The late, great Larry Burkett once said, “Opposites attract. If two people just alike get married, one of you is unnecessary.” Well, let’s just say, neither Eric nor I have ever felt unnecessary in this marriage. He is the gas, and I am the brakes. He is the wind, and I am the rain. He is the lion, and I am the lamb (most of the time ~smile~). In many ways, our differences have served us well in our partnership at PreEngaged; but, at times, my laid back, people-pleasing nature has caused Eric angst – typically when he is trying to make a significant, life-changing, no seriously, they need to hear this, point to a couple.
During our internship, I struggled to evaluate a couple’s likelihood of marital success honestly. Wanting to always be the encouraging one, I consistently downplayed likely difficulties and overly congratulated strengths. I told myself that they would be okay – even though, I did not always believe it. Eric had the opposite approach. If he saw a problem, he wanted to expose it quick, fast, and in a hurry. In his mind, he was doing the couple a disservice by holding back the truth. We repeatedly clashed as I thought he was too harsh and he thought I was too gentle and unclear.
The struggles were real – both my struggle with Eric’s approach and my struggle to offer raw, honest feedback to our clients; but, I will never forget the day the walls came tumbling down, and I found my voice. During counseling supervision during my internship with a counseling professor, I shared my hesitation to confront clients on their relationship’s red flags. His advice rings in my ears to this day: “Get a little chair and put a baby doll in it. Before each session, look at that doll and remember that the couple coming through your door is likely to have children someday. Their marriage problems will directly affect the children that relationship produces.” The lightbulb went on instantaneously. My silence might buy me a moment of their favor, but it might cost innocent children years of heartache. Upsetting someone with the kindness of truth is far more loving than holding back what they need to hear – words that may end up changing their course.
Though it would be an honor, there are not enough hours in our lifetime to personally coach all of you, (though it is tempting to try!). So, in the spirit of honesty and transparency, Eric and I wish to share the top seven relationship concerns we encounter in our work with clients – concerns we consider large enough to warrant wedding postponement or (pre-marriage) relationship disbandment. Outside of extreme trauma such as unfaithfulness, narcissism, mind-twisting manipulation, physical violence, and emotional abuse – which should never be tolerated or ignored – these are the relationship trouble warning signs which most alarm us.
- Selfishness. Self-centered, self-seeking behavior is at the root of all relationship problems. Left to our own devices, we come out of the womb prideful, egocentric creatures. Even babies get angry and pitch a fit when they want food or attention. When we encounter individuals who are deeply committed to getting his or her own way, who feel gypped when he or she is not kept 100% happy, and who is quick to point out the other’s failures… we hear thunder rumbles in the distance. Storms are a’comin’ – one right after the other. After working with couples for a decade, we have narrowed down the main relationship problem to selfishness. Blame it on culture, movies, or anything you wish; yet, all too often, couples rush toward the altar thinking they are madly in love… when, in reality, they are excited to have found someone who appears to love them as much as they love themselves. Thankfully, such is not always the case. There are couples who marry with the understanding that they are choosing to love an imperfect person for a lifetime and need to give sacrificially to bless their spouse and honor God. Unfortunately, this selfless couple appears to be the exception instead of the rule – even among couples who self-label as Christian. Encountering selfish couples, or couples which contain one selfish person and one giving person, leaves me feeling uneasy. Marriage, in and of itself, does not make one happy. Joining your life with another requires you to lay down your desires (and sometimes your needs) and treat that person as more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3). In many ways, it is far easier to remain single. However, thousands of couples a year flood wedding venues, courthouses, and churches to make lifetime commitments under the main assumption that this person is going to make me happy.
