- Discern your vocation. Nowadays, most people think that you decide to pursue marriage when you meet the right person. I know this is going to sound wholly unromantic of me, but it is my firm belief that the best way to prepare for marriage is to do so regardless of whether or not you have actually met Mr. or Mrs. Right. What do I mean by that?
Marriage is a vocation, a calling from God. It is something that He either will or will not call you to. Many people do not understand their marriage this way and it is, I believe, the biggest reason that marriages are entered into without appropriate sobriety and later abandoned without regard, these days. If we understand our marriages to be vocations, then we may discern the calling long before we meet the person God is preparing to be our spouse. In this way, we prepare for our own roles as wife or husband; we prepare ourselves spiritually and mentally for the magnitude of the commitment we will be making; we prepare our hearts to remain steadfast even when the storms come; we maintain purity in our lives because we are waiting to give ourselves wholly unblemished to our future spouse.
- Consider the Source (or rather, the Spouse). You've discerned your vocation; you've fallen in love...but is this the right person for you to marry? My best advice to find out: see how he or she treats "undesireables." How does he treat his unstable mother? How does she treat her overbearing father? How does he react to his micromanaging boss? What does she have to say about the friend who let her down? Rememeber that someday, when the bloom wears off the rose, you may end up being "undesireable #1." Can your marriage survive that? Look at other relationships, as well. Does your future spouse make the effort to show love even to those he or she is angry or disappointed with? Or, does he or she treat those people with contempt? Does he have a penchant for springing rather nasty practical jokes on his friends? Has she cheated on a boyfriend in the past? Does he get angry with anyone who tries to criticize or correct him? Does she gossip mercilessly about her family and friends? Of course, we all have our bad days, and we all make mistakes; but look for trends. Be honest about what you see.
- You marry a family. When you marry, you don't just marry your spouse; you marry into a family. Get to know your future in-laws. Determine whether or not you wish to be a part of that family. Would you take care of your aging mother-in-law with a goodwill in future years? Stand by the reprobrate brother-in-law? What about holiday traditions, or familial expectations? Can you handle the form of communication that is practiced in that family? I had to consider very carefully whether I would want to marry my husband knowing that he is an only child; since I am an only child myself, this meant I would never have a sister- or brother-in-law, a neice or nephew; our children will never have aunts or uncles or cousins. This was a big sacrifice for me, but one that I was willing to make, with my eyes open.
Note: Also be sure the discuss boundaries for family after marriage. As much as you marry into an existing family, you will also be creating an entirely new family: you, your spouse, and your children. Be sure that your parents and siblings understand that your primary loyalty is now to your spouse and that you will have in-laws to consider in addition to your birth family. I would advise avoiding discussing your marriage with your families after marriage. Sometimes its hard to break those ties and you want to run to Mom or your sister or Dad for help; but your spouse is the one you should turn to. Establishing these boundaries and maintaining them can be difficult, but it's worth it to start out on the right foot and be clear about expectations with all family members.
- Defining Roles. Get really honest with yourself, and start thinking about the mundane tasks of life. Are there certain things you assume a husband should do? Certain things you presume fall under a wife's jurisdiction? If there are, you must be honest with your future spouse about these expectations or you are going to find yourselves sorely disappointed. Meanwhile, get cracking on those tasks that fall into your domain. Learn how to take care of a household, balance a budget, and cook decent, nutritious meals (or whatever your "role" may call for). Be sure that between the two of you, the household is going to run smoothly. If neither of you can cook, you're either going to blow your budget or end up very hungry. If neither of you knows how to do basic household maintenance, you'll have to budget for hiring plumbers and other services to keep your household from falling apart. Communication is key!
Be open to adjusting your expectations if that is what is needed in your particular situation. Remember, you are called to be the husband or wife to your particular spouse, not to someone else's cookie-cutter paragon; your life situation may call for you to step into roles that you would have thought were not "acceptable" for your gender in marriage. Remember that we are helpers suited to our own spouses; just as each spouse is different, so our help may look different in different households.
