By: Joseph Warren Kniskern
Author, Making a New Vow: A Christian Guide to Remarriage
It's easy to fool yourself as you fall in love with someone who seems like the "perfect partner." You and your beloved spend countless hours getting acquainted over many months, or perhaps even years, of quality personal time. Why bother with the time and expense of premarital counseling? Quite simply, as Dr. James Dobson affirms, "Premarital counseling is a must and can literally be a marriage-saver."
As Dr. Dobson correctly points out:
"The typical couple spends much time talking...Still, they don't know each other as well as they think they do. That is because a dating relationship is designed to conceal information, not reveal it. Each partner puts his or her best foot forward, hiding embarrassing facts, habits, flaws and temperaments. Consequently, the bride and groom often enter into marriage with an array of private assumptions about life after the wedding. Then major conflict occurs a few weeks later when they discover they have radically different views on non-negotiable issues. The stage is then set for arguments and hurt feelings that were never anticipated during courtship. That's why I strongly believe in the value of solid, Bible-based premarital counseling. Each engaged couple, even those who seem perfectly suited for one another, should participate in at least six to 10 meetings with someone who is trained to help them prepare for marriage. The primary purpose of these encounters is to identify the assumptions each partner holds, and to work through the areas of potential conflict."1 [Emphasis added.]
Who is the best counselor? Of course, nothing can ever replace the confidence of relying upon God's wisdom in the Bible. The Psalmist wrote, "Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors...I have more insight than all of my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes" (Ps. 119:24, 99). In Isaiah, the prophesy of the coming of Jesus Christ describes him as "Wonderful Counselor." In promising the Holy Spirit, Jesus said: "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever--the Spirit of truth" (Jn. 14:16-17). Second Peter 1:20-21 tells us that Scripture does not have its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as this Counselor, the Holy Spirit moved them. All Scripture is God-breathed and "is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16) As a Christian, these verses tell me that wise counsel first comes from the Lord in the Bible.
From the very beginning God's intent has been that He be your primary counselor. He will be your first source of problem diagnosis. Insight into options and alternatives, and guidance in making the right decisions, will be most reliable coming from the One who loves you the most. Through Scripture and prayer, God can give you guidance about a prospective remarriage partner, as well as a competent marriage counselor to help you in your remarriage decision.
Qualities to look for in a marriage counselor. Marriage counselors aren't miracle workers or prophets who foretell which relationships last. Even those sensitive to biblical concepts in counseling make mistakes. But be wary of those who promise more than they can deliver. Here are some qualities any counselor should have:
- Faithful Christian, knowledgeable about God's Word. You may be able to find many admirable qualities in a qualified secular counselor, but he/she won't be able to counsel you on vital spiritual aspects of your relationship. Therefore, seek a competent, spiritual Christian counselor. Settle for an experienced secular counselor who takes marriage seriously only if you find no Christian counselors.
- Good communicator. Careful listening is critical to the success of the counseling process. The counselor hears everyone out, not giving decisions like a judge, but clarifying issues so the couple can arrive at their own conclusions.
- Married. You wouldn't go to your pastor for guidance on filing your income tax, or a financial consultant for advice about your marriage. So why go to an unmarried counselor for advice on building a good marriage? Ideally, the counselor will be happily remarried, and familiar with the many issues and challenges of stepfamilies as well.
- Neutral and impartial. Few counselors are completely immune from favoring one partner over the other. The counselor can, and should, help the couple clarify issues and correct destructive or inappropriate behaviors. But the fate of the relationship rests with the couple alone. Sometimes counselors temporarily align with one partner to help the counseling process. But the best counselor resists manipulation while consistently facilitating the couple's understanding of issues and goals in the relationship. The couple then determines what's best. A good counselor patiently respects every ambivalence, point of indecision, and procrastination, waiting until clients reach personal catharsis and resolve to take action.
