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? 

Happiness is a temporary state that comes and goes as circumstances change – and you can count on the fact that your future spouse will sometimes let you down and make you feel unhappy.  But the joy that God offers you if you invite Him to use your marriage to transform both of you will last through any circumstances. 

Go into marriage committed to learning how to love each other as Christ loves you.  Don’t waste your time and energy looking for fulfillment from any source other than God Himself – your ultimate satisfaction will always come through a love relationship with God.  If you mistakenly look to your future spouse to fulfill you, you place a burden on your future spouse that he or she can’t bear.  So go to God to have your needs met.  Take good care of yourself spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically, so you’ll be in good shape to love your future spouse in healthy ways. 

Evaluate your expectations.  If either you or your future spouse are harboring unrealistic expectations, your relationship can suffer from frustration, disappointment, and conflict.  So decide to claim, feel, recognize, understand, evaluate, and express your expectations clearly – before they lead to significant problems in your relationship.  Discuss each other’s expectations for at least these areas:

  • sexual relationship;
  • handling finances;
  • social life or friends;
  • matters of recreation or how to spend leisure time;
  • household tasks; marital roles;
  • religious matters;
  • demonstration of affection;
  • ways of dealing with in-laws;
  • goals, philosophy of life, careers; and
  • making major decisions. 

For each expectation, ask: “Is this expectation supported by objective reality? Is it objectively true that he or she should act this way?”, “Am I hurt in any way if this expectation is not fulfilled?”, “Is this expectation essential to the attainment of any specific goal I have for my marriage?”, What does this expectation do to my future spouse’s perception of me?”, and “Does this expectation help me achieve the kind of emotional responses I want for my spouse and me in marriage?”  Let go of unrealistic expectations, and approach your future spouse in respectful ways about valid expectations.

Learn about the fear dance you’re doing together.  Recognize that your fears reflect your wants, and when you believe that your desires won’t be fulfilled, you feel fear.  For example: If you fear rejection, you want acceptance, and if your future spouse pushes one of your emotional buttons connected to your desire for acceptance, you’ll feel afraid that he or she may reject you. 

When someone pushes one of your fear buttons, you react either with fight (getting angry, escalating, using sarcasm, throwing tantrums, defending yourself, invalidating the other person, trying to fix the problem, or complaining) or flight (withdrawing, stuffing your feelings, indulging in negative beliefs, denial, passive aggressiveness, manipulation, numbing out, stonewalling, or shutting down). 

Recognize the steps you and your future spouse take in your own fear dance, and how to deal with them in productive ways.  Describe a recent conflict or negative situation with your future spouse that really pushed your buttons.  Identify what buttons got pushed: How did what happened during the conflict make you feel about yourself, and what message did you receive?  What did you do when your buttons got pushed? What coping strategies did you use?

Take personal responsibility.  Don’t blame your future spouse for how you feel or behave.  That would be giving him or her the power to determine your worth and identity.  God will hold each of you individually accountable to Him for what you do and say.  Ask God to help you take full personal responsibility for your feelings, actions, and responses – no matter what choices your future spouse makes.  Pray for the strength you need to respond to your future spouse in healthy ways like being patient, kind, loving, humble, giving, honoring, and tender. 

When you encounter conflict, create space from each other to get away for a time to calm down and make an appointment to work out the issue later.  Identify the emotions you’re feeling and what triggered them.  Identify what you want, and take your desires to God, asking Him to provide for you. Then respond to your future spouse in loving ways.

Engage in heart talk. Care about your future spouse’s feelings and accept the validity of those feelings – even when you disagree. Find out what’s behind the emotions that your future spouse feels. Listen carefully and reflect back what you heard, giving your future spouse opportunities to clarify.

Forgive each other.  Constantly be willing to forgive your future spouse whenever he or she hurts or offends you.  Whenever you hurt or offend your future spouse, ask for his or her perspective on what happened, validate that perspective, admit your mistakes, and seek forgiveness. Be patient and honor your future spouse’s boundaries during the process of rebuilding trust.

Find win-win solutions.  In marriage, the two of you will be on the same team, so you can’t have any win-lose solutions to problems.  Any time one team member loses, every member of that team loses. You’ll either win or lose together, so decide to find win-win solutions to your mutual problems. 

Work together to make decisions about which both of you can feel good. Think and pray through each issue at hand until you find the right solution, and be willing to make reexamine the solution after you put it into practice and rework if necessary.

Leave and cleave.  Remember that your marriage is your most important relationship after your relationship with God and should be placed above all your other human relationships. When you get married, you should:

  • break away from the old relationship dynamics you’ve had with parents, siblings, and extended family;
  • shift the priority of your friendships;
  • separate from past romantic and opposite-sex relationships;
  • leave your single lifestyle behind; and
  • resolve past emotional baggage. 

Then you can create a single marital identity out of your two distinct personalities and bond to your spouse.  Share with each other clearly the specific ways in which you can make each other feel loved.  Then take action to do so as often as possible.

Published June 25, 2009.

Adapted from Before You Plan Your Wedding … Plan Your Marriage, copyright 2008 by Dr. Greg Smalley and Erin Smalley with Steve Halliday. Published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, West Monroe, La., http://christian.simonandschuster.com/howard.

Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley have been married for 16 years. They have two daughters, Taylor and Maddy, and a son, Garrison. The Smalleys live in Siloam Springs, Arkansas and work together at the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University. One of the exciting aspects of their work at CRE is directing a large, multi-million dollar healthy marriage initiative called NWA Healthy Marriages. The Smalleys speak together around the county and do intensive relationship coaching for both married and engaged couples.