I’m not sure what the temperature of one’s toes has to do with their willingness to make a long-term commitment, but getting a case of “cold feet” is a common occurrence for engaged couples. I get calls from pastors, parents, and potential spouses on a regular basis worried that a terrible decision is about to be made and lives hang in the balance. So how do you tell when the fear of commitment is an ordinary experience versus a warning sign?
The reasons people experience a fear of marital commitment are various. One factor is the cultural moment in which we currently find ourselves. We are inundated daily with messages that life is about experiencing the most carnal joy possible and to do that you must keep your options open.
It doesn’t help that many of us know people who are in the middle of miserable marriages or who have been hurt by a messy divorce. We wish that this were true only outside the church, but truth be told, we see families breaking apart even inside the covenant community, and it’s scary. No one wants to be the person who consistently dreads going home or who has to fight through issues like custody and visitation. And when we hear that 50% of marriages end in divorce, the whole thing can feel like a bit of a crapshoot.
False Date and Right Fear
But recent work has shown the divorce rate for those who regularly attend worship has never come close to 50%. In fact, according to researcher and author Shaunti Feldhahn, nearly 80% of regular attenders describe their marriage as “happy.” This reveals that our perceptions have been skewed by false data. Making it worse is that this false data of 50% seems accurate. To borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert the “truthiness” of the claim is high. Why? Miserable and failing marriages impress themselves on our memories more than content and succeeding ones.
Sometimes people fear the commitment to marriage because they’ve been fed lies, but if we are honest, sometimes people fear the commitment to marriage because they’ve finally realized the hard truth. By saying “I do,” they — a finite, feeble, and frail sinner — are making a covenantal commitment to someone who is also a finite, feeble, and frail sinner. That is a fact that should cause some fear. Actually, if it doesn’t make you quake at least a little bit, I doubt you’re being honest about them, yourself, or the institution of marriage.
How do we know when apprehensions about marriage should be taken seriously? Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” We look not just to ourselves but also to those around us seeking input from multiple advisers, asking for help from those who know you, your betrothed, your relationship, and marriage. Most importantly, these counselors must know Christ.
It’s important that you know, in general, where you stand on the matter. I say “in general” because we are always prone to individual episodes of fear or excitement. Ask about marriage in the throes of a heated argument and you may not like the response. But ask in the midst of a fun-filled date and you might start talking baby names. What you are looking for is the “climate” of your relationship, not the “weather”.
A climate is the stable pattern whereas the weather is the individual instance. Is the climate of your relationship positive with periodic occurrences of difficulty, or is it the other way around? It’s a warning sign when you find that you are consistently arguing yourself into or out of such an important commitment as marriage. If you are unsure how you feel, then pray, journal, and talk until you begin to get some clarity. But it’s probably best to restrain from offering any rings or saying “I will” until you are relatively clear on whether or not you can say “I do.”
It’s important to get input from those who have known you both before and during the relationship to see what they think. Do they think this arrangement is a good idea? Have they noticed any significant changes in you since you’ve been with this person? Is Christ more or less evident in your life since you’ve been in this relationship? Are you happier or sadder? Are you more or less satisfied with life?
Assess Your Potential Mate
Likewise, it’s important to get the same input from those that know your betrothed. Infatuation can do funny things to them. They can, for a small season, enjoy people, activities, lifestyles, and so on that normally would be of little to no interest. Those that have known them for a long time can help identify where these temporarily flexible boundaries may snap back into place.
Similarly, infatuation — like a drug — can mask their anger and other unhealthy responses. Finding out how your betrothed handled themselves before you came into the picture can save incredible heartache down the road.
Not only is it important to get input from those who know each of you individually, but it’s also crucial to get input from those that have seen you function together as a couple. While googly eyes and giddy laughs are great, how do people think you function as a team?
Is Christ on display in your life together as well as separately? What do they see as the strengths of your relationship? Weaknesses? Does anything give them pause about your relationship?
Evaluate Your Expectations of Marriage
Sometimes friends and family fail to see the warning signs of a bad relationship. Sometimes they are too sensitive and think normal conflict is a sign of disaster. This is why it is important to get input from those who know marriage.
A counselor, a mentor, a pastor, someone who has been successfully married for a long time — all are good sources of information. Especially those who are used to evaluating relationships and have seen a number of relationships succeed and fail. Their eyes are more attuned to picking up the subtle but important clues that genuine struggle may lay ahead. Further, they can help chart a course to overcome potential problems before they become intense struggles.
The Importance of Christian Counsel
No one can tell you for sure whether or not your marriage will succeed or fail. This reality is extremely scary. But where there is fear, worry, and helplessness in the world, there is peace, security, and power at the cross (John 14:27; 1 Corinthians 1:18; Matthew 11:28). Christ knows what it is to suffer for his betrothed (Ephesians 5:25). He has done it for you and for me (1 Peter 2:24). In a Christian home, marriage sanctifies as much as it satisfies. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to display Christ to one another and find deep joy — even in the middle of incredible difficulty (James 1:2–4).
When we are faithful to our spouses, even when they are being stubborn, selfish, and sinful, we give them a living example of God’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Therefore, the most important of all the advisers you need to consult is the one who themselves are in love with Jesus and in whom you see that love on full display.
It’s tough to know when to take the fear of commitment seriously, but it should never be ignored. With the help of friends and family along with those that know Christ and his institution of marriage, we can do more than just give polite Christian platitudes. We can help them wrestle with the seriousness of lifelong commitment while helping them rest in the one whose commitment is eternal and sure (John 6:39).