So! You’ve decided to tie the knot, take the plunge, make it official – in short, to get hitched, hopefully permanently. With all the preparations and stress that go along with planning a wedding, Christian premarital counseling might seem like a waste of time or even a nuisance. Many pastors require couples to get premarital counseling before they will marry them. I suppose you could shop around and find one that didn’t care, or go to a Justice of the Peace, but skipping Christian premarital counseling might actually jeopardize the long-term success of your impending marriage.
Why Christian Premarital Counseling?
In the Bible, marriage is referred to as two becoming one flesh. This is an enormous, monumental undertaking, when you consider what this actually means: two very different, autonomous, goal-seeking, uniquely damaged, emotionally complex, individual, sentient beings are going to learn to function as a single organism. Not only are the two going to merge, they are going to do so without losing the exceptional particularity of each individual. This is as close to the unity of the Trinity as we can achieve on this planet, and hence it is not only enormous, it is sacred, and not to be taken lightly.
We get driver’s training before we get a license to drive, we get academic training before we get a diploma, it only makes sense to get premarital counseling before we enter into the most important contractual relationship of our lives. You may have resistance to counseling because it is personal and uncomfortable, but this is one of those times you need to get over it and get the help you need, just like going to the doctor when you need healing. The help you get may save you from years of unnecessary pain and heartache.
Rules of Engagement
Some fiancés approach their upcoming marriage as a 50/50 proposition, where you only love the other person as much as they love you, only give as much as they give, only care as much as they care. This approach will doom you to a half-life of suspicion and score keeping which will severely limit your capacity for growth and health, let alone happiness.
Marriage is a 100/100 proposition. Ideally, each person brings all that they are to the table and to the extent possible, offers it without reservation, without keeping score, often without expecting reciprocation. The image often invoked in traditional ceremonies is of the wife obeying the husband unconditionally, and the husband loving the wife as Christ loved the church, namely laying down his life for her.
At first blush, this sounds like not only is there no room for selfishness, but like there’s no room for self, as if neither person gets to have needs. This view is crippling to mutuality and intimacy. The goal is for each person to be able to hold onto himself or herself well, identify and ask for needs, be able to hear “no,” and set and hold healthy boundaries.
For example, when you are first married, in the flush of romance and intimacy, you may find it no problem to sacrificially be responsible for washing the dishes. Three weeks in, it may become a chore and if you don’t talk about, it becomes a point of resentment. You may decide to soldier on, codependently stuffing your feelings around it, telling yourself it’s the Christian thing to do, that it’s godly to give sacrificially.
Here’s the catch: it IS godly to give sacrificially, but if giving sacrificially makes you a seething ball of resentment, God doesn’t want your sacrifice. Truthfully, your spouse doesn’t want it, either, if the price is your foul mood and unhappiness. It’s okay if you sometimes have to work pretty hard to be kind to each other – we all have tough days – but if we try to hammer ourselves or our spouses into some sort of subservient shape, eventually it will fail.
If we are genuinely fond of the other person, it is only natural to want to please them, help them, and otherwise do things for them. As long as it is offered and appreciated freely, it’s a beautiful thing. As soon as it is expected or unappreciated, we begin to dishonor each other or ourselves by expecting subservient behavior, which puts one spouse or the other in a “one up” position. Mutuality goes out the window, along with intimacy and happiness.
Some of the Pitfalls
There are a host of obstacles arrayed against any marriage, and we do well to have some awareness of these things, especially at the outset, so we don’t get blind-sided. This list is not complete, but here are some of the pitfalls that lie in wait for the unsuspecting:
Your marriage will only thrive to the extent that you are able to overcome your own selfishness. It has to go both ways; if one person always gives and the other always takes, it may be symbiotic, but it is a far cry from healthy, and will be devoid of intimacy and mutuality.
This is where healthy boundaries are so important. Just because your spouse asks you to do something doesn’t mean you have to drop everything and do it. It is not selfish to ask for clarification, or to postpone it for a short time. If you are exhausted, saying “no” or “I really don’t have the bandwidth” may be necessary self-care. Talk about it, express how the request lands on you, and most importantly, have patience with one another as you negotiate.
Distribution of Chores
In single income households, often times the person who stays home takes care of a lot of the chores. If the worker comes home from work and expects dinner on the table and expects not to have to help at all around the house, this is a recipe for frustration. Some down time after work is a reasonable expectation, but to saddle one person with all the housework is only sustainable if that person is genuinely okay with it. The sooner you can identify and voice your frustration, the less likely you are to have an argument about it.
