Premarital Primer

A good friend of mine recently wrote me, asking what I would say to a couple who is about to begin premarital counseling- what they need to talk about, and what advice I might give. And here's what I came up with (as always, feel free to comment or add your own advice in the comments!):

he main thing I would tell any engaged couple is this: TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING YOU POSSIBLY CAN!!! If something comes to your mind, you might as well talk it through! Honest, loving communication is the BIGGEST factor that I see in successful, lasting marriages.

You'll never be sorry that you discussed something in advance of making the biggest human commitment of your life. 

  • How each of your parents' marriages worked-- the pros & cons, and strengths & weaknesses
  • Be COMPLETELY open and honest about who you REALLY are- when no one's looking, what REALLY gets you mad/sad/frustrated/etc. Talk about your real weaknesses- the ugliest things from your past that no one else knows... he should know yours and you should know his.
  • The situations that seem far-off... what to do about birth control? how many kids to have? whether you dislike some particular age of children? whether either of you have fears about having children, or having boys, or girls? Schooling preferences (though this is not set in stone, obviously, it's good to know if one partner is anticipating homeschooling while the other thinks public school is good life preparation.)?
  • Household things - how you'll split household duties
  • How you are with pain/sickness... how much you depend on medicine... (by that I mean that some people never take anything, and some people take Tylenol and Sudafed at the drop of a hat- that might be good to know).  Plus it's good to know if your future spouse is a real weenie about pain or will tough it through most anything... it's just good to know in advance.
  • What your feelings are about ailing relatives, aging parents... how much will that affect your work and home? If someone is dying will you want to go visit before they die, and/or after? Will you want to take them in and care for them or will you be prepared to help a sibling or facility take care of them in your stead?
  • Talk about how you both feel about the roles of a man and woman. Find out the REAL scoop- not to discourage you but to prepare you realistically... how much of this will be your responsibility or his? Does he like certain chores more than others? Do you? Find out who does which chores in your parents' homes: cutting the grass, doing dishes, cleaning the garage, cleaning the kitchen, maintaining the garden, caring for pets, etc. You may be surprised to find out that your expectations of who does what may be different.
  • As you get closer to marriage, you'll want to talk about any fears/issues that come up with intimacy. Share about your sexual histories- be fully blunt and honest. 
  • And then what about finances? I won't delve too far into that one because there are heaps of books and resources that talk about that... but, who will pay the bills? Are you a spender or a saver? What about him? Etc...

