Read an Excerpt
If Only We Had Known
Above all else, guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life.
-- Proverbs 4:23
A couple of summers ago, Erin and I were asked to take part in a wedding ceremony of a young couple we had counseled. I was to bring the message. Leading up to their wedding, I kept thinking about how people don't often remember the preacher's message, and I really wanted their day to be memorable. So, I thought long and hard about what to say -- and then a brilliant idea hit. The only piece of information I needed was the type of flower the bride was going to have in her bouquet. Erin, acting as my spy, secretly discovered she was using calla lilies.
During the ceremony I talked about the beauty of the calla lilies in the bride's bouquet, and then I held up a packet of seeds (although I know lilies grow from bulbs!). "Your marriage is like this packet of seeds," I explained to the couple and their many guests. "You need some very important elements in order to grow the seeds of your relationship into a beautiful marriage bouquet."
Everything was going perfectly until I came to the last point -- spending twenty minutes per day meeting your spouse's needs. Keep in mind that I was using a gardening metaphor, so to make my point, I confidently stated, "Much like fertilizer helps calla lilies grow strong and healthy, if you want a healthy marriage, you need to spend at least twenty minutes each day fertilizing each other."
The church roared with laughter. To make matters worse, I had no idea what was so funny. The metaphor had made so much sense in my head that I never looked at my words from any other perspective. I think the groom realized I was clueless, so he joked, "Can we get on with the 'I dos' so I can begin my twenty minutes of fertilizing my wife?"
I could have died.
At least I got my wish. No one will ever forget my message!
On the drive home from the reception, Erin and I talked about how much premarital training this young man and his bride-to-be had received in the months leading up to their wedding. You couldn't talk to them for more than a few minutes before it became obvious how well they knew themselves, each other, the basic building blocks of a great marriage, and where they wanted to take this new union of theirs. Erin and I were awed. We couldn't help but think, If only we had known, before we got married, what they already know! What a difference it would have made! Oh, to have been in their shoes at the beginning!
Now don't get us wrong; we have a great marriage today -- after fifteen years of trial and error, much of it very painful! So as we watched these two become husband and wife, we marveled at how much they had already been empowered to create a strong and vibrant marriage. They had clearly been given the knowledge and the skills and the personal awareness to begin their years together on a very high note.
As we talked about how happy and confident the bride and groom looked as they strolled out of the sanctuary together, I said, "You know, I'm kind of envious of them. I wish we would have had that!" Of course, Erin nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
Which leads us to this book.
One of our major hopes is that by the time you finish absorbing the material to follow, you will be ready to stand excitedly on a platform, about to say your vows, armed with a high level of knowledge and skills and self-awareness. You simply don't need to go through everything we did in order to build a terrific marriage.
In great measure, this book contains what Erin and I wish we knew back then and lays out what we would do differently if we could do it all over. Of course, we also did a lot of things right! We want to highlight those things, too. We also draw upon our years of counseling premarital couples, tap into the most recent available research, and, finally, make use of one other unique resource:
We surveyed approximately ten thousand people regarding the most critical premarital issues so that you would get to inherit the learning of thousands of happily married couples. The collective wisdom of these couples will impart to you crucial knowledge and skills that can be applied to your premarital process. It's like getting knowledge handed down by generations of scholars. Erin and I are going to give you advice from people who have been there, done that, and learned how to have great marriages. It's like getting tomorrow's newspaper today and being able to cash in on the stock market because you already know what's going to happen.
That's important, because research conclusively shows that couples who succeed gain the knowledge they need before they settle into destructive patterns that often lead to divorce. In fact, you're 31 percent less likely to get divorced if you get some sort of premarital training. Another study by marriage expert David Olson reports that 80 percent of the couples who did premarital training stayed together. Premarital education can also reduce the stress of the prewedding period. Finally, according to marriage experts Dr. Jason Carroll and Dr. William J. Doherty, couples who participate in premarital programs experience a 30 percent increase in marital success over those who do not participate.
Such couples report improved communication, better conflict-management skills, higher dedication to one's mate, greater emphasis on the positive aspects of a relationship, and improved overall relationship quality. These benefits appear to hold for six months to three years after the program is over, and they extend to couples who enter marriage with greater risks, such as those coming from homes where parents had divorced or had high levels of conflict.
