Read This Before Getting Married!
Updated: Jul 5
The purpose of this case study is to follow up the presentation of marital miscues with counsel in the hope of helping others prepare for marriage and face the complexities of commitment in a Christ-like manner. The titles and subject matter in this section intduce only a glimpse of things for a couple to consider.
My name is Vance, and I am sixty-two years old. I am over ten years into my second and last marriage. I have four stepchildren ages twenty-six, twenty-five, twenty-two, and twenty from my second marriage to Elizabeth which is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I have three boys ages thirty-four, thirty-two, and thirty from my first marriage of twenty-seven years to Berniece, which ended in divorce and i the worst thing (the divorce, not the children) that has ever happened to me.
This is my story.
I remember Berniece at five or six years of age carrying a stick and chasing me and my cousins around the front yard of her family's mobile home. Yes, it had a couch just outside the front door and that is where she kept the stick hidden. Ten years later, my family traveled from Denver to Colorado Springs, the city where Berniece lived, to visit my mother's family. I saw Berniece at my great-grandmother's home. Berniece was standing against the living room wall in a yellow pant suit listening to her family singing gospel hymns along with her cousin who was playing the piano. I didn't know much about Berniece, but I knew from that moment I liked her, and I asked my grandmother about her. What she told me started a cascade of events of which I hope transform into a learning opportunity in this case study.
My grandmother was Berniece's aunt. Berniece was my step-grandfather's brother's daughter. That makes her a sort of third cousin by marriage. My great grandmother was her grandmother. The cousin playing the piano was my uncle. My mom's stepfather was Berniece's uncle so of course my parents knew her parents and they would often revel at the Ute Inn in Woodland Park, Colorado before we were born. Both our moms were pregnant, and they kidded about having a boy and girl who would grow up and marry each other.
In 1973 before internet, email, and cell phones, attempts to stay in touch with Berniece were difficult. I wrote to her, but she did not write back. I learned later that her mother did not want her writing to me. So, I began dating a classmate in high school, became engaged, graduated, and 10 days later, I enlisted in the Air Force. My technical training providentially followed in my hometown of Denver, and I reconnected with Berniece. I broke off my one-and-a-half-year engagement with the classmate and I asked Berniece to marry me on our second date. Neither her parents nor I had the money for a wedding, so we had a municipal marriage. We got married in the Denver courthouse on November 29, 1976, divorced in the Teller County courthouse on April 13, 2004, and physically separated on April 1, 2006. We were together nearly thirty years and divorcing her was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. The lessons in marriage come in all forms.
You can learn from your own experiences, observing others, reading case studies, or watching movies. Remarriages are benefited from “starter wives” or “starter husbands” if they reflect on their lapses of making good decisions and create discovery from the belated lessons of their previous marriage. Otherwise, the remarried are simply re-marred and ordained to repetition. It is from here that I hope to offer some insight into the marital encounter. It is important that you take inventory of all that is important to you in life, and to formulate your own answers to challenges of any issue. You must be firmly grounded in what you believe about the things that are most important in your life. It is essential to decide what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable in your relationship.
Do not get married young but do not wait too long.
I married at eighteen and was too immature to marry that young. For many it would be too young but for the mature in faith and character perhaps not. How many people are secure in themselves and grounded in their faith at eighteen? When I announced to my buddies back in the barracks that I was getting married, their first response was, “You’re an idiot.” They were in a training class a week or two ahead of me, they were a few years older than me, and one of them I think may have been previously married. I did not ask. I did not care. I was determined, and even if it really were too early, I believed I could make it work by fixing any problems along the way. I could not only make it work but prove that getting married too early was only a problem if you allowed it to be a problem.
There is a reason why older people advise not getting married too young. It is a given that at a young age you are less mature. You barely know how to answer questions about yourself let alone know what questions to ask of a potential partner. There is little distance from the influences of high school or your parents. You possess few of your own ideas. Your mind, behavior, and thoughts have been largely shaped by an environment you have spent more time in than away from. The very thought of getting married at eighteen years old implies that you have abandoned the idea of college or any other life-building activity and that is a huge first misstep.
