Preparing for a Happy Marriage

At 22, Ruth was a picture of youth and beauty. She was enjoying the university. Her studies were challenging. Her teachers were good. Life seemed so much fun, and so much more lay ahead of her. One day she met Robert, 24, a fellow student, and after that her life seemed to take an additional hue and glow. Ruth and Robert shared so much in common, worshiped in the same church, and had a clear perception of future goals. It looked as if they were made for each other. One evening while on a youth retreat, they walked to the lake. The waters reflected the golden orange of a setting sun. The trees were gently swaying. A summer breeze was bringing in the coolness of the north. This is the time, thought Robert, and asked Ruth something he had asked her months before: "Will you be my steady date? I love you." "Yes," said Ruth, and it seemed as if she were in a different world altogether, floating in the openness of love and promise.

Ruth's answer was not a hasty one. It followed a lot of thought, counseling, and prayer. The first time Robert put that question to her, she was not sure. She wanted time. She talked to a teacher, whom she trusted. She counseled with her pastor. Weeks after much thought and prayer, she was ready to say "Yes."

Marriage is important, but preparation for marriage is just as important. Choosing a marriage partner is one of the most important steps a young person takes in life. Such a decision must not be taken lightly or hastily. Experience suggests that there are at least four criteria young people should examine in their quest for a life partner. Choosing a life partner: four criteria

Readiness. Readiness implies maturity of both parties for courtship and marriage. Maturity can often be measured by the way you answer the following questions: Are you ready for the challenges and joys of married life? Have you come out of the confusion and conflicts typical of adolescence? Are you balanced and responsible? Do you know how to relate to others altruistically? Can you think through and solve a problem, or do you tend to let problems overwhelm you? Do you understand and accept the sacred and undying nature of marriage? Have you developed wholesome and appropriate attitudes toward sex? Do you know what true love is? Do you have a positive religious experience?

Compatibility. Incompatibility between husband and wife is one of the primary causes for marriage breakups. Young people contemplating marriage need to evaluate their compatibility. Test yourself by asking some hard questions: Do you feel comfortable with the way you communicate with each other? Is it easy for you to establish a successful dialogue? Are you comfortable with the other's manners and lifestyle? Are the ways in which you express affection pleasant or discomforting to either one or both? Are you comfortable with each other's temperament?

Communication is a key element in compatibility. If you find during courtship that you have communication difficulties and that even a simple discussion leads to serious misunderstandings, heated arguments, and shouting matches, chances are you will face similar problems even after marriage. Yes, any problem can be solved, given love, mutual understanding, and tolerance, but why take the risk? Better end the relationship before you enter marriage commitment.

Another strong element in building compatibility is a sense of basic agreement. During courtship, have you sensed a growing list of topics that you would rather not talk about? Is there basic disagreement between you on the important things in life? Do you have significant differences about values, religious beliefs and practices, or friends? Any serious differences in these areas should alert you to the possibility of incompatibility in marriage.

Homogamy. The word may sound strange, but it has a simple meaning: likeness. Research shows that partners who share common characteristics in certain crucial areas have a better probability of success in marriage than those who do not. These areas include age, religion, education, intelligence, and social, cultural, and ethnic background.

This does not mean that marriage between persons who differ in any of these areas will inevitably fail. Given time and effort, mature Christians who are otherwise compatible can work out differences in one or more of these areas. However, research indicates that the more common factors the partners share, the less difficult marital adjustment will be. And when conflicts do arise, the easier it will be to make needed adjustments.

Spiritual commitment. The most important factor for success in any aspect of life is a positive relationship with God. This is particularly true in marriage. When two persons with different religious commitments and preferences choose to marry, they are putting their marital stability in serious jeopardy. Such a high-risk marriage also puts the children in serious trouble.

When Ruth said "Yes" to Robert, she had already given serious consideration to each of these criteria, and was quite certain that she was taking the right step. After she got back to the university from the retreat, her best friend immediately sensed that something had happened. Soon they were discussing all the exciting details. But after awhile Ruth grew pensive and shared some worries with her friend.

