Focus on the Family

Approaching the Wedding Day

by Louis McBurney, M.D.

I heard about an 18-year-old boy who was married in a formal church wedding. For his big day, he was decked out in a rented tuxedo and shoes. All went well until the couple was heading out the door, about to leave the wedding reception. The groom's mother, afraid he would not remember to return the shoes with the tux, yelled across the room, "Don't forget to take your shoes off!"

Yes, it seems at wedding time everybody wants to give you some kind of advice — and not just about the wedding night. In fact, if you're planning to get married, chances are someone has asked you, "Do you really know what you're doing?" Well, I'm not going to ask you that, because I'm already confident you don't. Now, I'm not trying to put you down, but I've counseled enough engaged and married couples to realize you simply can't know all that's involved.

You have no idea of the possibilities for real joy and completeness you might experience in marriage. Just watching a sunset together, walking in the woods or listening to your favorite song will take on new meaning. I'm excited for you as you stand on the threshold of this remarkable journey!

But you also may not understand all the dangers involved:

So, what does it take to build a fulfilling, lasting marriage? How can you avoid the problems that commonly end relationships? And, how do you prepare for that quickly approaching wedding day?


Foundations of a Lifelong Marriage

There are many principles that, if practiced, can help you build a solid marital foundation.

by Louis McBurney, M.D.

There are many principles that, if practiced, can help you build a solid marital foundation. Here are some of those key principles:

Commitment

"Commitment" is not a popular word in our culture. Our society emphasizes individual rights, personal freedom and mobility. The idea of giving these up because of dedication to another person or loyalty to a relationship makes a lot of people feel trapped.

But I don't think you can have it both ways. You can't build a divorce-proof marriage and remain unbending toward your personal rights. That doesn't mean you give up all your freedoms or choices, but it does mean your commitment to the relationship supersedes your individual rights.

Commitment means putting your spouse's needs above your own. Studies show that the best indicator of marital well-being is how well each partner feels his or her needs are being met. I've found that when I focus only on my needs and forget about my wife, I tend to get irritated and disappointed. I may even begin to imagine how much better off I'd be with a different wife. On the other hand, I feel satisfied when I focus on my wife's needs and how I can creatively meet them.

Communication

Someone once said, "Communication is to love as blood is to the body." Take the blood out of the body and it dies. Take communication away and a relationship dies.

The kind of communication I'm talking about isn't just exchanging information; it's sharing feelings, hurts, joys. That means getting below the surface and examining the hows and whys of daily life.

But it's not easy since men and women are different in this area. Research makes it clear that women have greater linguistic abilities than men. Simply stated, she talks more than he. As an adult, she typically expresses her feelings and thoughts far better than her husband and is often irritated by his reluctance to talk. Every knowledgeable marriage counselor will tell you that the inability or unwillingness of husbands to reveal their feelings is one of the chief complaints of wives.

Like conflict resolution, communication is a learned skill — and it's often hard work. Time must be reserved for meaningful conversations. Taking walks and going out for dinner are conversation inducers that keep love alive.

Patience

We live in an instant world — fast foods, cash machines, computer access to information, direct dial communication all over the world.

The problem is we can't heat up a marriage in the microwave. Relationships just don't work that way. Marriage, especially takes time and care to become really beautiful. That means learning patience.

When you put two people — any two — in the same house, you're going to have irritations and annoyances. There are times when I think God designed marriage just to teach me patience. My wife doesn't always respond like I wish she would. And she still expects me to pick up my dirty clothes, be on time for dinner and remember her birthday You'd think that after 30 years of marriage, she would have given up on me. In the meantime I'm considering humoring her a little. Recently I even put my underwear on the floor next to the laundry hamper. I wonder how she's doing with patience.

Beyond the day-to-day quirks and foibles you must accept, patience is needed for the long haul. It may take years for you to develop the kind of relationship that's satisfying to both of you. A lot of people don't have the patience to wait around for things to evolve. But if you're willing to sit tight and hang in there, your marriage can be fantastic.