But I was in the Air Force. I was an adult and adults get a job, get married, and support themselves. I do not recall even thinking about what could go wrong but I’m certain my response would have been that whatever could possibly go wrong I could fix. After all, my parents and their married friends worked, paid bills, and had their own place. That is what adults do. If your image of adulthood is limited, so too will be your repertoire as an adult. Age alone does not an adult make, nor does it make for maturity. My transition to "adulthood" was a sequence of programed events: getting a job, getting married, and finding my own place. However, the athlete considers herself an athlete when her confidence yields defining results; the performer feels like a performer when endorsed by crowds of hundreds; and the adult feels like an adult after conquering adult-sized hurdles and abandoning any impediments from childhood. Dressing up as an adult does not make for an adult any more than dressing up as a priest makes for a Holy Man.
Unmask and discover yourself.
You've been with yourself since birth. Inventory your likes and dislikes. What are your strengths and fears? Do you respect yourself? Are you too prideful or selfish? A common misconception of Phil. 2:3 is for us to respect others more than ourselves. But Paul is teaching us to be of one accord, of one mind. Paul and his associates were group oriented and Paul wanted to promote harmony and unity rather than individualism. "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than himself" (Phil. 2:3). Pride is competitive by nature and tries to lift a person above others. It divides and promotes conflict rather than harmony. Pride involves a kind of self-advertising campaign that distorts the truth about oneself. It is important for us to realize that we drink from wells we did not dig, eat from vineyards we did not grow, and live in cities we did not build (Deut. 6:10-11). A couple entering into marriage are spiritually broken by sin and are by nature, among other things, self-centered. "By humility and the fear of the Lord Are riches and honor and life" (Prov. 22:4). Humility accepts a place of service, with concern for their needs and interests of others. Love is essential for humility. What are your thoughts about children? Find your answers/beliefs/feelings regarding the tough topics of abortion, gender issues, the role of husband, the role of wife, and the role of in-laws. Who is the most important person in your life? Are you willing to cook or continue learning to cook? Are you a fashion statement or a clothing catastrophe? Do you have to keep up with the Jones' or can you be content with what you have? Knowing who you are is primary to learning about others.
I did not know myself, so I do not know that I had much, if any, self-respect. I'm sure some would say that I was a bit prideful. I learned too late that some of the high school teachers and others actually saw potential in me. My behavior and grades were good. I once wished someone would have sat me down and explained to me what I needed to be doing differently. But I was pretty headstrong and probably would not have listened to them anyway. That was my dad's response when I asked why he did not tell me about this or that. I realized too late in high school that I was being "groomed" for leadership positions in a handful of student groups for the purpose of eventually applying and getting accepted into the Air Force Academy. It never happened.
Whether you are already married or thinking of getting married, God wants us to know ourselves. God wants us to be humble. Being humble is not thinking less of yourself but rather thinking of yourself less. "In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5). Instead of me getting into God's word, being humble, and listening to my teachers, I put my emphasis on earning enough to support my selfish wants. You're never too old or wise to discover yourself.
Uncover and discern the other.
Marriage puts you with someone for the remainder of your life and unless you've learned as much as you can about yourself, it's unlikely you'll learn what you need to learn about the other person. Some people spend more time asking questions about an inferior purchase or the latest book or movie and forsake time needed to learn about the person they want to marry with whom they intend to spend the rest of their lives. It is important to ask the right questions. A devout Catholic friend of mine verified her fiancé was Catholic only to learn a few years into their marriage that he did not practice his Catholic faith. I was not mature enough to ask sufficient questions of Berniece, especially the detailed questions. For example, when she told me she could not have children, instead of asking why, I "fixed" the problem by immediately dismissing the subject and fashioning my being into someone who now also did not want children. Instead of asking her if she wanted children, I robbed myself of the opportunity for her to provide more insight into who she was and what made her tick. What I eventually learned about what had happened to Berniece was disturbing to me and many others. As you will see later in this case study, what I learned from the critical question I eventually asked, changed our lives forever.
Be established in your faith.
Do you regularly attend church? Who is God in your life? What are your thoughts about other religions? Faith is important, after all we are talking about Christian marriage. Does your fiancé seem more or less grounded in faith than you? Is your fiancé of the same faith? Does your fiancé regularly attend church?
Berniece attended church along with her relatives. When I was in town, I would attend just to sit next to her. Her aunt called me out on it one Sunday and told me I was attending church in vain if just to see Berniece. She nailed it – I was there to see Berniece! I was raised Christian but of a different denomination than Berniece and I was not practicing my faith. After we married, we practiced and raised our boys as non-denominational. For most of our marriage, our belief system taught that divorce was not an option. At one point when I contemplated divorce, I sought counseling from our pastor, a graduate from a prominent seminary with a PhD. I admired and respected him and actually took notes from his academic-like sermons. He told me that God doesn't make mistakes and that the woman I married was the woman God chose for me. So is it not possible to marry the wrong person? My expectation for a revision of "divorce-is-not-an-option" was shattered. He did not tell me what I wanted to hear. But, for the next several years I reluctantly occupied that mindset.