On the other hand, if you just wing it and count on your luck and romantic attachment to make your marriage a success, your odds of succeeding are only one in four.
Such potent facts should help you to understand our vision: To help men and women obtain the knowledge and skills to build satisfying, lifelong marriages where both people become conformed to the image of the Lord.
Nowhere is this vision more realized than in the development of this book. We want to make a difference in your life as a couple before you fall into the hurtful relational patterns that too often lead to divorce.
Knowledge and Skills: Keys to Success
Erin will never forget the call she took one day at her parents' house in Phoenix, Arizona. I was on the other end of the line, euphoric with great news.
After I asked her to sit down and brace herself, I proudly announced that I had received something very exciting in the mail. I told her that she was preparing to marry a very rich man. I had received notification in the mail that I had won the big sweepstakes! I was in the running for a new car, a free luxury trip, or even a million bucks!
"I can imagine that you're doubting me," I said, "but before you go down that road, I should tell you that I've already called my dad and read him all the details -- and he also thinks I've won!"
I ended the celebration phone call with, "Aren't you excited? I am certain that it will be the money!"
Meanwhile, Erin stood stunned on the other end of the phone. Truly, this would be anyone's greatest dream come true -- entering marriage with no financial worries. Her joy, however, alternated with deep doubt.
She had actually laughed out loud when I went on and on about what we would do with the money and how we would spend it and what I was going to buy her. She had worked in a psychiatric hospital during nursing school, and this call seemed eerily similar to many of the conversations she had engaged in there.
She hung up the phone thinking, How cute and naive he is. She probably guessed I was already putting in orders, creating house plans, and booking our luxury honeymoon.
Over the next week, I called Erin several more times to talk about our new wealth. I continued to celebrate, plan, and even share the news with many of my graduate-school friends. Finally, one of my friends encouraged me to seek legal counsel to see if this was a scam or real. Deflated, I did just that.
I made a visit to a lawyer friend -- and in no time, he began giggling and laughing. He couldn't believe I would fall for this scam. "How are you going to spend all of your newly acquired wealth?" he snickered.
I left his office humiliated. Not only had I believed I was a millionaire, everyone knew I had believed the message of that letter, so craftily written.
That day I learned that without the proper knowledge and skills to read and understand the fine print, I could easily be led to look like a moron.
Fifteen years later, whenever Erin and I talk over this sorry incident, we still laugh at my naive thinking. In fact, however, it wasn't all that different from how we entered into marriage. We thought we understood the fine print -- but in reality, we had a completely different experience than what we planned for. Without the proper knowledge and skills, we were left helpless -- and, very often, humiliated.
Millions of couples have suffered a similar fate for a similar reason. And we're not talking about the death of a sweepstakes dream! What starts out as a promising adventure for many marriages often ends in the death of a relationship.
But you can avoid falling for that deceptive sweepstakes letter! You can succeed in your marriage and build a thriving relationship -- so long as you get the right knowledge and the right skills. But what kinds of knowledge and skills are necessary? Where do we start? For us, that's no longer a tough question.
Make It Safe!
We often tell premarital couples that if we had only one hour to spend with them, we would use the entire time to talk about safety. Why? The reality is that you are about to go through an enormous amount of change, both good and bad. That tends to make you feel very unsafe, unsettled, unsure, nervous, even frightened. You're about to leave the single life you knew so well in exchange for a new kind of life you have no way of fully grasping. Major adjustments are sweeping in on you from a thousand directions: managing expectations, conflicts, household issues, your sexual relationship, ways to spend free time, dealing with in-laws, personality differences, moving away, leaving family, reorienting old friendships, etc.
And what naturally happens when you're trying to work through that much change that quickly? One word: conflict. This is inevitable. The presence of conflict in your first year of marriage is 100 percent natural and normal. It is virtually impossible not to bump into differences of opinions, beliefs, and behaviors as you deal with all these issues. As you endure conflict, arguments, disagreements, fights, struggles, or whatever you want to call them, you start to feel emotionally unsafe. And what happens then? Let us show you by retelling our first significant disagreement. It still makes me laugh!
