Why It Takes a Church to Make a Wise Marital Choice
A few tips to get the most from others’ wisdom about dating and marriage
That’s why it’s so helpful to have some fellow climbers on the ground who can survey the rock/mountain from a wider perspective and suggest an alternate path. They’re not panicking so they’re able to think clearly and give objective advice. They just might spare the stuck climber from a nasty fall.
It’s not too much of a hyperbole to compare rock climbing to dating. It’s difficult to say what I’m about to say in a way that isn’t insulting, but since it’s true for all of us — anyone who has a brain, really — I hope you won’t take it personally. When we enter a romantic infatuation, we all become at least slightly stupid. When we enter a romantic infatuation, we all become at least slightly stupid. We just do. Infatuation and its corresponding liabilities comprise a neurochemical response that is predictable and certain.
The way many researchers describe infatuation is an “idealization” of the one you love. You focus on strengths (many of which might be imaginary) and are blind to weaknesses (many of which are readily apparent to outside observers). You “idealize” this person to make them the kind of person you want them to be. It should be clear that in this state you’re in no position to make an objective choice if you rely only on your feelings. Dr. Thomas Lewis, a neuroscientist, puts it this way: “Love may not be literally blind, but it does seem to be literally incapable of reason and the levels of appropriate negativity necessary for realism.”
Your brain is so focused on two tasks during infatuation (getting that person and keeping that person) that it doesn’t have much left over to evaluate whether someone is worth getting or worth keeping. If you enter this battle without the guidance of friends, family members, and pastoral support, you’re likely to ignore obvious cues and even defend indefensible behavior. You can’t be fully objective when infatuation takes root, and this is as true of grown adults (20s, 30s and 40s) as it is of kids in their teens.
For that reason, it’s wise to involve others in your decision-making process. Here are a few tips to get the most from others’ wisdom.
If you wanted to open a particular franchise, wouldn’t you at least try to talk to someone who has opened a similar franchise before? Why not seek the wisdom of someone who has the benefit of hindsight in marriage and dating, particularly when the choice of who to marry is such a momentous one?
If your relationship really is all that great, ask your mentor, counselor or parents the following questions:
● If someone did have concerns about our relationship, what do you think those concerns would be? (This gives them a little distance to speak in a way that won’t seem threatening to you and that may help them be a bit more honest.)
● If we did get married, what do you think my two greatest frustrations will be with my future spouse?
● What might I be compromising with this choice?
● Tell me honestly, if you were to rate the wisdom of this match on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “a disaster within weeks” and 10 being “you couldn’t do better,” where would you put us? (The 1-10 scale allows them to put their advice in perspective; no relationship is perfect, but you want to get a feel for just how imperfect your marriage seems to an objective observer. I’d be wary about anything less than an “8.”)
Many times, however, the perspective you need isn’t about being warned; it’s about needing hope. Several young people have told me their own homes were so dysfunctional they wouldn’t have had the courage to get married if they didn’t spend significant time with a few healthy couples. If that’s you, you don’t need advice to stay out of marriage; you need advice to be willing to get into it.
I have worked with a young man whose parents’ marriage was circus crazy. He saw his dad act in deplorable ways and his mom respond in pathetic ways. He was wary of even considering a romantic relationship. All he saw was betrayal, desperate clinging, vicious accusations, and a family thrown into chaos. He saw all the liabilities of marriage and none of the promise.
Just because your parents had a miserable marriage doesn’t mean you will, too. Just because many marriages fail doesn’t mean that others never succeed. Many do. If you have an overly negative view of marriage, use healthy couples in the church to give you hope. Ask someone who loves his/her spouse, “What are your three favorite things about being married?”
A Church’s Challenge
A man might think he’s mastered football in college, but the first game he plays in the NFL will quickly tell him the same game can be played on an entirely different level. A woman might think she’s got her instrument mastered — until the first day she arrives at Juilliard and hears the brilliant performance that makes her think she’s actually just beginning.
Marriage isn’t easy — it’s equally as difficult as mastering an instrument or athletic feat. Inspiration comes from seeing someone who has been at it a bit longer (or a lot longer) and learned to excel.
If you men didn’t grow up with a dad who cherished your mom, you need to spend time with a godly husband who will demonstrate just what cherishing a woman looks like. If you grew up with an emotionally distant mother, you women need to see how healthy marriages are based on wives learning how to really love their husbands (Titus 2:4).
I wrote in Sacred Marriage how, early on in my marriage, I was humbled by the practical care demonstrated by a seminary professor toward my wife. That kind of humble service takes time to develop, but the conviction to start developing it began years earlier than it might have because Lisa and I consciously spent time with more mature couples that could show us we weren’t “there” yet.
If you don’t have strong role models, ask a pastor or church leader to place you in a small group that has some of the healthiest marriages in the church. Then watch them interact. How do they speak about each other? What happens when they disagree? What’s their level of affection? No two couples will be alike — there isn’t one “right” way to act as a married couple — but get a feel for what a generally healthy marriage looks and sounds like. Then use that to evaluate your own relationship — are you on that track? Or does the way the healthy couples treat each other reveal some unhealthy patterns in your own relationship?
One of the challenges in seeking outside advice is that opinions often conflict. What do you do when that happens?
To put it bluntly, you need to learn to evaluate your evaluators! You need to figure out why the advice conflicts by trying to determine what drives their advice.
For instance, if someone is in a difficult marriage of their own, they may make unfair assumptions by projecting their own woes onto you. This doesn’t mean you should dismiss them out of hand, however. If someone married an addict and sees some of the same signs in your potential spouse, pay attention. In general, however, seek the advice of those who are relatively satisfied in their marriage.
Second, make a distinction between personal preference and biblical values. If a parent is against a marriage because your future spouse is considering ministry and they think that won’t pay enough, they simply have a different set of values that aren’t relevant to you. On the other hand, if even a non-Christian parent says, “I think your future husband is a flirt,” or “I think your girlfriend is a narcissist,” you might want to take a step back and see if you’re blinded to something. Those are value issues that can sink a marriage.
Preferences, on the other hand, are something entirely different. Being married to an introvert or extrovert, someone who hunts and fishes or shops and cooks, is a matter of preference. It’s fine to flat out disagree with your parents about these things. You are under no obligation to choose someone who makes your parents proud or who you think would do best relating to your parents. You’re the one who will be living with him/her so choose someone that’s a good fit for you, first and foremost.
It’s Not About Mystery
One of my primary tasks when working with premarital couples is to get them away from the mystical “God must have just brought us together so nothing else matters” to the rock solid place of, “I’m making a very important decision of my own free will. Am I sure it’s a wise one?”
Proverbs 12:15 warns, “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.” This is a continuing theme in the book of wisdom: “Listen to advice and accept instruction” (19:20). “Make plans by seeking advice” (20:15).
In these passages and more, God is all but imploring us to seek wise, objective, outside advice for all major decisions, and few decisions will ever impact you as much as the decision about who you marry. Don’t trust your feelings. Don’t trust your ability to mystically second-guess God’s “mysterious” leading. If it’s a godly marriage, it will make sense to you and to other godly people in your life.
Copyright 2015 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Gary Thomas is writer in residence at Second Baptist Church, Houston, and author of numerous books, including The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not About Who You Marry, But Why?.