There are some principles I want to share with you that have served us well in our marriage:
  1. Don't let the sun go down on your anger. We have always talked things through- even if we're up til 4am, which happened a time or two early on but hasn't happened in years, we deal with arguments and disagreements before we go to bed... we don't have lingering "issues" that cloud each day and each additional disagreement.
  2. Don't ever, EVER, eVeR, EvEr, ever, ever, ever let divorce be an option. Don't mention it, don't threaten it. Don't talk about roads (relationships) not taken. Once you commit, commit. And let that be evident in your communication with each other-- "you're my only". (And of course, I'm NOT talking about situations of abuse or infidelity. I'm talking about in normal marriages with two fallen human beings who disagree and differ on many things, there shouldn't be an easy "out". Divorce should never even be hinted at.)
  3. Don't entertain ANY hint of affection towards other people. Other Christian women will talk about how "cute" some actor or musician is... but this has always been off-limits for me. I don't even allow a HINT of attraction to be fed in my mind or heart- one way that I go about this is to not "feed" male friendships, and not have physical contact with people of the opposite sex. We just don't want any trace of it... sometimes it will mean that I seem cold or distant towards other men, but that's OK. In this day and age of over sexualization, I would rather be seen as unapproachable by a man than to be seen as someone that he thinks he can have a flirtation or fling with. These lines are becoming more lax in general society, but Doug & I keep these boundaries firmly drawn.
  4. Just say "YES" (to sexual intimacy). Once your married, I mean. For me, that means that I don't say no (in words or body language) to intimacy. We didn't start out with this as a rule, but we've just always been open to each other in that way. I've found that a LOT of my friends use or have used sex as a negotiating tool and it has become a point of difficulty in their marriages. For my husband, that has meant being willing to TALK and meet my communication needs, when that was not his natural bent, so that I feel more emotionally connected before we physically connect. Both of us have gone out of our ways to be open to saying yes to each other so that we are the ones meeting each others' needs, rather than each of us feeling like our needs have to be met outside of the marriage relationship.
  5. Be each other's biggest cheerleaders and defenders. Your husband ought to know that if ANYONE has his back, it's you. You are the one that cheers for him and promotes him in his strengths, and shields and protects his weaknesses. In many marriages, sadly, it's the other way around: the wife is the one who points out every failure and flaw and overlooks the strengths and good things in her husband, and the only place he finds encouragement is at work. And that just ought not be. He ought to know that you are going to protect the areas where he is weakest (for example, that might mean that you take the lead on balancing the checkbook, or that if he struggles with an organized workspace, that you take the time to organize it for him so that he can be effective and efficient... rather than deriding him for the disarray in his office.) Basically, this is just being a good "helpmeet," I think. Where he is weak, I can help him, and where he is strong, I can promote him and praise him.
  6. Make your marriage your top human priority, just behind your relationship with God. Too many women in particular allow the kids to take the place that the marriage ought to have in their mind and hearts - children become a bigger priority than their husband, and that just ought not be. Our "nest" will some day be empty, but we will still be together. I don't want to get to that stage and just be barely hanging on by a thread- I want to get to that stage, excited about our time together- ready to start a new phase together, and delighted in the job we've done together as parents. The way to make that happen is to continue pouring ourselves into the marriage relationship- with physical and verbal intimacy... making sure that we're on the same page about life choices and events, and then continuing to work on it and work on it and work on it, and - well, you get the picture.
  7. Commit to do the maintenance! It's constant upkeep and work- but I've heard some analogies that it's kind of like a car or a house- that you can either do the regular maintenance and enjoy it for a LONG time, or you can skip the maintenance and end up with HUGE problems to fix. It's true- as a couple, we just try to do the maintenance and adjustments on the front end, rather than at some future date when there are way too many "issues" to narrow it down to what the real problem is. (You can use tools like our annual marriage checkup, even if you feel a little silly or uncomfortable at first, to keep talking about the things that matter.)
For further reading:
For female readers, I would HIGHLY suggest that you read "For Women Only" by Shaunti Feldhahn. It will give some great insights into the male psyche and make-up.
If you are a newly engaged couple, I would encourage you to talk through these things and establish a pattern of honest communication now

You can lay the way for a good marriage by communicating openly now, and giving yourselves realistic expectations about what's to come. I pray that this next phase of your life is a true thrill and a blessing to your life- that God will grow you and change you into the man or woman he wants you to be through this new role as husband or wife. 

Congratulations & many blessings!


Jess said...

By the way, before anyone brings up all the exceptions to each of these things, let me just remind you that this was written to a female friend of mine- thus, things are directed to the female half of the marriage. I don't feel fully adequate to give advice to a young man seeking advice about marriage to a woman. You'd have to ask my husband about that. So let's just avoid discussing all the additional comments that could be made to a young man by recognizing who this was written to, eh? :)


Anonymous said...

No male friendships? Really?

I feel sad for anyone who feels compelled to cut off all potential friendships with someone of the opposite gender.

Although most of my close friends are women, I have maintained some male friendships, which I value highly. There is no sexual tension or flirting in these relationships, and our respective spouses are not threatened by them.

When I used to work in an office setting, I became friends with some of my male colleagues. This was after my husband and I started dating, but before we were married.

I didn't have a problem with men "getting the wrong idea" about our interactions. I think I was very clear about not sending any "availability" vibes toward these men.

On one occasion a married colleague and I had to share a very small apartment in Moscow for a few days when our work-related visits overlapped. (The company rented the apartment for employees to use in Moscow.) Nothing happened, nothing was attempted by either side, no problem.

Back in the city we lived in at the time, I regularly socialized with him and his wife, and she didn't view me as a threat to their marriage.

My parents also had the "never go to bed angry" rule, which worked well for them.

