rest of the afternoon in silence.

We arrived at Jimmy Bamberg’s office at church the next afternoon. Jimmy greeted each of us with a hug. Maybe it was strange to hug your therapist, but Jimmy and his wife, Susan, had been our friends for 25 years. Once we’d even driven to their house at 6 o’clock in the morning so Jimmy could counsel us in the middle of a big argument. Gene and I had always been as transparent as plastic wrap around them. Was it only with each other that we’d run out of things to say?

We sat in Jimmy’s office in pretty tapestry chairs that faced each other. Jimmy led us in prayer, then turned to me.

“Marion, what do you need from Gene?” he said.

I took a deep breath. “He’s stopped calling me honey,” I said. “Rarely makes eye contact. Ignores my comments sometimes. Sleeps a great part of the day…”

Jimmy turned to Gene. “What do you need from Marion?” Typical of a retired professor and minister, Gene thought long and hard before answering. I was certain he was going to talk about food. I don’t cook much anymore. My joint pain makes standing at the stove difficult.

“To be affirmed,” Gene said finally. I wanted to sink through the floor. How terribly sad. “Marion, has Gene done anything to let you know he loves you?” Jimmy asked.

“Well, last night I was lying in bed and Gene walked by,” I said. “He grabbed my foot.”

Both men stared at me. “That’s it?” Jimmy said.

I nodded. It was a tiny thing, but it had made me feel as though Gene was still there for me.

“Okay, I’m giving y’all an assignment,” Jimmy said. “I want each of you to list some things the other does that demonstrates their love for you. Nothing big. You can bring in the lists with you next time.”

I left Jimmy’s office feeling hopeful. But it didn’t take us long to fall back into our usual routine. Back at home, we sank into our recliners and clicked on the TV. I attempted conversation. But Gene was absorbed in some disturbing news report he was watching. Our cats wandered through the family room. They ignored me too.

I escaped to my home office and sat at my desk. There was a fresh piece of paper in my typewriter. I contemplated our homework assignment from Jimmy. I’m not a list maker. I don’t make grocery lists or Christmas lists. A list seems cold and clinical. I’d rather talk about my emotions.

There was only one list I ever recalled making. A list for God. I’d made it after my first husband had died. I was only 46 at the time, and I wanted to love someone again. To be a wife again. So one night, propped up in bed, I wrote down what I wanted in a husband and tucked the list in my Bible. If there was someone who fit my list, God would have to send him to me. Otherwise, I’d remain single.

I wasn’t sure if anything would come of the list. Four years later, though, I received a telephone call from a man named Gene Acuff, a minister and professor of sociology out in Oklahoma. He’d read a story I’d written for Guideposts about depression. He too had lost a spouse. That phone call started a correspondence. I’d stand at the mailbox and wait for his letters. He’d read mine under a sycamore tree. Four months into our letter writing, we met in person and it was love at first sight. He even sang to me, “Have I told you lately that I love you…?” We got married three weeks later.

I glanced at the photos scattered around my office. I had way too many, to the point of being tacky. But I knew my list had to be around there somewhere. I found it stuck to a photograph of Gene and me on our honeymoon.

For the first time in years, I read it: “1. God must be first in his life. I want to be second. 2. He is well-read and loves books. 3. Further along than I am spiritually. 4. I’d like to be a minister’s wife, but I’ll leave that up to you. 5. He has a deep sense of humor so that we can laugh a lot. 6. He’s able to communicate and have long conversations. 7. Cares about people, especially people who are hurting. 8. He will allow me to write and speak as long as you want me to. 9. He needs me. 10. There must be romance. Sparks!”

God had sent me the one man who met every requirement on my list. Gene and I had been so in love, so in tune. Could we find our way back to each other? I stared at the blank piece of paper in my typewriter. Then I began to type. “When he winks at me for no reason. Touching me when walking by. Making me laugh. Going to sleep holding my hand. Letting our cats sleep with us. Praying with me. Squeezing my foot when he walks by the bed. Talking about old times. Bringing me ice cream or a Pepsi when I’m watching something I really like on television.”

On the ride over to our next appointment with Jimmy, Gene asked, “Did you make your list?” I pulled it out of my purse and waved it around. “You?” I said. He removed a folded envelope from his shirt pocket and held it up. He’d scrawled on it in that chicken scratch I’d grown to love, long before we actually met.

Jimmy had Gene read his letter first. The words were comforting, like chocolate when nothing but chocolate will do. “Holding you at night in bed. When you come in from the hairdresser and your hair is very curly. When you cook a roast. When you cook soup. When you let me read letters of encouragement from your Guideposts readers. When you complete a writing assignment and let me comment on it. Your letting me comfort you when you are hurting. When I pray for you.”

Then it was my turn. I found my voice and shared my list. Gene’s smile made his eyes crinkle.

Afterward, Jimmy punched us in the computer for another appointment in two weeks. We had no intention of stopping our meetings with him.

We hugged Jimmy goodbye and headed for Gene’s big white truck. Holding hands. I looked up for a long time at the bold, blue sky. It looked like hope. Gene gave me a lightning-quick wink, then opened the passenger door for me. I hopped up in the seat like some sweet, young thing.

We were quiet driving home. But it was a good quiet. After a few miles, Gene started singing. I sing off-key, but I joined in too. He knows the tunes; I know most of the words.

“Have I told you lately that I love you…?”

Down the road we drove. A couple in our eighties, singing a love song to each other on the way home from marriage counseling, living a much better life already.

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Tags: Marriage,Love
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