After 32 years of loving marriage, I have come to believe there is one, best progression toward a thriving, lifelong relationship in union with another person.
My only credibility as I write is the insight I’ve gained from my own 280,320 hours of marriage to my wife. I have also logged in a few hundred more hours attempting to help young couples design a marriage that sustains and self-renews through the joys and challenges of life.
But telling other people what to do matters far less than practicing what you preach – and living it out over decades.
The topic of marriage is a big one, and even the institution is highly contested in our day. To write everything about cultivating a sustainable marriage that seems both necessary and helpful to the topic, I would have to write a book. Perhaps one day I will.
But for this article, I’m simply going to state my perspectives, as succinctly as possible, and humbly submit the following ideas to you. I would especially ask that you consider them if you have the hope of entering a lifelong relationship with a person you have come to love.
I address current trends in living together, sex outside of marriage, emotional intimacy, healing, and life after divorce in other articles (and those yet to be written) in my Relationship Series.
This article is devoted to expressing a simple progression I believe will yield the thriving, lifelong marriage to one person that most young women and men – as well as old women and men – truly desire.
Introduction | Marriage Is Beautiful – And Hard
First of all, I need to cover some foundations for the progression I’ll state below.
First, marriage is beautiful, and hard. Even between two highly compatible people, it is thrilling, and it can be rocket science. But it’s worth it if you’re willing to do the work before you get married that it takes to start the tree growing in the right direction.
It’s easy to start a romantic relationship. What is difficult is sustaining a mutually-supportive, safe, affectionate, kind, honest, monogamous relationship for 5, 10, 20, 40, or 70 years. Again, from my experience, it is so worth it.
Second, marriage is a marathon, and preparatory training is vital for it to flourish. Coming into marriage without preparation is like getting excited about the idea of running a marathon, but having no clue what resources it will take to complete the race and not have a heart attack at mile 10.
Two people coming to know one another so deeply, so fully, that they actually become one over time (Mark 10:8) is a miracle of relational connection. But we can prepare for it, train for it, and up the odds that we will do well within it.
Most young men and women I’ve met crave that kind of friendship, that kind of deep intimacy, with their spouse or future spouse. But few are prepared to do before marriage what it takes to experience the sweetness they can experience in marriage.
How you begin a marriage sets the pattern for how it will thrive, and how a marriage starts is often how it grows – for good or ill. A half-hearted, overly romanticized beginning will often yield half-hearted patterns of communication, self-awareness and other-awareness, and care for one another.
Many, sadly, never experience the kind of depth they would like to experience with their significant other. And when they don’t, or marriage gets really, really hard, they look to other things or people to fulfill them, rather than turning to the person to whom they committed their life in a sacred act of union.
When that happens, relational disaster usually follows – separation, divorce, broken families, and emotionally limping adults trying to find their feet again. And if you don’t think those are disasters, just ask the children how it went for them. (Please note, I believe deeply in Grace, fresh starts, second chances, and healing all along the journey of life – I just don’t cover it all in this article.)
The Lay Of The Land
The movie industry, the television industry, old shows like Friends, new shows like Modern Family, current Netflix and Amazon Prime offerings, celebrity culture, the music industry as a whole – and even the beloved Hallmark Channel – mostly war against almost everything I am about to say.
War? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? Aren’t those shows whimsical, fun, and a good way to spend an average of 35.5 hours per week, or roughly 77 days per year (that’s 2.5 months of our lives the statistics tell us we watch television or shows, being formed by their messages day in and day out).
And celebrity and musical icons – most of them have a glowing track record of staying in long-term, thriving marriages, and giving advice about longevity in relationships over their Instagram and Twitter feeds, right? Yes, that was sarcastic.
Media is mentoring us, and successful, talented people are modeling for us ways of relating in marriage that are simply unsustainable and ultimately damaging to precious people and their families – nuclear families that remain the central social unit of society.
It’s a war out there, and honestly, the only ones who really care if you and your spouse love each other over an entire lifetime are those who care the most deeply and completely for you.
