I am sure I have expressed these thoughts before on this blog, perhaps scattered through different blog posts. I believe that the most powerful and effective time to work on your marriage is before you actually get married, which is the point at which things get “set in stone”. I believe that before you get married, you have the chance to define what you want from your marriage, and take the steps to sow the seeds for these things. However, you can always walk away, or rethink your choice of future spouse. This is why it is powerful. It is like you are given the opportunity to sit around, dream, imagine what your marriage (which will be your life) could be, and then you can work out how to go about achieving those things, how to find someone truly appropriate. However when you are married, you have to cultivate the choices that you have already made, or build upon the foundations that have already been set.
I think that if people were to sit down and thoroughly think about this, then many people would agree. Many other people might not agree, and they might put forward legitimate reasons for their disagreement. However I suspect that many people simply do not sit down and think about it at all. It seems to me, rightly or wrongly, that some people would only stop to think about “getting things right” when things have already gone very wrong, when they are already married and experiencing various levels of marital difficulty.
It would of course be unfair to suggest that people are always careless in their choice of spouses. Getting married is of course a huge decision, and obviously everyone appreciates the gravity of entering into marriage. However, I still can’t help feeling that many people do make the wrong choice of spouse, perhaps because they don’t know what to look out for, and perhaps because some things are only seen clearly with hindsight. Sincerely, despite the years I have spent writing this blog, despite the greater number of years I have spent thinking deeply about these issues, I am not sure that I know what to look out for in a spouse, and I am not sure that I would recognise it if I saw it. Obviously he has to be a Christian in passionate pursuit of God; that much I do know!
This is why I think that the period before marriage is so powerful: so that you can inform or educate yourself about the kinds of issues that occur in marriages – communication, money, money, communication…inlaws (!) and you can specifically look out for a spouse who cultivates the right characteristics to minimise friction but maximise co-operation in these areas. You can also specifically look out for a spouse who is running in the same direction as you, at an appropriate speed. You can also watch and evaluate their character to make sure that they really are as committed to God and as committed to Christ-like character as they claim to be, as your spouse and mine will need to be. And if necessary, you can always walk away. Is this not common sense? Make sure you choose the right spouse before you get married?!
Yet much of Christian marital counselling seems to be directed at the point after you are already married, after you have already made your bad choice of spouse. To be fair there are many many books that are directed at people who are not yet married, and there is lots and lots of advice available about the need to make the right choice of spouse. However, considering the seriousness of the decision to get married, I just don’t feel that there is sufficient emphasis on making an excellent choice for the sake of living an excellent life. The vibe I seem to get from most people as a single woman is that I should “just get married”, that I should just try and find someone and convince him to marry me and then sort out issues if and when they arise.
Hmm. Why might this approach be unattractive to me? Perhaps it could be due to statistics such as this: “1 in 4 women will be beaten by their husbands“, or the knowledge that almost 50% of marriages will end in divorce (actually things seem to be worse in Christian marriages – in the US I believe the divorce rate is 51% for Christian marriages) – and of the remaining 50%, half of those will be painful. Or it could be due to watching people who have preceded me in marriage, seeing what they are careful to say, or not to say about their spouses. Now I know that life is hard anyway, and married life is a big responsibility and lots of hard work, even if you don’t have children. So for that reason you may not necessarily expect people to be bounding around in endless ecstasy all the time about their spouses. And yet I think there would be a difference in the attitude of someone who thinks:
“Yes, it’s hard work, no it has not been easy, but by God’s grace at least I chose the right spouse” and someone who thinks:
“Yes, it’s hard work, no it was never going to be easy, but frankly I made my own life much harder by my choice of spouse”.
And yet the period before you get married is powerful even beyond the question of the choice of spouse. Pragmatically speaking, if marriage is a deal, then like any deal you have power to negotiate terms before the deal is struck. Afterwards, when all parties have got what they want, then nothing remains to compel the other sides to act as you wish. There is clearly a danger in literally trying to negotiate terms with your spouse before marriage, in that nothing stops them from simply going back on their word after marriage.
“But you said that we would always go to my parents’ place for Christmas!”
“But you promised me that you wanted to become a Christian!”
Perhaps a way to think about it could be that the parties to the “deal” to be struck are not necessarily just you and your would-be spouse, but rather you and your future spouse acting together on behalf of “your future marriage”, and “marital success”. So then it is the responsibility of you and your future spouse to wrest all that you possibly can from “marital success” before the “deal” of your marriage is struck. So then it follows that you would carefully look out for a spouse who was as determined as you were to win all that they possibly could from marital success. And the way the two of you would cooperate in going about winning all you could would be by building the foundation of your future marriage, pre-empting and building around common issues in marriage, deliberately seeking out and tackling all the hard issues, like communication so that by the grace of God, and by the empowerment of God, success is far more likely.
If any future match does not yet offer the prospect of resounding success, then you can always work harder on the “deal” until it does offer this prospect, or you could eventually reject the “deal” altogether. Remember that unless there is something dubious or unacceptable about your marriage, or it is expressly against His wishes for some reason, once you are married, God wants your marriage to succeed, He is already on your side. That means that, no matter how ill-advised your marriage may have been, or how badly suited you and your spouse might be for each other, once you are married God will always be willing to grant His power and grace to make your marriage succeed, (unless your choice of spouse itself contradicts God’s laws in some way.)
So after you are married you don’t have say “If God wills it”. He does will it, and He is gracious and generous enough to pour all His resources into empowering your marriage. (And yet despite having God on their side, having His abundant provision and empowerment for success, 51% of Christian marriages (in the States) still go ahead and fail.)
Once you have set an excellent foundation in place, choosing the right spouse with the right commitment to God (and marriage and you), for the right reasons, then you also set your marriage up to be an incredibly powerful place for the two of you, where you can lovingly nurture and scrupulously protect the seeds that you have carefully and deliberately planted, and confidently produce abundant and delicious fruits of love, joy and peace in your marriage, and healthy communication, and loyalty, and enjoyment, and happy and laughing children, if you do have children.
UPDATE Added 14th July 2014: This post was written quoting commonly-quoted statistics about marital breakup. However, according to new work by marriage researcher Shaunti Feldhahn, the true statistics concerning marital success are a lot more optimistic. The article is available here
So teach us to number our days,
That we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Photo of wedding couple by Olessya on Pixabay