the other. Our gospel must be full of truth and grace. The church needs to be the very place that reaches out to seekers, both those living outside biblical norms and those for whom biblical behavior has not yet become part of their lives. The church will have a minimal impact on the lives of those who are cohabiting until it clearly offers the hands of both truth and grace.
A couple may be on a path to Christ without even knowing it. When a cohabiting couple establishes a covenant commitment, they have understood something essential about God’s way. The Christian community can nurture a couple’s natural inclination to continue to move in God’s way through patience, respect, and love that points them in that direction. Being compassionate rather than judgmental comes out of the assurance that God, who is the final judge, is the one who loves most fully. “Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy” (Buechner 1992, 58). Striving to help cohabiting couples find the joy of covenant love is a great privilege. The Christian community needs to show forth God’s love in faithful, engaging ways that will draw those who cohabit closer to the way, the truth, and the more abundant life.
Discerning God’s Will Marriage is an important, sacred event in most societies. Marriage is pivotal because it is necessary to the psychological well-being of the individuals involved, the social well-being of the married couple and family, the economic well-being of communities, and the survival of society itself. One advantage of parent-arranged marriage is that it protects young people from the pressure, confusion, and agony of having to make such a major decision on their own. The obvious disadvantage is the impact of excluding the couple from this critical process, which has enormous implications for the rest of their lives. This leads us to the question of how Christians are to approach the mate-selection process.
To answer this question, we must begin by considering how one comes to discern God’s will in the matter of choosing a mate. First, a couple contemplating marriage will want to view their relationship through the theological and biblical relationship lenses we have presented in this chapter. As they look at their relationship history in light of these values, they will begin to answer the mate-selection question through their experiences
with each other. Many couples already recognize trouble in their relationship as they are dating but deny the seriousness of the problems. For this reason, long engagements are predictive of successful marriage. When the couple gets beyond the romantic stage during the months and years prior to marriage in a long engagement, they gain a more realistic idea about managing their relationship. They will have experienced conflicts and struggles during this time and have a good understanding of how they deal with each other in the process. They will have had time to see each other in all sorts of situations and been willing to discuss their expectations about roles and future plans.
Premarital counseling with a licensed therapist or pastor is a great way to discern how marriage with a particular individual could grow. We strongly suggest that a couple intentionally learn all they can about their relationship through a premarital inventory, identifying strengths and weaknesses in their relationship. David Olson’s Prepare/Enrich (1998) is a 125-item questionnaire used by clergy and counselors to assess a couple’s chances for a successful marriage. The inventory matches each person’s responses to questions in major areas such as personality, friendships, conflict, communication, finance, sex, views on children, and family of origin. It has proven to be quite accurate in predicting whether a couple will be successful or eventually divorce (Fowers, Montel, and Olson 1996). Another helpful inventory is the “Preparation for Marriage Questionnaire” (Holman, Larson, and Harmer 1994). It consists of 178 items that evaluate the following five areas that are predictive of marital satisfaction and stability: (1) degree of unity in values, attitudes, and beliefs; (2) personal readiness for marriage (the indicators include emotional health and maturity, self-esteem, and independence from one’s family of origin); (3) partner readiness (communicating ability and skills, self-disclosure, and empathic behavior); (4) couple readiness (agreement on basic issues, stability of the relationship, approval of each other’s friends and relatives, and realistic expectations); and (5) background and home environment (satisfaction with the home environment, the quality of the home environment, the quality of the parent- child relationship, and absence of physical and sexual abuse). Sue Johnson’s helpful resource (2008) outlines important conversations relational partners need to have to benefit their relationship. Another important tool for premarital counseling is “Saving Your Marriage before It Starts” (SYMBIS), developed by Les and Leslie Parrott (2015). (More information is available on the Parrotts’ website, https://www.symbis.com/couples/.)
These assessments and discussion tools can provide concrete information that will help a couple determine the potential success of their future together. Couples should spend time discussing these relationship dynamics; process the results of the inventories with a trusted counselor or minister; grapple honestly with family of origin and multicultural challenges; take time to work out a financial budget; attend workshops on relationship skill development; be aware of personality differences and consider how they might affect the relationship; deal openly with sexual relationship issues with a counselor and read and discuss an informative book on the subject.