Strong Beliefs

We're more than a bundle of feelings and physical sensations. There is an inner core of our being, an eternal part of who we are, that represents the deepest, most permanent aspect of marriage.

Research shows that couples with strong religious beliefs are far more likely to stay together than those without them. It's the shared morals and values that hold a husband and wife together. This solid foundation is a fortress against the storms of life.

For my wife and me, our Christian faith has been the bedrock of our relationship. In our 30-plus years of marriage, we have consistently turned to the Bible for direction, guidance and comfort.


Avoiding Threats to Your Relationship

There are a lot of problems that can cripple or fatally wound a marriage, whether it's just starting or yet to come.

by Louis McBurney, M.D.

There are a lot of problems that can cripple or fatally wound a marriage, whether it's just starting or yet to come. Here are some of the common ones:

Relying on Feelings Rather Than Commitment

Romantic feelings come and go, and many spouses get nervous when the flame dies down. They begin to doubt their relationship and wonder if they married the wrong person. A lot of those misgivings are fueled by the media, which says any successful relationship must run on high-octane passion.

You're setting yourself up for disappointment if you think marriage will be one long, steamy love scene. Sometimes it's pure commitment and persistence that keeps a marriage together. In all marriages there are times when the tingle of romance fades. At those times, commitment is the force that pulls you through.

Being Selfish Rather Than Serving

In today's world, there are a lot more takers than givers. When two givers do get together, their marriage is usually fantastic. When a giver and a taker marry it's usually lopsided, out of whack and full of trouble. And the marriage of two takers can crash and burn within a matter of months.

Selfishness will damage a marriage, but serving will solidify it.

Letting Your Eyes and Heart Wander

There's an old song that said, "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends loose for the tie that binds. Because you're mine, I walk the line." You know that's an old song, since the idea of loyalty doesn't crop up in lyrics much anymore.

I've been around long enough to see how subtly the line between "friends" and "lovers" can be blurred. What begins as a pleasant friendship glides silently across the line. The only way to really avoid those boundary violations is to watch for the early warning signs.

If you begin to notice that someone lights up your life a little too much, back off! If you find yourself looking forward to the next time you can be together, cancel it.

Allowing Marital Drift

In geography class you may have learned about continental drift, where huge "plates" of earth move slowly and imperceptibly in opposite directions.

The same thing happens in a lot of marriages. The shift is often so subtle that one day the partners wake up and say "I don't really know who you are anymore."

How can you keep from drifting? By talking regularly setting mutual goals for your marriage, planning the future together, playing together, cultivating shared interests and fanning the flame of romance.

Giving in to Sexual Infidelity

The media have done us a great disservice by making a big joke out of affairs and unfaithfulness. By watching TV and movies, you'd think that everybody is hopping from bed to bed — and it's no big deal. The truth is, however, that sexual infidelity is one of the primary causes of divorce. Even those marriages that do survive infidelity are greatly damaged.

Here are some things you can do to stay out of that trap:

Listening to the Marriage Cynics

These days, a lot of people put down marriage, like the comedian who said, "I never knew what real happiness was until I got married – but by then it was too late." Or the talk show host who quipped, "Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution yet." In fact, you've probably had friends say "Why would you want to get married?"

Don't listen to the humbuggers. Good marriages bring fun and laughter and meaning to life. Even after three decades, my wife and I still have a blast being together. Our love is like a thousand violins playing Tchaikovsky (for you it might be electric guitars or synthesizers). It's the thrill of shared experiences, building memories and facing new challenges. And it's so much more!

Still, I can't emphasize this enough – marriage takes hard work and commitment. With divorce so rampant today, many young couples enter marriage with one eye on the exit door.

But it takes an unwavering commitment – not giving yourself an out – to keep a marriage healthy and thriving. It's choosing to be kind and giving and courteous and affectionate and affirming. That choice is the glue that will hold you together. Even when the adrenaline rush is gone and the music fades, the love will live on.


Marriage Preparation 101

Marriage only intensifies existing problems. That's why it's best to identify potential problems ahead of time.

by Louis McBurney, M.D.