We continue to debate the question even today, sixteen long years later. Did we really break up before we got engaged? And if so, who broke up with whom? Erin insists that I broke up with her; I say that we didn't break up at all.
How about if we tell you the story, and you decide?
We had known each other for years but started dating only after both of us had graduated from college. That in itself was a big deal, because I had a different girlfriend all through college and she had dated my roommate, so she never saw me as a potential date; I was just her brother. We liked hanging out together, and she always had fun with my family, but romance between us had never entered the picture.
We started officially dating in January. One month later, I called Erin and told her that we needed to talk. "Let's go out to dinner tomorrow night and discuss a few things," I said.
Now, my sister was already a good friend of Erin's, and she was getting engaged that very night. So before Erin and I went to the restaurant to discuss our relationship, we helped my sister's sweetie set up just the right atmosphere for him to pop the question. Here's Erin's version of what happened next:
"This all happened right around Valentine's Day. Pretty much, Greg said, 'Let's slow it down. There's just too much pressure. My mom and my sister are pressuring me.' I could agree with that, but it looked and sounded to me like we were breaking up. So when I left the restaurant, I thought that was it.
"When I got home, I found a 'secret admirer' letter that another guy had sent me. After I found out who wrote it, I started dating him. All the time, however, Greg was still functioning under the assumption that we were still 'kind of ' dating. That seemed strange to me, since he didn't call and I didn't hear from him for some time. Later I learned that he had gone out of town with his dad, but he never told me he was going out of town. So I started dating other people and having a great time. I had accepted that 'we' weren't going to happen. I had grieved the loss of our relationship and had moved on."
The truth was, I really did have to slow it down. Both my mom and sister were completely in love with Erin; in fact, everyone was in love with Erin. They kept pestering me, "When are you going to ask her to marry you? Are you stupid?" They were putting enormous pressure on me to pull the trigger. But I kept saying, "Listen, I don't want to marry Erin just because you're telling me to. I want to marry her because I want to spend my life with her. And I need to make sure that this is who I believe God is calling me to be with." Everything was just going so fast!
So when we went out to dinner, I intended to say to Erin, "I really like you. In fact, I love the way this is going -- I just need to slow down a little. It feels like we're moving at sixty-five miles an hour, and I want to slow it down to about forty. I want to keep moving ahead, but at a little slower pace. It's just happening too fast right now." I thought that after our conversation we would just downshift from third gear to second gear and keep right on dating.
But Erin heard something very different. Our story reminds me a little of the famous Friends episode, where Ross gets into trouble because he thought he and Rachel were "on a break." Well, Erin thought we were on a break.
When my sister told me that Erin had begun dating someone else, I shouted, "What? She's dating someone else?" I called her right away.
"Well, nice to hear from you," Erin said.
After that, it was a challenge to conquer and win her back. So I said, "I want us to date only each other."
Erin and I still debate over what really happened, but we both understand now that she filtered my words through a lens of fear. The whole conversation felt unsafe to her because she saw me as uncommitted to our relationship. Here she had been offering her heart to me, and my little speech made her feel as though I had rejected it. So, quite naturally, she took back her heart, closed it down to me, and ran.
The Biggest Factor
Your relationship is destined to take one of two paths. In fact, in every interaction between the two of you, you have a choice to make. You can either move toward creating and maintaining a safe environment, or you can fall into the trap of reacting to each other in ways that make your relational environment feel insecure and unsafe. Although many things will go into your relationship to make it into a marriage that thrills you both, the biggest factor is safety.
Why is safety so important?
The heart is the epicenter of life and relationships. Proverbs 4:23 makes this very clear, "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." When the heart feels safe, it opens. When the heart feels fear or senses a threat, it closes. Both safety and fear set in motion chain reactions that lead to very different destinations. When people feel safe, they are naturally inclined to open their hearts -- and intimacy occurs naturally. Our goal in this book is to show you how to create a relationship that feels like the safest place on earth.
What Is Emotional Safety?
When you feel safe in a relationship, you naturally open your heart and reveal the real you. That's the very definition of intimacy. It's feeling free to open up and reveal who you really are, knowing that the other person will still love, accept, and value you, no matter what.
