I had the privilege of visiting with Dave and Ashley Willis a couple of days ago. They live in the CSRA but are a vital part of a marriage ministry called XO based in Dallas Texas. They are authors and host a podcast called “The Naked Marriage” (which has had 1.1 million downloads just since the first of the year). They also speak to thousands of couples in person at marriage events across the country. Here is the first part of our conversation. Come back for part two next week!
What brought you to the place of focusing on helping marriages grow and thrive?
Dave: It started here at Stevens Creek Church where I was a Pastor for years and just realized that the prayer requests I was getting and the conversations I was having, the pastoral counseling appointments, they all seemed to center around marriage. Either directly or indirectly, it came to somebody having a crisis in their marriage. It started with just a burden, not knowing what to do with that burden, but then little by little, God started opening up opportunities for us to start learning and growing in that area and ministering to people. Little by little, he just kept opening doors and clarifying the calling that this is what I’ve called you to do. We love getting to do it!
Ashley: We started out early in our marriage as youth volunteers in middle school youth ministry. We both have a heart for helping people. Dave’s first pastoral job was in the youth ministry. We’ve always worked alongside each other. I don’t know if we knew it would be a marriage focus, but we love it!
What is the biggest misconception about marriage?
Dave: That it’s supposed to be easy, or that if you marry the “right person,” then it will be easy. I think we’ve watched too many Hallmark movies and too many Disney movies and we think there’s never any struggle. Marriage is gonna take a ton of work. There are going to be days you don’t like each other. And there are going to be days that you really have to work at communicating. In different seasons of marriage, the challenges change and you have to work to adjust and adapt. In our culture, I think that we’re so quick to quit things the moment that they get difficult that we miss out on the growth that happens when we work through these challenges together. Part of what we tell couples is it doesn’t mean you married the “wrong person,” you’re two humans and you’re going to have struggles sometimes and God’s given us a road map for how to work through them. It’s going to be better when you get to the other side.
Ashley: I would even say with millennials and centennials- the generations right now, I think there is more of a “scared to get married” kind of mentality. I think they think marriage means your life is over. Let’s do everything fun, and then maybe get married. We’re just seeing that shift. I would say, if God brings you that person that you want to share your life with, get married and experience all that together. That’s what God did with us, and it’s just been an amazing journey. It’s not easy, at all, but it’s so fun to grow together.
What do you wish someone would have told you about marriage before your wedding day?
Dave: Lots of things. And maybe they did, and we just weren’t paying attention.
Ashley: Boundaries, boundaries with people of the opposite sex, boundaries with family, just trying to find that right balance with Christmas and holidays, just trying to figure that out. That’s really hard. Boundaries with your time. Boundaries are a huge issue.
Dave: I would say early on, I wish somebody would have just said “Keep making each other the top priority.” I got so busy working early on and just thinking “Oh, we’ll have time for each other whenever we can. In every season, stay intentional. We got back to that I think pretty quickly, but early on I was trying to so much that I lost sight of that.
Ashley: I think everybody struggles with that. It’s learning and a lot of it is trial and error.
Have you ever had any struggles in your own marriage?
Dave: We try to be very honest and transparent about the struggles. We’ve had a lot. I had a struggle with pornography in the early years that we’ve been very open about ‘cause so many people struggle with that now. We’ve had family struggles with in-laws and relatives, and just kind of a lack of boundaries that we’ve had to work through that was both delicate, complicated, and painful. We’ve had health struggles; we’ve had financial struggles. (We had never heard of Dave Ramsey!) We got into debt early on because we were broke and thought credit cards were money. In every season, there are unique challenges. Right now, the challenges have to do with getting ready to launch our first one to college next year. Trying to find balance in the very unique work and travel schedule that we have. Through all of it, we do our best to communicate. We’re learning as we go. It is a work in progress!
Ashley: I’d say too that we struggled with our very different discipline styles. I’m more like the hammer and Dave’s just nicer and so somewhere in between the two of us is the balanced parent. We really had to navigate that and get outside help to get on the same page. I feel like it’s never really all good or all hard in one season. I feel like every hard season has still had good things in it too.
What is the best way to prepare for a healthy lifelong marriage?
Dave: I would say, individually get closer to Jesus. As both people focus on that, finding their wholeness and completeness in Christ, and not thinking that they need this other person to somehow complete them but they’re going into marriage completed in Christ. Two people with that mindset can become one in such a beautiful way because they’re already both submitted to Jesus. Working through your own baggage, your own past hurts, and just doing the work to get closer to Christ on your own. And then together as a couple once you start dating and become engaged, making that the foundation early on, saying like we’re going to build our foundation on God’s Word, we’re gonna get connected to the church and we’re gonna have those things in place. That gives you the best possibility of success in marriage. People who pray together, serve together, and consistently attend worship together, are far, far, far less likely to get divorced than anybody else. Start off doing those things.
Ashley: I would also add, definitely do a premarital course. Whether at a church or with a counselor. We have one online at premarriage.com that people can do. We certainly went through that. I think you go in thinking “Oh, I’ve got this” or “We don’t really need to talk about that. But then, when you actually do talk about it, there are a few things we need to talk about when it comes to foundational issues like your faith. Like how you want to raise your children. Do you want to have children? There is a lot to talk about financially and plan for the future. It’s good to have the foundation of talking through all of the seasons of your marriage. Getting communication right, right out of the gate. I feel like most marital issues are communication issues. Almost always.
Dave and Ashley invite all engaged or married couples to join them for the XO Date Night Friday, March 10th at Stevens Creek Church in Augusta. Reserve your spot now at https://stevenscreekchurch.com/event/xo-date-night/
For other helpful marriage resources visit:
Join me for Faith Friday next Friday for the conclusion of my conversation with Dave and Ashley.