The best thing you can do is anticipate problems and try to solve them before they occur. You do this when you go to your doctor for a physical exam. And you do this when you take your car in for a tune-up. So why not try a little marital troubleshooting?

Unfortunately, many young people think marriage will solve problems, as if saying "I do" is a magical cure. But the opposite is true. Marriage only intensifies existing problems. That's why it's best to identify potential problems ahead of time.

Here are some ways to do that:

Thoroughly Discuss Your Expectations

Each partner carries into marriage a huge bag full of expectations. Men and women assume things will transpire just the way they imagine: "We will visit my family each Christmas," "My husband will be home every evening," "My wife will have a hot, four-course meal on the table when I come home."

Expectations are usually formed by what you observed in your home while growing up. But your spouse's family may have been much different than your own. Just because your dad helped wash the dishes doesn't mean your husband will want to. If your mother kept an immaculate house, don't assume your wife will be as committed to cleanliness.

If your expectations differ, conflict will result. So the more you discuss your expectations ahead of time, the better your chances of blending together happily.

Learn to Resolve Conflicts

Many young couples believe a happy marriage has no conflict. Not so! Disagreements, hassles and conflicts are inevitable – they will happen. Happily married couples are those who have learned to resolve conflict through communication, negotiation, compromise and sacrifice.

Conflicts must be resolved for a relationship to survive. Burying your hurts and struggles is like carrying around a sack of rocks. Every new hurt you stuff becomes another rock you drag around. Eventually, the load becomes too heavy and the relationship falls apart.

Resolving conflict is hard work. I'm the kind of person who's comfortable when everybody's happy. For me, it's only the commitment to my mate that keeps me working. I've learned that for the sake of my marriage I have to face conflicts, not run from them.

Go See Your Doctor

Most states require a premarital blood test, which detects certain diseases. Even if it's not required, it's wise to get a check-up and tests if you or your spouse-to-be have been sexually active. If a sexually transmitted disease does exist, your doctor will explain the ramifications and treatment.

Your physician can also discuss birth control options if you plan to delay having children.

Get Premarital Counseling

A lot of people are afraid of counseling, as if it means they're sick or have something terribly wrong. But many people seek a counselor to help avoid problems. And that's especially important for marriage. A trained expert can point out problems that may arise and guide you toward resolutions.


The Truth About Your Spouse - Current or Future

Whether you are searching, dating, engaged, or newly married, here is some truth about your spouse.

by Laurel Robinson

This month marks three years of marriage for me. I now know much more about my husband than I thought I could when we first met. We have settled into comfortable patterns of communicating. I know which buttons to push if I want to start a fight. I know how to encourage him, and a word or touch from him can change the course of my day.

Part of me looks forward to, say, our thirtieth anniversary, when we will have been through much more together and can reflect on lessons learned, challenges overcome, children raised; when we can offer our experiences to couples starting out together.

For now, I offer three points to consider about marriage. Whether you are searching, dating, engaged, or newly married, here is some truth about your spouse (current or future).

#1: Your Spouse is Human

In Song of Solomon, we see two starry-eyed lovers, thinking: No love is like ours; no one understands the depths of our love for one another. I remember that feeling. I was blissfully confident that any trial which dared to cross the path of my fiancé and me would be obliterated by our good sense, good communication and earnest devotion to one another. Such positive energy carried us far. But sometimes you need more.

Your beloved is only human. Sooner or later, you'll have to allow him or her that much. Being human means that your spouse will get sick, possibly at a time least convenient for you. He or she will honestly forget things, even things that you personally felt were too important to forget. You will need to forgive – even when it is not a matter of sin, but merely inconvenience or bad timing.

One of my first marital disappointments came from my expectation that we would retire together each night. As it turned out, my husband liked to work on his computer well after my bedtime. If he were to go to bed "early" with me, he would miss out on a productive, creative part of his day. If I tried to stay up "late" with him, I found it impossible to get up for work the next morning. At first I felt this as a loss. I had to surrender my expectation of sharing those dozing-off moments, and focus on our waking hours together. More importantly, I had to recognize that my spouse's sleep patterns were not "wrong," just different from mine.