- Lack of Character. “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden. Does your boyfriend walk back in the grocery store and tell the cashier when he discovers she gave him too much change? Does your girlfriend answer truthfully even knowing her honesty may cause her inconvenience or difficulty? Does he rationalize away his poor choices? Does she consider cheating a “smart” way to get ahead in life? Sometimes character flaws are obvious; whereas, sometimes they remain hidden until you get to know someone extremely well. When we discover couples who display questionable character (especially if it’s intentional and not hidden to the person), we consider that more than a red flag; it is a grand display of red, waving flags. If he or she will tell “white” lies now to get out of trouble at work, what is to keep him or her from telling extreme, black lies to you later? If he or she will cheat the system to climb the ladder of success, what is to keep him or her from cheating on you later?
- Repeatedly Breaking Up and Getting Back Together. “Modern dating – breaking off one relationship and then moving to another – is practice for divorce.” Did you hear this quote repeatedly when you were growing up too? Though it used to annoy me (can these grown-ups just leave me alone and let me enjoy being young?!), I have become one of those grown-ups screaming guard your heart from the rooftops. More concerning than breaking up and dating someone new, however, is recurrently breaking up and getting back together with the same person. This pattern is an even clearer indicator of trouble to come. When Eric and I got married, I felt slightly anxious at times. Wow, I am in this relationship for keeps! However, because we had gone through our relationship stages one at a time – friendship, dating, courting, engagement, marriage – without breaks, I could not go back in my memory and remember how easy it was to walk away from him. The health of my relationship with Eric was certainly not because of me. Up until we got together, I was the queen of breaking up and getting back together. I would resolve to end an involvement, get the courage to break it off, begin to miss the person (or give into his attempts to talk to me), and then find myself right back in the relationship – which was now much worse for the wear. In those relationships, I displayed tons of warning signs – selfishness, immaturity, indecisiveness, and unrealistic expectations. Regardless of the reasons involved, couples who break up and get back together constantly are likely to continue this pattern… even after marriage. A marriage certificate does not suddenly abolish previous relationship habits. If couples cannot work through their differences without breaking up, marriage is not a wise next step because marriage comes with hundreds of additional problems dating couples never face. For those couples who break up for a significant period of time, grow, and then decide to try again, we are much less concerned in those circumstances as the break up ended up being growth-oriented instead of just problem-avoidance.
- One Person Working Hard at the Relationship and the Other Showing Apathy (or, signs that one person wants to break up but feels stuck). “Did you hire us to break you up?” These are words we never expected to say in our career in working with others; but, occasionally feel compelled to ask (and, actually have). Intermittently, couples come to us in distress because one person wants to fix the relationship at all costs, and the other wants to call it quits but cannot figure out how to end it. The longer someone stays in an unhappy dating relationship, the harder it becomes to walk away. Some feel guilty for leaving a partner who has invested so much time and energy into the relationship; others are not sure how they will manage being alone again; whereas, others some even feel as though they owe it to their significant other to get married. These are understandable concerns and real heartaches, but not suitable reasons to stay in a relationship which is already crashing. If you marry someone out of pity, it will be as though you are doing them a favor; and, when life happens, and this person ceases to appreciate you, you will feel irate. After all, you sacrificed your happiness for him or her! And, if you marry someone who is clearly settling for you, will you ever be fully at ease in that marriage? No, you likely will not. When one person is holding on for dear life and the other is floating away, we hope and pray for a breakup or a significant heart change.