In other words, you hold your heart out to the person and say, "Here is who I am emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and mentally. I want you to know my heart and soul. I want you to get to know who I am and appreciate who I am and value who I am. I am a very fascinating person who will take you more than one lifetime to understand! But I am not going to offer my heart to you or reveal who I really am if I don't feel safe."
You feel emotionally safe with someone when you believe that he or she will handle your heart -- your deepest feelings and desires -- with genuine interest, curiosity, and care.
But do you see the problem here? How many relationships can you count where you feel genuinely safe to open up and share who you really are? To how many people can you entrust your deepest thoughts and dreams?
Our son Garrison wished he had learned this concept of safety when he was younger. Garrison loves cats. They are one of his most favorite things in life. Fortunately for our son, we have a cat, Bumble; unfortunately for Garrison, Bumble will have nothing to do with him. As you can imagine, this kills him.
The problem started when Garrison was a baby. He was so interested in and curious about Bumble from day one. Sadly, he was very rough with Bumble. He never meant to hurt poor Bumble, but he would pull her tail, grab her around the throat, and grab her whiskers (cats hate that, by the way!). Erin and I did everything we could to keep Garrison from hurting Bumble, but he would always seem to find a way.
Six years later, Bumble is still traumatized from Garrison's attacks. Worse yet, she will have nothing to do with him. The moment Garrison enters a room, Bumble darts out. This is no ordinary stroll either; I mean she tucks her tail and sprints out of the room.
Nothing that Garrison does makes a difference. We've done everything we can think of to restore that relationship, but nothing works. I've spent hours holding Bumble and Garrison in my lap so he can pet her. We've tried to "counsel" Bumble into giving Garrison another chance -- stopping short of a full-blown intervention. Garrison has tried to talk her into letting him hold her. As Erin and I wrote this book at our kitchen table, one day we heard Garrison pleading with Bumble, "I just don't want you to not like me; I want you to like me. Please don't be scared of me. I will be nice to you." None of it made a bit of difference. When Garrison paused to think of some others things to say and looked away, Bumble made a break for the living-room couch. It just crushed him.
I've told Garrison over and over that Bumble doesn't feel safe with him, but he just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand why she won't just let him hold her.
You and I are no different than Bumble. When we don't feel safe, our hearts close, and we disconnect from people. Unlike Bumble, God designed us to hunger for intimacy and deep connection, to connect with others and experience relational intimacy -- especially in the key human relationship, with a spouse. Yet many of us struggle with various aspects of intimacy, because it requires openness -- and openness makes us vulnerable. We're not quite sure what others will say or do or how they'll use what they learn about us! This is why a lack of desire to connect -- or an avoidance of intimacy in general -- usually has more to do with attempting to avoid feeling hurt, humiliated, or embarrassed.
In spite of the risks, an intimate relationship offers many enormous benefits. Intimacy creates the ideal opportunity to love deeply and be loved, experience a significant sense of belonging, have a clear sense of purpose in life, have the ability to make a major difference inanother's life, and have a way of fully expressing the best of who we are. And we have discovered that the foundational component of reaching this goal is to create a truly safe environment -- one that is safe physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.
As we said, people are naturally inclined to be open and connect with others. Openness is the default setting for human beings. No state of being takes less energy to maintain than openness; you just have to be yourself, relaxed. Maintaining defenses, walls, force fields, and fortresses, however, takes tremendous energy. As a result, when people feel truly safe, they're free to be open and use their energy to enjoy life.
Focus on Creating Safety
Creating safety will help you to foster a climate in which you can build an open relationship that will naturally encourage growth. It will help you build a relationship in which you and your betrothed will feel cherished, honored, and alive. It's as if safety sets a soothing tone that allows you to feel relaxed.
If that sounds like paradise, maybe it's because Eden was a supremely safe place. Our relationship with God can be the safest relationship we will ever experience. God's heart is always open, His love is always available, and He always has our best interests in mind. We love how King David described how safe he felt with God:
The Lord is my light and my salvation --
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life --
of whom shall I be afraid?...
