We’ve all had them in our office. A young couple sitting there gazing longingly at each other while announcing to you their intention to get married. The sooner the better! Maybe even Sunday afternoon, week after next.You smile and respond with an announcement of your own. You are happy for them and yet they need what you require of everybody else: nobody gets married around here without a series of premarital counseling sessions.
Indeed, the greatest impact a pastor can make on the establishment of a new family is in counseling prior to the wedding. I’ve found the following eight issues especially significant for prospective marriage partners. Personally, I schedule eight one-hour sessions so that each topic can be fully explored. It is more important for me to lead the couple to discuss these issues openly together, than it is for me to lecture them on the topic’s importance.
These eight issues, with the exception of the first, are not ranked in any order of importance. Unresolved, each is a major factor in the destruction of homes. Since my objective is to establish marriages that can last forever—and remain happy for that length of time—I focus on each issue as a potential area of conflict and seek creative ways to resolve the challenges which will arise.
Should a couple refuse to participate in such a preparation for marriage process, I simply will refuse to conduct their wedding. Further, if it becomes clear that the partners have little chance of harmony, I will decline to officiate even if we have shared the preparation process. Because of distance or other issues, I have conducted marriages where the preparation process was led by a trusted colleague, but I really prefer to lead this process myself.
Here now are my eight subjects for premarital counseling:
Spiritual life: Do the prospective marriage partners have a unity of faith? More importantly, do they have a basic uniformity of practice? For example, if one partner is devout and engaged in their religious experience and the other is casual and distant from spiritual activities, conflicts will inevitably arise. Issues such as membership, church attendance, family worship, personal devotions, and service ministries should be explored.
Extended family: Other family members who impact the new home include in-laws (or as one prospective bride described her groom’s parents, “outlaws”), children, and, increasingly, stepchildren and ex-spouses. I encourage marriage partners to develop a life together prior to rushing into parenthood. In addition to basic agreement regarding when and how many children to bear, prospective partners should consider wider influences on their home from colleagues, bosses, and confidants. For example, are there career expectations for one partner which will negatively impact parenting time or skills. Has the couple followed the biblical counsel and “left” their father and mother? What support or lack of support will they receive from their in-laws? Who is allowed into the family circle as a trusted confidant? How will conflicts in these areas be resolved?
Financial realities: What impact on a marriage will occur from conflicting views of money? Is there unity of practice on stewardship? Does one partner see money as a control mechanism? “I have lots of money; that means I have control.” Others may think money gives them power, freedom, and independence. “If I make enough money I won’t need anyone else. If this marriage doesn’t work, I’lI still be fine.” When couples discover how each other thinks about money, they can begin to work through their differences. Credit and debt are often twin problems for newly-married couples. Even “honeymoon debt,” student loans, or car payments which are brought into the marriage can add pressure which sparks conflict.
Sexuality: When God created humans as sexual beings, He designed marriage for physical intimacy. Sin has scarred God’s plan. Some of those whom you counsel will have prior sexual experiences which will impact their future relationship. I always emphasize generosity and responsibility as dual priorities. Each partner should be sexually generous and each should seek responsibility for their mate’s enjoyment. Of all areas, sexuality demands vital and ongoing communication between partners. Areas of discussion might include birth control, sexual relations just for pleasure, trust, taboos, and if necessary, dealing with past relationships.
Time: Partners should understand the other’s view of work and leisure time. Does that viewpoint include a healthy balance? Is one partner’s personal identity too closely aligned with their profession? Are there different expectations about shared work loads at home? If both are employed, is it fair to expect only one spouse to accomplish routine chores of cooking, cleaning, repair, and maintenance? Every couple must make decisions about scheduling vacations (when and where, with or without extended family), maintaining a healthy lifestyle through exercise and nutrition, and avoiding burnout from overwork or over commitment to even good and worthy things.
Communication: Why do couples who never have enough time together prior to marriage, later think they have “nothing to talk about?” Real communication thrives in an atmosphere of intimacy and shared objectives. It is important to continue the courtship. Remember, those things that attract partners to each other will keep them attracted in the future. Integrity of communication is essential. A partner should never need doubt the honesty of their spouse. Leveling regarding conflict, confrontation rather than avoidance, and trust rather than jealousy are all communication issues.
Adjustments: The necessity of appropriate adjustments is illustrated by the classic story of the bride who visited the church and pictured herself walking down the aisle, then gazed at the altar, and finally selected the hymn for her wedding. As she finished the process, she suddenly realized her life mission—aisle, altar, hymn. “I’ll alter him!” If either partner believes their mission is to change the other, they are inviting major crisis. I once declined to marry a couple because the prospective bride could not relinquish her ideas of what her intended “would become” under her tutelage. She wanted the man she was certain she could create. Beyond major challenges during the first year of marriage, ongoing adjustments are necessary as children, health issues, empty-nests, dependent relatives, etc., impact the home,
Personhood: While basic personalities do not change, the converting power of the Holy Spirit should transform believers into growing more like Jesus. Respect for spouses as individuals created in God’s image is essential and precludes any tolerance of abuse and violence, codependency and enabling sinful behavior, and unreasonable expectations for change. The very first gift which God gave to man was the marriage relationship. As pastors, we need to help promulgate that blessing to those whom we marry.
James A. Cress is secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association. Reprinted with permission from More Common Sense Ministry, p. 105. This resource is available through the General Conference Ministerial Resource Center. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.