I asked another couple, also married three years, what advice they would give to the engaged. They said, "learn how to fight!" You will disagree, but you can do so in a way that preserves love and respect. According to smartmarriages.com, researchers who have studied married couples over many years found that all couples have the same number of disagreements, over the same issues – finances, children, sex, housework, in-laws and time – but the factor that distinguishes successful couples is how they fight. Surrendering certain expectations and offering grace in light of differences go a long way in keeping love and respect alive.

#2: Your Spouse is a Sinner (And So Are You)

Everyone is a sinner. Some people don't offend our sensibilities as readily as others. When you date and marry someone, his or her sinful nature is not the first thing on your mind. You think of all the good qualities about your beloved, and even put your hope in the idea that those good qualities will do you good, make you better and solve some of your problems. As you grow in intimacy or simply share in the mundane, you will encounter the evil that lurks in the human heart.

One friend remarked that being married to the man of her dreams opened her eyes to how sinful her own heart was. If she couldn't love this great guy unconditionally, selflessly, could she love anyone? A fundamental reality in life is that we are all sinful; we cannot love perfectly in our own strength. This leads us to the glorious truth of Christ's atoning death, which is the only redemption acceptable to a righteous God. He took our sin, and in return He offers His righteousness. When God gives you His Spirit, love becomes possible. It's very good news. This side of heaven, we are still prone to sin – but in marriage, we have the opportunity to minister grace to one another in the deepest ways – and to receive grace.

Another observation, from older married Christian women, is that God allowed their husbands to "fail" them in order to graciously prevent them from idolizing their husbands. This is true for men, as well: a husband may look to his wife for validation or emotional support, but if he sometimes gets selfishness or silence instead, he may actually come closer to God, who is the real source of strength and purpose. Each time your spouse falls short, it can be your blessed reminder that God is the only perfect Lover. When God "fills your cup," you will be closer to your spouse, able to love without demands or prerequisites.

#3: You and Your Spouse Are One Flesh

Genesis 2:24 says: "for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." There are ways in which the "one flesh" reality is a mystery, and I would do no justice to it if I tried to put it into words. It's something that occurs when you first come together, and it only deepens with time. It's part of why I look forward to my 30th wedding anniversary. It's about subordinating all other relationships, even your parents, and making their needs and wishes secondary to your spouse's. (Of course, you must obey Scripture above your spouse – if they happen to contradict.)

At our wedding, Matthew 19:6 was pronounced, where Christ says: "So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Recently that verse echoed in my head, followed by the phrase: "this means you!" I had always envisioned some stranger trying to interrupt marriages, but separation tends to happen more subtly – it could even start with me. Satan would love to entice me to blame my spouse for any and all conflict, to wish away the foundation we have built together, and to harden my heart against the beautiful intimacy that God has ordained. No matter how I feel on a given day, it is essential to remember that God has made us one flesh – a Truth bigger than us – and to open myself to the wonderful work He can do in our lives.

In his book Devotions for a Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas wrote, "People who flit from relationships to relationship as their infatuations lead them aren't really happy; they're desperate – and they'll never find what they're looking for as they allow their desperation to bury potential life partners. There is no perfect "soul mate." … There will be only sinner after sinner after sinner. But when you learn to accept and love one particular sinner over several decades, you can slowly build an alliance and intimacy that nothing else can match."


Your City or Mine?

What you decide will change at least one of your lives in dramatic way. But as important is how you decide.

by Candice Z. Watters

My fiancé and I have run into some trouble since getting engaged. Our future together will require at least one of us to totally uproot and start over. Obviously this has huge implications for our careers, our church home, our friendships and more.

The problem is that we can't talk about it without fighting. It feels like no matter what we decide, one of us will be the winner and the other, the loser. This seems like a no-win situation, and not a great way to start our marriage. Please help.

Engagement is a wonderful and trying time. So much pressure to get things done, relatives with lots of opinions about the ceremony (What? You mean your punch won't be the same color as the bridesmaids' dresses?) and lots of emotions and hormones. If you're being pure, you're probably sexually frustrated. If you're falling, you're feeling guilty, or should be. That's why I like short engagements!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to minimize the importance of these decisions. But understanding the context you're trying to make them in is helpful. At this point of major stress, laughter is good medicine. And perspective is essential. These are, after all, good problems. Struggling over which city to spend your newlywed years in is a dilemma lots of my single friends would love to be in.