- Money Matters. It's thoroughly unromantic, but then again, so is much of life! The #1 reason for divorce in America, particularly among couples under the age of 40 is "financial problems." How does your fiance handle money--frugal to a fault, or like it grows on trees? How does your fiance react when money is tight--budget responsibly and bear it well, or become moody or even antagonistic? What sort of financial situation can you foresee due to your future spouse's career? (Obviously, this can change dramatically over the course of a marriage, but it's foolish to presume you will be able to lead the life of a doctor's wife if you're married to a schoolteacher. Be realistic, and be honest with yourself if this is the sort of financial situation you wish to marry into.)
Consider whether you have the finances to marry at this time--could you afford to provide for children, should you become pregnant soon after your marriage--always a distinct possibility if you are having sex, regardless of your family planning choices.
How do the two of you communicate about finances? Is this an area you need to work on? Do you have different spending habits? What sorts of things do you take for granted you will be able to purchase? Do you have compatible expectations for spending and budgeting?
Ask the hard questions and, again, be brutally honest with yourself. None of us wants to be mercenary, but the truth is that money does affect our lives in major ways, and it does no one any good if you aren't being honest about your expectations in this area.
- Prioritize. If you want your marriage to be its healthiest, you will want to remember these 5 priorities (in order): God, Spouse, Children, Home, Others.
God comes first. Period. More to the point, God is a member of your marriage. God ought to be, in fact, the apex and center of your marriage. A Christian marriage, as I said above, is a vocation, and its primary objective is for the two spouses to move each other ever closer to God as they encourage each other ever more to holiness.
Next priority: spouse. This is the person God has created and formed to be your other half. He or she is not your roommate, not your business partner: your soulmate. Your life decisions should reflect this. Take care that your words and actions match up in reflecting this to your spouse. Remember that men and women show and perceive love in very different ways. Find out how to best communicate your love to your spouse. Remember that Ephesians 5 calls a woman to submit to her husband a husband to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. These commands are not culturally irrelevant--they are so relevant, I can't even begin to get into it in the space allotted here. Suffice it to say, if you don't buy these verses, study them, pray about them; I trust that God will turn your heart to embrace the wisdom contained in His Word.
Next comes children. Notice, I list children after spouse. Lots of people might think this is absurd or even cruel, but if you want to have a healthy marriage, I assure you it is essential. Of course, sometimes your children's immediate needs will come before your spouse's, in the short term, but your priority must be your marriage. Remember that a healthy marriage is the greatest gift you can give to your child. Remember, too, that your children are only with you for 18 years; at the end of that, your marriage still has to be standing (preferably thriving), or it will simply fall apart.
Your next priority is your home. I won't go into too much detail here, but the Scriptures make it clear that the wife is to be the keeper of the home and the husband it's provider. This doesn't mean that husbands can never wash the dishes or cook supper (just ask my husband what he does when I'm in the first trimester of pregnancy) or that the wife can never bring home the bacon. What it does mean is that the wife is called to manage her household, which may involve plenty of delegation, and that the husband is meant to be sure that the family is financially provided for, whether by his paycheck or a combination of his and his wife's. It really is more about responsibility than roles, at heart. However, often the roles in a household will reflect the responsibilities of the spouses. Just remember, between you both, that if the household is not functioning properly, it's time to straighten out your priorities again; cut back on outside commitments and reestablish a healthy, thriving home for your family to flourish in.
If all these things are in their proper places, then there is opportunity to invest in hobbies, friendships, careers, etc. But, keeping these priorities in order really will bless your marriage and your life!
- Pray every day. When my husband and I married, we committed to praying together every single evening before going to bed. Except for a two-day period last summer when my husband was out of town and had no access to a telephone, we have never failed to do this, even when apart. Not only does it keep God at the center of our marriage, it is a daily exercise in growing and strengthening our relationship and a valuable protection against "letting the sun go down upon our anger," which Scripture warns us is how Satan loves to get a foothold in our lives. Additionally, when you are praying with and for each other, you remember that your spouse is only human, needing God just as much as you do. It helps to keep your perspective when your spouse disappoints you in some way--and even gives you something to pray about that evening! You may choose morning prayers instead of bedtime ones, but whatever you do, make a commitment and never waiver on it.