One thing I ask of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
and set me high upon a rock. (Psalm 27:1, 4-5)
Before they sinned, Adam and Eve felt no fear. They enjoyed an amazingly intimate relationship with God and each other. They felt so close to each other that God described them as "united into one." Nothing came between Adam and Eve -- not insecurities, not sharp differences of opinion, not even clothes! They were completely open with each other -- no walls, no masks, no fear. And their relationship blossomed.
Choose to Honor
Although this entire book is designed to give you tool after tool to create a safe marriage, we want to give you our very favorite way to cultivate a safe environment. This really is the foundation. It comes from one of our favorite verses. "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). We love this passage because it's basically saying your heart will be open to what you value. When two people feel valued by each other, they usually feel safe and their hearts are open. Another word for value is honor. Your heart will be open to what you honor.
Honor is an amazing goal for your engagement. The cumulative result of consistent honoring is like a strong, rock-solid lighthouse. By honor, we mean a simple decision to place high value, worth, and importance on the one you're going to marry by viewing him or her as a priceless gift. You just do it; it's a decision you make. Honoring gives legs to the words "I love you."
Honor is not only the first step of love, it's also the single most important principle for building an intimate relationship. The apostle Paul encouraged the early Christians to honor one another when he wrote: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor" (Romans 12:10 NASB). Here's the definition of honor we prefer: "To give preference to someone by attaching high value to him or her."
In his research, relationship expert Dr. John Gottman found honor to be such a bedrock of a satisfying relationship that if one mate loses honor for the other, he can now predict divorce with 91 percent accuracy. Without honor, you cannot attain intimacy in your relationship; in fact, it's impossible to create even a functional relationship without honor.
You and your future mate must commit yourselves to consider each other not only very valuable but one of the most valuable things in your lives, worthy of reverence, praise, and honor, without restriction. You must treat each other as treasures, and that attitude should govern all your actions and words. Whatever you highly treasure, that's where your affections, desires, and enthusiasm will lie. This creates a bedrock of safety.
Beyond pledging to honor your future mate, you can also learn to convey that honor through your words, actions, and deeds. Picture him or her as an individual personally autographed by God. Wouldn't you feel thrilled to be seen with someone who bore God's personal autograph? Wouldn't you want to have your picture taken with such a person and hang that picture in a prominent place?
Another way to take action is to list all the things you admire about each other. Take a moment and do that right now. What is it that makes you so excited to spend the rest of your life with him or her? What is it that you most appreciate? What do you value about him or her? Everyone has great qualities in some areas. Consider your partner's personality (e.g., introverted or extroverted), character traits, appearance, thinking patterns, gender differences, faith, shared values, concerns, opinions, and life goals. Maybe you most value his sense of humor, her sensitivity, his passion, her spirituality, his integrity, her attention to details, or his leadership. Whatever you value, put on your list. Post it in a highly visible place where you can see it every day. Personalize your list! The longer your list, the higher the value and honor you feel toward him or her. Let your loved one see your list and exchange lists occasionally.
Commit yourself to cultivating honor in your relationship! It will protect you from the storms that will come. The greater the honor, the safer your relationship will become.
Of course, none of us honors others perfectly. We all say or do hurtful things that dishonor the ones we really love. When you mess up like this, say, first to yourself and then out loud, "You're too valuable to treat like this. Would you forgive me?" The one you love is precious, and what you said or did to the other felt degrading and dishonoring. You honor your beloved when you see him or her -- and treat him or her -- as an incredible gift of God. Both of you have immeasurable value as God's unique, divine creations.
Keep Yourself Safe, Too
Understand that when you extend your heart to another person, sometimes, as a result of being human, he or she will be careless with it or will reject you.
It's brutal, and it has happened to all of us. What can we do to protect this invaluable part of ourselves, we whom God so loved that he sent His Son to die for us? Anytime you extend your heart, and he or she grabs hold of it and starts tossing it around, immediately you should say, "Excuse me. Apparently you have lost sight of how valuable I am, but I haven't -- and I can't let that happen." We admit this sounds a little dorky, but you'll get the hang of it.
Of course, you can do this in a way that doesn't damage the relationship. When I extend my heart over some wall to Erin and she gets a little careless, I say, "Excuse me, honey, but I'm taking this back for right now. "That's a signal to her to be a bit more careful, and it works.
