In my capacity as a married priest, educator, couples therapist and researcher these last forty years, I have had the privilege to counsel thousands of couples. One conclusion I have drawn from all this work is that good marriages do not simply materialize out of thin air. Good marriages are highly dependent on the decisions people make prior to marriage, and during the dating process. If you are of marriageable age, I suspect you will find the information that follows useful in your efforts to date successfully, and ultimately lay a sound foundation from which to cultivate a Christ-centered, good marriage.
It used to be that people married for all kinds of reasons, the least of which had much to do with being in love. Some primary reasons why people married in past generations were to form alliances to protect family interests. They also married to have children, thus ensuring that there were plenty of hands to work the family farm. Today, things have changed. Ask anyone why they married, and ninety-nine out of a hundred respondents will state that the primary reason is because they were in love. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone dating consider engagement and marriage if they are not romantically attracted to one another.
It should be noted however, that the chemistry of love sometimes reacts slowly as two people get to know one another. At other times, it’s love at first sight. Either way, research indicates that the sparks should be flying at some point before you decide to get engaged and married.
Don’t Rush the Process
Whenever I meet privately with conflicted couples, in my efforts to get to know them I might ask how long they dated before they decided to get married. It’s surprising to me how many indicate that they dated for less than a year. Some might tell me less than six months. When I hear this, I sometimes feel myself cringing because I know it takes time to get to know someone. In fact, research indicates that it takes a minimum of three months for couples to loosen up enough to begin showing their true colors.
Research also indicates that it takes around two years to really get to know your dating partner. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that it takes that much time to get to know how your partner will interact with you and others in many different social situations. Time is needed for this to unfold as you share experiences with a variety of people, from close family members to complete strangers.
So don’t rush the dating process. If you detect behaviors or attitudes you don’t like, don’t assume they will disappear. The likelihood is, they won’t. Moreover, whatever it is that you don’t like will probably become more problematic after marriage. Take the time to get to know your partner’s strengths and weaknesses. When a red flag appears, don’t ignore it. Otherwise, you will likely regret it.
I’ve counseled several conflicted spouses who rushed impulsively through the dating process without taking necessary time to get to know each other. They deeply regretted this omission after marriage. One young lady with bruises on her arm from spousal physical abuse shared the following thoughts with me: “If only I had taken the time, I might have made a wiser decision and not ignored some of the subtle warning signs that suggested he might mistreat me.” In another instance, a man who was married for less than three years and facing a contentious divorce stated, “I should have taken the time I needed to consider what I was doing. The signs were there, I just chose to ignore them.”
Data also indicate that people who wait until they reach their mid-twenties significantly increase their probability of being happily married, and staying happily married. These people are likely more mature than their peers who marry earlier, putting them in a better position to make wise choices. That’s certainly one reason why people who hold a college degree are significantly less likely to divorce than those who are younger and less educated.
Age is not always an indicator of one’s level of maturity, however. Young adults in their late teens and early twenties who have a healthy self-knowledge and are grounded in their Christian faith can be wiser than many in their thirties. For the most part though, our modern cultural milestones tend to shape this maturing process, leading those in their late twenties to be more responsible and self-aware.
What’s your compatibility quotient? In other words, what similarities do you share with your partner? Do you have a similar perspective regarding money, friends, in-laws, career goals, recreation, leisure activities, sex and parenting? What about your cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds? How compatible are they? Then again, how similar are your personalities? Are you a Type A personality, and he’s a Type B personality? Do you like to argue passionately, but your partner tends to avoid conflict? Is he an introvert, and are you an extravert? The extent to which two people are compatible is very important to the well-being of your relationship today and into the future. So, while you’re getting to know your partner, don’t be shy about asking questions related to these and other important concerns.
Several excellent premarital preparation inventories exist that can help you understand the extent to which you and your partner are compatible. One such instrument is, Prepare/Enrich.1 This inventory is widely considered to be among the best premarital preparation instruments. Together with this option, a nice compliment is the Journey of Marriage in the Orthodox Church, a premarital preparation process co-authored by Dr. Philip Mamalakis and myself. It is widely used across the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Employing these two options should prove very helpful to you in your efforts to assess your compatibility quotient as a couple.