Another thing my dad said he learned from his dad was that as a rule, when you disagree you should try to go 60 percent of the way toward your partner's position as a compromise. If both of you try to "meet each other halfway," you may fall short, but if both sides are trying to go more than halfway toward a compromise, they are likely to find one more easily.

Laurie B

Anonymous said...


Great advice! My husband and I thought our engagement was the hardest part of our relationship-- all the talking, discussing, etc. But, our marriage is great! We both know where we stand on things, and we're on the same page-- even if it takes some discussing.
Wonderful advice!!!


Anna S said...

Jess, thank you for this post! As someone who is currently preparing for marriage, I needed to read something like this right now. I especially agree with the point you make about marriage, and not children, being top priority. Children are God's gifts and blessings - but marriage is what ultimately keeps a family together. And children benefit from a stronger marriage, too.

Anonymous said...

Laurie B again:

Jess, if you don't mind my asking a few more questions, I am intrigued by this comment:

"Other Christian women will talk about how "cute" some actor or musician is... but this has always been off-limits for me. I don't even allow a HINT of attraction to be fed in my mind or heart-"

Do you really think that commenting on the attractiveness of, say, Jude Law puts someone on a slippery slope to infidelity or a broken marriage?

Noticing that someone is handsome does not usually (in my experience) lead to feelings of attraction toward that person.

In any event, I think it's unrealistic to expect that married people will never feel even a hint of attraction toward someone else.

The key is not to flirt or otherwise seek intimacy with anyone who you might feel attracted to.

In almost 15 years since my husband and I met, I have felt attracted toward three different men at various times (two of them before we were married, one since we were married).

All of these were passing "crushes" that I never, ever would have acted on. They were not men I was friends with and knew well. Who even knows why they sparked any feelings in me; I would not even describe them as physically "my type."

Anyway, it was obvious to me that the relationship with my then-boyfriend, now husband was the one based on true romantic feelings that would last a lifetime.

Years later, I feel no attraction toward any of those men, nor do I feel guilt about the way I once viewed them.

If you talk to couples who have been happily married for decades, I suspect that many of them will admit to the occasional passing crush on someone (not pursued to the point of physical or emotional intimacy).

I wouldn't want any married woman to feel panicked that her marriage is on the rocks the second she feels attracted to someone other than her husband.

Take a deep breath, recognize that human beings can have such feelings without acting on them, and that the feelings will pass in time, unlike your love for your husband.

You may not be old enough to remember Jimmy Carter's famous interview in 1976, when he said he had never cheated on his wife but admitted that he had "felt lust in my heart" for someone else.

To my mind, he taught an important lesson that we are all human, but we do not need to be slaves to feelings of lust and let those feelings wreck our marriages.

Jess said...

Here's the deal. Many women have a real problem with men who "look" at other women (and by that I mean with lust). But then they feed their minds on a shirtless Mel Gibson or a philandering Jude Law. We can't have it both ways. If I'm going to ask and expect my very visual husband to keep his eyes in check, then I'd better be doing the same, even if it means what some would view as drastic measures.

My point here is not that we don't NOTICE that someone is better looking than another person. That's natural. We all can look at Tyra Banks- even in a potato sack- and recognize that she is extraordinarily beautiful. The problem is when that internal acknowledgment becomes something we feed, something we dwell on.

What you feed will grow, and what you starve will die. Books that are directed towards men with lust issues tell them not to take the 2nd look, to train their eyes not to go back to "check out a little longer" the woman who they (naturally) noticed was beautiful, or wearing seductive clothes or whatever.

To me, the same principle applies here. I'm not saying we should "wreck our marriages" because we recognize that a certain actor is handsome. I'm saying that we ought not dwell on that person's looks, by continuing to talk about it or focus our minds on it. Just as we (or at least I) wouldn't want our husband to dwell on the good looks of another woman.

Just as I want his eyes to be filled and satisfied with me, I want my eyes, my heart, my mind to be satisfied with him. And if I'm actively FEEDING (not just recognizing, but FEEDING) an attraction to someone other than my husband, whether through comments to other women, or filling my mind with movies or romance novels, or any other method of focusing on a man other than my husband, my lust for others and a discontent with my husband is what will grow, rather than a love for him, which is what I want to grow.

