“We’re so in love.”
“My fiance completes me.”
“She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
As a pastor and counselor for over 20 years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to meet and observe couples as they approach marriage. And while I’m a strong proponent of premarital counseling, I also understand that there are inherent obstacles. Namely, the couple’s typical blind eye to any potential relationship pitfalls.
While it’s highly unusual for an engaged couple to call off their wedding, some key issues should make the couple at least consider it. Even if the invitations have already been mailed.
If any of these eight issues are between you and your fiance, take note. The first four in the list below should cause you to carefully evaluate and slow the rate of planning your wedded blissful future. The last half are much more serious, most likely requiring (at least a temporary) break up.
1. Family differences
What kind of family did you grow up in? Were they poor, middle-class, or wealthy? Who was the primary breadwinner? Did you have siblings? Were your parents happily married, unhappily married, or divorced?
For better or worse, we learn a lot about how to do life from the people who raise us. Differences in family situations can be humorous when they play out on the big screen. But they can be extremely divisive and polarizing in real life. And sometimes the first opportunity for the two families to meet is at the wedding.
Believe it or not, when you get married, you’re not just marrying a person—you’re getting the whole package! Helpful tip: when you’re dating or engaged, you’re probably putting our best foot forward. So, if your fiance currently groans about having to visit your family, don’t expect him to squeal with glee when your parents invite you two on a big family vacation a few years down the road.
2. Communication problems
Even the best relationships can fall victim to bad communication. Whether it shows up in the extremes of avoidance or over-talking, communication styles can set the stage for success or failure.
One of the keys to building effective communication is simply spending time together—quality time, uninterrupted by the modern distractions of phones, games, and a million beeping, buzzing notifications. Many couples exhibit good communication during dating and engagement, but that can fade once they’re married.
If you and your fiance are not connecting as well as you’d like, no need to cancel your cake order yet. A competent counselor can provide solid help in developing healthy communication skills.
3. Poor conflict resolution
This is a big one for lots of couples, and it’s directly related to communication. It’s worth noting that most of us receive more guidance on driving a car than we do on making relationships work. And much of what we learn is modeled for us in our families of origin. (Yes, them again.)
If yelling and throwing things was normal in your growing-up years, then that’s likely to show up in your marriage as well. Conflict in itself is not good or bad. It’s a natural part of human relationships. It’s also a requirement for growth. Most couples are better at avoiding conflict—or pretending to avoid it—than they are at resolving it.
Leska Meeler, a counselor in Birmingham, Alabama, says, “Those that say they never fight or get on each other’s nerves raise huge red flags.” So if you and your fiance are used to sweeping it all under the rug, or screaming about it until the wee morning hours, it’s time to pull back and reevaluate.
4. Financial issues
Money is a major sticking point in relationships. There’s usually a spender and a saver. But sometimes there are two spenders, which presents a major challenge to reaching goals and managing a household well. This is especially true if you get into a habit of charging things on credit cards and not paying them off every month.
Student loan debt is also a very common factor in married financial stress. Debt doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but you do need to have an aggressive plan to address this significant issue together.
Pay attention to your partner’s financial patterns while you’re dating, and expect that pattern to continue in marriage. Lots of people have great aspirational values—i.e., “I’m going to start saving” or “I’m going to set up an emergency fund.” But saying and doing are totally different things. Financial stress is one of the top reasons marriages fall apart.
5. Trust issues/infidelity
Trust is absolutely foundational to relationships, so here is where the deal-breaker list begins. Does your fiance keep secrets from you? Are they bothered by or jealous of your past relationships (retroactive jealousy)? Have they cheated on you or previous partners in the past? Are they sneaky with social media communications?
These are all questions that deserve a hard look before you tie the knot. Most of the time, things that are problems before marriage don’t get better afterward. Even in this area.
“Infidelity can be a sign of character issues, such as selfishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of self-control that need to be addressed in order for it not to repeat,” explains Paula Butterfield, a couples counselor. “It can also be an indication of how someone might handle future relationship difficulties through avoidance and escaping as part of attachment and intimacy issues.”
Often trust issues can show up as one partner’s need to control the other. And with GPS trackers and stalking apps, it has never been easier to do. If your fiance is already tracking you, beware!
6. Spiritual differences
More and more people in today’s culture report being “spiritual” but deny practicing any particular faith. If faith is important to you, then it needs to be important to your partner as well.
I’ve counseled many people through the years who falsely assumed they could love their partner into becoming faithful or religious. And the vast majority of them have been left to make the most of a marriage that is what Scripture calls “unequally yoked.”
For those who are serious about their faith, having someone who can share that value and experience should be considered a non-negotiable. If it’s a deal breaker for you, it’s better to break the deal before the wedding bells ring.
7. Addiction and mental health problems
“But it’s just a little pot.” “I only use drugs to relax.” “Lots of people take Xanax.” “Porn doesn’t hurt anybody.” These are real quotes from real clients I’ve worked with through the years.
There are many viewpoints about substance abuse, but the truth is that God wants us to take care of our bodies. That includes not abusing drugs, whether illegal or prescription. And yes, let’s be clear that alcohol is also a drug that can be abused.
The problem with addictions and compulsive behaviors is that whatever the issue, it can become a wearisome whack-a-mole that cannot be tamed simply by will power, prayer, and promises to change.
Engaged couples tend to minimize negatives and exaggerate positives. If your fiance shows signs of, or has had, some sort of addiction, then odds are that it will continue or resurface in the relationship. It’s paramount to be honest about struggles and seek help sooner rather than later.
The same can be said for mental health issues. While all of us will likely experience some sort of mental health problem during our lifetime, those with serious or chronic mental illness require much attention and can cause much pain. It’s best for both of you to approach marriage with eyes wide open. And not move forward until real, long lasting help has been found.
I cannot be any clearer on this: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse warrants an immediate halt on marriage plans. Sure, the offending person always promises it won’t happen again—until it does.
Those who stay in relationships with abusive partners risk their own safety and well-being, perhaps even their lives. More than that, they risk the safety and well-being of children and pets. If there’s any doubt at all, please err on the side of caution. And just walk away—even if that ultimately means taking legal action or involving the police.
The bottom line
Marriage therapist Charlie Simpson offers this wisdom that gets to the heart of the matter: “All couples will experience differences that could be deal breakers if building trust to get through the hard times is not established.”
Marriage is a big deal. It’s one of the primary tools God uses to grow us both individually and as a couple. In a culture with increasingly low expectations for marriage, it just makes sense to take your time and work through the hard questions together. Even if that means finding a good counselor to help. By doing so, you’ll both be better equipped to stay faithful to the lifetime commitment you’re making to God and to each other.
What do you think about these potential pitfalls? Are there others you’d add?
Copyright © 2019 Garrick D. Conner. All rights reserved.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, ordained minister, and freelance writer. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. You can read more from him at garrickdconner.com. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.