That's not to minimize the nature of your fight. It does sound though like an opportunity to address how you handle conflict, how well you work as a couple on the same team and how open you are (both of you) to input from godly mentors and God's will. What you decide will change at least one of your lives in dramatic way. But as important is how you decide. Whatever challenges you face while dating and engaged are foreshadowing of, and practice for, marriage. Have you prayed about all this together? Consider praying together with a mature married couple you both respect. God can work wonders! Don't lose hope. He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!

Here are some further things to consider. The first is the obvious need for him, once you're married, to obey the biblical mandate to "leave and cleave." Of course that assumes that you will submit to his leadership and be willing to "fit in with him." These are concepts in healthy tension.

Also, where is your family? If they are where you are currently, there's something to be said for asking him if he's willing to relocate so you will have the benefit of help when the babies arrive. There is cultural support for this (as well as there is biblical support for you moving to be near his family). Again, ideas in tension.

But these ideas are based on principles that are interdependent.

Consider love and respect. Are you being respectful in how you're conveying your wishes, desires and needs? Is he being loving? (see Ephesians 5). Is he saying, "My hometown! Take it or leave it"? Or is he trying to shepherd you toward his position?

If the decision is made by either of you "winning" this debate, it will remain an open wound in your marriage that may cause damage later on. When Steve and I were making decisions about where to live and how to merge our lives after marriage, we decided to put away the "my way vs. your way" paradigm and chose to work on coming up with "our way." This wasn't about his traditions, desires, and plans versus mine. It was about deciding what from each of our pasts and presents was worth holding onto and making our own.

If you end up having a lot of children, and you're planning to stay home with them, living somewhere for the purpose of preserving your career option seems frivolous. By the time all those kids are grown and on their own, you may be wanting to do something completely different. You can't know the future now. But if you can't conceive, living somewhere where you have to start over professionally seems frustrating. Again, this is not something you can know right now. Ultimately you must ask, is your fiancé asking you to move because that's where he believes God wants you to live? Or because it's where his family wants you? This is a key distinction.

And beyond that, regardless of what his family wants, is he following God? Are you? And in light of all this, can you work toward answers together and discuss them without fighting?

Again, how you handle these matters may be even more than what you decide. It will set the pattern for all future decisions, big and small. No matter what course your marriage takes, you can count on a lifetime of decision-making together.


Tips for Planning the Wedding Day

A few things to keep in mind when planning the biggest day of your life.

by Carol Heffernan

Planning my wedding was one of the most trying and wonderful and exhausting and fulfilling experiences of my life. From choosing a date and time to compiling the guest list to finding the dress, the details quickly became overwhelming. While my fiancé and I enjoyed the anticipation leading up to the big day, stress and worry clouded some of our pre-marital bliss.

In the end, our wedding and reception went off without a hitch, but there were definitely some things I wish I had known before organizing the biggest party of my life. Here are a few suggestions I picked up along the way that may help you through the process:


Wedding Day Second Thoughts

At least one of the purposes of your engagement season is to make sure you've made the right decision.

by John Thomas

I am engaged and the wedding date is in only three months. I share a ton of mutual interests with my fiancé. We are both committed and growing Christians. We pray together. We are doing some pre-marital discussions with a mentoring couple. I have spent enough time with her to know that she is far from perfect and so am I.

The problem is, I just can't get a constant feeling of peace. I find myself constantly evaluating her and wondering if she is really putting her heart into this relationship. I am afraid she just wants to get married. I feel so lost because I love her deeply, and I don't want to let go, but I don't want to be stuck if God has a better plan. What do I do?

For starters, I don't know how much of this you've shared with your fiancé, your mentoring couple, your pastor or your parents, but you need to tell somebody who is close to the situation what your concerns are. If you're seriously questioning whether to call off the engagement, you need to share your thoughts with the appropriate people.

