How Can We Be Sure?
Getting to Know You
God's guidance sometimes comes in a blinding flash. "I met John at a conference and I just knew that I had met my other half." But more often God nudges us on to His planned pathway with a growing awareness that a course of action is right. And whether you enjoy the assurances of a "heavenly vision" or whether you awaken slowly to a certainty about your partner, there are things you need to know about each other if you want to be sure that you are compatible. Intimate knowledge of the other is part of the preparation of pre-engagement.
This preparation has nothing to do with the planning of dates, the making of cakes or the choice of clothes. It centres on the growth of your relationship. To ignore this work is irresponsible; to participate in it deepens real love, strengthens healthy relationships and increases a couple's chance of building a stable marriage. Lovers love to talk about their love. For this reason, this preparatory work is nothing more than love's "beautiful curiosity."
John felt this curiosity. His love for Ruth prompted him to say, "I love you so much, I want to know everything about you." So they started from the beginning. Each related his / her personal history for the other.
This is a useful way to establish a strong partnership. It helps you understand one another. And as Paul Tournier reminds us, "One who feels understood feels loved, and one who feels loved feels sure of being understood."1
But where do you begin? How can your understanding of one another grow?
Background and family
It is widely recognized today that who we are and what we
have become depend not only on the present but on the past. In all probability, you each bring at least twenty years of past experience to this relationship. Joy and pain are concealed in those years. You can help one another towards a deeper understanding of the mystery of who you really are by lifting the veil from your past.
Take your experiences of family life, for example. If you are in your twenties, the people who have influenced you most so far will probably be your parents. They will have moulded your life by their presence, and by their absence.
How would you describe your relationship with your mother?
And your father?
If you enjoyed a close and warm relationship with them in your early years, you were privileged. It was a good start to life. As a result, you are probably the sort of person who makes relationships easily. Unless, of course, this closeness became claustrophobic during the teen years. Teenagers need to extend their horizons. They want the benefits of affection without its demands. Parents who fail to appreciate this frequently smother their growing offspring. If you felt stifled by your parents, you may be cautious in the way you relate to others. Perhaps you have become the sort of person who sometimes yearns for intimacy but who equally demands space? There is nothing wrong with a warm, loving, outgoing person who sometimes needs to be alone, but it is important that you recognize that this is a need for you.
But suppose that your relationship with your mother, or father, or both was impoverished, that they have been more absent than present in your life, that you came from a broken home or your parents are divorced? It could be that your ability to trust another person in an intimate relationship has been impaired. If your partner understands this before you marry, his/her acceptance of you could heal over some of the emotional wounds which you have probably covered over and even forgotten.
There is value, therefore, in trying to evaluate your relationships with your parents.
How do you feel about their parenting?
Is there anything you would like to change?
This should not become an excuse for wallowing in self-pity. Nor is it an opportunity to apportion blame. Rather, this awareness provides an occasion for you to express your feelings.
What are your needs as you form close relationships?
Closely linked with your family is your background. Unlike couples in the past who often attended the same school, worshipped in the same church or lived in the next street, you may not share identical backgrounds. This could be enriching, or it could be destructive. Even when differences in background appear to be slight, they frequently irritate. If cultural differences are big, as in racially mixed marriages, the strain can become intolerable. It is not just a question of racial or class prejudice. We need to see the problem in practical terms. The adjustments required of couples in any marriage are considerable. They frequently place a relationship under strain. This is accentuated when the individuals have inherited and adopted conflicting social and cultural patterns.
Describe your background. Evaluate it.
Do you want to perpetuate your parents' values and life-style? Or are there some things you will gladly abandon? What are these things?
Make a careful note of your similarities and your differences.
If it is true that differences which seem attractive before marriage may become irritants when you have to live with them, how do you plan to live with your differences?
Are you being realistic?
Intellect and recreation
If differences in culture and class grate, discrepancies in intellectual ability also cause chafing. You have only to watch couples sitting together in a restaurant to see how bored some people have become with each other. After a few years of marriage, the relationship seems stale. There are many contributing factors. One is that the gulf which separates them intellectually is too wide to bridge. This leads to frustration. One partner will start a conversation, and because their differences are so great, the other feels inferior. None of us enjoys feeling small. It feels threatening. It pushes partners into arguing. These people are always in competition.