A few pages ahead I will mention a couple's communication course we attended. One of the lessons I learned from that counseling was to just accept Berniece for who she was, just as she was, and to love her unconditionally. That worked for many years until I began to realize the unconditional love that I had for her was based on the condition that I not love myself. In other words, it meant that I had to "die to myself." I would have to abandon all of my aspirations for my needs and wants. This would include the hope for a deeper relationship with her and for us together and with others. We had a different intellect, different goals, and a quite different set of social skills. I believe in "dying to yourself" for Christ but not for another human being. (Luke 9:23). Paul tells us in Eph. 5:23 to love our wives as we love ourselves, and for me, that was not what I was doing. I did not love who I was becoming.
Herein lies another important lesson. Know Scripture. Although God's institution of marriage is intended for life, the Bible doesn't tell us that divorce is not an option. In fact, Matt. 5:32 tells us that we can divorce for reason of sexual immorality. "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery…" (emphasis added). Keep in mind that even in the case of sexual immorality, you don't have to divorce. Forgiveness and reconciliation is always encouraged.[i]
Be decisive about your relationship with your parents, siblings, and friends.
Establish healthy relationships and abandon the unhealthy. When you marry, you marry into the family. Since you marry into the family, it is critically important that you learn about all of the relationships within that family. All of the relationship in that family affect you and your fiancé and it's advisable to know about any connections having kinks. For example, Berniece had a deep-seated yet hidden animosity toward only one person in her family. I did not learn of the bitterness between Berniece and her mother until just after the first year of our marriage.
When Berniece was thirteen, she had a seizure or two. After consulting with doctors, her parents decided to have Berniece's fallopian tubes tied so that she could not have children and thus prevent an unplanned pregnancy and the possibility of producing a disabled child. Even though Berniece was not exhibiting promiscuous behavior, I suspect her parents ultimately wanted to avoid any potential for embarrassment. This reasoning also supported their decision to withdraw her from high school before her sophomore year. What should have sounded absurd even in the late fifties is ever more so now. Astonishingly the crime was committed, and we were now married but Berniece was not recovering from this bizarre internment. Healing for her would begin years later and was nothing short of a miracle.
How do I want to propose marriage?
I did put some thought into my first marriage proposal but nothing like today's extravagant marriage or even the high school prom proposals. From what I thought was a romantic spot in the mountains near a waterfall, I played my guitar and even sang a song and then popped the question. I put next to no thought into my second marriage proposal to Berniece. Around noon on our second date, I bought some fried chicken, and we enjoyed lunch sitting on a blanket near where I had camped in Bear Creek Canyon, the one in El Paso County. I have no memory of what we talked about, but I was certain of my "crush" and that I wanted her in my life. We folded up the blanket, packed up the car, and I remember our first kiss from the front seat before heading down the mountain to go visit my aunt. It was on the way to my aunt's house where I pulled the car to the curb, shifted into park, and asked Berniece to marry me. No engagement ring, no song, no flowers, just a simple proposal. Everything with her was simple. Berniece had none of the hurdles or complexities of the girls in my high school. My proposal was exactly how it needed to be. It was uniquely for her, and purposefully unlike the guitar-song-waterfall proposal. However, like so much of my immature actions, it was without much reasonable thought.
You do not want to propose marriage without deliberate contemplation. You need essential answers to essential questions before you get to this point. Those life-changing answers do not come after two dates let alone in one afternoon. Whether you get answers or not, your life with or without this person will change. Having the answers to significant and premeditated questions provides you some control regarding the decisions and directions in your life. A whirlwind romance can be likened to a dust storm - it's turbulent and passes quickly but the loose particles can lead to blindness and shortness of breath. In other words, if you find yourself in a cyclone of crush, take a step back (not backwards) and find some balance. Perhaps enjoy a few twisters with that person but avoid reckless twisting in lieu of aiming towards a forthright proposal. The concentration should be on the sincerity and implication not the effort or exertion.
