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#120 Marriage Advice

August 03, 2009

Dear Dr. Craig,

Marriage is in the foreseeable future, and I would like to ask you for any advice before it happens. Can we avoid any mistakes? Would it be helpful to meet with a pastor for premarital counseling? Are there any helpful tips you could give from a Christian perspective or from your own experience?

Thank you in advance!


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Dr. craig’s response


Jan and I just returned from Texas, where I had the privilege of marrying our son John and his fiancée Christine, so your question seems quite apropos at this time! Jan and I are more than happy to give advice when asked, so let me share some thoughts that I hope will be of help to you.

When I got married, I thought that the inevitable adjustments that everyone said to expect were basically trivialities like one person's squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle and the other person's squeezing it at the end, or one person's being neat and tidy and the other person's leaving dirty clothes lying around, and so on. These sorts of adjustments are the stuff of jokes. I had no idea that the real adjustments in marriage were far more serious and profound.

The real adjustments in marriage stem from the deep brokenness that we all bring into the relationship. Even the most psychologically healthy of us bring into the marriage a residue of experiences since childhood that have left us scarred in different ways and to different degrees: lack of self-esteem, insensitivity, inferiority complex, drivenness, suspiciousness, insecurity, temper, and on and on. With so many people now coming out of broken homes and dysfunctional families, these kinds of problems will be even more manifold among newlyweds today.

I've heard marriage compared to two great rivers which at some point come together. Where they meet, there will be turbulence and whitewater for some time. But later on downstream the rivers truly become one, and it flows smoothly on its course. This comparison is apt. It may take you five to eight years to work through the adjustment phase before coming to a peaceful, harmonious relationship. I don't mean to discourage you but rather to open your eyes to what's ahead so that when it comes, you won't give up but will say to each other, "We can, with God's help, get through this to find the marriage God wants us to have!" The first few years of marriage, which in the Hollywood portrayal are supposed to be idyllic, are—if you handle them correctly—usually the worst, and the later years are the best.

So what advice can I give you to help you successfully through that phase to a happy, healthy relationship? Let me mention several points:

1. Resolve that there will be no divorce. Remember that according to the Scriptures God hates divorce. It is sin and therefore must be avoided at all costs. Therefore, no matter how hard things get, neither of you will bail. You will work it out. You will do whatever it takes to resolve your problems. Individually, you will be the man of God or the woman of God that you have been called to be regardless of what your spouse does. You resolve to seek holiness rather than happiness (though you know that holiness is actually the secret to happiness!) and therefore will bear the pain rather than seek the easy way out. Ironically, by choosing the more difficult path of permanent commitment, you greatly increase the chances of building a happy marriage relationship because you will provide the sort of security for your spouse which allows love to flourish.

2. Delay having children. The first years of marriage are difficult enough on their own without introducing the complication of children. Once children come, the wife's attention is necessarily diverted, and huge stresses come upon you both. Spend the first several years of marriage getting to know each other, working through your issues, having fun together, and enjoying that intimate love relationship between just the two of you. Jan and I waited ten years before having our first child Charity, which allowed me the finish graduate school, get our feet on the ground financially, establish some roots, and enjoy and build our love relationship until we were really ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. The qualifier here is that if the wife desperately wants children now, then the husband should accede to her wish to become a mother, rather than withhold that from her. Her verdict should be decisive. But if you both can agree to wait, things will probably be much easier.

3. Confront problems honestly. When we meet a young married couple, Jan will sometimes shock them by commenting, "Well, we hope you're fighting a lot!" (They usually are.) Fighting with your spouse is so emotionally wrenching and painful, and yet it is the necessary means by which problems get resolved and you become one. The couple that is in real danger is not the one that is fighting but the one that is not confronting. In order to avoid the pain, it's easier to sweep things under the rug and try to forget about it. But then the problems do not get resolved, and bitterness and resentment can secretly begin to grow until the marriage becomes poisoned. Don't let this happen. Screw up your courage, resolve to bear the hurt, and confront your issues squarely. Now please understand that when I talk about "fighting," I'm not talking about physical violence and abuse. I mean arguing. And when you argue, you should exercise self-control so that you fight fairly. Never call your spouse names or say things designed to wound, things that you will later regret. That is inconsistent with love. Rather keep in mind, even in the heat of an argument, that the purpose of the argument is to resolve the problem, not to hurt the other person with clever zingers. Always keep asking yourself, "How can we solve this?", rather than how you can win the argument. You win by resolving the problem and coming out of an argument with a partner who loves you and is not emotionally damaged by your hurtful remarks.

