Marriage Problems, Part 1: Before You Tie the Knot
This blog begins a series tackling common marriage problems. In this post we ask: Is there a way to head off marriage problems before you ever say “I do”?
Marriage is one of the greatest joys two human beings can experience. It can be a lifelong dream of fun, romance, intimacy, joy and (above all else) love.
But it can also be frustrating, trying and downright nightmarish for some. With high divorce rates in countries around the world, it can seem like just a flip of a coin: heads, your marriage works out; tails, your marriage ends in divorce.
This blog series will offer insights and help about common marriage issues that can lead to unhappy marriages and even divorce. This series is for those who are thinking of tying the knot, those who have tied the knot, or those who are neck-deep in challenges and joys. It’s also for those who have a knot that has been tied for many years but is showing signs of fraying.
This series will not only feature our perspectives and, of course, Scripture, but will also include experiences from couples of various ages. We also surveyed several ministers of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, who have decades of experience in marriage counseling.
We have been married for nearly 15 years. After several big transitions—like starting our careers, buying a home, having children and now getting ready for one of our daughters to start school—our courtship and engagement period almost seems like ancient history. But that initial stage is truly foundational.
As a couple’s wedding day approaches, there can be fear as well as excitement. There’s hope for the future as well as doubts. But during this period there can also be some big problems developing that we can be too distracted to notice.
We tend to simplify what marriage is like into an idealized little box based on things we’ve seen on TV, the movies or imagined in our own heads.In our church, it is customary for an engaged couple to seek premarital counseling with a minister before they say “I do.” (Some even counsel before getting engaged.) The benefit of getting formal counseling before marriage is that a lot of the potential problems that can doom a marriage can be explored, discussed and dealt with before the couple even enters into the sacred marriage covenant.
After all, marriage has been around since the creation of human beings (Genesis 2:24), and it is a symbol of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:32). So it makes sense to enter into it seriously with a fair amount of thought, doesn’t it?
Consider some of the red flags that can arise before getting married. None of these red flags should be ignored since they can have long-term effects on the success of a marriage.
1. Lack of transparency (or not really knowing our mate).
Having raw and transparent conversations prior to marriage about personal weaknesses and sins we are struggling with can save us from the “shock and awe” of discovering those issues after the wedding. As challenging as these conversations can be, they are essential to building trust and being transparent with each other. They can help remove some of the tint of the rose-colored glasses we often look through before saying “I do.”
One pastor we surveyed noted that a common challenge for engaged couples is “keeping secret sins from the other, combined with not discussing known concerns one or both have about marriage.”
Another pastor said he usually asks engaged couples: “Are you able to openly communicate your feelings? Do you feel your fiancée/fiancé really understands you?” If the answer to either question is no, it is a red flag.
We asked married couples the question, “What do you wish you had known about marriage, before getting married?” Some of the answers included:
- “I wish I had known he would change once he got me to marry him. I never would have done it.”
- “That it is complicated, and I am so thankful for having a mate with the same values. Life is so much easier when you are both on the same page spiritually and morally.”
- “Whatever foibles you see in the other person will probably remain and may even worsen.”
- “That we did not date a bit longer.”
- “Number 1—don’t ‘have to’ get married. Must marry someone with similar values and motivations.”
Action steps: Have the painful conversations and ask the uncomfortable questions. This takes time while dating, as well as observation.
Here are some questions to ask throughout this period:
- How does your potential spouse act around his or her family and friends?
- Are there things about our past or current struggles that would be deal breakers, which really need to be discussed before getting married?
As Christians, we all strive and want to change for the better, but not being up front about who we really are in the present is robbing the other person of the ability to make an informed decision about marriage. If we are hiding things about ourselves, they will likely come out at some point (Numbers 32:23). It is much better to address those issues before we decide to spend our life with someone rather than having those issues show up later.