Partners do not have to have identical personalities, likes/dislikes, etc.,to relate well. Some variations can enhance the relationship when those differences complement one another and serve to help the other grow. However, significantly differing world views tend to cause deep problems for couples.
Many couples spend time trying to determine how compatible they are, but few spend an equal amount of time trying to determine how different they are. This last statement might confuse you, but I have found that couples who spend time trying to determine the extent to which they are similar, should also spend more time trying to understand their differences—especially with regard to some big issues such as, money, friends, in-laws, career goals, arguing styles, recreation, leisure time, sex, parenting, ethnic and religious backgrounds and personality differences.
Unfortunately, many couples marry without carefully examining some of their big differences, thinking it would be easier to figure things out after marriage. Research suggests that’s not the most effective way to cultivate marital satisfaction. The following is an example of a couple that benefited from examining their big differences more carefully. While the outcome was hard for them to face, both agreed their decision was for the best.
Some time ago, the following couple sought my counsel. He was an Orthodox Christian and she was Muslim. According to both partners, they were “deeply in love with one another.” They both also felt that their love could help them overcome their cultural and religious differences. This they believed, in spite of the fact that both had a high connection to their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
As I respectfully probed them with important questions, it eventually became apparent to both partners that the differences they shared were so great that it was impossible for them to bridge them. As a result, they decided to end their relationship as friends, rather than postpone an inevitable breakup that would be more difficult later. Both left this meeting visibly distressed. However, a few months later, the young man called and informed me that even though they were both still hurting, they continued to believe they had made the correct decision.
In this above example, the couple was able to respectfully and bravely face their big differences and make some prayerful, healthy decisions. But what if they had failed to do this? I am inclined to believe that this would have been a huge omission both would have lived to regret.
Spend some time examining how different you and your partner are on important matters like ethnicity, religion, sex, communication, arguing style, career goals, money, leisure time, in-laws, friends and personality. To assist you, consider utilizing programs such as Prepare/Enrich as well as the information embedded within The Journey of Marriage in the Orthodox Church. If you discover that some big differences exist between you, slow the dating process down enough to permit both of you to consider these differences prayerfully and respectfully. In these instances, it could be helpful to consult professionals who have a Christian foundation or are respectful and comfortable working with religious populations. These strategies will have a decidedly positive impact on your future well-being. And if it’s God’s will that you marry, this strategy will also have made a positive impact on your future marriage.
Admittedly, this examination of your differences may be very difficult, especially if you’ve bonded emotionally with one another and the hormones and the neuropeptides are flowing. But unless you’re honest with yourself, you may become a victim of the following old adage: “What love conceals, time will reveal.” After the initial romantic feelings have subsided and reality sets in, you may be in for a rude awakening unless you’ve both reached some honest, mutually satisfying understandings about your differences prior to marriage,
Avoid Compromising Your Beliefs
You are what you believe in, so don’t compromise your core beliefs and values. I have met far too many couples that compromised what they believe in order to please their partner or extended family member, only to regret this decision after marriage. For example, if you espouse traditional values related to sex before marriage, don’t hesitate to broach this subject. If issues of gender equality and gender roles from a Christ-centered perspective are important, don’t gloss over them. If eating clean and exercising is important, if political opinions regarding the environment, social justice, and the fair treatment of marginalized communities are priorities—don’t hesitate to discuss these views with your partner.
In the long run, those who stifle their beliefs to keep peace with their dating partner, almost always regret doing so. Worse than the regret are the feelings of anger and resentment that follow when a person’s values are not respected, or not able to be expressed candidly. These feelings usually end up poisoning marital satisfaction and family stability.
