This Couple Changed My Life

One hour with them transformed my relationship to love, faith, and living in the now.

Shelley and Kirk Drake in their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2015.

This interview was originally published on as part of the multimedia project my partner and I created about the glue that holds longterm relationships together.

When we knocked on Shelley and Kirk Drake’s front door, we were greeted with bright eyes, huge smiles, tight hugs, and the popping and crackling of a fire. They offered us a drink, some snacks, and their undivided attention. Their home was filled with vibrant color, cozy fabrics, eclectic art, and well-worn books.

We tried to engage in the usual pleasantries, and then dive right into the interview, but it was difficult to steer the conversation away from us. Shelley and Kirk were so earnestly interested in our project, our journey, our relationship, our histories. It is such a gift to be asked to share ourselves that it can be tough not to accept, but we had a job to do.

We gently steered the conversation to the matter of the interview. Daniel set up the recorder, while I snapped a few photos. Shelley and Kirk (both 60) held hands and locked eyes as they told us the basics.

Shelley and Kirk Drake have been married for fifteen years. They first met by chance, then formed a friendship. Shelley said she told Kirk that day,

You have the kindest eyes on the planet and you are going to be my friend.

They ultimately decided to share their lives with one another. Shelley told me,

Being married to Kirk has been the most comfortable and the easiest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. So I never feel unwelcome in my skin in his presence. I never feel unwelcome in my soul in his presence. I feel at home.

Kirk said,

For us — our spiritual growth, our emotional growth, our physical growth, everything about us — we want to be an ongoing, ongoing movement.

Both partners value growth and they try to live in the present. For Shelley, this comes largely from being a cancer patient: when she was 28 she was given nine months to live, and has been living with similar prognoses off and on for the past 32 years. Shelley said with a smile,

I’m always like, ‘Today. Do we have enough to eat today? Good. We’ll figure out tomorrow when we have tomorrow.’

While Kirk and Shelley’s respective worldviews do overlap, they diverge in big ways. Kirk’s faith is philosophically derived from A Course in Miracles, while Shelley’s is Evangelical. These differences create what Shelley and Kirk deem a welcome tension.

Kirk told Daniel,

There’s not really a desire to find an even keel to it at all … it’s almost like this is the sweet dance of life and of love and the challenges. The sweet dance of it all … Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to be with someone who thought the same way I did, and I think, ‘No it wouldn’t be easier.’ The dance would stop, and that’s the most beautiful thing there is.

In my one-on-one conversation with Shelley, I asked her to talk about the work of their marriage. She said,

We’re both kind of pleasers and defer. You know, if you wanna go some place to eat I’ll go where you would wanna go most of the time, because it doesn’t really matter to me. So we both do that, so for us I think the work has been to be able to hold what we really want as individuals and support each other in that.
But, that kind of work doesn’t feel hard. It feels life-giving because we’re helping each other become who we really are.

She shared another big example of this kind of work:

This one was our maybe our hardest hurdle to get over. In about 2009 — Kirk had been in real estate all his life … but Kirk got hives that night, and I said, ‘Boy what happened? I’ve never seen these. What do you think it is?’ and he said, ‘I think it’s real estate.’
So it was just a little comment like that, but he really wanted to transition out of making money as the goal to growing spiritually as the goal. And that’s hard because somebody has to make money right? … like I would hear him say things about himself like, ‘She’s the one that works. I don’t do anything,’ and I’m like, ‘That is so not true. If you could see how he takes care of our whole home life, but he is also constantly meeting people, and helping them, and supporting them.’ He’s led whole programs of things but just not for a paycheck.

Kirk also spoke to Daniel about work, but his was the work of intimacy. Kirk said that when he and Shelley met,

She wasn’t very sexually experienced, and I had some sexual experience, so I figured sexual intimacy would be really easy. I just had that notion. It was a false notion. When we actually became physically intimate, I found myself going, ‘Oh this is much harder.’
There was a difference between having this committed relationship long term — it is what it is, I want this to be as sweet as possible — and her energy of really knowing what intimacy meant, emotionally etcetera. So the physical side of it was — yeah I might have been able there, I wasn’t uncomfortable there, but at the same time her intimacy almost drove her to where I was so scared I wasn’t able to participate, and be as alive as I‘d wanna be.
’Cause it was emotional intimacy at the same time as physical intimacy — it was like a new mix for me like, ‘Oh how do I do this?!’

