Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

How to Plan for a Successful Marriage

  • Deborah Thompson Contributor
  • 2010 17 Aug
How to Plan for a Successful Marriage

As Herb and I make plans to attend our dear friends’ daughter’s wedding, I am once again struck by the challenge that all couples face after the wedding is over--how do you make a marriage succeed over time?

Many couples work diligently for months to plan the “perfect” wedding. Every detail is addressed and decided upon. Contingency plans are devised, schedules are finalized, and preparations are thoroughly organized and arranged. There is even a rehearsal for the big day’s events. No component is left to chance; every possible circumstance is envisioned and accounted for.

But how many couples invest even a fraction of the time they spend in wedding planning on marriage planning? How many plan for the marriage at all? And yet, the morning after they say, “I Do”, they wake up as married couples and spend the next years of their lives trying to navigate their way to “happily ever after.” Sadly, many will never get there as nearly one-half of all marriages end in divorce.

And living together before marriage is no formula for success either. Several studies, including a recent book by Mike and Harriet McManus, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, indicate that around 67% of couples who live together before marriage eventually divorce, as compared with 45% of all marriages.

So what is the “magic formula” for a long and happy life together?

Well, I am of the opinion that making a marriage work starts L-O-N-G before the marriage and begins inside each of us. First we must become mature, loving, unselfish, forgiving, secure individuals with a clear understanding of our expectations, needs, likes, dislikes and requirements.

Read that again: mature, loving, unselfish, forgiving, secure. Does that describe you, or the person with whom you are involved? 

Do you clearly understand your expectations, needs, likes, dislikes, and requirements? Can you communicate them effectively, and honestly reconcile how well another person is suited to complement those prerequisites?

If you are not currently in a relationship, now is the perfect time to determine the traits and characteristics that are necessary in order for you to be happy being married. When you are not involved with someone, you can be more objective about your true assessment.

Taking a cue from the old “Ben Franklin approach”, be honest with yourself and develop two lists—one that inventories all the attributes, values and qualities that are a “must” for you--things you can’t live without. This can be anything from “is deeply spiritual” to “loves college football” to “faithful, kind, thoughtful and considerate”, to “has a positive outlook on life”. Bear in mind, this is YOUR list, so do some serious soul-searching here to compose a personal, meaningful, and descriptive analysis.  

On the other list, put everything that you cannot live with, perhaps “jealousy”, “infidelity”, “controlling personality”, “doesn’t want kids/dogs”, or “negative thinker” etc. Take the time to really examine what has worked and what has not worked in your previous relationships, and WHY. Be sure to periodically refine and update these lists as new thoughts come to you. And be as comprehensive as possible—remember you are seeking to define the traits that you will have to live with, day in and day out, year after year after year!

And make sure that these are character traits, not superficial features. Keep in mind that looks change over time and are a lousy indicator of whether you will be compatible and happy together. People gain weight, lose hair, (grow hair where it didn’t grow before), and develop wrinkles. Accidents can cause disfigurement, illnesses rob of our healthy skin, and gravity forces everything to bend and sag. So be sure to define what you want to see inside a person, not outside!

Then the next time you become involved with someone and start to feel yourself getting serious about them, pull out and review your lists. Use them to evaluate whether this person has more traits on the “can’t live without” list or the “can’t live with” list. And don’t be too eager to compromise—remember you made these lists after careful self-analysis and experience over time. Don’t be unreasonable, but don’t concede important points just because you want this to work out.

Realize that most of the problems that occur after marriage are caused by issues that were apparent beforehand; we just often choose to ignore those little “red flags” when they appear. The jealous husband was also the jealous boyfriend—you just chalked it up to the fact that he “cared” so much about you. And the “high maintenance” wife demonstrated those same “the world revolves around me” tendencies when you were dating. But back then; you just considered her “princess-like” qualities to be entertaining and endearing.

So, choose carefully! Don’t expect that your spouse will change to better suit you after you are married. Or that they will “grow up”, “become more secure”, “more faithful”, or “learn to compromise”. In fact, be realistic and accept that their minor annoyances may become major thorns in your side as time goes on. Maya Angelou has a very wise saying, “People tell you who they are, believe them—the first time.”

The bottom-line is to work on yourself before you marry to ensure that you are ready to assume the responsibilities of marriage. That you can make and accept decisions which are in the best interests of your new family, rather than just yourself. That you are sufficiently mature enough to forgive, are able to leave the past in the past, and can effectively communicate without anger, when a problem arises. And that you are a confident, secure, well-adjusted individual who is truly prepared to share their life with someone else, but doesn’t need a relationship in order to feel valuable.