The Importance of Religion, Culture, Race and Socio-Economic Backgrounds
My research concerning couples with varying Christian denominational and cultural backgrounds has shown that many dating partners fail to consider the impact that religion, culture, race and socio-economic background can have on one’s core values. The reality is that these factors have a significant impact on the way we see the world, therefore it is important that each person understands how these differences might shape their dating partner’s world view. If you have a high connection to your religious and/or cultural background, you and your dating partner should spend some extra time talking about your differences, similarities, and future expectations regarding the type of marriage and family life you’d like to cultivate.
For example, if marriage in the Orthodox Church is important to you, spend some time talking about this. If raising your children in the Orthodox Church is important, take the time to respectfully discuss this preference. Similarly, don’t compromise your personal preferences related to having icons in the home, fasting, going to Sunday services, and living a Christ-centered existence in a secular society. I remember a young lady making the following observation after I shared some of these exact points during a marriage workshop, “Father Charles, I thoroughly agree. We had a clear understanding before marriage. I wanted him to know that I couldn’t consider marriage with him unless he was willing to raise our children in the Orthodox Church. Without this commitment, I just couldn’t have become more serious with him”
What are Your Definitions of Marriage and Divorce?
Millennials and members of “Generation X” are less likely than previous generations to have a Christ-centered perspective of marriage, primarily because of the influence of a postmodern, post-Christian world in which they’ve been raised.2 A Christian worldview can no longer be assumed to be the norm in our culture. Therefore if you desire to foster a Christ-centered marriage and family life, it is critical to spend some quality time getting to know your dating partner’s perspective of marriage, family and divorce. If his or her perspective is sufficiently different from your own, you should prayerfully think long and hard about the consequences of marrying a person who is not of like mind on such important issues. To do otherwise will likely position you to experience chronic disappointment and future marital strife.
Cohabitation Before Marriage
The number of couples who are cohabitating has increased dramatically in the last decade, some research suggesting that more than 65% live together before marriage.3 Most couples will state that they choose to live together as a way to get to know their partner before they actually make the commitment to marriage. But is this trial-run logic sound logic, and an effective strategy?
Our Christian tradition cautions us to avoid this alluring pitfall. Outside of the safe boundaries of marital commitment, and a joint devotion to communion with God, the couple more easily falls prey to temptations that threaten the viability of the relationship. Moreover, as passé’ as these statements may seem to Millennials and members of the “X” Generation, a body of research validates this counsel.
Not only does research indicate that living together doesn’t work; it also maintains that when non-cohabiting couples who marry are compared to cohabitating couples, non-cohabiting couples report higher levels of marital satisfaction and lower levels of divorce. Thus, the “trial-run” logic that couples use to justify cohabitation before marriage proves unsound, and furthermore complicates future relationships should the couple decide not to marry.
Sex, Love and Marriage
These days, many singles view sex as a recreational activity. This perspective argues that sex can be enjoyed outside of a committed relationship and is part and parcel of a singles’ lifestyle. One of the catch phrases used by many singles these days who espouse this philosophy is “hooking up.”
I’ve counseled numerous singles who were victims of this philosophy. While in theory this philosophy may seem alluring and even sound, it runs counter to what Christian tradition teaches and in time leads to much heartache. The reason this philosophy doesn’t work is because it attempts to separate sex from love and marriage. This simply can’t be done, because sex affects humans in very personal and relational ways.
Try as many singles do to convince themselves that sexual acts mean nothing, the reality is they always do mean something. Our Holy Tradition teaches the primary reason for this: humans are psychosomatic beings, and our bodies and spirits cannot be compartmentalized. As such, physical intimacy and self-identity are profoundly interconnected.
The Fathers of the Church warn that even when a person repents from extra-marital sexual behavior, the memories of past indiscretions can “adulterate” or “muddy the waters” of what is intended by God to be a chaste commitment between one man and one woman. God desires to, and is able to heal any repented errors. However, in light of our casual modern attitude toward sexuality, single people need to be aware that the deeper the wounds resulting from sexual sins, the more severely future spousal intimacy is affected.
