Bill & Pam Farrel
Embracing Differences for a Thriving Marriage
With over a half-million copies sold and written in sixteen languages, best-selling co-authors, international speakers and relationship specialists, Pam and Bill Farrel have written more than forty-five books focusing on men, women, healthy relationships and parenting. Some titles include: Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti, Red-Hot Monogamy, The 10 Best Decisions a Parent Can Make, Discovering Hope in the Psalms, and The Marriage Code.
It would seem unlikely that a couple, who just celebrated thirty-eight years of marriage, could each come from an unhealthy childhood, but they did. Circumstances they would not only survive but would use to help others thrive along the way. As a seamless team they stand firm with God as their foundation as they travel the world speaking, teaching at conferences, and running their own organization, Love-Wise. Risen sat down with the Farrels to learn more from this encouraging couple.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: Let’s start off with a little bit about your upbringings. Bill, what was your family life like growing up?
Bill Farrel: Interesting would be the best word to describe it. I know in my heart my parents love me as much as any parents have ever loved their kids, there’s no doubt about that. But my mom grew up in a very abusive home. She’s a strong natural leader who is wounded, so she operated by a lot of fear and by her own logic. She was a strong enough leader to impose her logic on the rest of us. I was ten years old when I became aware that things were different in my home because I was told I couldn’t know Black or Jewish people, anyone whose parents were divorced or anyone whose dad was a doctor because for some reason – those four groups of people were out to get us. And everyone I tell tries to make sense of it and there isn’t any. It’s just fear-based thinking. It went from that to being told I shouldn’t work on Navajo Road because I’m not Indian, so bad things were going to happen to me if I continued to work there. Currently, my mom only eats white food because she has white skin, the list goes on and on. The dots don’t connect.
She was the dominate personality in my home. I’m the youngest of three, I learned from my brother and sister that fighting against that doesn’t work. My defense mechanism was to become numb. I just rolled with the punches and shutdown. I was functioning okay, but emotionally I wasn’t there. When I entered high school, you couldn’t hurt me because I didn’t feel anything. I also didn’t feel any joy or enthusiasm and I over analyzed everything because everything in my life was fear-based. I over analyzed my sports, grades and relationships. Everything in my life was hard. I didn’t know all of my family, part of my mom’s frustration caused her to break relationship with her family and because of some conflicts with my dad’s family, he broke relationship with his family too; we had no extended family. It was just the five of us doing everything. I’ve since learned that relationships within my family have been unhealthy and fear has been a big part of my family system for generations.
RM: Pam, how did having a dad that was an alcoholic and growing up in a violent home affect you?
Pam Farrel: It definitely did affect me, I’m a firstborn so that means that I automatically became the protector from the youngest age I can think of. I was always watching over my sister and my brother, but even worried about my mom. The other thing that happened is that when you grow up in a house with an alcoholic, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so you’re walking on eggshells. You don’t know if what’s calm and quiet is going to turn into crazy land. But the other day we were sitting in church and the pastor who grew up with addictive parents said to his wife, “You can’t change crazy, it’s crazy!” Then to the audience he asked, “Have you ever tried to change crazy?” I laughed out loud because my whole life I was trying to change crazy. Only Jesus can change crazy, not humanity. My Type A personality saw that there were two ways to handle chaos and confusion: one, shut down and withdraw like Bill did; and the other, is to fight back. So, I became like a little fighter and stood up to my dad. I came to Christ the same year as my mom did, I was eight years old and she was twenty-eight years old. I think I developed a tight relationship with God really young because I knew I needed help and He knew I needed help. When I was about four years old I would get up before everybody else and turn on the TV really low and there were these TV shows like “Davey and Goliath” kind of cartoon and then the other one was like a “Father’s Know Best” about a healthy family. I remember praying, “Wow, they go to church, and everyone gets along. God when I grow up I want that kind of family.” I was just a little girl praying those kinds of things to a God that nobody had introduced me to, other than God Himself. I was definitely a seeker from as far back as I can remember.
