Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Dr. Greg Smalley and Erin Smalley's book, Before You Plan Your Wedding … Plan Your Marriage, (Howard Books, 2009).

You can help prevent divorce before you even get married.  If you use the time you’re engaged to learn healthy relational patterns, you can avoid the hurtful patterns that creep up in marriage and often lead spouses to divorce.

The key is creating and maintaining an emotionally safe environment for your relationship, so both you and your future spouse will be naturally inclined to open your hearts to each other and build the intimacy that can bond you for a lifetime.

Here’s how you can create a safe relationship before your wedding day so you can enjoy a close marriage afterward:

Honor each other.  Ask God to help you view each other as He sees you – true treasures who are made in His image.  Pray for that perspective to govern all your words and actions between each other.  When your future spouse shares deep thoughts, feelings, and dreams with you, handle them with interest, curiosity, and care. Let your future spouse know that you will love, accept, and value him or her no matter what. 

Set boundaries around your heart to protect yourself from being mistreated.  Don’t tolerate any behavior that dishonors you, such as screaming, cussing, belittling, or stonewalling.

Deepen your knowledge about each other. Use your engagement period to focus your attention on each other and learn as much as possible about each other before you get married. Don’t rush to the altar; take as much time as necessary to get to know your future spouse well before the wedding. 

Build a vibrant spiritual relationship with each other by establishing a habit of praying together regularly. Discuss expectations for finances, religion, careers, sex, children, family, holidays, and your honeymoon. Talk about each other’s family backgrounds, friends, and personal memories. Learn about each other’s personal interests, habits, hidden routines, medical issues, and true character. Share your respective needs and dreams for the future.  Discuss the roles you each expect to play in your future marriage, and set goals for your life together. 

Get some premarital training from your pastor or a Christian counselor, and read books that can help you each prepare for marriage. Get some advice and mentoring from couples who have been married a long time. Try to spend as much time together as possible while you’re engaged, rather than being separated due to your jobs or other circumstances. 

Avoid premarital sex; it will damage your future marriage relationship in significant ways.  Pray for the strength you need to abstain from sex with each other until your wedding night. Think and pray about a clear picture of what you want to accomplish during your engagement – what your ultimate goal should be – (such as deepening the sense of connection you feel with each other or getting counseling to deal with past issues or learn how to manage conflict) and begin with the end in mind. 

Understand God’s purpose for marriage. God’s goal for your marriage isn’t your mutual happiness.  It’s much more than that: God wants to use your marriage to help you become more like Christ. An important part of that growth will happen when you and your future spouse encounter challenges, so don’t expect your marriage to be easy and free of pain.  Realize that, if your goal for marriage is just grabbing happiness, what will happen to your relationship when one or both of you isn’t happy?