At least one of the purposes of your engagement season is to do exactly what you're doing — make sure you've made the right decision. That means that even though it is obviously your intention to marry, it's entirely appropriate to postpone, or even call off, a wedding if necessary. Yes, it can be upsetting and disruptive and all of those things, but not nearly so as divorce.

But do your concerns rise to that level? Let's see.

You wonder if she is really "putting her heart" into the relationship. That could mean dozens of things, some small and some not so small. If by "not putting her heart into it" you mean she's apathetic about you and the marriage, and that seems fairly obvious to not only you but also others, then that is indeed a problem. If, on the other hand, it means she's just not text messaging you as often as you are her, then that's quite another issue.

For example, that she might be indifferent, say, about certain details of the wedding ceremony or who gives a speech at the reception, is likely not apathy about you or the relationship. It probably means she just really doesn't have a strong opinion about it either way. What is of much greater interest to me is whether she is indifferent about the level of emotional intimacy between the two of you. If there is a growing emotional distance, rather than closeness, and that's what you mean by "not putting her heart into it," then yes, that is a problem.

Now, how can you gauge "emotional intimacy"? Well, it's more than having some common interests. It's great that you and your fiancé have so much in common, that you're both pursuing Christ and that you pray together. But I could say the same thing about me and the guys in my men's Bible study. What should make the two of you different from me and the guys is that you have a vision for growing old together, spending a lifetime becoming one, and leaving a legacy of sacrificial love to your children and grandchildren.

When we were engaged, one of the ways I knew my wife was really in it for the long haul was that we spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about the future. Not just the next couple of years, but the next 50 years, and not just about careers and castles, but how we hoped to model to those around us a marriage that shone the light and love of Christ, especially as it played out in our love for one another.

We loved watching her grandparents walking hand-in-hand because it gave us a vision for the legacy we hoped to leave for our children and grandchildren. We knew that what we were getting ourselves into was much, much bigger than our own happiness. It was about bringing glory to the One who brought us together, and cheering each other on to run and finish the race as best we could. My wife wanted that, and she wanted it with me. I know, because we talked about it.

And that's what you need to find out. A) Does your fiancé want that kind of marriage legacy? and, B) Does she want it with you? If her answer is an energetic "yes!" and "yes!" then you're in good shape; everything else is details. Yes, those details are important, and you'll spend your entire marriage working on them, but without first having the proper foundation, the details really don't matter much.

Here's a little article I wrote about my wife's grandparents and the legacy they left for us. Maybe you can think of a creative way to use it to help spark some dreaming between you and your fiancé. If she's energized by that dreaming, then I'm guessing "her heart is in it." If she flatlines, that's a red flag you need to explore — quickly.


Prep for the Wedding Night

A little preparation before the wedding will go a long way.

by Candice Z. Watters

How can my fiancé and I prepare for our wedding night in a God-honoring way? We are both virgins, and I can honestly say that our deepest desire is to please and honor God with our relationship. We also want our relationship to be an example to others.

What is a responsible way to be preparing for the time when we can become one? My fiancé says that, closer to the date of our marriage, we should talk about what our expectations are so that we don't come together with very different ideas of what our wedding night would be like. (Whether or not it's necessary to consummate the marriage the first night, etc.) At this point, I don't really know what my expectations are or how much I should be trying to define them!

I don't have a very clear idea of how we can best talk and think about our wedding night without exploring things we shouldn't.

It's wise to be aware of the need to discuss expectations about your honeymoon, and specifically sex, with your fiancé, as well as to wonder about the timing and content of those conversations prior to the wedding. But don't have the conversation too soon or you'll only create opportunities for temptation. It's amazing how erotic just talking about sex can be.

I would also recommend not having the conversation alone. At a minimum you should talk with your fiancé about expectations during your premarital counseling. That's a common topic covered by most pastors before the wedding. If what you're able to cover with your pastor seems inadequate, you could talk separately with a same-sex mentor about specific questions or concerns you have.