They use dialogue to "put each other down." Or else conversation collapses and the whine is heard, "My husband doesn't tell me anything," "My wife doesn't talk to me any more." Partners who cannot talk to each other find someone else to confide in. This is where much marital infidelity begins.
In healthy marriages, on the other hand, the compliment is voiced, "You grow more interesting every day." This is part of the adventure of marriage.
Try to establish your intellectual compatibility by reminiscing about your school days. Assess them.
Do they provide happy memories? Or sad?
Were you a success at school? Or a failure?
Who recognized your worth during your school years?
Did anyone topple your self-esteem?
When you have compared your school-day experiences, try to measure your intellectual "fit."
How much disparity is there?
Do you interest and stimulate each other? Or do you find your partner boring?
This interest in the other spills over into your leisure time. Part of the enjoyment of marriage rests in learning to relax together. This includes sexual intimacy, but it is so much more. Relaxation extends to shared interests and common values. Each of these makes a contribution to satisfying relationships.
Review the past again. When you were little, how did you relax?
What kind of recreation did you pursue in your teens?
When there are no pressures of any kind now, how would you choose to unwind?
Are there hobbies and interests you both enjoy?
If there are, recreation becomes communion. It unites. But if you always need to compete when you relax, or if sport always separates you, your relationship will suffer.
Are you each prepared to take up new interests for the sake of this togetherness?
What might they be?
Space and togetherness; spiritual closeness
That is not to say you must always be together. Some people need to re-create in solitude. There is nothing wrong with solitude. An intimate relationship between two people asks for togetherness and space. This desire for space need not be interpreted as withdrawal from the loved one. Rather, it must be viewed as withdrawal into beauty, silence or rest. Partners who love one another learn to safeguard one another's privacy. This protection deepens the quality of the relationship. Each contributes new strength to the partnership.
Periods of rest and relaxation punctuate phases of creativity. We are creatures of rhythm, designed to enjoy work and leisure. Just as relaxing together is unitive, so sharing common tasks with your partner in marriage adds strength to the relationship. For this reason, couples who work together often enjoy an intimacy which others envy. This closeness is brought into being by the mutual shouldering of responsibility and the pooling of different strengths. When you combine your complementary gifts in a project, it produces a sense of achievement. The feeling of togetherness this provides is felt when two Christians unite to serve God in specific ways, such as running the Youth Group, entertaining the lonely, or opening their home for a house group. It also occurs when the couple throw themselves into the mundane humdrum tasks of life: decorating a room, or creating a garden, as well as in ways which are usually labelled "spiritual."
What kind of mundane tasks do you enjoy doing together?
How do you express your creativity with each other?
How might your partnership be used by God?
That last question assumes the importance of spiritual closeness. Young people often ask whether Christians should marry non-Christians. The Bible emphasizes that believers should avoid harnessing themselves "in an uneven team with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14 JB. See Amos 3:3). This prohibition is not the command of a spoil-sport God. It is the loving advice of the heavenly Father whose legislation always safeguards our best interests. When two Christians marry they become soul-friends. Prayer unites them. It is not only church leaders
who are urging Christians to marry Christians. Sociologists also sound the warning that religiously mixed marriages are precarious, whereas a shared faith holds persons together.2
But why is this spiritual oneness so valuable? Its value lies in the positive benefits which derive from friendship with God.
There is the asset of prayer, for one thing. Charlie Shedd, a Christian marriage counsellor, helps us to understand what a vital resource this is: "I have never had one couple or one member of a marriage come to me with their troubles if they prayed together. (There were a few, perhaps a dozen, who said 'We used to!')"3
Praying introduces a sense of the eternal into the relationship. It is the focus of your work for God. It is the place where the needs of the relationship, relatives, the world, may be lifted to God. In prayer, too, you may each enjoy an encounter with God.
This prayer need not be verbal. Charlie Shedd recommends silence. He suggests that, at the end of the day, couples "slip their joined hands into the hand of God" and sit silently in His presence. Some find this helpful. Others have a need for the beauty of words. One couple I know end each day by reading a short, liturgical service together. It is their way of expressing their adoration for God. Others read prayers which, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have been written down by other people. This is sometimes a Psalm, Jesus' "prayer book." Or you might read a modern prayer. How you pray is your choice.
Do you pray together?