Regarding your first comment, you "feel sad" for anyone who chooses not to have male friends... which I suppose includes me, although I don't desire your pity or sorrow on my behalf. My needs for friendship have been completely and abundantly provided for through the amazing women friends God has placed in my life, as well as the incomparable friendship I share with my husband. What would I need another male friend for, beyond my incredibly fun husband?

Now, that's not to say that I am not ever friendly with certain people who happen to be men- of course I am. Two of my best friends' husbands are people that I could have a friendly and open conversation with. But I just don't FEED those friendships. Do you see the difference? If we happen to see each other at the store, of course I would say hello and catch up on family news. But I don't invest in them. I don't want to. I'm not interested in them growing, apart from our interactions as couples. I hope the difference is clear.

To me, what you might call an unnecessary sacrifice is not that at all. Rather, I am not going to pursue unnecessary friendships that, in the course of time, could stir up things in my heart that would lead me into sin. Would it happen today? Tomorrow? Probably not. But we ALL know people who have fallen into unlikely affairs because they began having feelings for someone who was "just a friend" or "just a co-worker". It's not a sacrifice at all for me to head that one off at the pass by not feeding friendships with men other than my husband.

We're all human and yes, we all are capable of the very worst of sins (including adultery), but I believe there are choices we can make that make certain things less likely. This is one of those choices in my own life.


Claire said...

Amen to not commenting and dwelling on the looks of a man other than your husband! Keep encouraging women to love and cherish their own husbands. It is sad that I rarely hear women refer to their own husbands as "hot" or sexy. Marriage is so important because it is a picture to the world of God's character and of Christ's relationship to the church.

Claire Weaver

Anna S said...

Oh, and Jess, I totally agree with you on the male friendships issue. Sexual tension is natural and it's stupid to ignore the possibility of attraction. Why play with fire if you don't want to get burned?

Kim said...

I don't have much to contribute except to say that I really appreciate the advice and the discussion. It's helpful to think these things through ahead of time! :)

And mainly, I just wanted to say that I am so thankful you are back and safely settling in!

Brenda said...

One more thing I think would be helpful to the engaged couple is to discuss marriages they know. (Other than their parents). Do they have married friends? What do they see in that marriage that they like or dislike? (I like how they both help with the housework, what do you think? Or, I don't ever want us to put each other down like I see them doing, don't you agree?) Or you probably know some older folks who have had a long marriage and what things you admire about their marriage. Discussing these examples that have been placed before you can be helpful to help you think of some things you might not have thought of otherwise. After all, if you've never been married it's hard to think of all the things you need to discuss!
Great advice!

sharyn said...

Hi Jess:

Tried to post this over the weekend but something was going wrong with it -- anyway, an abbreviated version -- so glad you're back! And I wanted to recommend a book called "100 Questions to Ask Before You Say 'I Do'" by SUsan Piver. It is a thin little book, divided into sections like Religion, Sex, etc. with all kinds of questions to ask each other to elicit information about how the other party feels -- it is a secular book but has lots of thought-provoking questions about each person's view of what life should look like. I've given it as a gift to several engaged couples.

Again, welcome back!

Dollymama said...

I think this is a fairly good list. The only thing I would say is that once you're already "in love" often these conversations don't work out to be as productive as they could be before people are emotionally attached. (Obviously some of these topics would hopefully not be discussed with someone you aren't already serious with.)

My own experience is that most of the conversations we had before marriage about what we thought our marriage would be were useless. So many things change, and we knew so little before getting married. The big issues that have come up in our life were ones we couldn't have known ahead of time. Knowing character issues would have been more valuable than anything.

As a mother of six children now, I try hard to teach my kids about issues that matter and how to figure out if someone else is going to be a match for your beliefs, and what you can expect if you choose someone who doesn't share your beliefs in various areas.

You can ask and answer a million questions, but in the end, marriage to anyone is a blind leap of faith. You don't really know what you've got until you got it. :)

Jess said...