- Keeps all discussions confidential. It takes extraordinary restraint and discretion to preserve the client's trust and confidence in these circumstances. Few feel comfortable sharing personal problems with another, if there is fear of gossip. Sadly, this is why many Christian pastors are subject to doubt. Even if a pastor is trustworthy, too often church members feel great discomfort in knowing that a relative stranger in close contact has personal information about them. So they end up leaving the congregation. It is simply too great a risk that the minister will bring up their problems, directly or indirectly, in the Sunday sermon. Therefore select a counselor with no ties to either partner. This retards gossip and avoids bias.
How do you prepare yourself for premarital counseling? Notice what God tells us to do:
- Prepare with prayer. Prayer, before and after a counseling session, is essential. Counseling involves delving into the heart. Why not keep in close communication with the only One who truly understands each person's heart? Pray separately, and together, before each session, asking for openness to see whatever needs to change. David expressed this attitude well in Psalm 139:23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Attending counseling sessions with this godly attitude surely brings change for the better!
- Realize that you can be your own worst enemy. We think we know what's best. Some marriage counselors urge, "follow your heart." God knows better. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he tells us, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) Proverbs 14:12 reaffirms this point: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Can you fully trust your heart right now with the emotions you experience for your beloved? Can you really be objective about your situation? Proverbs 12:15 clearly says: "The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice." Follow God's advice--be very skeptical of your own judgments. Rely upon the advice of competent and trustworthy people, who can be objective and see the "big picture" in your relationship.
- Develop a deep friendship with someone who tells the truth. We need a close friend sticking with us during a crucial remarriage decision. God will always be with us. "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24). Treasure a confidant who will tell you what you should hear, rather than what you want to hear. Seek advice from someone who has no personal interest except your friendship and the satisfaction of serving you. "Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one's friend springs from his earnest counsel" (Prov. 27:9). Accept godly discipline faithfully administered by this caring friend. Help others tell you the truth.
- Seek the wisdom of several counselors. By seeking advice from different people we respect and trust, we greatly reduce the risk of questionable counsel. If several competent counselors advise the same action, that may be a wise plan to follow. If an action plan receives mixed blessings, it's best to rethink matters. Universally good advice is, "When in doubt, don't do it!" Using several competent advisors having different perspectives protects you from the few well-intentioned folks who may not have godly views on a particular issue.
- Follow wise counsel against your own interest. We must train ourselves to be humble and accept godly advice. For example, if we receive wise counsel about letting a relationship go that we really want to keep, will we accept that advice? Pleasing God is more important than holding onto any premarital relationship isn't it? If we reject godly advice meant for our good, we may reap what we sow and taste the bitter fruit of having our own way (Gal. 6:7-8; Prov. 1:29-33).
- Eagerly desire to learn from your circumstances. We must allow our advisors to highlight our weaknesses and errors in judgment, so we can learn from our mistakes. "Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise" (Prov. 19:20). "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Heb. 12:11). Use premarital counseling as an opportunity for self-evaluation and deeper dependence upon God. Staying alert with an eagerness to learn transforms routine sessions into triumphant ones!
- Strive to communicate like never before. Any relationship without good communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution will die. Counseling determines whether a couple can reach compromises and solve problems, or are better off terminating the relationship entirely. To give counseling its best chance of success, focus on a few important communication skills. Keep harmful emotions in check, not by suppressing feelings, but controlling destructive emotions. Keep the counseling setting open for calm, rational discussion. Try to see matters from other perspectives, learning what affects your partner's choices and desires. Paraphrasing what he/she shares before making any response, which reassures your partner that you listened and focused on the issues of concern. Avoid attempts at power or control tactics in communication such as: (1) attacking the person, rather than addressing the problem; (2) trying to win an argument, rather than solving the problem; (3) presenting final solutions, before receiving input; (4) focusing on one answer to the exclusion of other options; (5) trying to break your partners' will rather than appealing to what's fair; or (6) threatening action unless your partner agrees with your analysis. Whenever possible communicate acceptance of your partner, and agreement with legitimate complaints without belittling or stereotyping your partner.
- Keep a personal diary or journal. We learn more about ourselves while with our partners and counselors than ever before. Don't miss this excellent opportunity to examine the thoughts and attitudes of your heart, and submit them to the Lord. It's an excellent time for prayer, repentance, and learning to receive God's comfort and help. Journal writing helps us get even more in touch with our feelings in a soothing and relaxing way. It's a rewarding time of solitude for personal reflection, providing a record of our difficulties and how we worked through them. We gain perspective in reviewing our thoughts later.