Do you want to?
How will you go about it?
Prayer is only one of the privileges Christian couples enjoy. When they unite, they can be caught up in the great commission of Christ to herald and extend His kingdom. Is there a finer project in which to involve your partnership? The exciting thing is that when two Christians donate their complementary gifts to the marriage and to God, He multiplies their effectiveness. Their usefulness as married people is greater than the total sum of the contribution they each make.
Thus the marriage is enriched, the community is touched and God's kingdom is furthered.
Christians who are going the same way with the living Christ profit, too, by submitting themselves to a Lord who is wiser than either of them. This yielding of love to Love holds the relationship together, refines it and gives it purpose and strength.
How do you feel about your spiritual oneness?
Emotions and forgiveness
The unity which we discover in one another when we both owe allegiance to Christ does not replace the need for emotional intimacy. As John Powell puts it,
My emotions are the key to me. When I give you this key, you can come into me, and share with me the most precious gift I have to offer you: myself.4
This communication of feelings is vital to healthy marriages. But most people have difficulty in unveiling hopes and fears, dreams and fantasies, tastes and values, particularly in the presence of their loved one. It requires patience, time and plenty of courage; but the rewards are rich. Each individual gradually feels accepted, affirmed and valued. That is the pathway to wholeness.
Are you prepared to work at the difficult art of communication?
Think carefully before you answer that last question. It has been claimed, and in my opinion rightly, that "a relationship which spells closeness also spells conflict."5 How do the two of you cope with conflict? Do you quarrel heatedly? Or perhaps you freeze and employ "the silent treatment"? Do you heap blame on each other? Maybe you are both mature enough to recognize that each of you must accept some of the responsibility when conflict arises.
All good marriages include an element of conflict. It cannot be avoided. Couples who tell you they never quarrel are either not telling the truth or they live such separate lives that there is little opportunity to clash. And Christians do not escape this conflict.
Do you forgive the other person quickly or reluctantly?
Is this forgiveness based on the need to give love or just the desire for a cuddle?
How do you express that forgiveness?
Personal habits create some of this marital conflict. Despite all the jokes, after twenty years of marriage I still leave the top off the toothpaste. It's irritating. And these idiosyncrasies are magnified if your sense of humor fails to harmonize with your partner's. Then quirks of habit become occasions for nagging. And "a woman's scolding" (or a husband's nagging) "is like a dripping gutter" (Proverbs 19:13 JB).
Can you accept each other's habits?
Acceptance is not ignoring faults; it is recognizing them without magnifying them. It is easy to assume that habit patterns don't matter, but habits which faintly jar before you are living together become much more threatening after you are married. And the glib, "The Lord will iron out the creases" mentality is, in my view, too simplistic.
If you simply read this chapter, it will do little to heighten your awareness of your partner, your relationship or yourself. You may still remain unsure whether you are compatible or not. This understanding can only grow if you will commit yourself to work at the questions, preferably writing down your reactions for your partner to read.
Is this work necessary for those who are sure that their relationship was "made in heaven?" I believe it is. If you are certain that God brought you two together, this exploration of your attitudes, thoughts and feelings will not only increase that certainty, it will also unfold for you the goodness of God in giving you to each other. If you are already cemented by love, surely you will want that desire to increase? This happens with knowledge, not ignorance; reality, not fantasy.
And if you are certain of your love and the purpose of God for your relationship, it makes sense to become wise stewards of His gift. Stewardship involves actively promoting that which God entrusts. If you believe your relationship is His gift, working at the art of togetherness is one of the ways of maximizing your potential.
As you apply your creativity to the work suggested in this chapter, you will discover where your similarities lie. These will strengthen your relationship. Your differences will also be highlighted. These could divide you; but they might add zest to your marriage. It depends on what you do with them. That is the subject of the next chapter.
Chapter 4 || Table of Contents
1. Paul Tournier, Marriage Difficulties, SCM Press, 1967, p.28.
2. For instance, Jack Dominian, Marital Breakdown, Pelican, 1968 and Marital Pathology, Darton, Longman and Todd / British Medical Association, 1979.
3. Charles Shedd, Letters to Karen, SCM Press, 1968, p.137.
4. John Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love, Argus, 1974, p.78.
5. Quoted by Howard and Charlotte Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage, Harper and Row, 1970, p.95.