Then make a wise choice of mate by really getting to know one another beforehand. Spend plenty of time together in various situations including stressful and challenging ones. Be clear about your (and their), expectations of marriage and of one another. Discuss finances, children, religion, career goals, family traditions, and household responsibilities. Look for any areas of incompatibility—I promise they will come up again! Attend couples counseling and/or engaged encounter weekends to gain a more objective view of your relationship. And most of all, be honest with one another, be yourselves, and don’t try to “put your best foot forward” just to make a good impression. You can’t keep up a pretense for your entire life!

But what about after the “I Do’s”? Is it too late to reconcile your compatibility requirements with your reality? Not at all! The same principals apply—you need to be, or develop into mature, loving, unselfish, forgiving, secure individuals. And you have an even greater incentive than before—now your marriage is at stake! But have faith—you can find your way together, especially if you are willing to adopt some tried and true biblical principals.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” ~Galatians 4:22  

If you adopt these attributes, you will be well on your way to formulating a strategy for a successful marriage. Take them one at a time and think about how you can both use them to improve your marriage and even your lives.

Be LOVING toward one another; remembering what attracted you to one another at the beginning of your relationship. Love each other as God loves you--be willing to forgive and don’t be judgmental.  

Practice loving, forgiving and being less critical towards others in your life as well, being mindful that we ALL make mistakes.

Embrace the JOYFUL side of life; have gratitude for all that is good around you. Recognize your blessings, even amidst the hardships and frustrations that are an inevitable part of life.

Choose a PEACEFUL existence. Make decisions that simplify your lives and allow you to experience more peace in your daily walk with God and with one another. Choose friends and activities that enhance your peace, rather than rob you of it. Live within your means, so that you can eliminate concerns about money. 

Be PATIENT with one another, remembering that you are each on your own separate spiritual journeys, even as you walk this path together. You will discover enlightenment at a different pace, but you can help each other to learn and to grow.

Treat one another with KINDNESS; speak lovingly and respectfully to each other using a calm, caring, and considerate tone of voice. Let your love be evident to one another and to others by the manner in which you speak to each other.

Let GOODNESS dictate your decisions so that you are virtuous, honorable and defined by integrity in all aspects of your life. Your professional, as well as your personal life, should reflect an honest, noble and ethical value system.

Be FAITHFUL and true in your commitment to God and to one another. Do not allow work, hobbies, outside interests or the allure of others to sabotage the covenant you have made together. Honor your vows by staying devoted to one another and to your marriage. Give one another your time and your talents, putting your marriage before the demands and temptations of this world.

Approach disagreements and difficulties with a GENTLE, compassionate, understanding spirit. Be sympathetic to one another’s problems and challenges, and considerate of one another’s needs. Cooperate with each other and be willing to compromise for the sake of your marriage.

Exercise SELF-CONTROL when you are angry, frustrated, disappointed, hurt, or tempted. Put yourself in the other person’s place and try to imagine the impact of your words and actions. Take care to choose what you say, how you say it; and what you do, very carefully. Don’t elect to “win the battle” and in the process, “lose the war”. Weigh your words and actions carefully; they will have an effect on your spouse and your marriage. Make positive choices rather than negative ones—err on the side of love, forgiveness and commitment to your marriage.  

You may have realized as you were reading, that adopting these attributes requires a mature perspective and viewpoint. It calls for putting aside your selfish inclinations and committing yourself to a cause greater than yourself. It involves thinking about someone else and how your actions affect them. It means that you must learn to communicate more constructively, taking care to temper your emotions so that your message is delivered and received in a positive and beneficial manner.

Incorporating these qualities into your marriage and your daily life will not be easy, and it will take lots of practice! I find that I need God’s help on a regular basis to consistently put me back on track. But a commitment to these values will enhance and enrich your union and even the quality of your daily existence.

So before you say, “I Do”, and especially afterwards, spend time on “planning” your marriage. Make the choice together to embrace the essential qualities of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

Use them as a guide to keep you on the right path when you stumble and fall. And let them be a litmus test to illuminate the source of any problems that arise. Most every difficulty can be traced back to a deficiency or weakness in one of these areas.

By adopting these characteristics and making them part of your “marriage plan,” you will have chosen a sturdy framework, a pattern of behavior that will enhance your relationship, help you to pinpoint the cause of your difficulties, and support you on your journey towards an enduring, successful, and happy marriage.  

“Life is short, and you love your wife, so enjoy being with her. This is what you are supposed to do as you struggle through life on this earth.” ~ Ecclesiastes 8:9

Deborah J. Thompson is a writer, artist and Stephen Minister.  Please visit her website for additional “Reflections” on Life and Marriage.  She has just finished the first draft of her first book, Your Life, Your Choice, which gives 5 simple steps to bring more Love, Joy and Peace into your life.