Relationship-media craves your viewership, and loves to emphasize the falling-in-love part of relating, but the moguls could really care less if your marriage gets sweeter over a lifetime or crashes and burns.
And while much of today’s relationship-media has generated billions of dollars modeling for people young and old how to start a relationship (and that, dysfunctionally, in my view), they do little to absolutely nothing to teach young people how to sustain a vibrant marriage for a lifetime.
I say all of this to ask you to consider what I’m about to say, and to offer that you may have an inner predisposition, a bias, against some of what I will say.
That bias may be relative to the influence these carriers and perpetuators of current relationship culture have in your own life.
All I ask is that you receive what I say below as my opinion, born of experience and offered because I actually do care about your marriage thriving over a lifetime, and that you are open to the possibility that what I say here may be correct – and may be backed up by the best hard data on marriage, divorce, and happiness available today.
7 Stages To A Thriving, Lifelong Marriage
I’m speaking to a) those who are thinking about getting married, b) those who are just getting started in marriage, or c) those who are considering that they may have missed some steps in their marital (or cohabiting) relationship.
Here is my thesis: A loving, lifetime-lasting marriage has a largely singular progression as its foundation – and while other progressions are possible and very popular (often drawing on aspects of the progression below), each variation ups the odds the marriage may break at some point.
- The Friendship Stage
Two people meet, and are drawn to one another. Unless you live in an arranged-marriage society, that’s usually how things start. We are drawn to a person, they are drawn to us, and that person becomes uniquely “special” to us. We begin to have inklings that we might like to spend a lifetime with this person, that they might be “the one” or “the one I choose.”
The two people develop their relationship within a group of others, including friends, co-workers, and family. Others observe you together, noticing something going on in your connection, and (hopefully) are honest with you about the good and the bad they see.
Personally, I don’t believe that one-on-one dating is the best way to get to know a person. I believe that hanging out in groups is the best start to a relationship, seeing how the other person functions in other relationships.
Observation of the other is crucial to a healthy start, whether we are observing the other person within a shared friendship group, with their family, or with others who have known them for a long time (and around whom they tend to be their most authentic self).
The Friendship Stage, a stage of delight, innocence, and mutual discovery is vital to the eventual marriage starting well. In this stage, the couple takes their time. There is no rush, and well-meaning family members who are always asking you, “Well, are you guys a couple now? Are you dating?” are not bad – they’ve just simply had another experience, think they’re being helpful, or have watched too many rom-coms.
- The Deep Friendship Stage
This is a whole stage unto itself, and many couples skip it to the detriment of their later marriage. In the Deep Friendship Stage, the two people spend a few years (not always, but often) in deepening friendship, communicating, getting to know one another, sharing personal hopes, dreams, values, and stories – all without sexual intimacy. Before you jump ship on me, I’ll talk more about this below.
In this stage, the couple asks: What makes you laugh? What makes you angry? What is your dream for a family? How do you handle money? What are your vocational dreams? Where would you like to live and why?
In this stage, the couple practices being very kind to one another, very good to one another with their words, their touch, and their actions. (Being nice, according to many long-term marital studies, is a key ingredient in marriages both surviving and thriving). Kindness can be practiced, and mastered.
In this stage, the couple observes one another: Why do they attract the friends (or lack thereof) that they do? How do they treat friends, co-workers, and family members around them? Are they open and vulnerable, or secretive and withholding? Are they emotionally healthy? Do they seem to have strong self-awareness, understanding their own weaknesses and how they impact others?
Then, dating occurs in settings where cultivating friendship is on the table, and physical intimacy is off the table.
Now, because this goes so much against today’s Relationship-Culture and Relationship-Media, I’ll address this. Again, my experience and observation over the five decades of my life is kicking in.
Putting heavy physical affection in the mix before the Deep Friendship, Pre-Engagement, and Engagement Stage confuses and convolutes the relationship right from the start. Earlier centuries of marriage intuited this (not always, but in many cases), and respected it. Today, we largely disregard it.
Sexual intimacy is mating – pure and simple. Understood biologically, sex is a powerful psycho-physiological act with procreative power that has been diminished to a physical-emotional experience for dating couples in our time.
