Preparing for marriage can be a lot of work. Many hours are spent planning. Although most of the focus during an engagement period is spent preparing for "the day,” I'd like to encourage you to think beyond that.
Recently, my husband, Greg, performed a very special wedding ceremony. He officiated at the marriage of our eldest daughter, Taylor, to her fiancé, Caleb. It was the picture-perfect day! There were heartfelt tears from all who were there as a daddy gave his daughter — and a piece of his heart — away. Watching them dance to Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses” was almost too much for this mother to bear.
We spent almost a year preparing for this special day. Taylor and I shopped for a wedding dress, invitations, a venue, flowers and every other detail we thought would make the day exquisite. However, beyond the wedding-day details, she and Caleb had another assignment. They needed to prepare for something much more important than just the day. They were tasked with preparing for their marriage — their lifetime together. This assignment included meeting with an older couple throughout their entire engagement; post-wedding they would work their way through Ready to Wed.
Throughout our years of writing and teaching together, Greg and I have always shared the philosophy that before couples plan their wedding, they should plan their marriage. Although the wedding day is special, the entire event is over in a few short hours. Then the marriage covenant that was made will be lived out as a result of that special day. It's far too easy to get so engulfed in wedding details that you lose site of the lifetime you will be spending together.
So, how can you plan for your special day and your marriage? What can you do to stay connected to each other and continue to grow in your relationship amid the stress of wedding planning? Here are a few tips:
Have a clear understanding of God's purpose in marriage. Understanding God's purpose is essential prior to getting married. Couples often believe that God's purpose for marriage can be summed up in one of the following statements:
- Marriage is intended to make us happy!
- God's plan is for us to marry our soul mate.
- God wants us to have a best friend.
- Marriage is designed so we can have our sexual needs fulfilled.
- Marriage is intended to make us whole and complete.
We all have different desires for getting married, so this list could go on and on. That's why it's essential we discover God's divine purpose in our marriage. Malachi 2:15 (paraphrased in The Message) clarifies for us, “God, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage.”
Because God made marriage, it seems logical that we should discover what His desire is for marriage. I like Gary Thomas' explanation when he asks, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”
If God desires that we become more like Him (holy) through our marriage, then many couples head into marriage with faulty expectations. Unfortunately those faulty expectations set us up to be disappointed when they don't come to fruition. Don't get me wrong! I don't want to make marriage sound solely like a spiritual discipline. Marriage is wonderful gift from the Lord, but there are days when loving our spouse just may draw us closer to God and work holiness in us as a result. That's why it's important to fully understand the purpose of the vows you are taking as you enter the covenant of marriage.
Spend plenty of time getting to know each other prior to getting engaged. Greg and I are often asked, “How long should we date before we get engaged?” Some studies show that happily married couples take about 25 months from the time they start dating until they are married. But honestly, there isn't a definitive answer. There may not be a set amount of time, but I believe it's essential that you share many experiences together in order to know if this is really the person you desire to spend the rest of your life with.
As you date, use the time together to be on watch for any red flags. It's important to see how your special person handles everyday events. Watch to see how he or she handles your heart during disappointment, conflict or when you are stressed. Don't settle for just watching your loved one put his or her best foot forward.
Get plugged into quality, premarital education or counseling. Many couples are unaware of the benefits of premarital counseling. In his book Empowering Couples, Dr. David H. Olson provides evidence that couples who seek eight to 10 hours of quality premarital education or counseling are 80 percent more likely to stay together. Sadly, Dr. Olson has also found that only about 35 to 40 percent of couples will choose to engage in some form of premarital education.
Talk to pastors or church leaders concerning who they would recommend for counseling or mentoring. Most churches offer a group format for training engaged couples or have designated premarital mentors for engaged couples. If your church doesn't offer a set program, Focus on the Family has a product called Ready to Wed. You can buy it and take it to an older mentor couple and ask them to go through it with you.
Set aside time to just be together and enjoy. Although wedding planning can be fun, make sure you take time as a couple to stay connected. Plan a weekly date night that keeps your relationship a top priority. This will set precedence for prioritizing and valuing your relationship after the wedding. There will be seasons that are chaotic, and it's essential to have laid the groundwork that ensures you will continually invest in your marriage.
Yes, you will have to plan times to discuss the practical details of the wedding day, but during your engagement, take time to have fun and laugh together. Check the stress at the door.
Commit to a lifetime together. I wish Greg and I had been aware of the importance of setting this as a ground rule in our marriage. Unfortunately, in the early days of our marriage when things got hard, we would often throw around the “D” word (divorce) during our conflicts. I will never forget the day that Greg said, “Hey, Erin, I want to make it a rule that we get rid of the word divorce in our vocabulary and decide today that we are in this marriage for a lifetime.” I remember standing in our little apartment and being flooded with a sense of safety and security as a result of knowing that we were both in this for the long haul. This meant that no matter how hard it got, Greg and I were committed to seeking help and support to create a marriage that was vibrant and thriving. Make that commitment to each other today!
Build a community of support. One of the key components of creating a healthy marriage is having the support of those close to you. Make sure that your friends and family are in agreement with the upcoming marriage. If there are concerns, sit down and seek to understand them. Ultimately, you get to decide who you will spend the rest of your life with, but it's helpful to have a strong community of believers standing by you.
As you embark on the journey of marriage, you will experience seasons of joy and mountaintop experiences — you will also experience seasons of trials and valleys. Make sure you are surrounded by those who will cheer you on and support you during both seasons. Many couples have found it helpful to join a young-marrieds small group. If you are longing for a community, begin praying for one.
Although I wish Greg and I would have had some of these tips for consideration before we walked down the aisle, I'm grateful we were able to pass them along to our daughter. Taylor and Caleb did the hard work in preparation for their special day, but more importantly for the days beyond. They acquired the knowledge and skills to help them lay a firm foundation for a healthy marriage. As a mom, it is wonderful to know they chose to do this preparation — giving them the best opportunity to have a healthy marriage.Erin Smalley is a co-author of The Wholehearted Wife and serves as the program manager of marriage ministries at Focus on the Family.
If you or someone you know is planning to marry, check out Focus on the Family's Ready to Wed curriculum, and then prepare for a marriage you'll love!