Preparing for a wedding is a stressful experience.

Even when you try to have a simple wedding, the months leading up to the big day often take the form of an ever-growing to-do list where for every one thing you check off, three more things are added. So premarital counselling can often feel like yet another thing to check off your list.

For John and Sarah, that’s all it was.

The pastor who was going to officiate their wedding sat them down with an outdated VHS and they filled out a few questions in a booklet. They went through the motions, so they marked that to-do as complete.

But premarital counselling and preparation is so much more than just a to-do.

Gary Thomas, author of 9 Must-Have Conversations for a Doubt-Free Wedding Day, warns newlyweds-to-be that "the very topics that should be covered in pre-engagement, or certainly pre-marriage, are the same subjects that routinely show up in marriage counselling offices somewhere down the road."

Avoiding these often difficult conversations to stay in pre-wedding bliss or to devote more time to planning for the big day will just make your first few years of marriage that much harder. John and Sarah struggled through three years of miscommunication and frustration that could have been partly avoided – or at least alleviated – if they had the opportunity to complete more thorough premarital training.

"Sorting through these issues, and knowing why you’re choosing to marry this person is a necessary step to becoming one flesh before God and to fortifying yourself against the inevitable doubts that will certainly follow in your future together," Thomas explains. "You can look at this time not only as a preparation for marriage but as the first steps for the two of you to actually begin merging two lives into one."

This simplified list of questions that real couples found to be the most helpful will give you and your fiancé(e) a starting place. For more detailed conversations, guidance and corresponding devotions, check out Gary Thomas’ 9 Must-Have Conversations for a Doubt-Free Wedding Day.

Question 1: Why this person?

For Joe, he found one of the most important things to ask himself before marrying Kathy was, "How does this other person balance and challenge me?"

Being able to know, in clear terms, why you want to marry your future spouse may seem obvious, but it’s eye-opening when you’re asked to put it into words.

"We know a lot of couples who can’t answer the ‘why this person’ question," Joe says. "For guys it can be tougher. Girls can often rattle off a list of things they like about their partner, but when guys are put on the spot, it can be more difficult. They say generic things like ‘she’s pretty’ or ‘she’s nice.’ But if, after a few days of thinking about it, they still can’t come up with specific answers? That’s a red flag."

Rachel experienced this in her first premarital counselling session with her fiancé Kevin. "We had a conversation about listing all the things we love about each other, but he couldn’t think of anything." For Rachel, even though Kevin was able to think of specific things in the following days, the initial silence on his part hurt – especially because her main love language is words of affirmation.

What started as a simple, "Why this person?" question moved into a discussion of love languages and expectations for expressing their love and appreciation for one another.

It’s also important, Thomas reminds readers, not to marry someone for who they could be. "Don’t make the mistake many do and fall for a person’s potential," he writes, adding, "If something about your significant other bugs you now, it will bug you even more ten years from now."

Question 2: Am I prepared for the selflessness of becoming one?

"Biblical marriage is an ‘all in’ proposition," Thomas explains. "If two people are one, everything you do affects the other. This somewhat shocking oneness – two people, now considered one unit – is what getting married implies you’re agreeing to."

In a Focus on the Family broadcast entitled "Embracing God’s Desire for Your Marriage," Thomas says that it takes nine to 14 years for two people to stop thinking of themselves as individuals and start thinking of themselves as one unit. While that may seem intimidating, being aware and honest about that struggle frees you up to give added grace to one another.

"In our premarital sessions," Rachel says, "I also realised I’m not good at not being self-sufficient. Even though Kevin is kind and reliable and trustworthy, I’m not ready to let him be the one I rely on when I can do it myself."

Learning to communicate that now, though, will set up a precedent of openly talking through their struggles and expectations later on.

"If nothing else," Thomas notes, "getting in the practice of talking in depth about significant relational topics will be excellent practice for the two of you to begin building relational intimacy."

Question 3: What is our marriage and family going to look like?

This question doesn’t just include how many kids you’ll have and when – though that is important. This conversation can include what kind of roles you’ll have in the relationship, your expectations for splitting chores, dividing time between extended families, how you’ll eventually take care of ageing parents and so on.

"When you think about what it means to get married, you have a picture in your mind of what a marriage looks like," Thomas writes, "but that picture may be very different from what your spouse thinks marriage looks like."

Different expectations about what your family will look like is closely tied to how you were each raised.

For Kathy, she found a good way to lead into the conversation about family expectations was to bring up the conversation about last names. "We live in a generation where taking on their last name is no longer a given," she explains. "And it’s also a gendered expectation. So asking the question opens the door to other implications regarding gender roles."

