Young adults asking whether or not they are ready to marry is quite common and very important. It is the biggest life-question you will ask, second only to “how shall I respond to the claims of Christ?”
I have been married to my wife for 30 years. We met in high school and got married shortly after graduation. We put each other through college — Jackie first, then me. And I have been working in the arena of marriage all my professional life. None of that means my thoughts are all spot on, but it does imply I have learned a thing or two. So let me give you my thoughts on how to get to good answers on this important question: How do I know if I’m ready to marry?
First, we must recognize the question has much less to do with where you or your prospective spouse are in terms of education and life-prep and much more to do with your beliefs and attitudes about marriage. Here are three things we must understand about marriage:
1) No one is ever fully “ready” for marriage. You must realize that “ready” is largely an illusion. Come to grips with that, and everything else is just small details. Gather a stadium full of couples married 40 years or more, and ask them if they were ready for marriage when they wedded. For most of them, that will be an odd question primarily because they know they were not prepared — nor ever could be — for what marriage would bring to them. They had to dive into that water to learn how to swim in it. And that is how it’s been for millennia of folks who have been marrying throughout all cultures. The question of being “ready” is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. This is related to and stems from the second thing we must understand about marriage.
2) Marriage is a transformative institution. This is both in terms of what Gary Thomas so wonderfully teaches us — what if God designed marriage to make us holy, rather than happy? — as well as marriage being about joining yourself to another person as one flesh and how that coupling demands that we change to become a better, more selfless person in ways that no other relationship can rival. Marriage is a profoundly powerful institution and exists in all human cultures precisely because of the change it effects in the people who participate in it.
3) The marriage vow anticipates trouble will come. If marriage were all about a relationship that goes smoothly and offers us no serious challenges, the marriage vow — for better or worse, rich or poor, sickness and health — would not be necessary. For who needs a vow when everything is roses? But the wedding vow anticipates these struggles and asks for unrevokable commitment before the fact. You are set for marriage when you can tell yourself (and your spouse and their family) you are serious and sober enough to recite your vows and really mean it.
Beyond appreciating what marriage actually is and does, you can know that you are able to marry when:
You can leave and cleave. Will you be able to put your spouse before any other earthly relationships, mom, dad, friends, siblings? This means he or she gets first consideration — even before yourself, ideally — and you will be there for her/him before all others. Of course, that doesn’t mean you stop being there for anyone else, but only that you don’t eclipse your spouse’s needs for the sake of others.
You can’t imagine life without this other person. One of the things that made me know marriage to Jackie was my destiny was because I couldn’t imagine living my life without her. If your answer to that question regarding a particular mate is “perhaps,” “probably” or “of course,” you are not ready to marry — at least this person. Now realize what this means and what it doesn’t. Could I live without my arms or my sight? Of course, technically I could live a long fulfilling life without both. But could I imagine living without either? Of course not. That is what I am talking about with a potential spouse. If you hesitate with such a question, you should reflect on why.
You want to deny yourself for the sake of your spouse. I was not and have not been a great success here. Does that mean I should not have gotten married? I don’t think so, but if I had been better, I would have saved my wife from a great deal of pain. Few people will ever be close to perfect in this area, but it is something you should be mindful of. Marriage is the giving of yourself and all you are to another person.
Older loved ones — parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, clergy — affirm your maturity. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves as clearly as we think. Sometimes we can be overconfident. More often we can doubt our own abilities. If you wonder about your maturity and development for marriage — which is natural — ask those who know you and love you. And trust their answer. They have the benefit of watching you grow over many years and knowing what marriage requires.
Notice I’ve not said anything about completing college, establishing a career, saving a wad of money, buying a house or being able to afford a killer wedding. Far more people through the ages have married without any of these — and been wildly successful — than married with them. That is because they have nothing to do with whether or not you are ready for marriage. If not being able to have a big wedding is keeping you from marrying your beloved, you should ask if your dream wedding is more important than being one with this person. There is no connection whatsoever between a big to-do wedding and a happy, successful marriage.
The other things — college, career, savings, house — these just might make the process of marrying and starting a family easier, but they are not essential to marriage. Let’s go back to our stadium of couples married 40 years or more. Ask them how many had more than one of these things under their belt before they got married. Not many would. And here they are, married 40 years or more.
There is a big difference between “ready” and “easier.” Even your parents might tell you these things are important because they want you to be more established than they were when they married. Don’t disregard their advice necessarily, but sometimes our parents can wish for us to be safer and more rational than God’s sovereignty might allow. I have four daughters. I have told each of them that they may marry at around 35, after starting dating at 28. I know I am going to have to come off this a bit.
Being ready for marriage is about having realistic expectations, understanding what marriage is all about and knowing that you are able to honor your marriage vows to this particular person because your love for them compels you to seek his/her happiness over your own. And no couple ever did this perfectly. And neither will you.
That truth should take a great deal of the pressure off.
Look for Part 2 of this blog post later in the week. Glenn will address various factors which affect a couple’s likelihood of marital success.