Sex before marriage, from what I’ve observed:
> displaces mature communication with psychological-biological excitement,
> stunts a couple’s ability to cultivate restraint (a vital ingredient in marriage),
> unhelpfully creates emotional bonds between people who may otherwise be incompatible in a long-term relationship (confusing many people into being emotionally tied to people with whom they are otherwise incompatible for marriage), and
> masks a host of immaturities in emotional patterns and communication skills.
In my experience watching many couples progress over decades, sex before marriage – especially when with multiple partners and when a constant mating-then-separating pattern is initiated – is damaging to our human capacity for intimacy.
Like duct tape that loses its stickiness, continual sexual mating without commitment can stunt a relationship before it begins.
I deeply believe there is healing related to pre-marital sex with one or more partners, when we’ve given ourselves away in this way. I’ll write more about this in another article soon. Please, stay with me if this is your story.
This is why living together, then sliding into marriage, contributes to the devastating statistics when used as a lifelong relationship strategy. (See my article on living together, as well as the National Marriage Project and The Institute For Family Studies for many helpful resources and research studies).
Without the hard commitment of marriage as the foundation for sex (mating), shared living, and family – the whole structure may be doomed before the first floor is even built.
- The Pre-Engagement Stage
In the Pre-Engagement Stage, the two people decide they would like to be engaged to be married, and to commit to an engagement that will lead them into a lifetime of monogamous union together (which may or may not include having children, adopting, and raising a family).
I cannot overemphasize how important this decision is to the progression. Both people, after receiving counsel from others and enjoying a long stage of Deep Friendship, must make this decision.
It is the commitment before the real commitment, and leaves breathing room for really fleshing out what Engagement will mean.
“Till death do us part…” is worth saying in a wedding ceremony, and worth taking the time to understand before anyone commits to being engaged.
As most are young when this decision presents itself, and critical faculties are still in some degree of formation (it’s just true), it is all the more vital that mentors who have succeeded in cultivating long-term, healthy marriages, are asked for input into the decision.
When this decision is mutually made, then discussing all manner of marital topics (family, children, values, faith, and more) is on the table in a big way.
Now, the real work of going deeper in communication and seeing life through the lens of marriage together is initiated. Unfortunately, I know many young couples who rush toward the Pre-Engagement and Engagement Stages having had nothing but a good friendship, a lot of laughs, a few minor commitment talks, a few communication bumps, and multiple breakups to call their own.
The romance of a great engagement story will not make up for missing the pre-marital conversations that should be going full force at this stage. There should be almost nothing the couple is not talking about at this Stage, including their concerns about how they interact and relate.
The couple is beginning to be married in heart and mind, while saving the sexual culmination of their engagement for the night of their wedding.
Again, lest I come off as being unrealistic about this, it is undeniable that sex has a purpose and design that before-God-and-everybody-committed couples are intended to enjoy. Sex is a powerful psychological, physiological, and spiritual event.
Over a lifetime, the repeated act of sexual intimacy will not only (potentially) yield children and a family, but it will also bond a couple together in spirit and mind when approached with selflessness and mutual tenderness.
Sex is glorious, fun, and important. It is also a sacred act between and husband and wife, that can deeply confuse engaging in it with no once-and-for-all commitment.
And yes, you can wait. It’s not unrealistic. It’s just not popular today. Many have done it before you, myself and my wife included, and the wait is worth building the muscles of mutual respect, impulse restraint, and intimacy-driven tenderness that are strengthened by the delay.
There are a lot of old couples who waited, too. Ask around; you’ll see.
I simply cannot, in good conscience, back off on this one for long term marital success.
Yes, some have succeeded in having a thriving, lifelong marriage without following this advice – but I suggest it is far fewer couples than you or I might like to think (as I write this, the music in the coffee shop in which I am writing is blasting the lyrics, “…so let’s make love, let’s make love, let’s make love” to every person in the establishment – even the little ones).