There are many other excellent resources available to help you double check your evaluation of your relationship with your beloved. Consider some of the following options:
Premarital Inventory Evaluation. Hundreds of thousands of couples each year take a premarital inventory evaluation test called PREPARE.2 With astonishing accuracy--most years more than 70 percent--these tests predict which couples are most at risk of divorce. They perform an "X-ray" of the couple's strengths and weaknesses, isolating how each person gives--positively and negatively--to the relationship.
My wife (Cheryl) and I participated in the PREPARE-MC evaluation (for unmarried couples with children) at a local church--a year before we married. Our evaluation showed we had great strength in children and parenting, religious orientation, conflict resolution, financial management, sexual relationship issues, and family adaptability and cohesion. We were about even in personality issues, leisure activities, and egalitarian roles. And our report alerted us to the need for better communication and being more realistic about the demands and difficulties facing us in remarriage and blended family life. (Perhaps that's why I stress the need for all prospective remarriage couples to have realistic expectations and good communication!)
Our Report also revealed that we shared leadership in stable roles, using "somewhat democratic" discipline while changing and adapting when necessary. Cheryl had a strong "We" focus on the relationship, very high closeness and loyalty scores, with above average dependency. I had a more "I-We" view with moderate to high closeness, high loyalty, and a more interdependent outlook. As a couple, we shared very similar strengths and weaknesses, with above-average cohesion and more structured relationship roles. While not determining our decision to marry, this encouraging evaluation helped identify areas where we needed to grow before we remarried.
Mentor Couples. Whenever you go scuba or skin diving, the cardinal rule is that you always use a "buddy" to help you in times of trouble. Couples facing remarriage benefit from "buddy couples" or mentors.
What is a mentor? Some describe this person as "a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction." The Uncommon Individual Foundation, a mentor research and training organization, reports that mentoring is the third most powerful relationship for influencing human behavior after marriage itself and the extended family.
A young pianist once approached the master, Leonard Bernstein, asking to be mentored by him. Bernstein told the young man, "Tell me what you want to do, and I will tell you whether or not you're doing it." Bernstein's message? You're responsible for playing and practice. But you may not be able to hear yourself play as a great pianist would. I can do that for you. Then mentor and apprentice then compare notes. That's the essence of a mentor relationship.
"Compare notes" and tap into the wisdom and experience of a mature Christian couple in a successful marriage. They can help you steer through the maze of challenges and opportunities in remarriage and stepfamily life. Trial and error are one way to gain experience, but learning successful skills through a mentoring couple and adapting their ideas to one's own situation is a lot smarter. Consulting like this quickly highlights what works, and what doesn't, in critical areas.
What couple facing remarriage couldn't use a "brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction?" Find a strong Christian couple with a good track record of success to serve as mentors to you and your beloved. You'll emerge well-prepared for remarriage.
Marriage Seminars And Conferences. There are many excellent marriage, and premarriage, Christian seminars, workshops and other resources available to those considering remarriage. Among these is Marriage Savers, co-founded by Michael J. McManus of Potomac, Maryland and author of Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce.3 Dr. Willard F. Harley, Jr.'s organization, Marriage Builders, offers an excellent "Marriage Builders Weekend" seminar around the country.4 Family Life of Little Rock, Arkansas, overseen by noted author and counselor Dennis Rainey, began its ministry to families throughout America in 1976. Ever since, this organization has provided "FamilyLife Marriage Conferences" and a special "Weekend To Remember" seminar in major cities all over the country each year--excellent seminars helping couples plan for, and work through, marriage issues. (Before we remarried, Cheryl and I committed to attending at least one Christian marriage conference each year.5 Our first was the "Weekend To Remember," which we highly recommend to you!)
Focus On The Family ministries, begun by Dr. James Dobson, also offers many excellent resources for couples considering marriage. Cheryl and I are so grateful this powerful ministry helps so many couples prepare for solid, biblical marriages, while thoroughly equipping them for a lifetime together!