2. The Disneyfication of marriage (or being naïve about married life).
When something challenging happens in our marriage, we have a running gag of uttering the phrase, “Is this what you thought married life would be like?” It brings a little levity to the situation, but it also points to a big problem couples can experience. We tend to simplify what marriage is like into an idealized little box based on things we’ve seen on TV, the movies or imagined in our own heads.
One pastor noted that the red flags discovered in premarital counseling can usually be described this way: “A general naivety about what all is involved in marriage.”
Other individuals surveyed mentioned the following along the vein of things they were surprised to learn:
- “It’s a lot harder to learn to communicate effectively than you think it will be.”
- “How hard [it is] to 24/7 put someone else first.”
- “The depth of give [that is required to make a marriage work].”
- “How much emotional maturity, or lack thereof, would affect our marriage.”
- “Dating is the easy part. Marriage is not.”
One of the pastors surveyed mentioned that the most common marriage problems for which counseling is sought stem from “lack of respect toward each other and especially faulty communications. Either they don’t talk to one another, or when they do talk, there are put-downs, and past faults are brought up. Fighting and arguing ensues. Usually emotions run rampant, and the divide snowballs. Lack of respect and poor communication affects everything. It affects finances, child rearing, leisure life, bedroom life, everything.”
Actions steps: Just as we should try to go in with “eyes wide open” about who our spouse is, we have to also go in “eyes wide open” about what marriage is.
Yes, marriage is filled with pleasure and joy. But it is also filled with sacrifice, challenges, the necessity to grow and change, and a steep learning curve in figuring out how to make two separate individuals into “one flesh” (Mark 10:8). There are many things couples can do to get a better grasp of what marriage is like, including:
- Sharing a wide variety of experiences and situations together while dating.
- Going through premarital counseling with a pastor or counselor with years of experience in marriage.
- Talking with married couples who have navigated the waters of marriage for many years. This can help you learn more about what it really means to be faithful to another person “in sickness and in health.”
3. The “star-crossed lovers” issue (or friends and family are not thrilled about the match).
Sometimes one of the biggest challenges for couples is the disapproval of the relationship by others—sometimes for legitimate reasons.
Here are some common responses to this phenomenon:
- “My parents just don’t understand. We will be different from those others.”
- “You don’t know him like I know him. He can actually be really nice in private.”
- “I can marry whoever I want. Why are you trying to control me?”
Though we shouldn’t make our decision about marrying or not marrying someone solely on the opinion of others, if others who love us are expressing concerns, we shouldn’t just ignore or dismiss them outright. It is wise to at least listen to those concerns.
One pastor shared: “Another red flag is when the parents have an issue with the relationship, [because] the parents know their child the best.”
Another pastor mentioned that concerns from parents often result from the couple minimizing or ignoring biblical guidelines. For instance, some of the legitimate concerns others can have are “marrying someone of a different religion, marrying someone who does not take spiritual matters seriously when you do, engaging in premarital sex, etc.”
One respondent to the marriage survey stated the importance and lasting effect of extended family relationships: “Marriage is not just about two people who love one another, but also includes mothers and fathers and grandparents and cousins and sisters and brothers who were there long before your marriage began. You’re really marrying into all of that extended family as well, not just your spouse. So, getting to know many of the family before marriage would be helpful, [since it] also allows you to know your own future spouse all the more. Your future children will one day be part of the continuation of all that family.”
Action steps: Don’t ignore concerns or issues brought up by your closest friends and family members. They should be addressed before you say “I do.” Avoid thinking you’ll be the exception to the rule or bringing up exceptions on the flip side (“Yeah, well, the so-and-sos have an awful marriage, and everyone thought they were a perfect fit!”).
The bottom line
To head off the many problems that can arise within marriage, it is imperative that you know exactly whom you are marrying, the realities of marriage, and if those closest to you are cheering for you or biting their nails in terror—all before ever saying “I do.”
As the next post in this series will address, marriage will still have its fair share of problems even if we make the right moves with these critical first steps. But why not start out strong?