I see things a bit differently. You said: "once you're already in love", these conversations aren't as productive as they could be before emotional attachment. I see how that could be true if we're teaching our kids to be ruled by their emotions. But if we're teaching them to make wise choices and choose carefully, based on scriptural insight, wise counsel, and the Holy Spirit within them, then these conversations (whether we're "emotionally attached" or not) can be extremely helpful.

I also don't agree that "marriage to anyone is a blind leap of faith". That is, if you are talking about it in the way that most people think of as a blind leap of faith. As a stupid jump into an unknown place, hoping for a optimistic outcome. But again, if we've taught our children carefully, and given them a good (even if human and imperfect) example of a delightful marriage, then asking "a million questions" gets you much closer to being able to have faith in another person, rather than just taking a blind leap.

Maybe we're just using different semantics, but I don't see marriage as a blind leap of faith. I see it as a commitment to a person before God, given to you by God, as a means for your (and your husband/wife's) sanctification, purification, and oneness. Hopefully that commitment will be based on more than emotions and a hope for dumb luck.

Emotional attachment ought to be all the more reason TO ask these questions... to balance out your hormones and feelings with rational thought and careful, wise scrutiny. I would pray for each of my children to have as many conversations as possible, witnessing their potential spouse in as many circumstances as possible, before making a lifetime commitment. Instead of "living on love", I pray that they will make wise decisions based on careful determinations made by their heart spirit, AND mind. And I would pray that for anyone else contemplating marriage.


LisaM said...

Jess, you have some great discussions started here on your blog, and I hope with women who are thinking about marriage. I wonder if you've ever looked further into the idea of "courting" before engagement. I know of a couple in their 20's who have just entered into this arrangement, after the young man talked with her parents for a while about it. It seems pretty awesome to me - and allows for this conversation time way before making any commitments, or deep "emotional attachments". I think it's a lifetime arrangement, and not something that you can just decide is right for your children after all the years of hanging cute guys pictures on their walls. I guess that kind of behaviour really should be led by parents, but if parents aren't there to do it, a woman really does need to just tell herself what to do.

As for me, I agree with you about male friendships. I have several men I may refer to as friends, but to treat them as a "good friend" the way that my husband might, doesn't seem like a good idea at all. Especially the more I understand of the way men think - how can I ever judge if "nothing" is really going on with him? And why would I put a friend in that kind of tempting position, even if I am not tempted myself?

Very good thoughts from you, and I thank you for having the guts to share them.

Jess said...

I've heard of and seen courtship in action. Sometimes it works great, and sometimes it works (in essence) just like dating, where someone gets their heart broken.

I think I've come to a more settled place in my mind of believing that both dating and courtship can be good or bad depending on the circumstances and the attitudes of the 2 people in the relationship. I've seen both go well, and I've seen both go bad.

No matter what you call it, I think it's excellent for people to involve their parents and family when getting to know their potential spouse. It's important to see how your future husband interacts with your mom, for example. And important to get your dad's "read" on your potential mate!

So yeah, I'm all for biblical premarital relationships, regardless of what it's called! :)

Emily said...

Jess, I think I understand what Dollymama was referring to in regards to being emotionally attached. When you let your emotions get ahead of your logic or wisdom, at that point it could be VERY hard to objectively ask these questions without hearing the answers through your already-powerful attachment and emotions. Someone might filter out red flags because they are already "in love". But I get what you're saying Jess, in that if you are using biblical principles from the getgo, you wont even BEGIN to let yourself fall for someone who would not make a good potential spouse. For example, in my relationship, I tried very hard not to become emotionally attached until I had asked a bunch of tough questions and made sure that he was a godly man, and then I could "let myself" have strong feelings for him. After that it would be very hard to discern what my feelings were based on (a flood of brain chemicals/hormones? or on facts about the person?). So I think dollymama was trying to say to have this type of conversation before, (not just after) the feelings have taken hold. Once you've got the emotions, that's a hard train to stop if it ends up being an unwise match.

It also helps a ton to have confirmation from those around you in your church family.

Thank you Jess, you have encouraged me a ton with this blog and your subsequent comments. I agree with you, especially about the male friendships and guarding your affections for your spouse. Even planting/watering small seeds of infidelity can go unnoticed at first. Sin is a slippery slope. Why even go there, right?