- An Unteachable Spirit. Several years ago, Eric and I sat across the table from a young couple who appeared to be in love; however, they were not only in love but so into each other that the rest of the world did not matter. They were not so in love that the rest of the world did not exist, but so in love that anything and anyone else, including anyone else’s opinions, recommendations, and admonitions… did not matter. The difference is subtle, but huge. When couples float through a crowd in a love bubble, struggling to notice the world around them, I consider that a temporary condition. ~smile~ It may be mildly annoying to those around them, but it is an understandable and short-lived mental state (limerence, infatuation). When a couple is enamored with each other, but also is blazingly prideful about their relationship; that condition, I fear, is quite permanent – barring a significant heart change. As we asked this couple questions, they responded with short and arrogant answers, leaving Eric and myself baffled, especially considering no law required them to be there. Finally, Eric asked them something I had never heard him ask before, “If we recommended you not get married, what would you do?” They snorted a bit of a condescending laugh and responded, “We’d get married anyway.” Their response solidified our concerns – this couple was not open to wisdom, suggestions, or help of any kind. They were going to do it their way. Scripture tells us to incline our ears to wisdom (Proverbs 2:2), not to be wise in our own eyes (Proverbs 3:7), and not to ignore instruction (Proverbs 15:32). “By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.” (Proverbs 13:10, ESV) Eric and I are fully aware that our clients do not take every shred of advice we give. Surely, we have not followed every principle our premarital mentors taught us. We are here to guide and point couples in a Scripture-centered direction, and we consider it an honor to be a part of their journey. Our concern does not lie with whether or not they heed our every word, but moreso whether or not they are open to instruction. If they are closed off to receiving (i.e., considering, mulling, chewing on, etc.) advice from us, chances are they will not heed advice from anyone including pastors, teachers, parents, or each other. When couples come to us with arrogant attitudes, we foresee long and frustrating days ahead for them; and, sadly, we do not expect their marriages to last (and, sadly, for the couple above, they divorced within two years).
- Immaturity. Immaturity can kill a relationship before it starts, but thankfully, time, teaching, and desire to grow can remedy it. If one (or both of you) display signs of immaturity (e.g., childishness in conflict, clinginess, taking everything personally, posting personal issues on social media, unable to make decisions without parental help, unable to keep a job, etc.), slow your roll towards the altar and take some additional time to grow before tying the knot. Unfortunately, age is no guarantee of maturity. There are some bratty, entitled senior citizens in this world and some realistic, hardworking, others-centered teenagers. We have worked with young couples who exude generous amounts of maturity and are confident in their marriage readiness; and, we have worked with older couples who have all the maturity of budding adolescents. Regardless of life stage, Eric and I look for maturity as an indicator of whether or not our clients’ relationships are likely to thrive.
- Unrealistic Expectations of Each Other and of Marriage. Whether we know it or not, we all have expectations of marriage. Sometimes, they do not show themselves until we are face-to-face with them, but they are there. Many of these expectations come out during our work with couples, and it quickly becomes clear who has reasonable desires and who has unreachable desires. When couples anticipate undying attention and devotion from each other, or express hopes of constant achievement, we hear warning bells. I expect my future spouse to spend most nights and weekends with family. I expect my future spouse to always maintain good physical fitness. I expect my future spouse to have a thirst for learning and always be moving towards a new goal. At first glance, these expectations seem okay. Sure, it is great for families to spend nights and weekends together, but what if jobs require weekend work? What if his or her career requires further education which takes up several hours each night? What if your spouse needs to spend one night a week with friends engaging in a hobby? Your partner’s body will age and sickness may cause superior fitness to be impossible. What happens if your future spouse reaches his or her goals and wants to enjoy success for ten years before trying something new? Those who address their expectations, discuss them, and invite feedback from each other give us reason to hope for marital satisfaction; but, those who stand firm on their desires regardless of their unreasonableness give us pause for concern. Couples who understand they are marrying an imperfect person will be less disappointed than those who marry with iron-clad, perfectionist expectations.
Examine your past relationships. How many of these warning signs were present? Investigate your current relationship. How many of the points above ring true? Do you see red flags flying high in your friends’ or loved ones’ dating relationships? If so, are you willing to sit them down and lovingly share your insights with them – even if they become temporarily angry with you?
No matter how long we work with couples, it has never grown easy for me to look clients in the eyes and say, “I have concerns about __________ in your relationship.” Just as mothers are defensive about their babies, couples are defensive about their relationships. The truth is especially hard to digest when you believe you are in love, but the stakes are that much higher when marriage and future children are on the line. Be prayerful, wise, and consider your timing, but if you see someone you love heading towards heartache, do not let fear keep you silent.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6, ESV)
(If you’d like to work with us for our expertise and insight with your relationship, please feel free to Contact Us!)
Are there any warning signs in your relationship, or a friend’s relationship, which are causing you concern?