Seek Biblical counselling
Whether our parents had a good or bad marriage, we learn from them as well as others. You can hire a professional counsellor but why not first seek the guidance of your parents, siblings, friends, or clergy? The insights you are getting from your fiancé are naturally biased, but they are extremely necessary, and in fact, they are critically crucial to moving forward or fleeing the scene. Simply reading this section is a good choice and is a step in the process of helping you make other good choices.
Have a reliable source of income.
Have a reliable source of income and master its management before entering into a relationship where you will share expenditure. Expect this behavior of the other person.
I had to borrow seven dollars from my dad to pay for the marriage license! Well, I did not have to. I could have planned and saved but I did not do that with much of anything else, why this? I certainly had what could be considered reliable and steady employment with the Air Force, but I was not a responsible steward of my meager earnings. However, once we were married, I managed our checkbook to the penny and regulated every expenditure and soon Berniece learned to do the same. As the years progressed, it became less rigid but tolerable.
Be the partner
By now, the differences in education between me and Berniece should be obvious and I will write more about this in a few pages from here. When you have to continually school your fiancé or persistently be schooled, no room remains for friendship, romance, or anything else critical for a healthy relationship. Moreover, who wants to take up residence with the school master? Imagine the breadth of the barricade from the construction of resentment. The problem is perpetuated when too-young-to-marry people want to live together as adults yet remain in the confines of a marital classroom.
It is not enough to be a partner. You have to be the partner. As the partner you are also the friend. As a friend, you bring up topics of mutual interest. Unless you ask the questions, you will not learn the interests that are mutual. Everyone has interests but if all the interests of your fiancé are identical to all of yours, you have a reflection and not a partnership.
Do a “background check.”
By this I mean do your homework. When you marry, you also marry into that entire family. How and where does your fiancé fit into your family? How do you fit into their family? Who, if any, in that family sends your fiancé over the edge? Has your fiancé prepared as carefully as you? How well does your fiancé know your family? In my case, the situation was biased from the beginning - everyone "knew" each other. But in any case, after years of marriage, the "knowing" transforms to a more developed acquaintance and observations become more critical. For example, Berniece went from "being known" as another family member, to being known to be jealous of the time and attention I gave to my mother and my sister. Adversity between family members can happen and fitting those puzzle pieces together will be a challenge. Serious discussion about utterly everything is essential.
The only recollection of serious discussion I had with Berniece was when she told me she could not have children. I was prepared for this because my grandmother had told me earlier. In a flash moment I had decided and told Berniece that I did not want children anyway. That was our first date and it really was not what I would call a date. I took her in my ’64 Chevy downtown for a soda and then back to her house because that is all I felt her parents were going to allow. I also learned that she did not have a wristwatch.
I got the impression she would marry me if I asked her. I looked forward to our next date which happened a week or two later. I was in training at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver and the seventy-mile drive to her house required gas and “date” money and probably base permission. The permission was not a problem (I did not bother) but the money for gas and something for her was an issue. Even as an airman-two-striper (airman first class) I was not making much more than a no-stripe airman basic. I either managed to set enough aside (not likely) or it was payday, so I made the trip on a Friday night in hopes of seeing her Saturday morning. We did not talk by phone because of the long-distance charges.
I stopped at a grocery store and bought her a twelve-dollar Timex watch and camped in my car in Bear Creek Canyon not far from her house. I showed up Saturday morning sporting a silk flowered shirt, platform shoes, and with my Chevy washed and waxed. I crafted a question about my car's radiator and although he was helpful, I could not help but notice his disapproval in my fashion. I learned later what her father thought about all of that.
Position yourself as an investigative reporter or some sort of inspector and ask questions. What is your fiancé's education level? Berniece did not finish high school and that actually intrigued me. There's and old saying that boys marry their mothers and girls marry their fathers. My mother also did not finish high school. I'm sure I was not aware of the old saying back then but I believed that I could take care of Berniece just as my dad took care of my mother. Although my folks stressed finishing high school, education beyond that was not important. Shortly after we married, I learned that her dad dropped out at fourth grade, but her mother finished high school. He worked as a janitor and she worked in a small business office. Again, here is where waiting to mature to marry might have proved beneficial. Maturity helps you to discern what might become a problem down the road. Otherwise, you act in the only way you know and either pay for it later or not. I worked around her lack of education and she actually did really well in areas I did not expect. For example, I taught her how to drive, balance the checkbook, and even how to change a tire. I wanted to empower her so that while I was away playing Air Force, she could take care of most anything. But she had intuition like none I'd ever seen. When she suspected something should be done differently than what you might have learned from a textbook, I learned to pay attention because she was often right. In this regard, Berniece had some discernment, a sort of "revealed" knowledge so different than head knowledge.
