Use Your Dates to Prepare for Marriage

Whitney Hopler

If you're engaged or seriously dating, you're likely excited about taking the next step in your relationship. Dating can be fun, but it can also be a valuable way to make sure you're ready for marriage and to build specific skills you'll need for a successful marriage.

Here are 10 dates you can use to prepare for marriage:

1. Sharing Hopes, Dreams, and Expectations: Talk about your expectations for your relationship. Discuss how important issues such as these are to you and your partner: commitment and security, companionship and friendship, sexuality and sensuality, affection and tenderness, encouragement, intellectual closeness, mutual activity, and building a family. Next, share your hopes and dreams with each other. Talk about topics such as where you would like to live, your ideal home, career plans and goals, finances, family traditions and holiday celebrations, your dream getaway, spirituality, your future family, and any other short- or long-term goals. Pray for God to give you a vision of how you could work together in the future to build a shared life.

2. Appreciating Your Differences: Seek to understand the ways you and your partner are alike, and the ways you're different. Consider whether you're feelings-oriented or facts-oriented, a private or public person, spontaneous or a planner, a live wire or laidback, a night owl or a day lark, time-oriented or not, and a saver or a spender. Make a list of your combined strengths and try to complement each other to minimize your weaknesses.

3. Communicating and Connecting: Recognize the three main communication styles - chatting (surface conversations), confronting (attacking someone else), and connecting (conversations that lead to intimacy and resolved differences). Strive to connect with your partner without confronting him or her, or defending yourself. Use "I" statements (instead of "you" statements) to describe how you think and feel about something. Then give your partner a chance to describe his or her own thoughts and feelings while you genuinely listen. Discuss how people communicated in your family of origin. Tell each other what you're current favorite and least favorite topics are to talk about together. Practice telling each other how you feel about various things (such as when your partner smiles at you, thanks you, or makes a sacrifice for you).

4. Solving Problems as a Couple: Understand that the key to resolving conflict is developing a way to look at an issue from the same side. Realize that, while you won't be able to reach an agreement on some issues, you can always fully express and understand each other's feelings about them. Choose a sensitive issue to discuss. Then share the floor as you discuss it: Each of you gets a turn to be the speaker and the listener. The speaker has the floor and keeps it while the listener paraphrases what the speaker has said. The speaker keeps statements brief and stops after each point to let the listener paraphrase. The listener focuses on the speaker's message instead of on what he or she wants to say. The listener doesn't rebut the speaker's message during the time to paraphrase it. Follow these steps when trying to resolve a conflict: Restate the problem, identify which of you feels the greatest need for a solution and the other person's contribution to the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and select an action plan. If you cannot find a workable solution to a specific problem, plan to ask your pastor, a counselor, a mentor couple, or a friend to help you work through it. End your date by doing something fun (like going out for ice cream) to celebrate whatever progress you've been able to make.

5. Managing Your Money: Before your date, evaluate your current debt, writing down the numbers. Consider what steps you can take to start reducing your level of debt. Define your financial goals and share them with your partner. Track your expenditures for a while so you can use that information to develop a workable budget. Then consider how you would like to allocate your money after you get married - all in one joint account, in two separate accounts with each of you making joint payments on bills, or in three accounts (one joint and two separate). On your date, discuss how your family managed money while you were growing up, and what you plan to do the same and differently. Share your information on each other's debts, budget, and financial goals. Talk about how you'd like to allocate your money after marriage. Honestly tell each other whether or not you're comfortable with each other's spending habits, and what would make you feel more comfortable. Share your career goals with each other and discuss how you plan to handle future career decisions (such as considering a job that required both of you to move to a new area).

6. Leaving and Cleaving: Talk to each other about your families of origin. Discuss topics such as your eating habits growing up; what chores you did around the house; how your parents disciplined you; how good your parents' marriage was and why; how your parents taught you to manage money; what types of crises you went through; what your parents taught you about sex; and what types of relationships you had with siblings, close friends, and grandparents. Discuss how you can love and respect your family members, but still leave them for your future spouse. Talk about your friends, and how your existing friends might adjust to your future marriage. Consider how you might build mutual friendships with other couples. Make a list of things you and your partner would enjoy learning or pursuing together (hobbies, recreation, etc.).

7. Celebrating Intimacy, Love, and Romance: On this date, you and your partner can define what intimacy, love, and romance mean to each of you. Rank how important each of these facets of a love life is to you each: trust, mutuality, honesty, intimacy, affection, and sex. Discuss what romantic moments you'd like to share and how you would like your partner to express love to you. Talk about how you'd like to plan sex into your schedule to make sure you have time for it. Be forthright, specific, and realistic about your desires and expectations and work together to bring them in sync with each other.

8. Realizing Roles and Planning for Family: Be candid with each other as you discuss your expectations for roles in marriage, and how you'd like to divide household chores and other tasks. Consider such areas as shopping, preparing meals, making beds, caring for the lawn, maintaining cars, cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, caring for pets, vacuuming, taking out the garbage, paying the bills, preparing tax returns, doing household repairs, and scheduling appointments. Try to work as a team to negotiate and compromise so you each share a fair load. On this date, also share your hopes and dreams about children. Honestly discuss whether you want any, how many, and when. Talk about whether or not you would consider adoption if you were unable to have children. Discuss how your lives would change after you become parents, whether one of you might stop working outside the home for a while, and how your roles within the marriage might change. If one or both of you will bring existing children into your future marriage, discuss how you plan to build a successful stepfamily.

9. Developing Spiritual Intimacy: Talk about your faith and how you live it out. Rate how important each of these aspects of a spiritual life are to you, and have your partner do the same: attending church and worshipping together, participating in church activities (such as Bible studies), having a personal faith in God, giving money and time to the church and other charities, forgiving each other, accepting each other unconditionally, celebrating religious holidays, reading the Bible together, having devotions together, praying together, and serving others together). Describe the spiritual atmosphere in your home as you were growing up. Share where you currently are on your spiritual journey and what your core beliefs you each have. Determine what core beliefs you and your partner share. Talk about whether and how you plan to pray together, whether you will attend the same church (and where), and how you can work together to serve others.

10. Choosing an Intentional Marriage: If you've decided by now that you're ready to get married, use this date to set goals for your future marriage. Talk about how involved you'd like to be in each other's everyday lives - minimally involved (where you have separate interests and live fairly independent lives), moderately involved (most couples fit into this category), or involved on a maximum level (such as working together as well as living together). Know that these involvement levels may change during different seasons of your marriage. Choose a mentor couple to help you and your partner when you're newlyweds. Make commitments to prioritize your relationship so you have enough time with each other on a regular basis. Then write out your marriage goals, including when you would like to accomplish them and what steps you plan to take to do so.

Adapted from 10 Great Dates Before You Say "I Do," copyright 2003 by David and Claudia Arp and Curt and Natelle Brown. Published by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich.,

Claudia Arp and David Arp, MSW, founders of Marriage Alive International, Inc., are educators, popular speakers, columnists, and award-winning authors. Frequent contributors to print and broadcast media, the Arps have appeared on the Today Show, CBS This Morning, and Focus on the Family. Their 10 Great Dates program is popular across the United States.

Curt Brown and Natelle Brown, MA, MFT, are directors of marriage ministry at Wellshire Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and advisors to the Colorado Marriage Project. They are experienced mentors to engaged couples, marriage coaches to newlyweds, and developers of the Marriage Alive "Before You Say 'I Do'" seminar.