This requires you to first recognize and respect your own incredible worth and value, as well as your own vulnerability. See yourself as God sees you -- valuable and precious. As a result, you'll require your fiancé or fiancée to proceed with honor and care as you allow him or her into your inner sanctuary. When he or she gets distracted and forgets to treat you with honor, you respectfully inform your beloved that access to your heart is a special privilege granted by invitation only, that he or she will be asked to leave if the poor behavior continues, and that future access may be denied. Trust is earned and must be maintained and continually reestablished through respectful, honoring behavior.
Your ability to feel safe in your relationship depends more on your remembering how valuable and how vulnerable your heart is than on the other's ability to remember the same thing. The most important aspect of feeling safe is that you feel safe with you, that you are going to do what is necessary to take care of your heart -- that you are willing to set boundaries when people are dishonoring you. Otherwise, you're safe only to the degree that he or she remembers -- and in that case, you're helpless and have no say. One way to be safe with yourself is to never allow someone to express his or her feelings at your expense. That is never okay. If that happens, we hope that you will set an appropriate boundary, that you will say, "I would love to listen to you but not like this. If you are willing to do this another way, a way in which we both feel honored, then sign me up. But I will not sit here and allow myself to be dishonored." Why is this important? When people express their feelings at your expense (when they scream, cuss, belittle you, get angry, stonewall, and so on), what happens to your heart? Exactly, it closes. We are not saying that you don't want to listen to your fiancée. That would be bad! Instead, we are saying that it's never okay for her to dishonor you in word or action, because then your heart will close and you will disconnect from her. That's not what God desires for you in your relationship.
When you trust yourself that you will always take care of yourself, however, you can afford to give your future spouse a whole lot of freedom in your relationship. You know that he or she is going to forget, that he or she is going to have moments of untrustworthy behavior. You can live with that, however, because there's always someone taking responsibility -- you. So for a time you pull back your heart and protect it. And when your loved one reestablishes honor, you can say, "Let's try this again."
A Hedge of Safety
When two people mutually commit themselves to honoring both self and each other, then the relationship begins to feel extremely safe. Both will tend to relax and open up, creating greater opportunities for deep and satisfying intimacy. If you consistently act in an honoring manner, the one you honor will be far more likely to choose to open his or her heart to you, as well. And isn't the ideal relationship one where entering into the other's presence feels like coming home to the safety of the Garden of Eden? When you make these efforts to create safety in your relationship, one day soon your home will feel like the safest place on earth.
We want to help you learn how to create a safe home environment that will enable your marriage to flourish and grow (just like the calla lily!). We want to help you focus on creating a partnership that feels like the safest place on earth. We want to help you put a hedge of protection around your relationship, one that allows you to experience the natural trial and error of two people coming together in such a way that it feels really good to both of you.
For years we worked with couples in crisis who came to us in last ditch efforts to save their rocky marriages. We achieved a lot of success with these at-risk couples by doing just one thing: we focused on bringing some safety into their relationships. By the time they came to us, their hearts had totally closed to each other. And do you know the only way to get two closed hearts to open? They must begin to feel safe. So everything we did was designed to help these people feel safe again so that their hearts would once more open to each other.
You can benefit tremendously from their difficult learning curve. If you learn now how to make your home safe, you can build a rock-solid marriage that will bless both you and others for generations to come. Safety is the key! And everything we offer in this book is designed to help your upcoming marriage feel just a little bit safer...so that your hearts will stay open to each other, whatever comes your way.
Outside of a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no relationship more important than marriage -- and marriage requires the proper training and preparation, skill acquisition, and knowledge. After reading Before You Plan Your Wedding...Plan Your Marriage, you and your future mate will be well prepared to begin your marital journey. Our goal is to have you in top shape as you begin your life together. We are excited that you are joining us in preparing for the most important journey you will ever undertake!
Whatever the details of your story, someone proposed and someone accepted. Or perhaps you are contemplating marriage but have not yet made a formal commitment. Either way, you are reading this book because you want to have the best possible engagement and marriage. We commend you for your hope and desire, and so we say,
"Have a happy -- and safe -- adventure!"
© 2008 by Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley