In medieval times, when a man wished to marry a woman he loved, it was customary for him to leave a hawthorn branch at the door of his beloved on the first day of May. If she wanted to accept his proposal, she would return the branch to his door. If, however, she left a head of a cauliflower at her door the next day, the young man would know that he had been rejected. I wonder if the uninterested, yet sensitive gals of the day would have also left him a side of beef and a loaf of bread so the poor guy could at least have a full meal.
Times have changed since medieval days. The majority of women are no longer surprised with a hawthorn branch, or an engagement ring for that matter. Long before the proposal, modern couples have countless DTRs (Define the Relationship talks) and late night discussions about compatibility, dreams for the future and personal preferences for princess or emerald cut diamonds.
Unfortunately, many of these deep discussions often end once a couple is engaged. Within hours of giving and accepting a ring, a church is booked, reception halls are explored and the whirlwind begins. What does it mean when couples spend more time getting ready for the wedding than for the marriage?
Troubling statistics show 40 to 50 percent of marriages (of non- believers and Christians) end in divorce. With this in mind, no one can refute the serious need for engaged couples to spend more time discussing their compatibility and less time debating what songs the DJ ought to play at their reception. What’s most disturbing is how many couples have dismissed the many red flags that have popped up during their engagement because they were too caught up in planning a perfect wedding.
I’m still haunted by the memory of one Christian friend who confessed to me and the other bridesmaids, the night before her wedding, “Wouldn’t it be cool if tomorrow we got married, went on an awesome honeymoon, had incredible sex, came home, opened our presents, divided them up and then split?” Whoa. Can you say, “red flag?” Her comments caught us so off guard, that we all just sort of laughed it off, albeit nervously.
It didn’t help our consciences much the next day when, moments before she walked down the isle, she turned to us and said, “Tell me I’m doing the right thing you guys. Tell me I’m doing the right thing.” What could we say? The music was playing. Her fiancé was standing a hundred feet away. Her parents had paid for a huge reception. And the cake looked really tasty.
Now older, wiser and full of regret, I can tell you what I wished I had said. I grieve the fact that I didn’t have the guts to pull her aside that very moment and say, “You’re not married yet. You are not trapped. You can call this thing off right now. Your parents will be way more willing to lose some money than see their daughter marry the wrong man!” But I kept silent. And tragically, they divorced a few years later.
The bullet train of engagement is a difficult engine to slow down, let alone stop. The momentum is fierce. Hope is often blind. And the fantasy of an idyllic wedding day can warm most any cold feet. The world will tell you that the perfect dress, perfect flowers and perfect cake can help ensure that you’ll live happily ever after. Such damaging advice is everywhere you look. I even found one website that encourages engaged couples to “Be excited, happy and joyful. Be confident. Answer everyone’s questions with assurance and revel in the new plans you are making with your sweetheart. Everyone is expecting you to act silly, be happy and even a little giddy.
Whatever you do, don’t let them down.” Whatever you do, don’t listen to lame advice like that. The truth is it’s better to break off an engagement now than a break a marriage vow later. Sure, I realize that in our day and age, everything’s disposable. Even Oprah had a show where first marriages were referred to as “starter marriages.” But as Christians, we can’t take lightly the fact that God hates divorce.
How can you be absolutely sure that it’s God’s will for you to marry your fiancé? In addition to fervent prayer and the wise counsel of friends and family, there are many resources to help ensure you’re well suited to marry each other. One of the most popular is Dr. H. Norman Wright’s best-selling marriage preparation book Before You Say I Do. In it he discusses the importance of getting on the same page with your fiancé to adjust to personality and background differences, clarify role expectations, develop spiritual intimacy, discuss finances, build healthy in-law relationships and more. It’s a must-read for any engaged Christian couple.
Even better than reading a book together is going for counseling. Premarital counseling can help you align your relationship with God’s will for your lives; that brings Him honor. It can also help you cope with all the high, low and frazzling moments of the engagement period. Psychotherapist Nicole Dockter says, “These days, to do nothing and expect something from your marriage is quite unlikely. Pre-marital counseling can mean a harmonious, blissful engagement instead of one that is difficult and filled with misunderstanding.”
Willy Wooten, Director of Counseling for Focus on the Family, has a huge heart for engaged couples and even volunteers as a mentor to engaged couples at his church. He’s seen first-hand how premarital counseling helps couples gain the skills to work through issues now — and avoid huge problems down the road.
Not everyone likes the idea, though. He’s seen couples initially panic at the idea of premarital counseling. To them he says, “It just makes sense to take a closer look at any issues you may be struggling with. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon the relationship. Don’t throw away the cheese — just cut off the mold. Getting counsel before you get married will help you grow together and go past the obstacles. It’ll strengthen your relationship for the future by helping you take an honest look at where you currently stand.”
Still if your relationship looks more like gorgonzola than cheddar, it may be a bit trickier to cut off the moldy parts. It’s true the little things that bug you now about your fiancé will only drive you crazy later on. And if the things that bug you are big things: character flaws, spiritual immaturity, mismatched priorities, etc., you have to realize things are not going to be better when you get married. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Am I willing to live with this forever? Can I accept this person and love him/her even if he/she never changes?”
If the answer is no, seek God’s face on the matter. He promised, “If you seek Me, you will find Me when you seek me with all your heart” He will give you the wisdom and courage and the peace to do the right thing if you ask Him to. It may mean slowing down — postponing the wedding day. Or it may mean breaking off the engagement entirely. Ask anyone who has ever cancelled the wedding for the right reasons, and they’ll tell you they don’t regret it.
So, your parents bought your dress, your uncle already bought his plane tickets and Aunt Myrtle’s almost done with your monogrammed heirloom quilt. You are not trapped (think eBay). Feeling the weight and burden of getting married to the wrong person? You can lose 100 or more lbs. in a day: say good-bye to your fiancé. Maybe you’ve already given her a ring and don’t want to break her heart; a lifetime of unhappiness together costs a lot more than two months’ salary.
As painful as breaking off an engagement will be, it’s not nearly as painful as being married to the wrong person. Following the Lord’s lead on this can free you up to find the person who is truly right for you. Marriage requires a good, God-given match. And it’s true what they say about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right, “When you know, you know.” And you’ll know if you don’t know, you know? So, don’t complicate it. If the shoe fits, wear it. If the ring doesn’t, give it back.
Copyright 2005 Kara Schwab. All rights reserved.