Steve and Carly are excited to start their premarital care (PMC) with their pastor and his wife. The young couple has a great relationship, but they recognize they don’t know all the ins and outs of marriage. Given his marriage and ministry experience, the pastor wants to cover more than the basics. He’s mapped out a six-session plan where he and his wife will cover God’s design for marriage, the roles and responsibilities of a husband and wife in marriage, and how to deal with personality and family background differences. They’ve dedicated two sessions to communication and conflict resolution skills, and one to the marriage bed.
Pastors know six PMC sessions aren’t sufficient to cover all a couple could possibly need for marriage. The plan Steve and Carly’s pastor mapped out does cover some essential marriage elements, but here are two commonly overlooked goals everyone providing premarital care should adopt.
1. Understand the future husband’s and wife’s stories.
Marriage may be a fresh start, but relationships never start from a blank slate. Everyone brings issues into their new relationship. Whether couples realize it or not, their stories—the events and experiences in their lives—shape how they see and understand the world around them, their relationship, and even themselves.
Steve grew up in what seemed like an ideal family. Both his father and mother had careers outside the home, and their family was well-off. But though they enjoyed nice meals out and vacations to the coast, Steve doesn’t remember having fun with his family. Their conversations rarely strayed from grades, sports, schedules, and chores. When Steve considers his childhood, he remembers feeling disconnected and alone.
Carly’s mom died giving birth to her, and she grew up in a multigenerational home. Her father and his parents raised both Carly and her siblings. Carly’s dad worked from sunrise to sunset on the family farm. Her grandmother was the primary caregiver, but this didn’t keep her dad from nurturing her. Each evening during dinner, Carly’s dad took time to catch up with each of his children by asking about her day. Not only did he listen, but he’d ask questions in a way that made Carly and her sisters feel understood. Yet somehow, the love of Carly’s father and grandparents didn’t erase the lingering guilt and shame she felt nor the thought that her life caused her mother’s death.
Our stories (and the themes that surface in the ways we tell them) shape our perspectives and our ways of responding to life circumstances.
Does Steve know about the guilt Carly sometimes feels? Does Carly know how isolated Steve feels during family times? When you give the men and women who come for premarital care an opportunity to tell their stories, you can help them see how our stories (and the themes that surface in the ways we tell them) shape our perspectives and our ways of responding to life circumstances.
2. Help the couple understand the heart of conflict.
If you’ve done premarital care, you know that most plans and curriculum include a section on communication skills and tips for conflict resolution. These can be helpful. But if you merely emphasize skills and tools when addressing conflict, you’ll overlook the deeper and more significant matters of the heart.
Pastors must help couples like Steve and Carly understand two realities about conflict:
First, at the heart of conflict are the desires that wage war within. Because of indwelling sin, there’s a war in our souls (James 4:1–3). We desire, but we don’t have, so we kill. We want something we don’t have and can’t get, so we quarrel and fight. Why do we square off and step into the ring of conflict? Because we want what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. Conflict arises from our desires for pleasure, comfort, and control.
Even during their engagement, Steve and Carly had some intense disagreements. They said hurtful things and acted in ways they regretted. They confessed their failures to one another and made up, but it was easy for both to harbor resentment and continue blaming the other person in their heart. Their pastor helped them to see that when we live according to the flesh, we begin to think everything and everyone around us exists to satisfy our every desire.
Second, conflict occurs in the context of a broken and fallen world. Steve and Carly each need to recognize and repent from their sinful desires. They also need to see how life’s hardships complicate their conflict. Steve’s father recently died of a heart attack, and Carly was just diagnosed with lupus. Such unexpected and unwanted life circumstances often expose our brokenness.
God uses suffering to help believing couples grow in humility and dependence upon him, and in compassion and patience with one another.
Steve and Carly’s pastor helped them see that the most sobering realities of life are a result of the fall. He also encouraged them that the fall is not the end of God’s story. This is important. God knows about the most difficult realities of Christians’ lives and sovereignly uses these times for good. Moreover, God uses suffering to help believing couples grow in humility and dependence upon him, and in compassion and patience with one another.
Because Steve and Carly’s pastor and his wife took time to understand their stories and explore the heart of conflict (not just communication skills), they were better prepared to move toward one another with gospel compassion and understanding. They still had plenty of learning to do, but they were better equipped to grow in love for God and one another through a lifetime of marriage. Pastors, when you incorporate these commonly overlooked areas into your premarital care, you’ll better equip couples like them.