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March 01, 2007

Waiting to Get Married?

Note from Randy: This article was written in 1981 and appeared in Moody Magazine. Some things have changed since then, but most of the principles still pertain. 


wedding ringsThose who say, “It’s always wise to wait” may be surprised to learn it isn’t.

“Should we get married?” Few questions deserve more careful attention. When dreamy-eyed recklessness yanks people into marriage, the end is often conflict, disillusionment, separation, and divorce, or at best, a second-rate marriage.

But suppose the decision to marry has been made, and it’s the right one. Suppose both people are growing Christians, with compatible personality and goals, committed to God and each other. The question is, “When should we marry?”

Sadly, most young people, even Christians, tackle this decision by themselves. Contrary to many cultures and times, they don’t consult their parents. Many parents feel obligated to keep their hands off and mouths shut. Distracted by their own busyness or afraid they’ll be interfering with their children’s lives, they reason, “The kids are old enough to decide for themselves.” This applies to both who and when to marry.

Other parents don’t hesitate to offer advice. Giving careful and thoughtful counsel, they support, encourage, and caution whenever necessary. Good for them!

But some Christian parents try to dominate their grown children’s lives, unwilling to surrender their claim to them. Well-meaning, they have only one word in their vocabulary of marital advice: “Wait!”

I believe that once it’s agreed the couple should marry—a choice that should be made with much thought and prayer and counsel—normally the wedding should take place as soon as possible. Only enough time should be allowed for scheduling and completing practical arrangements.

My experience in premarital counseling has reinforced this conviction. In helping couples answer the “when” question, I present seven factors they and their parents should weigh. Every one of these was part of my original article, and my observations the last twenty years have only confirmed them.

1. Maturity.

The decision to marry rests on the assumption that both partners have reached a certain level of maturity. Engagement should never be an experiment. A couple too immature to get engaged is too immature to get married.

Occasionally, however, a younger couple and the parents may discern it is God’s will for them to be married, yet may see wisdom in waiting. This constructive interim can allow each person to develop further his/her own personality, social experiences, occupational skills, education, etc. Parental involvement and quality premarital counseling can be a helpful part of this process.

But a long wait is sometimes as disastrous as a blind plunge forward. Parents who want their children to postpone marriage until the couple is fully mature may find they’ll never be ready.

2. Independence.

A married couple must be capable of establishing an independent family unit. Scripture requires that their identity be distinct from the families they grew up in (Gen. 2:24).

Ideally, both partners should develop a degree of independence prior to the wedding date. I normally recommend that both be out of high school at least one year before marrying. Often, it’s helpful if at least part of that year is spent away from home.

Nevertheless, independence can and should be developing, even while young people are living with their parents. Establishing a new family is then a far more natural transition.

Crash courses in independence are hard to swallow, especially with all the other adjustments marriage demands. Stretching the apron strings over a period of time, before and during engagement, is usually easier than cutting them abruptly.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that couples cut off relationships with their parents. Dad and Mom should still be an important part of their lives, as long as everyone remembers the couple is no longer under parental authority. (Don’t forget though, that until the moment she’s married, a girl is under her parents’ authority, not her husband-to-be’s. However, there’s a natural transition that direction that’s part of the process.)

Both individuals must leave father and mother to be united to each other (Gen. 2:24). “Leaving” is a psychological transition as much as a geographical one. Too much dependence on parents spells trouble, even if they live 1,000 miles away.

Unfortunately, many parents dread this role change. Mistakenly, they fear losing their son or daughter. Having gone through this process, I can honestly say passing my protecting and providing responsibility to the “Dans” (Dan Franklin and Dan Stump) was a pleasure. The key was that both my daughters and both their fiancés were committed to Christ and to purity. They responded to parents and that made it easy to make this transition. It could have been different. By God’s grace, it wasn’t.

While the patterns will change, the relationship need not suffer. Over the years, many parents and children have told me their relationship to one another was enriched as a result of the new marriage. Nanci and I have already experienced this.

It can be refreshing to enjoy more of a peer relationship with parents or grown children. With the built-in pressures of parent/child roles largely eliminated, the relationship can become more satisfying than ever.

