So you’ve picked a phenomenal person to tie the knot with. You want a healthy marriage. You want your union to last. You want to honor God with this connection… but how?
Christians are often interested in honoring the God of the Bible with their marriages, but they’re not sure how to prepare. While many couples make it look easy by keeping their dirty laundry behind closed doors, the truth is long-term healthy marriage is difficult and takes intentional work— not only to last, but also to be enjoyable.
Not every tragedy can be anticipated, but quite a few can be avoided with some good planning! Here are 9 tips you can use to prepare for a healthy marriage.
#1 Invest in Some Professional Quality Pre-marital Counseling
A lot of Christian couples view premarital counseling as an optional perk, “if you can afford it.” But good pre-marital work can prevent worlds of trouble. Why would you spend thousands of dollars on an event to celebrate your union while skimping on the things that will actually help you succeed?
Another mistake Christians make is only doing premarital work with a pastor. While I love my pastors and find them essential for my spiritual life, they frankly aren’t trained in the practical work of relationships. They can help you learn what the Bible says, but the Bible doesn’t say everything. It’s not a scientific textbook, a self-help book, or a life-manual. It’s a deeply meaningful revelation about who God is.
To learn the practical pieces of healthy relating, you need the Bible and the support of some wise, loving professionals who are masters-level trained and ethically bound to set you up for success. Relationship therapists are schooled in how humans work best and how to help you connect well. They are very aware of the typical pitfalls and have valuable tools for helping you avoid them (or recover from them).
In the meantime, you can also set up a good post-wedding plan for maintaining relational health by finding a great marital therapist with whom you can do regular check-ups. (I suggest a once-a-month or once every-other-month plan for the first year of marriage.)
#2 Learn How to Fight Fair
Ok, maybe not fight, but learn how to resolve conflict. Many Christian couples rush into marriage for a variety of reasons and fail to do the prep work of learning how to get along once the rose-colored glasses fall off. I suggest couples know each other a full year before tying the knot just for this reason. You never know how different seasons will affect your partner until you watch them go through them.
With each passing season will come new challenges and stressors. You’ll get to see how they relate with their family, their friends, and their life responsibilities. You’ll get to see if their character has integrity or if they are just a wishful thinker.
Once you see their true colors come out, you will have some problems. And if no problems ever surface… beware. Only liars are “happy/easy” all the time. Once the differences reveal themselves, then the good work begins! It’s time to learn how to negotiate. Can you each share your emotions vulnerably? Can you be clear about your unmet expectations, grieve them, and adjust to reality in truth and grace? Can you balance the meeting of legitimate needs and build up your resources so the strain doesn’t eat away at your intimate connection?
Like I said earlier, you won’t be able to anticipate all the stressors of your upcoming marriage, but learning to navigate in the freedom before marriage will help you build the tools you need for long-term success.
#3 Get a Good Handle on Your Family-of-Origin Baggage
Everyone brings baggage from their family of origin. I mean, come on–we’re humans! Not one of us is parenting perfectly. As much as we don’t want to, we damage one another. It’s really important to look honestly and gracefully at the patterns and habits you learned from your respective families.
When I say look honestly, I mean to be real about what happened. Consider the values of your family, the addictions, the hurts. How did they treat different genders? What roles did family members play? What was your role? What were the family rules about expressing emotions, asking for help, showing love? How did all of that affect you?
When I say to look gracefully, I mean to do the work of forgiving and healing so that you don’t carry unnecessary pain into your new union.
Many people want to look either honestly or gracefully, but struggle to do both. Some are very honest but so bitter about their experiences. Those people often end up pendulum swinging and creating a whole new problem for themselves. Others want to rush past the pain in the name of grace, but struggle to see the real effects of those injuries, thereby keeping themselves blind to the beautiful healing work Jesus actually wants to do through their pain.
Without good family-of-origin work, you’re likely to fall into similar pits in the new family you’re building (or exact opposite pits). Your soon-to-be spouse can be a compassionate companion to you in this work, as they can be an outside observer, seeing things you might miss if digging all on your own. Again, if this feels daunting… time to make a counseling appointment.
#4 Set Holiday Expectations
A related conundrum many couples experience is the wild differences in how they want to celebrate holidays. I just about fell apart when I learned that stockings weren’t an essential element of the way my husband’s family rang in Christmas Eve and he about died thinking we would have to travel to four different sets of extended family to open presents on Christmas day. (His family eats nachos and enjoys their presents that they open ON CHRISTMAS EVE… WHAT?!?) Those family traditions can feel identity-level important and likely won’t change without some grief.
Not only do you need to talk about how your families-of-origin practiced the holiday celebrations and how you want to celebrate, but you also need to clarify how you’d like to spend time with your respective families over the holidays. Time with family can be wonderful and stressful. Make a plan for good self-care and couple-care during those experiences.
#5 Clarify Your Physical Health Plan
Many couples get together just as they’re starting a new phase of life (e.g. finishing college, starting a new job, moving out of their parents’ house, etc), which means lots of things are shifting in their lives at the same time, including how we take care of our physical bodies. Differences in approach to physical health can be a major source of contention for married couples. Prevent this by addressing it before you’re hitched.
