How to spiritually prepare for your marriage

What role will your values and beliefs play in your married life? Three couples share the unique ways they’ve made room for spirituality as they get ready to say “I do.”

Evgenij Yulkin | Stocksy United

Congratulations, you’re engaged! If you’re anything like most brides-to-be, you’ve got a shiny new ring on your finger, a permanent smile on your face, and a Pinterest feed bursting with inspiration for everything from wedding gowns to honeymoon destinations. Even better, you’re in love … not that you didn’t love your man before he proposed, but let’s face it, there’s a whole new level of closeness that comes with knowing you’re planning to spend the rest of your lives together.

But are you really? Planning, I mean. Not for the wedding—that’s a given—but for the spiritual reality of marriage?

Regardless of your particular faith tradition, a wedding is a uniquely spiritual event. Even many agnostic couples often seek out a chapel to exchange their vows, and most states require either a judge or an ordained minister to preside over the event (no matter if the ordination costs just $40 on the internet).

But even after the wedding, marriage remains a uniquely spiritual relationship, too. After all, your spouse is the person with whom you’ll be making many important decisions for the rest of your life—from if, when, and how to start a family to critical end-of-life choices. Together you’ll decide what values you want to impart to your children, whether and where you’ll worship, and which traditions you’ll celebrate as a family. Your engagement is the perfect time to address your values and beliefs, and the good news is, there’s no one “right way” to do it.

These stories, shared by three couples, did (or are doing) just that, each in a different way. You might see yourself in one or more of their engagement journeys, and be galvanized by their efforts. Whether or not you decide to have a religious ceremony, there is much to glean from these couples’ practical ideas and experiences. Or, at the very least, we hope you’ll simply be inspired to talk about spirituality with your spouse-to-be.

Chris and Bethany—“the works”

Chris, 36, and Bethany, 35, married nearly three years ago and are expecting their first child this month. The Orange County, California, couple—both Evangelicals who grew up in the Golden State—met through an online dating service shortly after each returned from lengthy career stints elsewhere.

Because they were both still re-acclimating to life in Southern California, they hadn’t yet settled on a church by the time Chris proposed. As a result, the self-motivated couple took a largely DIY-approach to spiritual preparation, picking and choosing from an abundance of spiritual resources in their area, a hotbed of evangelical megachurches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (where the couple has attended services).

“This [engagement] time is extra valuable because each of you are both motivated and can hear each other’s concerns in a way that may not be as easy once the vows have been taken. It will be important later when you start to struggle with differences,” Bethany says. “[W]e were plugged into some great churches in the area which offered these wonderful workshops and tools.”

If this couple seems like one made of overachievers, it’s only because they were especially determined to succeed—both grew up as children of divorce, and knew they didn’t want to end up the same way.

One such workshop, at a local church called Rockharbor, proved so helpful that they actually took the course twice—once when they first began dating, and again when they began discerning marriage.

“That was really great,” says Chris. “It was all geared toward premarital stuff, you know—spiritual connection, God’s path, with workbooks and all that.” Although the course was intense, running four hours each Saturday for six weeks, it was worth it according to Chris. “They go over everything from money to family to sex, to spiritual roles, leadership, all that stuff.”

Bethany says the course, “… gave us some fantastic tools for communication and identifying what our future conflicts may be.”

Additionally, the pair sought the advice of a licensed therapist who didn’t explicitly advertise herself as religious, but shared their faith. There, Bethany says, they learned to “fight fair” and “be empathetic and see something from the other person’s perspective.”

The couple even developed a mentor-mentee relationship with the pastor (who they eventually chose to officiate their wedding) and his wife of roughly three years. Chris found this relationship especially helpful. “It was nice to see a younger, but not [too] young couple who were spiritually connected and living Godly lives,” he says.