A candid conversation with an older married woman you trust would be helpful a few weeks before the wedding. You really don't need much time to prepare. And your fiancé will need even less. He should have a similar talk with a man he trusts (ideally you would be talking to married spouses) a few days before the wedding. Any sooner than that will just leave him tempted to fantasize.

I recommend finding a mentor couple now, if you don't already have one. There are lots of things to talk through before the wedding beyond expectations for sex; doing so with a husband and wife who have a good marriage is invaluable.

Be careful not to overdo it. A little preparation before the wedding will go a long way. You can anticipate a honeymoon full of the time and privacy you'll need to explore, discover and practice — that's what it's for, or used to be, when bride and groom were virgins. And when the honeymoon's over, you'll have a lifetime together to learn about sex and get good at having it.

Share expectations about when you'll consummate, but try not to have them about specifics. It takes time to learn what delights the other. I know many couples find they're too tired after a long day of wedding activities to attempt first-time intimacy the minute they close the door of their honeymoon suite. There's no rule that says you have to. Maybe you'll get to your room early enough that you could take a nap first (that's what we did). If not, and you're exhausted, wait till the next day when you can be fresh and rested for each other. (I have heard of brides too afraid to ever consummate on the honeymoon. I would not personally recommend putting it off till after the honeymoon, nor, I suspect, would your fiancé like that idea! Hopefully you won't either.) When bride and groom both have an attitude of service, sweet and passionate intimacy is the result.

One of the best words of advice we received came a week after the wedding. In the card attached to one gift, our newlywed friends wrote, "relax and enjoy the process. It took us a few months to figure things out." That advice, even "that long" after the wedding, was a relief. It was OK that we were still "figuring things out." No pressure to perform.

A few months before the wedding, I read The Art of Natural Family Planning and then gave my marked up copy to Steve to read. Whether you decide to follow that method or opt for birth control, the information in that book about fertility and how a woman's body works is invaluable for both husband and wife. The book provided lots of occasions for us to talk about what in the book we agreed with, what we disagreed with and our philosophy of marriage and sex and family in the context of a biblical worldview.

For answers to our more practical, physiological questions, we read The Gift of Sex, by Drs. Clifford and Joyce Penner, when we got back from our honeymoon. Also helpful was Intimate Issues by Linda Dillow and Loraine Pintus.

Before my wedding, I asked my mentor if she would recommend any books to "prepare." She said, "We didn't want to read any books, we wanted to write our own." That was the permission I needed to put the books down when they got overwhelming.

But I also needed permission to pick them back up again. After 25 years of working so hard to not think sexual thoughts, it felt a little sneaky to be reading such explicit information. That's why we stuck with books written by respected Christian authors. Our culture has much to say in praise of sex done wrong, but when it comes to doing it right, it's virtually silent.

The more you save for the honeymoon, the better it will be! Have fun, enjoy one another and this wonderful gift. And relax, most of what you need to know can be learned together after the wedding.


Taking the First Year Off

Cutting back during the first year should serve as a unique contribution to the happiness of your spouse.

by Jonathan Dodson

Not Going to War

My wife and I spent the first year off of war. Yeah, you read that right, war. No, I'm not talking about marital conflict. I'm talking about taking up arms and defending your country. That's what Israelite men did their first year of marriage; they didn't go to war:

"If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married" (Deut. 24:5)

In light of this text and others (Gen. 2:24; Ecc. 4:6; Eph. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:7), I recommend following the principle of taking a "year off" of various vocational and social responsibilities in order to pursue the happiness of your spouse. Lodged between verses dealing with divorce and finances, Deut. 24:5 offers a principle that, if applied, can help establish good, spouse-honoring patterns for marriage.

It should go without saying that the command in Deut. 24:5 is no longer binding for new covenant Christians; we are neither under the Law, nor obligated for war. However, the wisdom of a husband taking a year off of what would otherwise occupy most of his time, in order to devote it to the happiness of his wife, seems undeniable.

No doubt wives will readily agree.

This command was issued in a culture where women worked at home and husbands worked outside the home and for the nation. It was the husband who went to war and was regularly exposed to "extra duties." Today, it's sometimes the other way around. Whether it's the husband, wife or both who spend a lot of time away from the home and are prone to take on additional responsibilities, the wisdom of Deut. 24:5 is still relevant.