In addition to what Holy Tradition teaches, results from numerous studies further validate the point that “hooking up” is anything but harmless. These studies suggest that the more sexual partners a person has before marriage the more compromised is their ability to remain committed and faithful in marriage. This is partly because if one believes sexual acts are meaningless, it will greatly impact his/her future decisions and behavior with respect to marital intimacy and exclusivity.
Belief leads to corresponding behavior. So, if you believe that sex, love and marriage are interconnected, with God’s help, struggle to live up to this belief. One way to do this is to choose dating partners who have similar values.
In one of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies about marriage, he offers the following succinct counsel. “Choose wisely.” One way to do this is to permit God to be an active part of the dating process. God’s divine guidance and wisdom will help you avoid many of the pitfalls that are part and parcel of the territory of dating.
Is it enough to collaborate with God during the dating process? Before answering this question, I’d like to share a quote I recently read: “If God is your copilot, swap places.” I believe this is excellent advice when looking for the love of your life, because one is reminded that mere collaboration with God is simply not enough. You should also be willing to let Him guide you. So if God is your copilot and you’re in collaboration with Him, but you still have most of the control, swap seats.
A Few Thoughts About Online Dating
Online dating has become an increasingly more popular way to find a dating partner, especially among younger generations. The Pew Research Center reports that 80% of respondents using online dating services stated this approach is a good way to find a partner. One study stated that 17% percent of Americans reported meeting their spouses online.4
However, online dating is not free of risks. Approximately 43% of participants in one study reported that online dating involved risk, including the possibility of profile misrepresentations. Financial scamming and potential sexual violence have also been associated with online predators. Government regulation together with media coverage of related crimes have alerted people to these risks and are helping to make this mode of dating safer.
Successful niche online dating sites that seek to pair people based on specific attributes are also growing. Some of these sites cater to Christians who are looking to find dating partners with a Christian orientation. Like other dating sites, some caution should be taken when using these sites.
In spite of the fact that this approach to dating is a different way of meeting people, much of what has been stated in this article translates well to online dating. While online dating site questionnaires may be useful in determining compatibility, nothing can replace our personal impressions, intuition, quality time spent together, as well as prayerful and thoughtful explorations and questions.
Getting it Right the Second Time
People who’ve been divorced and are considering remarriage often encounter a host of additional challenges that are unlike those encountered when marrying the first time. That’s one main reason why the divorce rate among couples married a second time is significantly higher. With that stated, people considering remarriage should not only consider the suggestions in this article, but should also seek to understand some of the challenges often faced in second marriages. Among these are potential struggles relevant to stepfamilies and stepparents, dealing with the ex-spouse, as well as the unique challenges that couples face when they marry after the age of 50.
For persons divorced and considering remarriage, considerable prayer and careful examination of priorities are paramount during the dating process in order not to fall into the same patterns that led to a broken relationship the first time. Using programs such as Prepare/Enrich, The Journey of Marriage in the Orthodox Church and possibly some professional help, can prove invaluable to previously divorced persons as they seek to sort through their more complicated relationship experiences.
During the Sacrament of Marriage celebrated in the Orthodox Church, a passage from St. John’s Gospel (John 2:1-11) is read which recounts how Jesus turns water into wine. It serves to remind us that a life in Christ and by extension, God’s abundant grace, is available to help couples transform a stale marriage into an exciting, vital marriage. Additionally, a life in Christ can turn defeat into victory; anguish into healing; resentment into understanding and unhappiness into contentment. Irreconcilable differences can be turned into the opportunity for growth, and the increased oneness that our Lord referred to when he stated: “…a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt 19:5).
Yet, as crucial and central as God’s grace is to marriages, I always remind young people who are looking for the love of their life that the Church’s theology reminds us that our part in the salvation process is absolutely necessary. Don’t shrink from this responsibility. Take time to get to know yourself and your partner and with God’s direction and help, choose wisely. Amen.
If you wish to seek further counsel, please contact the Center for Family Care Office and we can help connect you with appropriate pastoral references and resources.