RM: How did your relationships with God progress into ministry? What part did that play in your love story?
PF: I came to Christ because my mom’s best friend invited us to come to church, and the pastor said that if you memorize verses then you can be on the Quiz Team. Now, in a little town, that was like being on American Idol, so I wanted to be on it. I start memorizing these verses, so I could get these prizes out of the treasure chest. I thought that if I was a [people] pleaser that maybe my parents wouldn’t fight so much. One day I was sitting on my bed memorizing Matthew 5:6-7 and my dad was in a total rage; he had been drinking all day and all night, it was very scary. My sweet mom was trying to talk my dad down in the living room and I grabbed my little brother and sister and pulled them into my room and pushed the dresser against the door, so Dad couldn’t come in and hurt us.
I tucked them into bed and I shut off the light and there glowing in the dark was a cross that I had earned from memorizing Psalm 23 and on the cross it read, “Jesus Lives” and I remember praying, “Jesus the pastor says you’re stronger than anything, stronger than death itself and if you’re all those things and I believe that you are please come into my life because when I grow up I don’t want a house like this, it’s out of control. I want a house that’s love, joy, peace, patience, etc.” I didn’t know those were called the fruits of the Spirit. I just named off what I wanted, what I saw in Kathy and Kenny’s house who had invited us to come to their church with their three little darling girls. I wanted a house and marriage like that. “So please come into my life and P.S. God if you could work it out I would love to marry a pastor one day, Amen.” And God started working that plan, right away. I went from pouty Pam to perky Pam, from angry and needing to please to just being in the Word [Bible] finding freedom, joy and happiness. I even look different in the pictures in my photo albums.
I functioned in that difference because I kept in the Word for years. Then we moved to a different city when I was nine years old that didn’t have as many churches and I floundered except for the fact that my sweet little friend Kelly, Kathy’s daughter asked, “Did you have your quiet time?” And I asked, “What’s that?” And she explained, “If you read the Bible it’s like a love letter from God, we’re supposed to read it every day and then we pray. That is like us saying I love you back to God.” I did it all by myself for years and then eventually I made my way back to church when we moved away from Idaho to California. My mom found a good church for us to go to and I start growing in my faith again and three of my friends in college invited me to Campus Crusade in Bakersfield where I was introduced to a woman who offered to mentor me and she challenged me to go a leadership conference and that’s where I met Bill.
I also didn’t feel any joy or enthusiasm and I over analyzed everything because everything in my life was fear-based.
BF: When I left high-school and went to college, going to church was not part of my routine, it wasn’t in my front center of thinking of how you grow in Christ. But doing stuff on campus was, so when I went to college I got involved with CRU (previously known as Campus Crusade for Christ). It was fun and exciting, I was seeing God do things with my life. It was such a stark difference from the way I grew up that it became easy to commit to. I started thinking that ministry was the kind of life that I wanted to live. I committed to that ministry and when you do that you go to their leadership conference. After my freshman year in college I went to a leadership conference that Pam was also attending. It was just a casual meeting, we met each other and became friends. We were both in Campus Crusade but in different cities, two hours apart.
PF: Bill was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he was smart. I was in Bakersfield junior college not as good of GPA because of math. We were both nineteen years old when we met.
BF: We met at a summer mobilization conference and then in October we went to another conference together and we spent more time together and that was when I think we started to notice each other, but even at that point I thought, “Yeah, she’s cute and she’s godly, that’s cool!” And then that same year there was a Christmas conference.
PF: At that conference they sent us out to have a quiet time to see if we were each called into ministry, it was a very serious thing and we came back in and I sat on a sofa and Bill walked in and sat across from me on the sofa. He asked me, “What did God speak to you?” I said, “I believe He just called me to ministry.” I asked Bill and he thought that he had been called to ministry too. Paradigm shift, he was an architect major and now he’s going into ministry. I was a journalist thinking I was going to be like Barbara Walters or Mary Tyler Moore.
