Les and Leslie Parrott hopped in their gray Ford pickup, headed for the Grand Canyon. As they pulled out of the driveway, Leslie took off her shoes, propped her feet on the dash and flipped on the radio.

Les drove. With several maps in his lap, he focused on navigating their route. But he was not having fun. Neither he nor Leslie knew why his initial excitement for the trip changed when they got in the truck. "I was ready to have fun the second we got in," Leslie said. "I couldn't figure out what Les' problem was." Yet their first vacation as newlyweds began with Les in a dismal mood and Leslie wondering what had gone wrong.

Les and Leslie Parrott, speakers, teachers and authors on marriage and relationships, discovered early on that marriage takes daily learning -- even after dating each other for seven years. When they finished graduate school in the late 1980s, they wanted to work together. They accepted positions at Seattle Pacific University, he as a professor and she as a marriage and family therapist. Together they founded and now direct the Center for Relationship Development on SPU's campus.

The learning curve
Several weeks after the Grand Canyon road trip, Les' parents came to visit the couple. On the way to dinner, Les' mom navigated for her husband. "Every time there was a traffic jam, she would pull out a map to find a different route," Leslie said. "I realized then why Les and I were out of sync on our trip." Les' mom had always read the maps for her husband. A seemingly small difference, but a subconscious expectation Les brought into his marriage -- one of many they discovered in their early years together.

"We never had premarriage counseling, but we spent the first year of our marriage seeing a professional counselor," Les said. "After we married we went right into graduate school," Leslie said. "We were in a pressure cooker -- far away from our families with everything new, in transition and tumultuous." Then Les started work on his doctorate degree at the same time they were completing master's programs. Despite the Parrotts' study of psychology and relationships, their knowledge could become reality only as what they learned surfaced at home.

"I thought, Okay, we got married. I can check that off my to-do list now," Les said. "So all my energy was focused on succeeding in my doctoral work. But I had to remember to work on my marriage, too."

"We had to learn how each other was wired," Leslie said. "I would come home from work ready to connect with Les. I'd start talking, and poor Les had been home studying or working on a paper. He just couldn't be interrupted immediately and be ready to talk. I learned to walk in the apartment and say, 'I'm home; when you're ready, come out. I can't wait to see you.' That would give him a few minutes to wrap up everything, collect himself and come out ready to be with me. But it took me a long time to give him space to do that."

Pop quiz moments
Though they've learned a lot about each other over 17 years of marriage, situations along the way force them to re-evaluate whether their marriage is growing. One arose when Leslie was pregnant with their son, John, 14 years into marriage. "It was so unlike what we had dreamed it would be like to become a family," Leslie said. "I was ill immediately and on bed rest for several months. I never had a baby shower to prepare for John's birth. We never fixed a nursery because we were told John probably wouldn't make it." Born premature, John's life was uncertain for the first few months.

"It was painful and difficult for both of us," Les said. "However, we journeyed this difficult road that only the two of us understood. We found solace because we had each other and we knew God would carry us through the outcome."