I know I’m asking you to swim upstream here. I’m suggesting that you don’t see yourself as the exception to the rule, and plan now for your best life in the future. If you’re up for it, find some others who are doing the same, and get encouragement to hold the line. (And if you fail, we’ll talk about the glory of Grace later; there is always, always Grace and a second chance!).
Again, in this Stage, we’re upping the odds of successfully beginning, and sustaining, a mutually dignifying, delighting, and lifelong marriage. I’m just saying what I’ve seen, and must recommend.
In this Pre-Engagement Stage, the couple is already deeply discussing marital questions before a ring is ever exchanged. They are reading books about marriage. They are reading books about what questions to ask, and to ask one another. They are getting counsel from good mentors. They are building faith together.* They are not just hoping everything will work out and be covered “later.” They are intentional with one another, and they are doing that work.
I’ll also leave this here, as I’ve seen the following strengthen extended family relationships from the start. If there are healthy relationships with a parent or parents, the couple asking for a blessing before Engagement, an affirmation of their union, only strengthens the circle of support that a couple will need for a lifetime of joy.
Good conversations can occur at the moment this request is made, and it can be done beautifully. Setting a tone of parental honor for the present and future says, “We recognize the investment you’ve made in the raising of your child, and that person will always be, in some way, your child. Asking for your blessing on our union is our way of offering you respect and thanks for your ongoing investment in our lives.”
When a couple gets married, they truly do each marry a family. Start strong in a way that works for the two of you.
Now, it’s about to get fun.
- The Engagement Stage
In the Engagement Stage, often an engagement ring is given (hopefully in a wonderfully romantic way!), and the couple is basically becoming married in heart and mind before being married in full.
The couple now goes through a solid season of professional or semi-professional pre-marital counseling, unearthing areas of discussion not yet had (is that possible?), growing in greater self-awareness, understanding how to both enjoy and satisfy one another spiritually, psychologically, and sexually as a married couple, and more deeply integrating their lives together related to finances, lifestyle, children, and more.
At this stage, the couple is practicing being married without all the full “benefits” of being married. It’s a crucial stage of development that must not be skipped, derailed, or displaced by the psychological energy moving toward the wedding.
In other words, considering one’s flowers and bridal colors is not nearly as important as considering how many children both people would like to have and how soon.
I have typically recommended that the Engagement Stage be a maximum of 6 months, as the couple is now closer than ever and is eager for their marriage (and wedding night) to begin.
Again, in the Engagement Stage, the couple is becoming one before actually becoming one. They are becoming a couple that hasn’t let Hallmark, celebrity memes, or the latest rom-com binge confuse their pre-wedding day priorities. They are getting Pre-Marital Counseling, and not skimping on what really matters before they start their life together.
This stage includes actively gleaning wisdom from married family members, parents, grandparents, and other sages, and finding a solid couple married for many years who can mentor you both before and during the early years of marriage.
A mentoring relationship with another seasoned couple (or two), who has been married for 20 years or more, is so important if you can make it happen. There is nothing like an older couple with whom we are friends to help us find our way through the good and bad times.
You need a support group for a lifetime. Keep building it and reinforcing it in your Engagement Stage.
This stage also includes inviting the extended families into relationship with you as couple, depending on the health and dynamics of the families. Spending holidays with one another’s families can help this process.
Let me say that this stage in the progression, particularly the Pre-Marital Counseling part, has been skipped to many couple’s later dismay. They think they’re ready, when a concerted and intentional premarital counseling process will reveal areas where they are truly not – areas that need shoring up before they make a home together.
How you start your marriage sets the tone for the rest of the marriage – and the season of Engagement helps to set the tone of friendship, tenderness, honesty, caring, selflessness, vulnerability, honesty, and mutually dignifying communication deep into the heart of your union.
- The Wedding
It’s the big day, and it should be a blast! The two people get married, in a sacred ceremony that invites their family and friends to celebrate their union.
The lifelong vows the two people are about to make in the wedding are what seal the foundation for everything that will come after them, for decades – a satisfying, daily, intimate friendship, living happily under the same room, enjoying sex together, having children, raising a family, being kind to one another, working to make the world a better place, and so much more.