Before explaining how we might apply such a radical principle, a word of warning. I'm leery whenever I recommend this principle because there's a tendency to focus on the first half of the verse without corresponding emphasis on the second half — all year off and no happiness for the spouse.

Alternatively, couples can be easily lured into isolation from others and society. If we aren't careful, this principle can become a license for selfishness or be legalized into a mark of the "super-spiritual." Only by looking to Christ for our significance can we bypass fleeting happiness and passing praise.

A Happy Spouse

Cutting back during the first year shouldn't be reduced to legalism or license, but should serve as a unique contribution to the happiness of your spouse. In Deuteronomy, the word for happiness means "to cause to rejoice or to gladden." The idea is that we commit ourselves to the deepest joy of our spouse. This might include such things as making a special effort to give gifts, go on dates, enjoy romantic nights and take regular afternoon walks.

We cannot, however, satisfy our spouse's eternal capacity for joy. Only God can do that. Therefore, the ultimate way to pursue the joy of your spouse should be through encouraging him or her to know and enjoy all that God is for them in Jesus. This can be fostered through conversation, prayer, shared reading and reflection, joint worship and ministry, and spiritual retreat.

Bear in mind that these kinds of practices will differ in frequency and depth depending on the couple. Don't set the bar too high for spiritual intimacy the first year; you're just getting started.

Pursuing your spouse's greatest joy will also include silent sacrifice, putting their needs before your own. Paying for a plane ticket to let your wife go home to see her family or giving your husband a weekend to go to a conference with the guys are ways of serving one another by inconveniencing yourself.

My Year Off

So how did my wife and I put this principle into practice? I applied the war/duty category to the most demanding areas of my life — work, school and ministry. For others it may be career-related responsibilities or social commitments. Remember, the reason for taking time off is to focus on the happiness of your spouse, so it makes sense to cut out the things that would draw you away from intentionally seeking your spouse's happiness.

I took a job that wasn't very demanding, for example, requiring only 40 hours a week. I didn't travel much. As for hobbies and church related activities, I chose to spend less time reading and in ministry. Sure, we still read and ministered, but we often chose to do so with one another. We were both discipling others, for example, but did so together. Our disciples would come over to the house at the same time, but met in different rooms. This freed up more time in the day for one another.

We were careful not to over-commit ourselves to things that would distract us from developing our relationship during that first year. As a result, I didn't focus on seminars or apply to seminaries. I backed away from some ministry duties and encouraged others to take on those responsibilities. All in all we tried to spend a lot of time together.

The Blessed Inefficiencies of Love

In addition to making time to intentionally know and enjoy your spouse, there are some additional benefits to embracing the "year off" principle. Suspending a year of extra responsibilities can serve as a helpful corrective to our culture's spiritually and maritally corrosive orientation to time.

Time isn't money and efficiency isn't the highest virtue — love is — and love can be very inefficient. A few weeks ago we got a babysitter and took an entire weekend to ourselves. This weekend occurred just before I left for an overseas trip on Sunday night. I returned on Friday to preach my first Easter sermon. Over the next two weeks I had to finalize a master's thesis, fly to Texas for an interview, defend my thesis and prepare another sermon. Oh, and there was my other part-time job.

I could have really used that weekend away to work on my thesis or sermon. From a productive standpoint it was a pretty inefficient weekend. But efficiency isn't my highest virtue. Well, at least I strive for it not to be.

In choosing to take that time off, my wife and I had one of the most intimate, fun, and insightful times we've had in a while. By taking a step back from vocational and social responsibilities at work, church, and/or school, we were able to spend more time knowing and loving one another. In turn, that led to a greater relational intimacy and understanding, which fueled our marriage for the future.

Looking back, Robie and I are extremely glad I didn't go to war. Although we could have parceled things out better, we had a blast. From Saturday breakfasts to awkward devotional times, it was a wonderfully inefficient time. One that was, from a Kingdom perspective, a very beneficial and love-laden year.


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