In chapter 9 of The Sacred Search, Thomas describes common marriage styles – such as "spiritual sole mates" and "bohemian buddies" – to help potential spouses make sure they’re on the same page with their expectations.

Additionally, as far as the discussion about children is concerned, Thomas suggests couples go further than just "how many and when." Discuss things like infertility, adoption and fostering, parenting styles, discipline and what you’ll do if your children have their own sets of challenges.

"These kinds of issues will affect not only your parenting but also your marital relationship," he explains.

Question 4: How will we communicate and deal with conflict?

More often than not, communication and conflict go hand in hand. For Tara and Ben, communication issues were – and are – the core cause of their conflict.

Just like family expectations, communicating and figuring out how to fight in healthy ways is tied to how each of you were raised. "Learning how the other person’s family communicates and does conflict applies to everything," Kathy says. "You’ll notice it comes up all over your marriage."

Becoming a student of your spouse’s family will give you deep insights into how and why they communicate and deal with conflict the way they do. For example, Sarah knew John’s family avoided confrontation, and knowing that enabled her to help him find his own voice in the midst of their arguments by teaching him to stand up for himself.

Question 5: What’s your sexual history and your expectations for physical intimacy?

For Annie and Nathan, sex – especially their sexual histories – is one of the three topics they keep coming back to in their newlywed relationship, with money and communication being the other two.

"We’re so thankful that we took a pre-marriage course that enabled us to have in-depth conversations about all three," they explain.

"Taking time to talk about these most intimate details of your lives now may seem and could actually be painful for a season," Thomas writes, "but the potential for developing an even deeper relationship with the person you plan to marry is exponential. Why? Because you are willing to let them see exactly who you are as a sexual being created in God’s image – not perfect, but willing to perfect your sexual life with the person throughout your marriage journey together. It’s a scary door to open and enter, but the intimacy it can lead to is a wonderful place to live."

Question 6: How is money going to be handled?

For Melissa and Jack, money is their number one point of contention – and they’re not alone.

"Regardless of income or socio-economic status, finances are typically the number-one stress most husbands and wives face when their marriage is in trouble and they seek professional assistance," Thomas explains.

"When you marry someone, you not only marry their money, you also marry their debt, their credit score and history, their view of charity, their philosophy of savings and investing, and a lifetime’s worth of spending habits," he writes.

Ultimately, he suggests three questions the two of you should address before you get married:

  1. How will you make money?
  2. How will you spend (and give) money?
  3. How will you save money?

Going into your marriage fully informed and getting on the same page before the big day will save you from a rocky future.

Question 7: What will our faith look like as a couple?

For Kevin, talking specifically about their faith as a couple has been crucial. After all, you can’t assume that just because two people attend church their faith journeys will be similar.

"We’re both very private about our faith," Rachel says, "so we have to discuss how we’ll do faith together."

"The missing ingredient in so many marriages that fail is the most important one – spiritual intimacy," Thomas writes, "learning how to draw near to God for His love and upon God for His resources in order to go the distance."

In discussing their faith future, Rachel and Kevin have also been convicted of their own spiritual laziness. Being aware of their faith as a couple has allowed both of them to intentionally step it up in their personal walks. Personal devotions, group Bible studies, church attendance and eventually how you’ll raise your children are all things to address before you say "I do."

As Thomas explains, "The best worshippers are therefore usually the best spouses – those who have learned how to draw near to God and pour out His unending love to others. While the two of you may have different styles of worship or viewpoints about devotion, your joint goal is to glorify the Lord and work together as a team to please Him."

Marriage isn’t meant to be easy. It will require a lot of intentional effort, commitment, forgiveness and grace, which is why it’s all the more important to take your time making sure this person is the one you can spend the rest of your life with.

"You are both flawed sinners, so you can expect great days, okay days, and then some very, very bad days," Thomas writes. "There will be times of frustration and disappointment, but there will also be amazing seasons of closeness, romance, and sheer bliss. The strength of your union will be built and reinforced by how the two of you respond during the more difficult moments in marriage."

He goes on to say, "This also means there is tremendous security. When sin is exposed in either of your lives, as it will be, the two of you can work on the corresponding issues together, growing in Christ, learning to grant and seek forgiveness, within the security of a lifetime agreement . . . Marriage has been designed to be the ultimate interpersonal experience, a lifetime journey in learning how to work things out as a couple."

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Reference to the individuals and organisations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organisations.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Amy Van Veen

Editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

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