4. Seek marital counseling. An excellent counselor can see things in you that you are simply blind to and so don't even realize about yourself. It can be quite eye-opening! He can help you as a couple to adopt strategies for building your relationship, working through problems, and dealing with your children. Never be ashamed to seek counseling. On the contrary, it tells your spouse how serious you are about building your relationship and how you are ready to humble yourself and change if necessary. Having said that, I caution you against poor counselors. If your counselor isn't revealing penetrating insights into yourself and your spouse and your relationship, if the sessions are just grinding on without profit, get out and find another counselor! Ask around to find out who in your area is really good, and don't waste time and money on a poor counselor.

5. Take steps to build intimacy in your relationship.

Wives: You need to realize what your husband's #1 need in marriage is, what he wants most from you: sex! Yes, frequent, enthusiastic sex! If you do this, you will have a happy hubby, indeed. Unfortunately, here we confront one of those huge disconnects between men and women (you know, the Venus and Mars thing). A man achieves intimacy with the woman he loves through sexual intercourse; but a woman views intimacy as a pre-requisite for sexual intercourse. So if you're sensing emotional distance from your spouse, what do you do? You seem to be at an impasse. If you find yourselves in this situation, then my advice is that it is the wife who should yield and be open to her husband's advances. Otherwise what you're doing is using sex as a weapon: saying in effect, "You first meet my emotional needs or I'm going to withhold sex from you." That's manipulative and unloving. Sometime after having sex, you can then raise the issues with him that you feel have created an emotional distance between you and seek to resolve them.

Husbands: For your part, you need to remember what you're asking your wife to do in letting you have sexual intercourse with her: you're asking her to let you literally enter her body. It's hard to imagine an act that displays more vulnerability and surrender than that. Therefore you need to do all you can to build a relationship of intimacy and trust that enables her to yield to you happily. So how do you do that? Romance? Sure; but here we encounter another huge disconnect. When I as a man think of romance, I think of candlelight dinner, soft music, a moonlight walk on the beach. But to my wife those things are just externals. None of those things is to her the heart of romance. For her the heart of romance is: talking to her! Yes, just taking the time to talk with her and so to connect on an emotional level. That means setting aside, say, a half hour a day just to talk with her. The problem is, that can itself also become just one more thing to do, one more external. What's key is that during that time you connect emotionally with each other.

What we've learned is that marriage is really about being, not doing. You can be doing all the right things prescribed in the marriage handbooks and still not be "being" together. What is "being"? It's lowering one's invisible, defensive walls that we've each built around us to protect us from hurt. It means having permeable boundaries to one's spouse. Less metaphorically, it means vulnerability and transparency in relating to the other. Relating in this way to your spouse builds an emotional connection which fosters intimacy.

So how can we tell, given our blind spots and proclivity toward self-deception and rationalization, if we're just "doing" rather than "being?" Well, for one thing your spouse can tell you! But a barometer you can use to gauge this yourself is to explore your feelings and see if you feel resentment for all the effort you're putting into your marriage. If you sense feelings of resentment, that's a sure sign you're just doing rather than being.

Both of you: Perhaps the greatest enemy of a successful marriage is "growing separateness." That is to say, eventually you begin to lead two separate lives and so grow further and further apart. This is especially dangerous if the wife has a career independent of her husband. You just begin to live in two different worlds. Although it is politically incorrect, I'd therefore encourage your wife not to pursue an independent career but to be a homemaker or to be partnered with you in a common cause. That will give you so much more of your lives to share rather than following independent trajectories.

I hope I haven't laid too much on you, Zareen, but you did ask! I wish you and your wife-to-be a wonderful Christ-centered marriage which will be greatly used by God in the extension of his Kingdom!

- William Lane Craig