Ruth had seen many relationships as happy as hers turn sour. She did not want this to happen to her, and wondered if there were any secrets that could help a couple to have a successful and happy courtship. She knew that habits initiated during courtship days establish patterns that frequently follow into marriage. She wanted a happy marriage; therefore, she wanted their courtship to be a happy and enriching experience that could contribute to their personal growth and fulfillment.

Secrets of a happy courtship

Ruth and others like her will benefit from knowing at least four secrets for a happy courtship:

1. Seriousness of purpose. The courtship period should not be taken lightly. It provides special conditions under which young people can get to know each other and make intelligent decisions about marriage. This is a time for careful consideration of the issues involved, avoiding impulsive decisions. While young people should not believe that they must marry the first person with whom they establish a courtship relationship, it is legitimate for them to believe that their special person is a potential marriage partner. This must be especially true of Christian youth who choose to act at all times in terms of their commitment to Jesus.

2. Creativity. Make courtship creative. Let it be a time of authentic rejoicing—not just for you, but for those who wish you well. Do not allow the relationship to fall into a rut. Plan activities which both of you can enjoy. Working in a church or community project, exercising, cooking (and cleaning up afterwards!), baby sitting, camping, and similar activities do not cost much money but provide many opportunities for fun and togetherness.

Cultivate a hobby in which you can participate together. Photography, music, reading, sailing, or collecting (coins, stamps, shells, etc.), can be fun. Sharing and discussing ideas on topics such as future plans, current events, sports, and church activities help establish healthy communication patterns and a respect for each other's opinions.

3. Sincerity. Without truthfulness and absolute honesty, no courtship can survive. Sincerity calls for being true to oneself and to each other. Saul was courting Ellen, a music major. He accompanied her to all the concerts and recitals and pretended to enjoy them, although he would much rather have been somewhere else. Ellen thought she was truly fortunate to be with someone who could appreciate the kind of music that was so important in her life. Imagine her dismay when she discovered after marriage that Saul could hardly stand classical music!

Sincerity also implies that if one feels that it would be best to terminate the relationship, it is better to state so honestly than to find excuses to delay a decision.

4. Respect. A successful courtship requires consideration for the other person—his or her feelings, preferences, ideas, family, and friends. Respect also involves appropriate limits on physical expressions of love. A Christian couple cannot permit any careless behavior that could lead to guilt and shame. They need to recognize that sex becomes joyous and fulfilling only within the confines of marriage.

For Ruth and Robert, courtship was truly a special and happy time. After two years they decided that they knew each other well enough, and they were ready to make a marriage commitment. They announced their engagement. Now it dawned on them that besides getting ready for the wedding, they needed to get ready for marriage.

Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual recommends that no minister should perform a wedding without extensive premarital counseling with the parties, not every potential groom and bride have this opportunity open to them. Even where professional counseling may not be easily available, the couple should seek advise from their pastor, their own reading resources, and others who may have had a positive experience in this area. Ruth and Robert did this. They had a few friends who were also planning to be married, and together they formed an informal group that met once a week to discuss different aspects of getting ready for marriage.

Getting ready for marriage

1. Understand the true nature of love. Love is a principle, not a fluctuating sentiment. Love involves, but is not, feelings. In fact, feelings can come from physical nearness or an exchange of caresses with a person of the opposite sex without any love whatsoever. True love in courtship and marriage is a combination of loyalty, intimacy, feelings of physical attraction, romance, companionship, and commitment. The apostle Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 13 a portrayal of true love.

2. Accept the perpetuity and sacredness of the marriage covenant. When a commitment exists to stay together "so long as you both shall live," "for better or for worse," and "no matter what," it is easier to find a solution when problems occur. To be willing to accept what cannot be changed in a partner and to do the best to keep the relationship going and growing takes a serious and loving commitment to the marriage covenant.