BF: At the Christmas conference that year my brother and I organized a group date with some of our other friends on a Friday night, it was a casual thing. The first night I went and found Pam and asked her to be my guest.
PF: I said, “Yes, that would be great!” Then Bill called later that next day!
BF: The next day I’m going to seminars and I can’t concentrate. I’m sitting and I’m not hearing a thing my professor is saying. I was a little frustrated, I said, “God before this year started I prayed that you’d keep women out of my life because this ministry thing is going good and I’d like to just focus on learning how to do ministry and now I can’t concentrate after asking Pam if she’d go on a group date with me. What do I do with this?” I hadn’t had a relationship with another person who was a committed believer. I had no idea how to do it and I didn’t want to mess it up because I know we’re both called to ministry and I just know too many of the stories that make ministry not work are relational. So, I thought she might think I’m weird, but I’m just going do the full face-to-face.
PF: Define the relationship talk, way early!
BF: I asked her if we could meet later that night in the lobby and just said to her, “Pam, I think I really like you, I’d like to spend some time getting to know you are you okay with that?”
PF: In my brain I’m thinking, wow, he’s good looking, is godly and doesn’t play games. Seriously, if he would have gotten down on one knee I would have said yes that day! That was everything I had prayed for. Pray and God will give you the desires of your heart. I had done a year sabbatical of not dating because I was addicted to men. I grew up being a cheerleader and Homecoming Queen and I thrived on the attention of men. God said, “No, there’s one person I want your attention on and it’s me.” So, my freshman year of college I didn’t date. I said, “Okay, it is just you and me Jesus.” And He took me on a trip through the whole Bible, “I want you to learn what a healthy man looks like from the beginning all the way through and learn about some people like: Boaz, Joseph, the disciples, Jesus and Me.” I had a list of what I was looking for, what I felt reflected God’s values, not my values. Finally, I recognized a healthy man rather than having a crazy loser magnet on me.
BF: Looking back I recognize now that God called us together early because he wanted to rebuild us together for the ministry he has for us, we were married before our twenty-first birthdays. We were young, and it was a little scary to me at the time, but looking back He needed to get us out of our crazy homes.
RM: With both of your backgrounds serving in leadership roles within ministry, what led you down the path to become authors and speakers specializing in relationships?
PF: Bill did youth ministry [first], and then at twenty-eight years old he became a lead pastor.
BF: For me it was a mentoring relationship with one of my seminary professors, Jim Conway. When I became a young pastor, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. He [Conway] was writing books and leading conferences with his wife. I was just trying to figure out how to be a pastor and raise a family in ministry that would work. After eighteen months, he approached me and said, “Sally and I would like to write a book with you and Pam, are you interested?” Up until that moment I wasn’t planning on being a writer, but it was one of those moments where God said, “I want you to do this.” That’s where it all started. We wrote that book together, and then the second book was a book that Pam wrote, Women of Influence. She couldn’t get somebody to edit it and I kept asking her if she would like me to edit it.
Looking back I recognize now that God called us together early because he wanted to rebuild us together for the ministry he has for us.
PF: Everyone was too nice to me, they kept saying it was good. And Bill said, “Do you want a real edit? They want you to take out one hundred pages, that’s a whole book Pam.” And so, I said, “Yes.”
BF: I cut it up and I thought that either she is going to be so mad at me that we will never do this again or this will launch her writing career. This was back before it was easy to do it on computers.
PF: Lots of red marks and arrows, I looked at it and because I was so sensitive, wanting to be perfect from my upbringing all the time, I could have gotten upset, but instead the Holy Spirit landed on me and I thought, “This is brilliant, this is so much better of a book and I’ve married well, thank you Jesus!” We had been a team speaking together in youth ministry, but from that moment on I knew that we would be a writing team.