Her lack of education did not become a serious problem until our boys were advancing in grade school and she could not help them with their homework. I purchased some general education home-teaching materials and tried to market them in how it could help her while she helped the boys and they would never know that she was learning alongside them. It never happened. As the boys grew older and aware of their mother's illiteracy, I ardently advised them to never disparage her or otherwise position her to feel foolish. Even now, in their adulthood, they remain considerate and loving.
A basic education not only helps the individual but helps society as a whole. What Berniece lacked academically she more than made up for in maternal instincts. She was created to become a mother.
What about children?
The discussion about children must take place. "A child is a grenade. When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage, and when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was. Not better, necessarily; not worse, necessarily; but different."[ii] The couple must either both want or not want children. Even if a woman is unable to have children, there are options for adoption. The decision whether or not to have children should never be made too soon or too late nor carelessly. Either way, the husband and wife's relationship must first be firmly founded on biblical principles. If the couple want to have children, then answers to the questions of how many and when to begin need to be resolved before marriage. Keep in mind the ideal number of children will probably change.[iii] The couple will have to reconcile their decision to not have children with God's commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, / The fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, / So are the children of one's youth. / Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them" (Pss. 127:3-5).
As quickly as I had claimed that I did not want children, I reversed course when I learned that Berniece actually wanted children. This happened three years into our marriage after I wrongly assumed that she had accepted sterility. The next five years involved numerous doctors, endless testing, ovulation charting, and almost two surgical procedures. Surgery was performed to reconnect Berniece's fallopian tubes. The question now was "could she become pregnant?"
Although she and I were both raised in the church, we drank and partied, and I smoked. I do not remember ever attending church as a married couple until around our seventh or eighth year together. We turned from our sinful ways and became close friends with two Christian couples who inspired us to attend a couple's counseling course that the one couple was teaching from their home. To this day, I continue to practice most of the principles I learned from that twelve week or so course. During that course we shared our story and God continued blessing us through new Christian friends and fellowship. Marriage has unique power to redeem our past and heal our self – image through love. And marriage has unique power to show us the grace of what God did and continues to do for us through Jesus Christ.[iv]
Surgery to reconnect Berniece's fallopian tubes initially seemed successful but a year later it was confirmed ineffective. Learning the sad news, our church family formed an intercessory prayer group and began praying for Berniece to become pregnant. A second surgery was scheduled and after months of more testing we met with the doctor for a pre-surgery appointment. After reviewing all the data, the doctor rocked back in his chair and began a sort of half-laugh and puzzled exclamation. Berniece was pregnant. After all of these years, and even as I write these words, my eyes fill with tears and my heart is filled with joy. Please see the Gottman interview following this case study regarding Vance's current relationship.
I could end this section with a one-word conclusion: Love. A man and woman meet and marry because they love each other. And if they divorce, what happened between the marriage and the divorce? They stopped loving. Too many couples get to a point after a number of years when they get bored, sinfully distracted, or for some other reason decide to be attracted to someone else. They are often bothered by what initially they found appealing.
I have a theory: If that couple can be kind to each other and stay married just a bit longer, everything that annoyed them will fade or seemingly vanish. What infuriated them in the earlier years becomes history and choices can be made so that it is not carried into the later years. Ideally, and sooner rather than later, each in the relationship has already sifted through what annoys them, muses over the remaining, if any, and realizes that paring down any further remarks actually enriches their relationship. In the bigger scheme of things, the whispers of annoyance need tuned out. The couple finds renewal and enjoys the chronicle of their relationship. The children and grandchildren see stability, and everyone gets to enjoy a promise kept. What is wrong with this theory? It will not work without God's grace. To actually think that we could put aside our mistrusts, perhaps infidelity, the years of building walls, maybe even hatred, the "never-going-to-be-what-I-need" concepts without God's grace is like trying to get a toe-hold on a cloud - it is not going to happen.
Rather than conclude with one-word, I will close with 1 John 4:7-11, "Beloved let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
[i] See Matt. 5:9, 6:14-15; Eph. 4:32, Mark 11:25, among many others. [ii] John M. Gottman, PhD., The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Harmony Books, 2015) p.218 [iii] Scott Kedersha, Ready of Knot, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books 2019) p198 [iv] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Penquin, 2011)