Of course, many local churches across the country have good premarital courses.
There's no shortage of excellent Christ-centered and good secular materials available for couples serious about preparing for remarriage with a suitable partner. But, of all these options and resources, nothing is so valuable and revealing as receiving premarital counseling with a competent Christian counselor. Counselors can minister to you and your beloved on the deepest levels based upon your particular circumstances.
But above all, resist the temptation to make a major decision like remarriage without a lot of objective, godly counsel. You just may find this is one of the ways that God speaks to your heart in guiding you along His path. Choose wisely in making a remarriage commitment to last forever!
Taken from "Making A NEW Vow: A Christian Guide To Remarriage" by Joseph Warren Kniskern (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003). Used with permission.
1 Focus On The Family Magazine, February, 1999, P. 2.
2 Psychologist David H. Olson developed PREPARE in 1979 for use by couples considering marriage. (A similar program, ENRICH, helps married couples.) PREPARE helps you: (a) get your marriage off to a good start; (b) build upon the strengths you have as a couple; (c) more clearly identify areas of your relationship that may be problematic or in need of enrichment; and (d) better communicate your feelings and ideas with each other about a variety of important topics. The foundation of the PREPARE program is a scientifically developed questionnaire that you and your partner take individually. It focuses on thirteen important areas: communication (feeling that you are understood and able to share feelings), religious orientation (agreement on religious values and beliefs), family and friends (having a good relationship with parents, in-laws and friends), leisure activities (having shared interests while enjoying time together and apart), conflict resolution (being able to discuss and resolve differences), financial management (having realistic budget experience and agreement on financial matters), realistic expectations (about demands and difficulties), personality issues (liking a partner's personality and habits), children and parenting (with agreement on the number of children and child-rearing responsibilities), sexual relationship (feeling comfortable discussing sexual issues), egalitarian roles (agreeing on how to share decision-making and responsibilities), family adaptability, and family cohesion. Each partner then rates, on a scale from 1 (agree strongly) to 5 (disagree strongly), personal reactions to statements such as: "It is very easy for me to express all my true feelings with my partner" and "My partner and I are adequately prepared for the realities of marriage." Based on each person's responses, the organization prepares a personalized "PREPARE Computerized Report" identifying strength and growth areas as a couple.
3 McManus developed the "community marriage policy." Churches set up minimum standards for a couple about to wed. This plan includes extensive premarital counseling, a detailed "premarital inventory" of a couple's strengths and weaknesses, classes on morality and making marriages work, and working with a volunteer "mentoring couple" from a local church. McManus discovered that divorce rates in communities following these premarital standards decrease dramatically from the national averages.
4 Dr. Harley authored the classic marriage book, His Needs, Her Needs. Couples attending these seminars learn how love is created and destroyed, how you can identify and meet a couple's most important emotional needs, how to protect each partner from the other's destructive predispositions, and how fair negotiation can help a couple fall in love and stay in love. After the weekend, the couple immediately begins Dr. Harley's 12-week course, "His Needs, Her Needs: Habits For A Lifetime Of Passion," supported by six hours of audio tape. During this 12-week course, Dr. Harley sends weekly assignments by email to assist in developing the couple's love for each other, and to monitor their progress at regular intervals. Dr. Harley also offers an eight week course, "Love Busters: Overcoming Habits That Destroy Passion," based on his other well-known book, Love Busters. This course features four hours of audio tape instruction, weekly email assignments, and followup.
5 FamilyLife also offers the "HomeBuilders Couples Series," a small-group Bible study program for couples on a wide variety of topics. The series consists of interactive 6-to-7-week small group studies, designed to help couples open up to each other in fun, non-threatening interactions. They build stronger Christ-centered relationships themselves, and with other couples. In 2001, this series added a study entitled, "Making Your Remarriage Last." It's designed especially for couples considering or entering into remarriage.
Joseph Warren Kniskern is a Christian attorney, mediator, and author of "When The Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide For Christians Facing Divorce," and "Making A NEW Vow: A Christian Guide To Remarriage," both available from Broadman & Holman Publishers, Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee.