Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On dating and marriage

There may not be another decision in life (other than what to do about Jesus) which is more critical to a person’s happiness than in choosing their spouse. With the divorce rate what it is, clearly people are not making the wisest decisions in that regard. I know a man who has had one job but seven marriages. I know a woman who can’t get her worker visa to go on a business trip to China because her name has changed four times in ten years (due to re-marriages). I have two employees who lived with their girlfriends as a “trial run”, believing that would somehow prepare them for marriage. We need not even go into the statistics of single parenthood in this country.

Make no mistake about it: who you marry is a big, big decision. And it is one which is too often made based upon emotional feelings and flawed decision-making.

My wife and I have (with all glory and thanks to God) had a very wonderful relationship. We spent three years as friends, then two years dating, then a year engaged, and have been married eight years this summer. Through those fourteen years together, we are closer today than we ever have been. Partly for that reason, my sister-in-law asked me to share on my blog some of the advice that I’ve given her over the years regarding dating and marriage. Some of this came from my own experience, some from a variety of books on the subject. But I think they all have something to add to your decision making process.

Parents, take time to talk to your kids about this list. Teens or twenty-somethings, ask yourself the following about the person whom you are dating or with whom you are engaged:

1. Are you letting your heart outrun your head?
The Bible speaks often and thoroughly about wisdom. Every decision should be made with wisdom. As Andy Stanley once said, when making any decision you should ask yourself: “In light of my past experiences, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing to do?” Usually, though, when people begin dating they are not considering the person as a spouse—it’s just “casual” dating. Which is fine…if you can keep it casual. But what often happens is that we get emotionally attached to someone and all of a sudden, you are two years into a relationship and have deep feelings for a person…even though in the back of your mind, you know that you two should not be married.

From the very beginning of a relationship, you should be considering the questions on this list. I am not saying that you only date people you intend to marry; instead, I am saying that you do not give your heart to someone until they have passed everything on this checklist. Because if you let your heart outrun your head, your decision-making will fall apart from there forward.

2. Is he/she a believer?
If you are a Christian, marrying someone who has a fundamentally different worldview is a recipe for disaster. Don’t be afraid to make this a prerequisite for giving someone your heart and life. You are about to spend a lifetime with the person you wed – don’t put yourself/spouse/kids through the pain that happens if a believer marries someone who is not a believer.

In 202 AD, Tertullian wrote regarding Christian marriage in a letter to his wife:

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts… Psalms and hymns they sing to one another. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is, there evil is not.

You cannot have that type of relationship when the two are not both believers.

3. Are you making a decision out of pressure to find “the one”?
One of the worst myths that people have begun to believe—thanks in no small part to the era of the romantic comedy—is that there is one perfect ‘soulmate’ out there who will turn your dreary life into a perfect one…and if you don’t find that particular individual, you are doomed to a life of misery and gloomy days. That is not true. There are six billion people on this planet, literally thousands with whom each of us could have passionate, amazing, romantic relationships. Find one who is a good fit, and the romance will follow; try to simply find “the one” and you will create needless anxiety and bad decisions.

That’s not to say that you can be romantic and fall in love with just anyone. But there are lots of people out there with whom you could build a passionate, loving relationship. There are many fewer, however, with whom you will be able to “pass” the rest of this list. So if you find someone with whom you have even a spark of romantic love, and they pass the rest of this list, you can have an amazing relationship. But someone who you are head-over-heels with and doesn’t pass this list…you might find yourself in divorce proceedings with them ten years from now.

4. Are they good?
None of us are perfect, and mean people need lovin’ too. But if you are going to marry someone, you have to put as a paramount – are they a good person? Micah defined this as someone who treats people fairly, is nice to others, and isn’t too full of himself (“do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly”).

No one is perfect. But if someone is showing that they are arrogant or mean or untrustworthy when the relationship is in its “puppy love” stage, you can bet that they will be nearly impossible to deal with when the chips are down.

5. Are they good for you?
They may be a good person, but are they good for you? A good spouse is one who will strengthen your weaknesses. If you are bad at finances, they can help you make wise decisions (rather than letting you put the family into debt). If you are intimidated by groups, they will help you gain confidence (rather than letting you stay at home every night and feed your insecurity). If you are unhappy with your appearance, they will let you know that they love you for who you are (rather than tell you to hit the gym). Above all, they are patient with your faults, rather than quick to point out your mistakes. They want to build you up rather than ‘keep you in your place’ or ‘manage’ you. They treat you like a king or queen, not a servant or jester.

Your spouse doesn’t have to be your opposite in personality and strength; in fact, sharing things in common is very healthy. But it is important that your biggest weaknesses are not also their biggest weaknesses, or else you can get your relationship in a lot of trouble.

6. Are you good for them?
Same question in reverse. That street runs both ways in a relationship.

7. Will they be a good mother/father?
People forget about this one. Often they see parenting as so far out in the future that they fail to realize that most of their adult life is likely to be spent as parents, not as newlyweds. Do not sacrifice years of happiness for you and your kids by neglecting this question. Does that person have what it takes to be a good parent?

Talk about parenting – how many kids are you each expecting? When? Is mom going to stay at home or work? What do you believe about disciplining kids? Are you going to breastfeed or bottle-feed? What is dad’s role in helping take care of the baby? Are you going to have an epidural/hospital birth, or a midwife at home?

You should know these things well before you’ve given your heart to your potential spouse (#1).

8. How well do you communicate?
Communication seems to be, time and again, the biggest issue in marriages. When people date, they are so careful to put forward a sanitized, perfected, flawless view of themselves – and they carefully watch what they say, to maintain this illusory perfection. As a result, as soon as things go badly, the two have no idea how to communicate.

Tell you what –test your communication before you are married with some tough topics. Talk about the preferred brand of tampons for the woman in the relationship. Talk about what sexual things you want to try after you get married. Talk about what kind of birth control you will use. Sit down and write out a budget together as a one-afternoon project. Talk about how to handle the situation if the man develops erectile dysfunction. Talk about whether you want to circumcise your kids if they are boys. Talk about how you are going to do life insurance for each other. Talk about your biggest struggles with sin. Talk about what you will do if you can’t conceive. Talk about which family member on each of your families will be the toughest for you to lose, when they eventually die.

People avoid discussing anything like this when they are dating. Why? Do you think that one day topics like these are awkward and weird, but when you put on a wedding band the next day they will become natural? You are going to deal with many (or all) of the above situations. If you can’t talk about them in theoretical times before marriage, how can you communicate well to deal with them after you are married?

My wife and I have our flaws; communication is our strength. We have no secrets, no surprises about each other. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and fears and dreams -- and we work through them together. We could have had every conversation above before we were married—and we did have many of them. So now when we go through a situation, it isn’t awkward or weird for us to confide in each other.

9. In dating/marrying this person are you making the wise decision or the convenient decision?
There are a lot of times where the pressures of our society make a decision convenient, rather than wise. Men feel pressure to propose to a long-term girlfriend even if they aren’t confident that they are right for each other. Women feel pressure to “get the ring” if they’re getting close to 30. Plus, it is terribly awkward and painful to end a multi-year relationship (especially a comfortable one) for no solid reason other than “we just aren’t right for each other”.

But the big question is – are you willing to sacrifice decades of happiness in return for avoiding a single painful conversation? Or to put it another way: do you think you’re doing the one who loves you any favors by getting married when you think it is a bad idea? Are you willing to gamble your happiness, your spouse’s happiness, and your kids’ happiness on a matter of convenience?

Be willing to do the hard thing and end it, if you do not think you’re right for each other.

Oh, and don’t forget: it’s a lot harder to find a good husband/wife when you’re a 39 year old divorcee. So take your time and make the right decision the first time; getting divorced later and starting over ain’t gonna be any easier.

10. Are the two of you mature enough to make a lifelong commitment and keep it?
You could also call this the “will they (or you) cheat” question. It takes a lot of maturity to make a lifelong commitment to someone. Buying a car is a couple-year commitment. Buying a house is a 20-30 year commitment. Choosing a spouse is a lifelong commitment.

Let us be clear. The honeymoon ends, for 100% of relationships. Every one. So there will be times when finances suck. There will be times when you disagree fundamentally about how to raise your kids. There will be times when your sex life is dull (or non-existent). There will be times when you just don’t connect like you used to. There will be times when one of you is seriously ill, or hurt. There will be times when you and your spouse aren’t physically attracted to each other. There will be times when your spouse will be exposed to members of the opposite sex who they find attractive.

When those times come (and they will – you are not the one couple in history who is exempt!), what will your relationship become? Is your commitment that strong? If not, maybe you shouldn’t be making it yet.

Hopefully the above questions will get you thinking and planning. Any question above which you cannot pass should be a real red flag. More than one or two should be a sign that the relationship should not go forward. Really, the first point is key – you need to be thinking through these things before you are emotionally attached to someone else; everything else gets far harder afterward.

Take your time, do it right. It is a big decision, which will have profound consequences on you, your spouse, both families, and your kids (and their kids). Don’t do it lightly.

And if you do it right, and you are really blessed, it is worth any wait or pain. Because you can have what my wife and I have, and Tertullian had—a relationship that can be described as: “Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts.”

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