If this couple seems like one made of overachievers, it’s only because they were especially determined to succeed—both grew up as children of divorce, and knew they didn’t want to end up the same way. “Chris and I knew that we wanted to be different and make our relationship a priority,” Bethany said.

Not every couple will go to the lengths Chris and Bethany went to in order to prepare spiritually for marriage, but even for less overtly religious couples, it’s important to make sure you’re in agreement when it comes to whether and where God fits into your marriage.

James and Gretchen—finding common ground

James, 44, and Gretchen, 33, are planning a September 2016 wedding in Central California wine country. While both were raised Christian, neither currently attends church. Nonetheless, Gretchen said, it was James’s openly Christian identity that first attracted her to him when they met at a friend’s party.

“I thought it was awesome that someone was willing to sit there at a party full of atheists and pagans and whatnot, and stand up and say that they’re a Christian, too,” Gretchen tells For Her. “We talked briefly about our faith that night, and both landed on the exact same page,” she adds. “We felt from the get-go that God was partially guiding our relationship and played a huge part in getting us together in the first place. So [God] has just been this ever-present part of our relationship.”

However, while the couple shares a common Christian faith, they grew up with very different spiritual traditions. James’s family attended a casual nondenominational community church, while Gretchen was raised in a more formal, traditional Lutheran environment. So far, the couple’s spiritual preparation has mainly revolved around deciding ahead of time what their traditions will be when it comes to regular worship and religious holidays, especially if and when kids come along.

“Research shows over and over again that the strongest marriages in our country are unions where religion is lived and practiced together in unity,” says former marriage therapist and religion professor, Mark Ogletree.

“I feel it’s very important to have those traditions established and in place beforehand so we’re not scrambling, trying to figure it out later,” says Gretchen. For one thing, the couple plans to search for a church they can attend as a family because “we want our kids to have that foundation.” She also says that while “James grew up in a family who didn’t pray around the table a lot,” her own family said a traditional blessing before every meal. As a compromise, the couple plans to have more formal sit-down dinners on the weekends when a blessing will be said, while weeknights will be more lax and free-form.

Mark Ogletree, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University and a former marriage therapist, says that making sure you’re on the same track spiritually—both individually and as a couple—is one of the biggest indicators of your marriage’s future success.

“One of the greatest ways you can prepare for marriage now is to make sure you are spiritually strong and stable on your own,” Ogletree wrote in a blog post for The Mormon Channel. “Research shows over and over again that the strongest marriages in our country are unions where religion is lived and practiced together in unity.”

Casey and Jacqueline—staying joyful while jumping through hoops

Casey, 25, and Jacqueline, 27, of Colorado Springs, are planning a summer 2017 wedding, with some reluctance. That reluctance isn’t based on any misgivings about their marriage; it’s just that they originally wanted to get married this summer. But as Roman Catholics, they’re required to undergo formal marriage preparation before their wedding, and in their diocese, that means taking part in a year-long series of classes requiring hours of lessons on basic Church teachings—something the couple feels is a little ironic, considering he works for the bishop and she’s the director of religious education at a local parish.

Casey and Jacqueline say their diocese’s lengthy new program is a desperate attempt to reduce the number of annulments being requested in the diocese. At last fall’s Synod on the Family, the Roman Catholic bishops acknowledged the inadequacy of most Catholic marriage preparation programs—commonly referred to as “pre-cana,” and often regarded as little more than a “hoop” couples must jump through in order to have a Church wedding—and called on parishes worldwide to improve the quality of their programming.

“I feel a little like we’re being punished because of all the kids who didn’t pay attention in catechism [classes],” Jacqueline tells For Her, half-jokingly. But she understands that the mandatory yearlong program is an attempt to make sure couples understand what it means to marry in the Catholic Church.

Casey, whose job in the bishop’s office involves working to help process those annulments, agrees. He says that spending day in and day out examining the most troubled of Catholic marriages has taught him more than any class ever could.