A simple solution is to make a list of chores then each person takes turns putting their initials beside a chore until the entire list is assigned. Then choose a couple of hours, maybe on Saturday morning, when you are going to take care of the list.
At the beginning of every marriage, there comes a time when the honeymoon is over. The blush is off the rose. Things that were special become routine. Saying “I love you” becomes reflexive. The best way to fight against stagnation is to keep dating each other. Find activities you enjoy doing together and do them. Take walks. Hold hands. Be genuinely curious about the other person’s day. Rehearse out loud the things you like about the other person to their face. Put yourselves in situations that allow you to experience joy and wonder together. Keep doing the little things.
Work and Volunteerism
Work, whether paid or volunteer, can become a consuming pursuit. If we are making a difference, or get positive reinforcement from our work, we will naturally gravitate toward it, especially if we have allowed our marriage to stagnate. As I have said elsewhere, a job at the church can seem like a very spiritual choice, unless we are using it to avoid dealing with the difficulties in our marriage. If you would rather be at work than home with your family, you really need to look at that, and begin to ask how you can restore joy, mutuality, and intimacy at home.
In most marriages, at some point each spouse will be tempted to stray by someone outside the marriage. It may seem obvious, but the stronger your marriage, the better able you will be to resist temptation. We all need to be seen, known, valued, and loved well. If we do not get any one of these things from our spouse, it wounds us and we will be unconsciously looking for someone to soothe us in that area.
It’s a cliché, a guy at a bar chatting up a single woman, saying, “My wife doesn’t understand me.” The implication is, “I am not getting what I need from my marriage, so I will look for it somewhere else.” This is where our awareness, commitment to our vows, and commitment to God can save us. Also critical is our capacity to take and hold an adult position. An adult gets to say, “No, I will not take this momentary pleasure at the expense of my loved ones.” A wounded young self only knows need.
When faced with temptation, much better to close the door on it immediately, and go home to spend some time pondering what happened and your part in it. Understanding where we are vulnerable is one of our best defenses against temptation. Discussing those vulnerabilities with our spouse (if he or she is a safe person) moves us toward better intimacy.
Sex Before Marriage
Morality has changed a lot in the past 60 years. The warning against sex outside of marriage often sounded something like this, foreshadowing male failure to commit, “Why pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Women who were willing to have sex outside of marriage were often treated like damaged goods.
With the loosening of moral standards and normalization of sexual behavior for both sexes, there are many who feel it’s no big deal. They live together before marriage and are unencumbered by feelings of guilt. God clearly intended sex to be a sacred and delightful form of bonding between two people who have decided to mate for life.
The Bible is clear about sex before marriage not being sanctioned behavior – the word is fornication, or sin, if you prefer. If you don’t believe the Bible or think such things are outdated, then it will be hard to come up with a reason not to live together. There has been research which shows that a higher percentage of marriages break up if the couple lived together before marriage, but there are recent studies that seem to refute this.
Some pastors require fiancés not live together during their engagement. This may seem archaic, but beyond Scriptural considerations, it actually makes sense in view of the two becoming one. The grand ceremony, which makes it official, performed before God, family, and community, is weakened and loses some of its holy luster if the couple has been sleeping together during the engagement.
Sex on the wedding night has historically been the capstone to the entire engagement and ceremony, and is legally referred to as “consummating the marriage” – traditionally if a couple had not slept together, the marriage could be annulled without the necessity of divorce. If we do not enter into marriage lightly, we would do well not to treat the precious, sacred bonding of sex with any less regard and respect. It is not the “be all, end all” of intimate relationship, so expectations need to be managed, but neither is it intended to be a purely physical act.
A host of neurochemicals create strong bonding in the sexual act – if the safety and mutuality of the relationship does not support that bonding, we can become calloused to the extraordinary benefits of that bonding. We need to take callousness seriously, as we cannot selectively harden our hearts. Ultimately, it’s all or nothing.
An ideal marriage between a man and woman consists of two people, one characterized by strength and tenderness, the other by tenderness and strength, each owning his or her own emotional side of the street, being responsible for only their own feelings, each able to set and hold healthy boundaries, having a kind regard and mutuality in expression and meeting of needs.
Because no one makes it through childhood without experiencing some form of trauma, we bring those wounds into the marriage, and move in and out of younger, more selfish, more demanding self states, which disrupt marital harmony. This is why not only premarital counseling, but individual psychotherapy are worth pursuing, so you increase your chances of bringing a better version of yourself into the relationship.
Picnic, courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Crying and laughing,” courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Autumn kiss,” courtesy of ChristYor, pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Lover’s Sunset,” courtesy of Alex Rebosa, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)