Many couples spend a bundle on a wedding (have you ever been to a big, fat mediterranean wedding?) while others spend very little.
In my view, do make the day incredibly special, as it is a sacred day, an important day, that will last forever in yours and your family’s consciousness. However, you don’t need to break the bank to make it special; a great honeymoon and a strong financial start to your marriage is just as important as the day you proclaim your vows. Find a balance.
This Stage involves many fun dates to discuss your wedding day plans (it’s mutual; not only the bride should be planning all the details), your rings (a sacred sign and symbol of your lifelong commitment), who will be in your wedding party, what will your reception be like, etc.
It’s your day; don’t let anyone steal the planning from you both without you inviting them in. Even contributing parents should be honoring your desires for your day, though it’s important to keep their desires in mind when you can.
I’m sure it’s clear that I believe this day can, and should, have sacred import to you both (in my view, it’s crucial to the marriage thriving and a family thriving).
For that reason, I suggest you pull out all the stops with sacred symbols, written words, readings, music, gifts to those attending and more. Go beyond convention, and get creative.
The ceremony, culminating your Engagement season, includes:
+ a ring, a sacred symbol of your mutual commitment that you can carry personally,
+ spoken vow before one another and an accountability community (friends and family), vows which you may choose to renew again and again over the years, and
+ a sacred reflection on the nature of marriage*, and
+ a spoken and decisive commitment to both begin marriage and sustain it without divorce being an option (I encourage couples to integrate some form of the statement, “For us, divorce is not an option” directly into their marriage ceremony. This is because the prevailing sentiment in our culture now affirms divorce as a primary option when things get difficult. If divorce is on the table, you will take it when marriage gets hard. If it’s not, you will find a way through – together. I have personal thoughts on when, however, divorce may need to be a consideration in cases of infidelity or abuse).
- The Marriage Stage
The two (now married) people celebrate not only the anniversary of their mutual commitment at least every year, but also establish daily and weekly rituals, commemorative getaways, and marital counseling/mentoring/enrichment routines that keep their communication strong, their sexual relationship vibrant, and their friendship honest, tender, and caring, throughout their lifetime.
This stage includes the couple continuing to learn to be kind to one another, in and through all the circumstances life will bring.
I’ll say again that the ability to remain kind to one another is, in my view, central to the success of a lifelong marriage. Friendship matures and grows when we are safe and kind.
In the Marriage Stage, I encourage young couples to find a way to enjoy their extended family, but also to individuate from them. That may mean spending some holidays alone as a little family, or even moving away for a time to discover and cultivate your own family identity.
In my experience, couples that have thrived over 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70 years of marriage are good at renewing their vows in big and small ways, from hosting official Vow Renewal Ceremonies (we did it for our 25th anniversary) to getting away for short times to enjoy being friends in the unique way that remains a secret between the two of them (we went on a big international trip for our 30th anniversary, and it is one of the best memories will ever have).
I’ll note here 6 marriage strengths identified by Olson and Defrain that must be revisited, time and time again, by a married couple.
1. Express appreciation2. Fully committed3. Positive communication4. Enjoy time together5. Share a spiritual life6. Manage stress
- The Deep Marriage Stage
The only way I can talk about this is in relation to pain. Joy brings two people together, time and time again. My wife and I climbed together on a cliff near Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, and it remains one of the highlights of our entire married life. But when you walk through sorrow, hand in hand, and you fight for it not to break you apart, something is forged in the heart that is unbreakable.
Deep marriage comes to those who have said, “Divorce is not an option” when the hard road of life says, “Watch what I throw at you.”
The loss of a child. The breakdown of finances. A painful loss of trust after decades of belief in one another. A devastating crisis of identity or faith. All of these kinds of circumstances, can, if the couple mutually leans into them, become incubators for a depth of communication, friendship, and unconditional love this is remarkable in this world.
All I will say here, is that you have to stay in the long game, the marathon of marriage, to touch it. And once you do, you’ll be so grateful that you didn’t jump ship all those times you wish you had.