Shelley did tell us that emotional intimacy has always come fairly easily for her. She also told us love has been her life’s goal, but that meeting Kirk shifted the focus of that goal. Shelley said,

I knew what it was like to travel all around and speak and that kind of exciting lifestyle and do good things but you don’t love one person well in that setting ’cause you’re traveling around and speaking and living, and there’s seas of faces. I don’t discount that — I loved those years. But when I met Kirk I thought if I could love one person really well that would be an amazing gift for me to give this world. And so I want him when I’m dead to — to be able to truly experience in his soul if possible: ‘I was loved by that person, and I’m richer because I knew her.’

She began to tear up as she spoke, having more difficulty as she said,

And if I can leave that gift, then if I can leave that gift, then um, then I’m good. I’m good. I had a reason to live, you know?

At the end of my one-on-one interview with Shelley, I asked her to share any advice she might have for me, and other young women near the beginnings of their journeys with partnership.

She gave me four pieces of advice; I’ve excerpted them here:

1) When you get married … you’re creating a third new path. So sometimes it feels like, ‘Man there’s a fork in the road. I wanna do this. This person wants to do this. Who’s gonna win?’ And it’s a trick — an honor — to learn to create the third road that honors both people, and it’s there. It’s really not that hard, but you have to just train your mind to choose to see that.
2) It’s ok to hurt sometimes. We’re laying there and we’re both hurting in life for whatever reason. That’s just ok. Just live with the emotion that you’ve got long enough to understand it, and know where it comes from, and if you can hold it together instead of needing to fix each other, then you grow in a — in a really deep way.
3) Trust your gut … hold out for a person who is is uh self differentiated enough to be a healthy individual. Also, healthy individuals don’t mean you don’t have issues. It means you know you have issues and you can name them and you don’t blame them on someone else.
4) No other person holds your self worth. No other person has the key to your happiness. No other person has the key to your wholeness. No other person can create your relationship with God. For you — we — are created in the image of God to be able to connect, and it has to begin with ourselves. You know, you gotta know and love yourself and then choose willingly that other person that you’re connecting to.

I conclude with one final story from my conversation with Shelley, a story that reveals some of the wholeness she found before meeting Kirk.

A few years into my cancer — so I woulda been about 30 — the residual pain of dealing with cancer and surgeries is actually what’s harder for people, I guess just like any kind of chronic pain. And it was really hard for me — a lot of physical pain — and I tried a lot of things to try to deal with it, and I felt like it hampered me, you know, like it held me back from being who I really am. Because it just gets your attention. It’s right here in my chest wall: I’m missing ribs and three quarters of my right lung and a chunk of my diaphragm and just stuff. And it hurts, and I would wake up in the middle of the night.
And one night I woke up and I’m like, ‘Ok God,’ and this coming from the proverbial nice person and I’m like, ‘Ok I can’t handle it, I can’t handle it anymore. I’m not gonna be nice anymore. This is your problem, you know, I can’t do this.’
So I am mad, I’m upset. I was really working up to saying words like that, and it was the middle of the night. And I lived alone, I’m on my own. And I heard — not audibly by any means, but in my heart space — ‘Are you any more patient than you were a year ago? Are you any more compassionate? Are you any more able to comfort people than you were before? Do you love any more deeply? Are you more humble?’
And humility is a big thing when you’ve got an illness ’cause you do have to ask for people’s help lots of times and they see you in every physical state you know.
So all of the things that I heard coming up in my mind, I was going yes yes yes yes yes.
So the answer kind of was, ‘Well that’s what you’ve always asked for is to be that kind of a person, so I’m helping you be that kind of a person. It’s just not the method you might have chosen.’
And that night I was like, ‘God, okay,’ you know, and that’s kind of when I learned to go a moment at a time. I can deal with the pain at this moment, and then I’ll see what happens when I wake up tomorrow. And if I have to just lay in bed for a day because I hurt too much, that’s okay. I can think, I can pray, I can write, I can sing songs, I can — I can just think about the people that I love and that just helped me.
So this crazy illness has been a tool of transformation to help me become a person that I want to be, and leave love behind where I want to leave it. And I’ve made so many mistakes like every other human, but the end result that I see is — I see that gradually over these years having to deal with pain has — has opened up an opportunity in my soul and in my heart to a more compassionate and caring person. And that’s been a cool thing, so it works well for me you know.

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