3. Parental support.

It’s wise for young people pursuing marriage to seek their parents’ counsel. This includes asking their input regarding the time of the wedding.

Parental advice may not always be what the couple expects or wants. Still, it should be carefully weighed and normally followed. Nothing, however, prevents the couple from “bringing their case” to their parents if they feel strongly that they should get married at an earlier date than advised. We parents should be sensitive to this common situation. One of our daughters and her Dan asked to move up the time of their wedding. We agreed.

If we desire that our children wait longer than they wish to, we should be able to give specific and significant reasons for the delay. We must also shoulder some of the responsibility for the dangers involved in postponing a wedding.

It’s unfair for parents, just because they don’t feel ready to “let go,” to expect their children to delay marriage. By putting the future on hold, parents sometimes punish their children for their own unreadiness to let them go.

Parents may see benefits in waiting. By all means, then, they should express their opinions and explain them clearly. Children should appreciate and respect their parents’ honest input. It may save them from a mistake in timing that could hurt their relationship.

But we parents must remember that we don’t own our children—God does. He graciously loaned them to us for a reason. And in most cases, He’ll eventually entrust them to another. We shouldn’t frustrate our children’s desire to be married at a certain time, unless we have good reasons.

Most parents I know are genuinely seeking their children’s best interests. Nevertheless, it’s easy to assume that their best interests are synonymous with our personal, and sometimes selfish, preferences. Input from wise adult friends and church leaders can help us evaluate our reasons more objectively.

In theory, Nanci and I might have preferred having more than seven weeks between our daughters’ weddings. But in fact, we agreed that both were getting married at the right time and asked God to provide the money and time required. Looking back, we’re convinced He did just that.

4. Sexual desire.

The Bible clearly indicates that a couple planning to be married and struggling with strong sexual temptation should not delay their wedding date (1 Cor. 7:9). This is a weighty argument against long engagements.

If a couple cannot or should not be married soon, I recommend they back off from the relationship before they succumb to immorality.

In our society, the time gap between puberty and marriage is longer than any other in history. Add to this the extreme freedom of today’s young culture. This makes for unparalleled temptation and opportunity for sexual sin. Obviously, parents should be involved in their young people’s lives, acting as chaperones and guides and providing moral accountability. They and their young people should stay away from the wrong movies and television programs. But it will still be difficult, because society challenges Christian morality at every turn.

By needlessly postponing a wedding date, Christian parents can increase their children’s sexual tension and frustration, possibly leading to immorality. God Himself dispels the theory “it is always best to wait” (1 Cor. 7:9).

From experience, I know that the supposed discipline of putting off marriage brings serious temptations. My wife and I dated for six and a half years before we married. We avoided premarital sex, but not without a struggle, even though we were committed Christians.

My counseling with many young couples has confirmed the intensity of this battle and the frequent surrender to immorality. Christian couples are not immune to natural, God-given drives. That’s why Scripture faces this dilemma realistically. Christian couples and their parents should do likewise.

college boy and girl5. Emotional longing.

This is the psychological counterpart to sexual desire. They are two sides of the same coin.

When two people know they should and will be married, thoughts and feelings naturally focus upon each other and their approaching marriage. This is healthy, provided the waiting period is reasonably brief. But if it is lengthy, that emotional yearning hits an early peak. It then becomes a source of internal frustration and discouragement, often resulting in personal stagnation. One or both partners may end up just “biding his time” until marriage.

In such cases, they may become emotionally stagnant, not moving forward in life because they won’t feel fulfilled until married.

Platitudes about the virtues of waiting ring hollow to couples overcome with the need to be married. In a long courtship or engagement, they see no light at the tunnel’s end. They become discouraged, unmotivated, and irritable.

If the couple believes their parents have needlessly delayed their marriage, they may develop bitterness toward them. On the other hand, if parents are right in having them wait, their children will later thank them. Parental discernment, therefore, is critical.

We parents need to be sensitive to our children, putting ourselves in their shoes. When you’re forty-five years old and married to the one you love, a few years go by quickly. But at age twenty, those few years seem an eternity.