Sure, some people grow old and end up bickering, isolating, and even living a single life under the same roof together. While I am slow to judge, I have seen this happen because one or both of the two weren’t willing to do the hard work of relinquishment of self that is only requested by the hardest of our circumstances.
We can become bitter, or we can become better. We can become softer and kinder, or we can become harder and meaner. But if you want joy, you can find it on the other side of some of hardest things you’ll ever go through in life. Go through them together – arm in arm facing them – and don’t let them get between you.
When they get between you, then you see the other person through the lens of the problem, and they become the problem. Lock arms, and put them out in front of you as you face them together.
While this article is brief in comparison to the length of a book, I’ve offered what I believe to be the best progression I have seen, both in my experience and in my observation of others, that ensures a marriage has the best chance possible of success – on every level possible.
A marriage can thrive over a lifetime, and generate self-renewing patterns that keep it sustainable in a culture that resists long-term marital health.
Building a lifelong, vital marriage – and friendship – is beautiful, incredible, and a labor of love.
In my view, choosing it over an unprepared-for marriage, over living together, over an easy and short-sighted view of divorce and its impact, and over sliding into marriage carried on the currents of popular views of romance, is to be preferred.
From my heart and experience, I offer you this reflection on what it takes to start a marriage that will last a lifetime, and a blessing on you as your consider marriage in light of these words.
My wife and I have thrived in our marriage over 32 years. I just want you to thrive in yours.
P.S. I think it might be good to leave this here from someone reading this who is questioning where they and their partner are at.
From How Can I Be Sure: A Pre-Marriage Inventory (out of print): If at this stage you have “a general, uneasy feeling about the relationship (a lack of inner peace), frequent arguments, you avoid discussing sensitive subjects because you’re afraid of hurting your partner’s feelings, you’re getting more involved physically to avoid talking or painful discussions, you are always giving in to what your partner wants to do, you detect serious emotional disturbances like fear, anger, or strange behavior, you feel you’re staying in the relationship out of fear, you partner makes excuses, your partner is not willing to take responsibility, is overly jealous or needy, is critical, is sarcastic, is not felt to be a good fit by significant others like parents, you lack spiritual harmony,” or you need a lot of work just to feel like you’re coming together – all of these can be danger signs, red lights, and reasons for a hard pause. If there is anything you are experiencing in the other person, that you simply cannot live with if it never changes, it’s time to end the relationship and move on. Don’t hope it will change later; it most probably won’t.
When I use the word, “sacred” I could be speaking of a variety of traditions. Feel free to apply it to your own. In my case, I am speaking of a sacred ceremony in the Christian tradition, that sits at the center of my own faith and life.
For those who follow Christ, the husband’s divine commission is to be like Jesus to his bride, selflessly, unconditionally loving her through any and every circumstance life will bring (Eph. 5:21-23). This desire to be like Christ, in daily life and affirmed by the wedding vows, has kept many marriages together when they could have been stopped during a deep disagreement or break in the emotional experience in the marriage.
In other words, I’ve found it is good for the husband to emulate, and to desire to be like, Jesus to his wife.
The same holds true for a sacred ceremony where a wife is called to selflessly love her husband as she desires to be like the Christ to whom she is fully devoted.
Not all faiths or religions contain or convey this deep call to worship and express devotion to a God primarily characterized by the attributes of selfless love, forgiveness, acceptance, generosity, trust, kindness, and care.
All of these are attributes of healthy people and a healthy family life, so emulating them, and then embodying them in a wedding ceremony, can only be good for a marriage.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, a husband and wife are crowned the King and Queen of their home. I like this vision of the sacred, biblical truth that two human beings, made in the image of God, are given rule and reign over the dominion of their home. Then they are commissioned to express that loving “dominion” with joy, acceptance, care, kindness, goodness, self-control, and a dignifying value of the humanity of all the lives entrusted to their care within it.
Other Articles In The Relationship Series
Other Helpful Resources
While I do not endorse all of the content, perspectives, or presenting organizations of every article linked at the sites below, one or more of them may prove helpful to your particular situation or need.
The Act Of Marriage (LaHaye) (the beauty of sexual love)