- Safeguard your marriage. Get serious about boundaries. If you're a Christian couple, you likely set physical and emotional boundaries up for yourselves prior to marriage. Once you're married, you need to put up boundaries around your marriage to protect it from infidelity. We are sexual beings; no matter how good you or your spouse is, temptation abounds. I have seen too many good Christians fall into the trap of infidelity because they simply didn't prepare for the potentiality.
Some examples from my own marriage: My husband and I always cc each other when we email someone of the opposite sex. We always ask each other first if we can meet alone with a member of the opposite sex; this includes car rides. Honestly, this rarely happens at all, and we always respect each other's wishes and feelings in this regard. We do not typically maintain close friendships with members of the opposite sex. We never discuss our marriage or intimate subjects with members of the opposite sex, and we never share things with members of the opposite sex that we have not shared with each other.
What set your relationship with your fiance apart from other relationships? Take care not to establish a similar relationship extramaritally. And, I'm not primarily talking about physical stuff. Did you and your husband fall for each other because you went hiking together, or because you loved to discuss literature or current events? Don't start doing those things with someone else of the opposite sex and assume you won't fall again.
- Do not expect your fiance to change after marriage. Does your fiance love to hole up and play video games after a hard day? Don't expect that he will give it up just because you don't approve of the habit. Is your future wife a lousy cook? Don't expect that she will suddenly morph into Julia Child. Recognize and be honest about the things you don't like about your future spouse (yes, there are some things if you are really honest). Resolve to find a way to accept and hopefully even to love these things about your spouse. Is there a way you can help your spouse either to grow in a certain area or to pick up the slack for them?
Example: My husband is what I call the "absent-minded professor" type. He once tried to please me by washing the dishes... When I came in, the left side of the sink was empty and dishes were drying beautifully on the counter--but the right side of the sink was piled high with dirty pans! "Oh, gosh, I never even saw those!" my husband lamented apologetically. We had a good laugh over it. But, my point is: if I notice something is out of place or needs cleaning, I expect that I will be setting it right. My husband has never noticed such things; I don't expect that he will ever change in this respect. Sometimes its frustrating, but mostly, I have managed to adjust my attitude so that I can view every sock on the floor or jam-covered knife on the counter as a little way I can show sacrificial love to my husband throughout the day. I take care of it, offer up a little prayer of gratitude for my husband and a way to serve him, and don't nag him about it later!
- Do expect your fiance to change after marriage. You've discussed every possibility for the future; you're the king and queen of communication. You know that you both want to live near your parents, that you want three children, that you'll be staying home when the kids are young and then going back to work; you've even determined that you want to spend your retirement by opening a bed & breakfast together on Cape Cod. Remember that you and your spouse are both human beings and are, therefore, dynamic creatures. You both have the right to change your minds--even about the big things.
The hardest question my husband and I asked ourselves before we got married was, "If you change completely--If you were to become severely disabled, if you had early onset dementia or if you became a quadrapelegic; if you lost your faith--would I stay with you?" For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, until death. These are not just poetic words; they are solemn vows. If you do not feel capable of making them, then you should consider very carefully whether you are indeed called to married life. As always, be brutally honest with yourself.
I would hate to give the impression that I think married life is all about the "hard stuff." Not at all! I have found that most of married life is filled with contentment, peace, and irrepresible joy. However, it's not the good times that you have to prepare yourself for; it's the hard times. A lifeguard who was only prepared to sit up on her chair and read a book while able swimmers enjoyed themselves wouldn't be any use at all. You need a lifeguard who's ready to dive in and save a drowning person, even if she never has to do it. Please, for the sake of Holy Matrimony, ask the hard questions, prepare yourself for the hard times... and then enjoy every blessed day God gives!