6. School.

It may be unwise for a couple to enter marriage when one or both are beginning college or a demanding occupation. The new pressures and adjustments each requires are better faced at different junctures. Once someone is well-adjusted to school or occupation, marriage will be easier to adjust to.

However, school and marriage are not always incompatible. In fact, a spouse can be an asset to the partner’s studies by assisting, supporting and encouraging the mate.

I experienced three and a half years of college while single and another three and a half while married. Each period had its own advantages and disadvantages. But overall, Nanci and I found the marriage and education combination highly compatible. One of my daughters was in nursing school and married a man still in college. We believe they were right where they should have been.

In some cases, finishing school may be important. But, I don’t believe it’s a sacred cow to which marriage plans must always defer. A brief delay of the wedding to finish a semester or school year may be good. But putting off marriage for a number of years just to finish school often proves unwise. It may be better to get married sooner and resume the education later.

7. Finances.

One final reason many couples prolong their engagement is lack of money. This factor merits special attention.

The financial issue focuses on two questions: How much money do you have now, and how well do you handle the money you have? The second question is much more significant than the first.

Some couples with low-paying jobs or who are still going to college get married with only enough to pay the first month’s rent and groceries. They live simply, shop for bargains, and they do just fine.

Other couples get married with high incomes, yet face financial crisis within a few months. The problem is discipline, not dollars.

If a couple cannot live on their income, it’s usually not because it’s too low, but because their standard of living is too high.

Too many young couples try to maintain a lifestyle equal to the one they’ve grown up with in their parents’ homes. If someone’s a careless or compulsive spender, a credit card addict, he’s not ready to get married, no matter how much money he has. (Because soon it will be gone.)

Watch the pennies, cut corners, shop for bargains, buy beans instead of bacon. Perform plastic surgery—take the scissors to your credit cards. Resist buying the “necessities” that are actually luxuries in disguise, pushed by the profit motives of a materialistic society.

While saving money is wise, a couple entering marriage financially set—comfortable and ready to live a middle-class lifestyle—will miss a great deal of the beauty and blessing built into those early years of marriage.

Looking back, many couples believe that living on less taught them to be thankful, appreciative, creative, disciplined, and content. They discovered how to enjoy each other and how to trust God.

Parents should realize nothing is wrong if the kids have to struggle a bit with finances. It will do them good. Parents should be generous, but should help only with needs, not subsidizing a young couple’s ability to live beyond their means.

The best help parents can offer is something that should have happened long ago—cultivating their children’s self-discipline and controlled spending habits. Albert Schweitzer said, “Children learn three ways. The first is by example, the second example and the third example.” Parents who model financial irresponsibility, however, can expect the same from their children.

Parents must remember that what seems to them like too little money to live on is probably more than adequate for a young couple. We shouldn’t super-impose our present material values and habits upon them. The truth is, we’d probably be better off adopting their lifestyle than they would be adopting ours.

So what if they occupy a cheap studio apartment, take their clothes to a laundromat, drive a nearly extinct automobile, ride the bus, or turn the heat down to 50 degrees every night? They’ll be better off for it.

We shouldn’t insist they wait to marry until they can build their own financial kingdom to “fall back on.” Let’s let them learn to fall back on God. We may need to learn with them.

What if financial pressures require someone to drop out of school to work full-time for a term or a year? In our goal-oriented society, some act like this is a tragedy. It isn’t. If our young people are walking with God, He will use such experiences in their best interests (Rom. 8:28).

The parental temptation to bail our young adult children out of every financial struggle can hinder God’s greater blessing. In fact, it can work against both parties by making the couple overly dependent on the parents.

When it comes to finances, the overriding questions seem to be:

Young people, are you willing to entrust yourselves to God? Parents, are you willing to give them back to the One who loaned them to you?

Once the decision to marry is made, assuming it’s the correct one (and that’s a huge assumption requiring a lot of attention), the fundamental question should be, “Why wait longer?” 

This article originally appeared in Eternal Perspectives, Spring 2007.

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