3. Learn the art of communication. Happily married couples know how to communicate effectively. They use communication to achieve mutual understanding, effective problem solving, creative conflict resolution, and satisfying intimacy. They can talk on any topic without feeling threatened. They have the capacity to listen attentively to verbal and non-verbal messages. They seek the appropriate moment for communication. They can be honest without being cruel or sarcastic. They respect each other's feelings and communicate positively. They can agree to disagree, without being disagreeable.

4. Accept individual differences. To understand and accept one's partner as a unique individual with both positive and negative traits is vital for building not only a healthy marriage but also an adequate self-respect. Self-respect and respect for others grows as we come to understand our infinite value as sons and daughters of God, created in God's image, redeemed at an infinite price, and called to serve. Those who understand this are better prepared to relate to their spouses with respect, consideration, encouragement, and affection, and are well equipped to solve problems and resolve conflicts.

5. Follow the Christian leadership model. Marriage needs clear boundaries, structure, and delimitation of roles and authority. Otherwise, power struggles can mar the relationship. Christ presents a model of servant leadership that can help couples avoid many bitter conflicts. The Bible assigns to the husband the role of being head of the family and to the wife the role of helpmeet and nurturer, which usually involves motherhood. The essential element is not so much who should do what, but who can do it better because of gifts and talents. Christian couples should be able to discuss their expectations and preferences freely so that they can arrive at a mutually satisfying distribution of responsibilities.

6. Prioritize spiritual life. Each partner needs to establish a personal relationship with and commitment to God. Individuals who take time to commune alone with God will find it easier and natural to establish a time for family devotion. Regular church atten-dance and involvement in the congrega-tional life as a family builds a sense of community under God. A strong spiritual foundation helps strengthen a marriage and build happy families.

7. Submit to total Christian stewardship. A Christian married couple recognizes that all things belong to God and that we are only His stewards. As stewards, marriage partners are respon-sible to God for wisely utilizing all family resources; time, talents, finances, health, environment, relationships, etc. A marriage built on the concept of Chris-tian stewardship has no room for mistrust, competition, jealousy, anger, or other such factors that destroy relation-ships.

8. Recognize family ties. Each partner's family has a definite impact on his or her emotional and relational behavior. Couples need to understand that although they are starting a new and separate family, they still have ties to their families. A positive relationship, without excessive or undue attachment, will make the extended family a source of support in building the new home.

9. Understand the role of sexuality in marriage. Sex is part of God's plan for human fulfillment, both in the physical relationship and in the raising of a family. A couple needs to develop positive feelings about sex. In marriage, sex is a powerful vehicle for expressing love, tenderness, intimacy, and joy. To achieve the full potential of sex in marriage, a couple need to understand not only the physiological aspects of sex, but also its emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions.

10. Consider responsible family planning. Couples should examine their personal views about children—how many they want, how soon, and how far apart. They should have the right reasons and the right preparation for parenthood and its responsibilities. They should plan ahead for the well-being of the number of children they can afford in terms of providing adequate care, education, and proper emotional and spiritual environment.

One special afternoon Ruth walked down the central aisle of a church. As her hand slipped into that of Robert, a gentle smile added to the radiance of her face. Robert stood tall, strong, and happy. Together they took their vows. The vows were not simply a set of words, but their entry into a covenant. Emotion, anticipation, sentiment, and happiness were all part of the scene. But beyond all that, there was a certainty. Ruth loved Robert. Robert loved Ruth. And both loved their Lord. As both knelt together before their families and friends to seal their covenant in prayer, they were sure that a third Partner—Jesus—was with them, with His promise to give them joy, to make their love enduring, and to provide for them a fulfilling life.

Emilio and Ada Garcia-Marenko, specialists in family-life education, are, respectively, vice president for academic administration and director of counseling and guidance at Montemorelos University, Mexico. They have published several articles and books on family life.