Casey says an interesting thing he’s learned is that a Catholic marriage isn’t actually a vow between two people … You’re not promising your spouse-to-be that you’ll “love, honor, and cherish” or be faithful to him or her—you’re making a promise to God.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is the importance of chastity,” Casey said. “It almost seems superstitious, saving sex for marriage, but when you see just how many annulment petitioners had an unchaste dating period you start to see the wisdom of the Church. Many were completely blinded to the incompatibilities because they were so caught up in the sexual experience of the other person.”

Casey also says an interesting thing he’s learned from his job is that a Catholic marriage isn’t actually a vow between two people. “You don’t actually say vows during your wedding,” he explained. “You vocalize your consent. Vows are apparently only between one man or woman [and] God, not between two people …” In other words, you’re not promising your spouse-to-be that you’ll “love, honor, and cherish” or be faithful to him—you’re making a promise to God.

As Casey and Jacqueline endure the lengthy wait of their marriage prep, they’re making the best of things and keeping an open mind. “There’s definitely some good things [about the class] with conflict resolution. There are also some things that Casey and I have had to navigate as a young couple, that we have older couples helping us through,” says Jacqueline. She praises these mentors or “focus” couples as especially beneficial, saying they are perhaps the best part of the program.

Embracing the spiritual side of your own marriage-to-be

Meanwhile, the couple continues to build their shared faith on their own. “We try to have ongoing faith formation of our own to help us grow and prepare for our future marriage,” Jacqueline said. “We pray together; we go to Mass together; we read books on our own.” The couple is also looking forward to attending a retreat for engaged couples later in the year. “I can’t wait,” Jacqueline says, her excitement obvious. “I think it’s going to be a really good thing.”

There are as many different ways to bring the divine into your engagement as there are couples in the world. Ultimately, the way you choose to do it—or not—is up to you and your intended. Even if one or both of you has no faith at all, or spirituality is an uncomfortable topic, it’s important to talk about it, and decide together what it will mean for your marriage.

5 ways to spiritually enhance your engagement

1. Talk about God Whether or not you consider yourself religious, spirituality is going to play a role in your marriage at some point. Make sure you’re both on the same page—or at least aware of and able to respect each other’s views.

2. Seek guidance Take a class, see a counselor together, or just read one of the countless books that have been written on marital spirituality. But remember, some of the best premarital spiritual prep comes from just watching couples you admire—which is the basis for Witness to Love, a Catholic marriage prep program aimed at ditching the “hoop-jumping” mentality of many pre-cana programs. Instead, it fosters authentic mentoring friendships meant to continue long after the wedding.

3. Plan for the future Will you baptize your children as babies? Will you pray with them around the dinner table or at night before bed? Will religious services be part of your family’s weekly schedule, or just on major holidays? How will your extended families feel about your decisions, and how will you handle their reactions as a couple?

4. Have the hard conversations Right now you’re floating on a cloud of bliss, but you never know when tragedy may strike. As husband and wife, you’ll need to know each other’s beliefs and preferences when it comes to things like fertility issues, unexpected prenatal diagnoses, extraordinary life-saving care, and the ethics of end-of-life care. Hopefully, you wont have to worry about these decisions for many decades (if at all), but if the worst happens, it’s better to be a team with a game plan.

5. Be thankful God created you. He created your spouse-to-be. And then, he brought you together. Out of seven billion people in the world, you found each other, and fell in love. Sure, it happens every day, but it’s also a total miracle. Stay thankful for your spouse—for his existence, for his love, for his presence in your life—and it will be easier to keep perspective when things get tough.

Kirsten Andersen
Kirsten Andersen
Kirsten Andersen has been a professional writer and commentator for 20 years. She blogs about culture, faith and politics and has been featured on ABC's Politically Incorrect, FOX News, MSNBC, CNN, Sun News Canada, local and nationally syndicated radio talk shows, and in the New York Times. She lives in the countryside southwest of D.C. with her husband, two sons.

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