RM: You co-authored, Men Are Like Waffles Women Are Like Spaghetti, which has sold more than 300,000 copies. How can a man and woman who are complete opposites grow stronger rather than allow their differences to tear their relationship apart? What does that look like in practical application?
BF: Men are like waffles means that men compartmentalize their thinking into individual compartments, like a waffle has a bunch of boxes on it, as guys we put one topic in each box and we deal with one thing at a time. For part of life it’s really valuable. There are things that happen with family, business, community and church that need single focus and men tend to be very good at doing the single focus and so it brings part of the value. The differences aren’t really a problem they’re an asset because we’re all incomplete and we’re all imperfect and so we end up marrying what we don’t have. Then we get irritated with what we don’t have because the other person is better at it than we are, and we feel insecure. The key to making it work is acceptance, if I accepted Pam’s differences are valuable and necessary then I’d look at them with a sense of, “Man, I’m glad to have that in my life.” If I look at them as either deficient or competitive then they become a source of conflict. That’s why Romans 15:7 says, “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” When you accept those differences as I could never do what she does because she is different than me and I accept that, it makes our relationship stronger.
PF: And women are like spaghetti which means we multitask. We have more connections between the two hemispheres of our brain, we tie up all of life together. It looks likes one noodle laying on a plate, if you follow that noodle around that plate it touches every other noodle on the plate and that’s how women process life. We travel through life making emotional connections to people and things that matter most. We’re awesome at multitasking, sometimes today it’s called toggle-tasking, but we can shift from thing to thing seamlessly. We can be on the phone with a friend and her life is falling apart and we’re saying, “Hey, I picked up Risen Magazine. Here it is. I’ll send it to you girlfriend!” We’re cooking dinner and have a load in the washer and dryer. It’s biology, estrogen and testosterone. The Creator put those differences in us and it’s a good thing and when we value and appreciate those differences then we are most like God because God is saying each one of us has value.
BF: It sounds simple, but it comes down to taking turns. When it comes to communicating, we take turns talking because we each have different emotional needs. We take turns planning dates and leading. If there is something in our family that Pam’s better at, we just delegate it to her and she leads and if I’m better at it, I lead. We did that with the kids, there were times I didn’t know what to do with the kids, so Pam would take over and other times I took over. That way the differences work together.
And women are like spaghetti which means we multitask. We have more connections between the two hemispheres of our brain, we tie up all of life together.
RM: Congratulations on your recent wedding anniversary of thirty-eight years. In your personal experience what would you say are the foundational concepts for a long-lasting healthy relationship? How have these been implemented within your marriage?
PF: Pray with each other and for each other. We pray together every day and then we have what’s called romantic rituals, little things that you say and do to keep romance alive in your relationship. You witnessed one of them, after we say grace we always kiss, and we’ve done that since we got engaged because we didn’t kiss while we were engaged so are making up for lost time now. It’s hard to stay mad at someone you kiss that much. Romantic rituals, even just saying, “I love you,” before hanging up the phone or when you pass car keys. Having those little things matter.
BF: I would say there is a set of skills you can develop that unleash God’s abundance in relationships. The two things that I think have made our relationship work more than anything else are, first, we made a commitment to be tough on ourselves, to grow, and tender on each other giving a lot of grace. And most intimate relationships go the opposite, we evaluate each other hard but are easy on ourselves because we are used to our own inconsistencies and flaws and we’ve learned to live with them, so we give ourselves more grace. The other, is that when we are confused we beg God to show us what to do and what not to do. Holy Spirit lead us. We’re convinced that the Holy Spirit is constantly whispering to people on how to make the relationships work, but we’re just not listening, or we think we have to be more mature than we are to listen.
PF: And coupled with that would be if both people are in the Word, then you don’t have to nag the other person because the Lord does the nagging. And if we’re in the Word, God changes us to be better us and then we make better partners. Being in the Bible daily is imperative.