The trifecta of health is 1) eat, 2) sleep, and 3) move. All three affect each other significantly. If you’re not moving regularly, it’s likely harder for you to sleep. If you’re not sleeping well, you probably don’t have the energy you need to move and live. What and how we eat affects everything from our brain function to our finances.
This isn’t a blog on how to be physically healthy, but I highly suggest you and your future spouse talk about your values and plans for caring for these things. You will likely be the biggest influence on each other moving forward, so it’s important to be on the same page about what you want. You will also likely be the ones taking care of each other in the event of a health ailment. Avoid resentment by making sure you’re both putting in equal effort. (This doesn’t necessarily mean doing the same workouts, but equally prioritizing taking care of yourself.)
#6 Anticipate New Romance Needs
Romance during the dating period tends to come easily for most folks because the relationship is new. You likely live in different homes and have your own spaces, so “coming together” is an easily exciting dance or a playful game. But once you move in together, it can be a bit harder to experience the same eager anticipation when you regularly smell each other’s morning breath and know when the other person poops.
But don’t fear! Romance is still possible! You just have to make a plan to provide the separateness needed to build longing and excitement. I suggest talking about what works for each of you to feel wooed. How do you like to be initiated with and pursued? What kinds of things put you in the mood for connection?
If sex feels intimidating to you, or full of shame, it’s time to do some work healing from the purity culture you grew up in. I have a whole course dedicated to this type of recovery. The Truth About Holy Sex can be used as a marriage preparation course to teach you God’s beautiful design for sex and help you form a plan to make sex enjoyable for both of you as you move into a deeper level of vulnerability.
Budget for this essential element of long-term joy (dates, toys, time away together). And don’t forget to include a little mystery or novelty every once in a while to keep things spicy.
#7 Develop a Team Work Strategy
Merging your life with another human includes a lot of moving parts. From finances to kid care, from vehicle maintenance to meal prep, from house cleaning to lawn care, the adjustments can feel endless. You are not only gaining a life-long friend and lover, but also a roommate and business partner!
Hopefully over the course of your year(s) together figuring out if you’re a good match for one another you have found opportunities to discuss some of these details. Even then there may be a few you didn’t realize would be important. This is why I highly recommend a regular “staff meeting” for married couples. And you can start that practice now as a way to make sure you’re on the same page about wedding plans!
The Pre-Marriage Staff Meeting isn’t a date or just a hangout, but a purposeful weekly meeting of the minds on your joint life. You can keep a shared note in your phone of ongoing agenda items. This keeps you from losing track of details and helps you be on the same page about who is responsible for what. It can also be a great time for intentional prayer over your lives together. If you’d like help with this idea, see my freebie on the Marriage Staff Meeting.
#8 Clarify Your Life Goals
This might seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve met quite a few divorced couples who have fallen apart over differing values. The romantic notion of a “soul mate” is attractive and can be mind-bogglingly hot, but the real marathon is only won by couples who are on the same page about what they want.
Believe it or not, people get married for different reasons and have different expectations for the perks they’ll receive in that union. It’s a great idea to make sure you’re both wanting the same things and that you agree on what it is you’re willing to give. Ask questions about spirituality, sexuality, career and financial priorities, and raising kids. A good pre-marital counselor can help you hit the high points here as well. It’s amazing how much trouble you can ward off by having direct, intentional discussions about things that might feel obvious to you.
And my most important suggestion for marriage preparation is to work on differentiating. Differentiation means learning to discern and separate your experience and responsibilities from your partner’s.
I often see Christian couples misunderstanding that when they get married and “become one” with their partner that they somehow lose their individual identity. (As a side note here, I read that verse in Matthew 10 as merging lives in a practical way and a reference to the physical, sexual union that happens, rather than a soul-merging action).
As the God of the Bible speaks to individuals directly, this suggests He also relates to us individually. While we’re still inextricably tied to the Body of Christ (which is a whole community of diverse individuals), we don’t ever lose the personal responsibility for our own behaviors.
Christians in healthy marriage should look like two strong trees standing side by side, each with their own healthy root systems, not two wobbly, unstable trees leaning against each other for dear life. Too much support on one “tap root” would mean fragility and likely disaster.
Differentiation means owning your needs and taking responsibility for getting them met appropriately, even when your future spouse tells you no. This means communicating your wants clearly without demand or entitlement. This means maintaining your own friend group, spiritual life, and life-giving hobbies, even if your future spouse isn’t into those same people and things. This means taking care of yourself so you have something to give in the marriage. If you’re not sure how to do this, it’s time to get your name on a counseling waitlist.
Preparing for Marriage to Set Your Relationship up for Success
If you’re looking to tie the knot in the near future, I hope you will consider these nine tips in your preparation. As in many other things, prevention is better than cure (and so much less expensive too!). Doing the groundwork in the freedom before commitment will set you up with great habits and a solid foundation for a life-long loving connection with your favorite human.