No one particular way of finding God’s will is best for everyone, but in most cases a combination of activities is advisable. Here are four specific guidelines for couples to consider when seeking God’s direction about marriage. First, look to God directly through prayer, Bible study, and meditation. Second, seek wisdom and input from parents, significant family members, and good friends. Trusted people who know and are willing to be honest about each partner’s individual strengths and weaknesses will prove invaluable. Third, as mentioned earlier, go through a premarital counseling process in which all aspects of the relationship are examined honestly, and spend time clarifying expectations with an objective professional or pastor. Fourth, seek wisdom from trustworthy Christians in their community of faith. Those in the body of Christ provide a communal perspective that will help affirm or disaffirm the couple’s decision-making process.
Based on these suggestions, we advise that a couple can best discern God’s will through a biblically balanced approach that is open to input from three sources—the individuals directly concerned, family and close friends, and the Christian community, which together can serve as a check against an incorrect decision. When decisions are made without input from all three sources, there is a greater probability of error. Given the power of passion and the contemporary emphasis on intimacy in romantic relationships, the individualistic bias is the most likely to have fatal consequences. Family bias is typical of parental arrangements. When parents are discerning Christians, they can be an invaluable source of wisdom, though they may have a limited perspective because of personal or cultural biases. Christian-community bias is probably the most difficult to detect since it is generally felt that a corporate body is less prone to bias. However, an obvious danger is the power a particular leader (or leaders) may wield. Leaders also have human limitations and are therefore capable of using their influence in misguided
ways. Particularly troubling are communities in which congregants are required to submit to an authoritarian leader out of loyalty.
Even if one concedes the wisdom of this model, there is always the possibility of disagreement. Consequently, the individuals, family, and Christian community should work together to bring about a congruous decision that will enhance the probability of a lasting covenant.
Establishing Marriage Moving toward Differentiated Unity
Each spouse’s experiences growing up in his or her particular family of origin are major preparations for marriage, for good and for ill. Accordingly, marriage involves more than a uniting of two individuals; it is also a uniting of two extended families. Bringing aspects of two culturally diverse families into a new unit is a process of affirming the best of both cultures (sense of belonging) and discovering the spouses’ own sense of identity as a couple. In the process, they may choose to discard some of their heritage, expand aspects of it, and create a unique union that exceeds what either of them would be on their own. Forming a new relationship as a couple distinguishes each of them from their family of origin (the family each grew up in) and at the same time keeps each of them connected with it. We begin this chapter by recognizing the impact of family of origin as well as other important factors that contribute to marital quality.
Factors That Predict Marital Quality Researchers have identified several factors from the family of origin (FOO) that affect marital satisfaction and quality. These factors include conflict- resolution style, relationship self-regulation based on family-of-origin climate (Hardy et al. 2015), and background and contextual factors (Larson and Hickman 2004).
First, FOO experiences highly influence a marital partner’s conflict- resolution style, which partially affects marital satisfaction (Dennison et al. 2014). This indicates that individuals learn relationship strategies from their family of origin, such as how to resolve conflict, and these habits are
incorporated into conflict resolution in one’s family of choice. These resolution strategies influence the overall satisfaction and quality of marriage.
Second, FOO climate can be thought of as one’s perceptions of the safety, warmth, and fairness in the family of origin. This climate entails one’s emotional experience of the support, empathy, and availability of parents. One important aspect of this climate relates to how individuals learn to self- regulate in their relationships. That is, more positive experiences in one’s FOO lead to greater capacities to self-regulate in one’s marital relationship. This relational self-regulation (RSR) provides important strategies for engaging in relationships that facilitate marital satisfaction. Individuals learn how to manage emotional experiences while maintaining their relationships with their FOO. These are important skills needed for each spouse to learn as they adjust to one another while creating a new sense of family identity. One important RSR is the ability to manage one’s anxiety or anger in responding to one’s spouse. Additionally, RSR allows individuals to interpret their spouse’s behavior more positively, enabling conflict to be avoided or resolved without relying on more negative conflict-resolution strategies.t