How to align your dreams as a couple

What if you want to adopt, but your spouse is hesitant?

By Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley

The movie Mully is one of the most beautiful stories of caring for orphans I (Greg) have ever seen. It's the true story of Charles Mully, who, as a six-year-old boy in Kenya, was abandoned and left to raise himself on the streets. Against all odds, Charles thrived and, as an adult, seemed to have it all – a beautiful wife, eight wonderful children, a great home and several thriving businesses. But Charles began wondering whether God had something more for him.

Against the advice of his family and community, Charles sold his business and set out to care for orphaned children – street kids just like he had been. He founded the Mully Children's Family, one of the largest children's rescue, rehabilitation and development organizations in Africa.

As I watched the movie, one of the things that struck me was how Charles' wife, Esther, handled his new calling. I could only imagine the shock and disbelief she felt when her husband announced he was going to sell off their source of income to care for orphans. Within a week of telling his family of his intentions, Charles brought home three street orphans to care for.

I had a similar “Mully” moment in my marriage, but I didn't start out quite as understanding as Esther. My wife, Erin, was adopted as a baby. As a little girl, she used to dream about the day she could adopt a baby girl herself. She told me about this calling before we were married, and she told me that the man she married would need to be open to adoption.

Was I? I'll let Erin tell the story:

Erin's story

"Hey, babe," I asked Greg, "would you be willing to adopt someday?" Without hesitation, he agreed. But "someday" was a long time coming. We were married shortly after that conversation, and we had three biological children.

Our lives, and our nest, were pretty full. But I never gave up on that dream of adopting. I kept praying about it. And while Greg wasn't openly resistant to the idea, he wasn't thrilled with it either.

Several wise advisers told me that if one person isn't fully sharing a dream, then set it aside until unity is reached. So we did that. Several more years passed. I continued to pray.

One day, we were leading a marriage seminar in Wisconsin. We asked the couples in attendance to spend time asking the Lord what He was calling them to do as a couple. Greg and I participated in this exercise as well. It was then that we both saw adoption in our future. We even decided what we'd name our future adopted daughter: Antoinette Rose, after my mom. Surely this will happen now, I thought.

But then came seven years of praying for "Annie," and we still hadn't found her. Our biological kids were getting older, and we began wondering if this dream of mine was not to be.

And that's when we travelled to China. When we came back, a friend – not knowing anything about our longtime prayers to adopt – asked us if we visited an orphanage while we were in China. He told us that, just the month before, he'd gone to a Chinese orphanage and met a wonderful little girl there. Her name? Annie.

It felt like our prayer had been answered. About 16 months later, we brought our Annie home.

This story of differing dreams had a happy ending, but Greg and I experienced plenty of difficulties along the way. Adoption was practically a lifelong dream for me, and it was hard when Greg wasn't ready to adopt on my timetable. I didn't know whether he'd ever change his mind. That change was part of a process, which Greg unpacks below.

Waiting for our dreams

Erin is right: I wasn't fully on board with her dreams of adoption. Not at first. Navigating that season of uncertainty was difficult for both of us. But we learned a lot during that time, and finally found ourselves on the same page.

Here are some suggestions for aligning your and your spouse's dreams so you're headed toward the same goal:

1. Gain awareness. First, I needed to better understand why I was hesitant about pursuing Erin's dream of adoption. I believe in James 1:27 (NIV): "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans." But something was holding me back from wholeheartedly pursuing adoption. I asked Erin if we could talk through the issue. I wanted to explore any issues that might be behind my hesitancy.

As we talked, it became clear that I was scared to give up our peaceful life. We were on a trajectory to have an empty nest in our early 50s. I was afraid that if we adopted, we'd lose that. Erin and I had been building a ministry that involved speaking at conferences and retreats. I felt that adopting could somehow jeopardize that.

Erin could have responded by saying something like, "How selfish!" or "God will provide" or any number of Christian platitudes. But I didn't need a cliché, sales pitch or judgment. I needed understanding and empathy. I needed my wife to listen to my concerns. Once I understood what was really going on inside me, that new perspective helped to calm me down.

2. Become a servant. First Peter 3:7 says, "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor." One of the best ways to show honour to your wife is to serve her. But ultimately, your role as a husband is to not just serve your wife, but to sacrifice. It's often easy to help out or assist – but it's a different story when serving costs you something dear. If you are struggling to join in your spouse's calling, you need to decide if this is an opportunity to make a sacrifice.

But here's an interesting thing about sacrifice: It's not about giving up or giving in. It's about giving something precious to gain something equally precious.

Before I understood this aspect, I couldn't simply say to Erin, "Let's go ahead and adopt – I'll just sacrifice." I just wasn't there yet. If you feel the same way, pursue a solution that feels right to both of you.

3. Function as teammates. One of the greatest truths I've learned about marriage is that there is no such thing as a win-lose solution. In marriage, you're on the same team. You either win together or you lose together.

I can't force my wife to function as a teammate. I can't control her actions. But I can act as her teammate.

I wanted Erin to know that even though I wasn't fully committed to her dream (yet), I was still committed to her. During our adoption discussions, I told Erin that although I was feeling hesitant, I wanted to find a solution that both of us felt good about. I wanted a win-win solution.

The key to finding a win-win solution is discovering what each person really wants. I wanted to protect our marriage ministry. Erin wanted to pay forward what she'd been given as an orphan – a family. The more we talked through what we each wanted, the closer we came to finding a way to adopt and continue our marriage ministry. We needed to shift our mindset from pursuing our own interests to supporting each other – acting like a team.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice-president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books. Erin Smalley serves as the strategic spokesperson for Focus on the Family's marriage ministry and develops content for that department.