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I don’t … or I do?

Knowing when to marry and when to wait

By Gary Bruegman

Preparing for marriage, it has been suggested, is like preparing to drive a car for the first time. Both require skill, flexibility, effort and alertness. Both involve a certain degree of risk. It would seem reasonable, then, you should know what you’re getting yourself into before you get behind the steering wheel of your car or make the decision to marry. You must have some sense of what you need to do to survive this brand-new experience.

But there is an unfortunate difference between acquiring a driver’s license and a marriage license. To legally drive a car you’re required to study, take a driving test and a written test and pass those examinations. All you have to do to be legally married is say “I do!” and sign the marriage license. The truth and tragedy of the matter is many of us spend a lot more time learning how to drive a car than we do learning how to effectively and successfully be married.

Marriage experts have written books and articles attempting to equip young couples for the marriage plunge. Assuming many people’s busy schedules prohibit them from reading all the recommended material available, I’d like to identify some basic signs or signals that help us know when it’s a good time to marry or when it is better and wiser to wait.

Watch the signals

The experienced driver knows when your car approaches an intersection bearing a traffic signal a green light means everything is clear to proceed, a yellow light means to proceed with caution and a red light means to stop driving altogether. Failure to stop your car in most cases has unfortunate consequences. You can be ticketed for breaking the law, be seriously injured, or seriously injure someone else.

Warning signals can be annoying, but they have proven to be lifesavers. Unfortunately, we are quick to speed through a yellow light for fear of losing precious time and failing to reach our destination on schedule. Couples who rush through a serious dating relationship or formal engagement risk relational damage.

Because marriages are failing at an alarming rate, Christian couples who begin to date tend to be more skeptical and overly cautious about committing to a serious relationship and potential marriage. All the more reason to keep their eyes focused on the “lights.” The only way one can feel safe while driving on the highway or feel safe in a serious relationship is to know that all three signals are working properly and that everybody participating takes them seriously.

Green lights

This is obviously the signal everybody wants to see. The green light at the beginning of a relationship clearly provides the freedom to proceed without having to worry excessively about making a commitment. This is by far the more enjoyable route to follow. There are limited questions asked and few concerns raised. It is the “getting to know you” stage of the relationship. But regardless of how far you travel with the green light, at some point you’ll be faced with another signal.

Speed restriction

Human nature wants those things or people we fall in love with to become an immediate part of our lives. Therefore, it is not uncommon to overlook the need to address disturbing questions, concerns and potential conflict.

The truth about the old adage “love is blind” is that it can actually deter a couple from addressing immediate concerns and unresolved conflict in the relationship prior to getting married. If one or both individuals object to slowing down the relationship in order to adequately process concerns and make necessary changes, the relationship could end in disaster prior to marriage or shortly thereafter.

A couple will never regret taking the developmental stages of the relationship as slowly as necessary. It’s similar to the advice we receive when we are driving in bad or stormy weather. You drive at the posted rate of speed when the weather is good, and you drive cautiously or considerably slower when conditions have worsened.

Slow down, take your time, and realistically look at what is actually taking place in the relationship. Your life’s joy, the success of your marriage, and the life-fulfillment of others may depend on it.

Yellow lights

A yellow light tells you conditions are about to change. The relational “drive” has proceeded down easy street for some time, but is now beginning to experience bumps or minor uneasiness. The couple loves being together, has a great time whatever they’re doing, but doesn’t see a whole lot of substance in the relationship.

The real substance of the relationship is the choice or willingness to commit to another person through the best and worst of times. If either person is unwilling to talk about or commit to the relationship at a more developed stage, there is reason for concern.

If a surface commitment is made to the other person in the relationship, though there remains an unwillingness to emotionally connect or communicate, it is not a true commitment. To avoid any major damage to the relationship, caution must be given and progress slowed way down.

Pay close attention to those concerns expressed by family members or friends. They often possess a clearer, more objective perspective of what might be happening in the relationship. Don’t ignore negative comments just because you want the relationship to work.

God never intended to mess up our plans or make life miserable for us by using warning signs. Our joy and happiness — whether we live alone or with a spouse — is really found in relationship with God. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, NKJV).

Yellow lights don’t mean a relationship is about to end. The light hasn’t turned red, so it isn’t necessary to stop everything. But definitely proceed with caution.

Red lights

When the light switches from yellow to red, progress in the relationship needs to halt. Stopping at this signal allows those in the relationship ample time to look in all directions, think about their next move and proceed forward only when the signal turns green again. It allows individuals time to reflect on where they have been in the relationship, issues of concern and any unanswered questions.

It has been said the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. While God is able to change lives completely, the fact remains most people will do in the future the things they do today. The following attributes, if consistently present in the relationship, serve as warning lights:

• Spiritual incompatibility

• Questionable character

• Lack of integrity

• Unresolved conflict

• Poor communication skills

• Disrespect of self/others

• Unfaithfulness

• Addictive behaviors

• Extended family issues

• Differing value systems

No U-Turn

Next to committing one’s life to Christ, there is probably no greater life-shaping decision than that of marriage. Those who enter their marriage relationship according to God’s plan agree it is for a lifetime.

“There’s no turning back.” This motto should be decided, pledged and honored by both individuals throughout their lives. As traditional wedding vows illustrate, both partners choose to remain together whether they encounter joy or heartache, whether they are wealthy or dirt-poor, or whether they are in the best of health or facing terminal illness.

An unwillingness to agree to this commitment by both individuals sets the stage for major disappointment and agonizing pain later on. It is always in a couple’s best interest to wait to get married if warning signs continue to suggest concern and fear and watered-down commitment in the relationship. Courtrooms are filled with couples who thought problems could be resolved after they were married.

There is a significant statement in a typical driver’s manual: “If you aren’t sure you understand a traffic law, ask a law enforcement officer.” It is essential every couple contemplating marriage seek wisdom and godly advice from a pastor and/or professional marriage counselor. Two people choosing to marry should understand they are entering unfamiliar territory.

It can be pretty frightening to attempt something as important as marriage without experience. But that is how all of us start out. It is crucial both individuals in the relationship fully understand the responsibilities attached to marriage and carefully heed any and all warning signs prior to making the decision.

Ultimately, the decision to marry or to wait will be yours. May God be your source of help in this life-impacting decision.

Gary R. Bruegman, M.A., is director of Denominational Relationships for the National Institute of Marriage based in Hollister, Mo.

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