Dear Christian couple considering marriage,
You’ve been dating for a while now, and you think things are going well. You’re wondering if it’s time to consider taking your relationship to the next step: marriage. You understand that covenanting to someone is a big deal. Maybe you feel stuck because you’re so worried about making a mistake. You wish there was some sort of checklist to guarantee of a happy future together. Some people tell you you’re overthinking, but you long for some sort of rubric by which to analyze your relationship—just to be sure! So what are you to do?
Maybe you’ve fallen hard and fast for “the person of your dreams”, and you’re ready to sign the marriage contract yesterday! But others in your life are cautioning you that you’re moving too quickly, that compatibility is just as important as chemistry. But sometimes it’s hard to see straight enough to analyze matters of practical concern.
In either case (or if like most people you fall somewhere between!) marriage is a very serious step and there isn’t a checklist that guarantees “success”. However, there are general principles that are helpful to consider on the journey towards making healthy and wise decisions about romantic relationships.
In order to facilitate wise thinking and decision making in this area, I have compiled an extensive but not exhaustive list of points for consideration. My advice falls under five main categories: talk, touch, plans, experiences, and skills. Let’s look at each in turn.
TALK: Things to start talking about before engagement.
– finances: debt, spending habits, financial philosophy
– health: current and past physical and mental health
– if there have been any serious crimes or addictions in the past or present
– children: if you want to have any, birth control beliefs and preferences, child rearing philosophies
– family of origin
– formative experiences both positive and negative
– attachment styles (secure, anxious-avoidant, etc.)
– what you consider deal-breakers in a dating relationship and in a marriage, including your views on divorce
– relationship history
– if either of you have children
– sexual history, philosophy of sexual intimacy in marriage, any history of being abused, attitudes surrounding sexuality in family of origin
– specific fears and hopes
– future plans and goals
– theological beliefs
– political views
– gender roles
– who your friends and community are
– how you deal with stress
– past traumas and their current effects
– hobbies and interests
– pet peeves
– Note: if any of these feel too difficult to discuss on your own, they can be saved for premarital counseling.
TOUCH: As relationships head closer to engagement, it’s a good time to reflect on your current experience with physical affection.
– is your physical relationship growing? It generally should grow as other components of the relationship grow (and always within limits of holiness and preference).
– is physical affection mutual, enjoyable, respectful?
– do you understand and practice consent always with all kinds of touch?
– do you have a pattern of making wise, healthy, and holy choices regarding touch?
– are you able to communicate about physical touch–what you’re comfortable with, your convictions, what you like, what you don’t like?
– My opinion: exercising self-control regarding physical affection while dating can be greatly illustrative of a person’s character and bode well for future marital faithfulness. At the same time, I don’t think physical affection in romantic relationships is just a fun bonus. It’s actually a valuable part of the bonding process (as long as it’s not driving the relationship or veering into sin): it’s part of nurturing the emotional and romantic side of the relationship; it builds trust; it expresses and directs growing attraction; it lays the foundation for good communication about touch in marriage; and it can help provide a calm, joyful, and connected place from which to face the challenges of relationship.
PLANS AND LOGISTICS: The practical stuff!
– if you get married, where will you live?
– will you have one income or two incomes?
– where will you go to church?
– are there plans to move to a different city at some point?
– when do you want to get married?
– how long do you want to be engaged?
– do you want to have children?
– will you use birth control?
– what are your beliefs about gender roles and how will they play out?
– how much time do you want to spend together versus apart when married?
– how will you relate to your families of origin?
ATTITUDES AND EXPERIENCES: Your demeanor towards one another and your experience of being in relationship with one another.
– do you enjoy being together?
– do you laugh together frequently?
– do you find yourself feeling calm and happy after and during your interactions?
– do you feel safe and respected?
– is there mutual effort put into the relationship?
– do you generally feel free and able to express your thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires?
– are there any indicators of narcissism or abuse?
– do you want to spend the rest of your life with the other person?
– do you increasingly find yourself wanting to learn about the other person’s struggles and baggage not so much to analyze whether they would make a good partner but rather to better understand them and how to care for them in their places of weakness and pain?
– are they one of the first people you think to share your joy and pain with?
– can you rely on each other for help, advice, care, and support?
– do you trust each other?
– can you be vulnerable with each other?
– do you enjoy learning things about each other?
– do you get excited about some of the same ideas, hobbies, or causes?
– do you feel connected and understood?
– are you emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically attracted to each other?
– can you sit quietly in the same room together?
– do you still enjoy hobbies and friendships you enjoyed before the relationship? (If so, that’s a good sign.)
SKILLS: Relational skills that will help you tackle the known and the unknown.
– communication about thoughts, feelings, relational struggles, wants, plans, dreams, and fears
– fighting fair, conflict resolution, and relational repair
– knowing the components of a good apology and willingness to apologize
– balancing acceptance of what is with seeking growth and change
– identification of and care for your own emotions and needs
– identification of and care for your partner’s emotions and needs
– listening in order to understand and connect
– responding to “bids for connection”
– “speaking” each other’s love languages
– maintaining connection to healthy community as individuals and as a couple
– I think that premarital counseling can be a beneficial thing for most couples. One of the best premarital counseling programs is called Prepare and Enrich. I would recommend seeing a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is also a Christian as opposed to a pastor, though it’s beneficial to meet with a pastor once or twice too.
– John and Julie Gottman of The Gottman Institute have some of the best and most thoroughly researched information about healthy relationships available! I highly recommend checking out any of their resources. In particular, read up on what their research shows are the four most common predictors of divorce or what they call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. If any of those four things are present in a relationship, that’s a red flag.
– My advice can be summarized with the following questions: are you compatible enough, to the best of your knowledge? do you know each other well enough? do you want to commit to one another? do you enjoy each other and connect well? do you have the skills and motivation needed to continue growing as individuals and as a couple both before and after marriage? And do you have a supportive community that will help you along the journey?
If you are like me, it can be easy to get caught up in overanalyzing and perfectionism. Having high standards for our self and others is good, but it’s important to understand that: 1) every person has baggage and every relationship has challenges, and 2) the experience of and sense of connection in a relationship are just as important as a checklist.
If on the other hand you are likely to let your heart lead your head into unwise or unhealthy paths, I implore you both to healthily honor your passion and nurture your prudence. No amount of chemistry can make up for incompatibility or poor character. Take a little time to consider. It’s worth it. You’re worth it!
In closing, I sincerely wish you well! And I hope that some of what I’ve shared is helpful for you as you evaluate your relationship and set intentions for the future. Marriage is such a good gift, and it’s worth the effort to enter it the best way you can—walking in wisdom, not perfectionism.
“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD.” Proverbs 18:22
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16