Pre-engagement Punch List
Falling in love with someone and finding out they want to spend the rest of their life with you is one of the most exhilarating of all human experiences. In fact, the emotions are hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced this stage of love for themselves. We just can’t believe anyone else has ever felt quite the way we do.
Ironically, this passionate wave of emotion is exactly what complicates the next important stages of relational development that eventually lead to a marital covenant. The overwhelming ecstasy of this season of courtship masks some critical matters that need to be addressed well before an actual engagement occurs and certainly long before the wedding is planned and takes place.
Unfortunately, most of the couples we talk to have rarely taken the time or made the preparatory effort to discuss the crucial topics essential for a successful marriage. Sadly, little or minimally effective counseling occurs once the date has been set and the honeymoon has been booked. Couples are focused on choosing the right dress and tux, picking out the most beautiful flowers, and choosing the decorations, all but ignoring the preparation necessary to get your heart, soul, mind, and body ready to enter marriage.
In our experience, the very topics that should be covered pre-engagement, or certainly pre-marriage, are the same subjects that routinely show up in marriage counseling offices somewhere down the road. That’s why we feel so strongly about these conversations taking place early and often in your courtship. Premarital counseling must include the content and questions that we have provided here for you.
We’ll be honest—throughout our writing of this guide, birthed in prayer and dialogue with each other, was this central aim: how do we keep more couples out of our offices because their marriage is making them miserable, and in their homes and communities where they can passionately love each other and pursue God’s purpose for their lives?
At the outset, there are six items on our Pre-engagement Punch List we’d like you both to review. Just as a contractor would compile a punch list to ensure the success of a project, we’re recommending that you take time to analyze these prerequisites prior to completing the sessions ahead of you:
1. Start pre-engagement conversations. If you haven’t already begun having these kinds of conversations, it’s vital that you start now. If nothing else, 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.
2. Avoid unrealistic expectations. Each of you needs to be honest about the balance of reality versus fantasy. Depending upon who you are and where you have been (your personal stories and histories), each of you will have your own expectations about what love, romance, and marriage will look like. Adopting unrealistic expectations for each other is one of the biggest mistakes couples make—whether they are dating, engaged, or married.
3. Realize that pain and suffering are guaranteed and a significant part of our lives. Life this side of heaven is never going to be perfect, and pain is part of the human experience. Problems—including some really big ones—are guaranteed. This is why wedding vows often include the phrase “for better or worse.” Yes, there will be plenty of seasons filled with sunshine and bliss, but there will also be bleaker days with sorrow and suffering. Marriage is about helping each other through life’s entire journey.
4. Accept the flawed sinner. No matter whom you date and eventually marry, everyone is a flawed sinner—beginning with you. Accepting this fact about each other not only helps alleviate unrealistic expectations, but it should also prompt both of you to develop your spiritual walk with the Lord. Only with His divine assistance will we be able to work on our flaws and become the best we can be for Him and each other. Gary’s book Sacred Marriage made its mark with this provocative question: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” Few people think of marriage this way going in, but most married couples eventually find it to be all too true.
5. Be aware of baggage, burdens, and blessings. In addition to your flawed sin nature, each of you will bring an assortment of baggage, burdens, and blessings into your relationship. Embrace this reality now, but also take time in pre-engagement or pre-marriage conversations to understand the balance of baggage and burdens versus blessings. Each will have an impact on you both, as well as everyone you love and everyone who loves you. That’s a huge responsibility, so buyer beware: if either of you is overwhelmed with the baggage, then take the necessary time to work through those issues before you exchange wedding vows. You are not morally obligated to accept anyone’s baggage prior to marriage, but once the vows are given and the rings are exchanged, your spouse’s baggage becomes your own—all of it!
6. Recognize that contempt is never acceptable. Yes, we’re asking you to evaluate each other, but disrespect and contempt are unhealthy in any relationship, especially in the most intimate one between a husband and wife. Over time, these feelings will erode what was once lovely and beautiful. Marital conflict is unavoidable, so you both must learn to resolve conflict respectfully. Once we see contempt in couples, we know the prognosis is poor. A good counselor won’t just look at what you say when you answer these questions, but also the way you say it, the way you look at each other, the way you treat each other, the way you speak of and to each other.
As you work through this punch list, think about yourself first and then your partner. Is there an area(s) of concern that you can identify already? If so, take time now to think it through more deeply. After you’ve done that, consider the following questions.