So you’re thinking about getting married…
Things to consider before you make the biggest commitment of your life.
So you're thinking about gettting married?
A wonderful younger friend wrote to me last week, asking for my advice and thoughts about her plans to marry.
I know she's mature, honest and wise. Her boyfriend sounds equally godly and wonderful. They like each other very much. They are good friends, and they are both committed Christians with similar attitudes to service and ministry.
So far, so good. Everything looks great. They're on the same page with their faith, with their intentions, with their abilities and with their direction in life. Most sensible people would consider those the most important things in choosing a marriage partner.
It's not that simple
But quite frankly, amongst the sane, mature Christian people I've met, most couples don't have big issues with any of those things once they marry. It's rare for someone to leave the faith (although it happens) and it's not hugely common for two people to realise that actually they now want different things from when they were 25.
The 'life direction' issues are not the things that I've seen cause major grief in marriages. From my experience, and from observing friends over the years, it's the deep-rooted emotional habits and family systems that cause the most problems in marriages.
Most people I know with marriage problems started off absolutely fine. They were Christian, sincere, sensible, mature, considering, and considerate of each other. It's not that they made mistakes in who they chose, or what they thought, or how they acted. It's just that life is hard and people are complicated and there's a lot more involved than we think at first.
Let me give an example of what I mean. This story is made up, but it could easily be true!
Tim and Susanne
Tim is from an Anglo-Saxon family where emotions were not considered important. He was frowned on if he showed too much pain or joy. He grew up unable and even unwilling to express his deepest feelings. He married Susanne, from a mediterranean background, where everything her family said was overstatement. Extreme emotions ruled the family. Everything was either complete crisis or absolute ecstasy.
Both Tim and Susanne have similar life directions and goals. That has never been their issue. What drives Susanne crazy, five years later, is that Tim doesn't seem to feel anything to the extent that she thinks he should. He'll hardly express an opinion. And the more intensely she feels, the more he seems to withdraw from her. She can't get him to connect to her so that she feels treasured or loved.
Tim, on the other hand, feels at a loss when Susanne makes a fuss out of everything. He tries to stay more balanced and neutral to even her out, and can't understand why she seems to need so much from him all the time.
If Tim and Susanne can't recognise their different emotional habits which stem from their different family systems, they'll eventually become more and more disconnected from each other. Neither of them believes in divorce so they probably won't split up but they may end up in a marriage where they live parallel to each other, each feeling disappointed in the other and in themselves.
What should I do?
My advice to my younger friend is to sit down with her fiance and talk about things that don't often get an airing.
Things like: how they deal with anger, how they solve problems, whether they walk away from things that are too hard, what they escape to when they are overwhelmed, how they handle deep feelings and intimacy, the expectations they have of themselves, the expectations they have of others, any perfectionism, tendency to depression or OCD that they may have.
Things like: their attitude to sex and intimacy, their beliefs about what they deserve (or not) in a relationship, the way they try to make other people love them, levels of jealousy, what they believe about their family, their introversion, extroversion, neatness, messiness, ability to compromise.
Things like: whose career is more important? Who's going to do which chores? Do I expect you to see what needs to be done and just do it? Or do I have to ask you? Who wins and who gives in? What happens when we have children? How many children do we want? What will we do if one of us gets depression? Where does each of us get our sense of worth from?
Things like: what are my secret fears about this person? What are the flaws that I've seen, that I'm trying to ignore because I'm so in love with them and I don't want to admit to it. What are the things that I don't ever want to admit to the other person? If he/she found out about X, which makes me really vulnerable, what would I do? What do I fear about marriage? What do I fear about not marrying? What do I fear about this person?
What if we're both flawed?
Of course, no one is perfect. That's not the point here. The point is to find a person who is aware of their own flaws and habits, and who is willing to recognise them and to work on them. And the point is to be the person who can do that and who wants to do that for the sake of the other.
There will be no couple in the world who doesn't have clashes because of old emotional habits. There will be no couple in the world whose emotional family systems don't bring up issues for them. The challenge is for both people to be vulnerable and willing enough to talk about them, to bring them to light, and to find a way to change enough to get past them.
My specific advice to my friend and her fiance were:
First: to each see a counsellor or mentor who can help them identify any issues in their family systems, in their relating habits and in their anger and problem management.
Second: spend a month apart, without any communication. It will give them more perspective on themselves and the other person. This approach may not be right for everyone.
Third: have some serious talks about each other's families, which will start the process of 'leaving' their families, and becoming a new family, if they do marry.