5 Ways to Sabotage Your Marriage Before It Starts


Most people don’t get married planning to divorce, but the research suggests so much of what they do before they wed sadly leads them to that place.

 Part of the reason might be that, as a culture, we’re often more enamored with the wedding than the actual marriage. A colleague of mine once worked in a church office. He regularly encountered heartbroken brides-to-be who made the mistake of booking the reception hall before the sanctuary, only to discover the church was already taken. When the pastor gently suggested to one couple that their first priority should be the spiritual, the exasperated young woman replied, “I know, but the party is the fun part.”

I don’t think this woman is alone. On our way to marriage many of us inadvertently stumble into habits and situations that will sabotage our futures – and sometimes before we’ve even met our future spouse!

This is why I want to share with you a list created by pulling together the collective wisdom of some of Focus’ marriage experts. It highlights common things many singles and couples do before they’re married that undermine their hopes and dreams of a fulfilling, lifelong union. It’s a what not to do list, if you will.

1. Live together before you marry

Some couples stumble into cohabitation. A few dates turn into overnight visits, and soon it just seems easier to keep some extra clothes and a toothbrush around. They might not be officially living together, but they really are when you think about it.

Other couples plan everything out and enter into this type of relationship with marriage in view. Instead of a ring, a boyfriend gives his girlfriend the key to his apartment so they can “test out” the relationship and “see where it heads.” They see the move as something that will help them prepare for marriage, when the opposite is really true.

My colleague Glenn Stanton lays out what cohabitation does for marriage – and none of it is good.  Here’s some of what his research analysis shows:

  • Living together before marriage dramatically boosts the likelihood of divorcing once married.
  • Cohabitation significantly increases a woman’s chances of being a victim of physical, sexual and verbal violence from their mate.
  • Cohabitating couples are three times more likely to be in poverty than a couple that’s married, even if both work full time.

I also highly recommend this podcast interview on the topic.

2. Get into debt

Whether you bring in money problems from your single years, or accrue debt together while planning an extravagant wedding, the resulting woes can make a marriage miserable. Sure, there’s a difference between borrowing to buy a home and racking up expenses on a credit card, but the bottom line is that debt will always affect a marriage and financial issues are a top reason couples divorce.

3. Marry an unbeliever

For some, it’s an unpopular passage of Scripture. We find it in 2 Corinthians 6:14, and it reads: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

Those may be tough words to swallow, but God included them in His Word for a purpose. Pastor John Piper lays out some reasons in this Q&A, but I’ll only highlight one here:  “How can you be intimately, psychologically, spiritually, physically involved with a man who does not say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ a man who doesn’t love your Savior?”

Marriage is a union between a man and woman at every level of life. To not have the most fundamental thing in common will sooner or later become apparent, especially after children arrive.

4. Refuse to go through premarital counseling – and refuse help after marriage

Marriage isn’t easy. While every couple will walk through rough patches and have to learn some difficult lessons, the wise ones lessen those blows by going through some sort of pre-marrieds curriculum or counseling. This guided conversation through potential issues helps couples learn how to more intentionally communicate and work through the challenges that will crop up.

Once married, find a good mentor couple to continue the work of becoming one.

Incidentally, a refusal of any sort of accountability or someone who says they’re a Christian but doesn’t belong to a church might signify that the person is a “lone ranger.” Often, these people also lack close friendships or mentors. God created us for community, and it would be wise to reconsider joining your life with someone who shuns this basic part of our DNA.

5. Dream of a “soul mate”

Don’t tell Uncle Rico (of Napoleon Dynamite fame), but I don’t think it’s healthy to pine for a soul mate. It would seem that a longing for a soul mate encourages us to place unrealistic expectations on both ourselves and other people.

Dr. Tim Keller, a friend and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, has suggested, and I agree, that the bottom line is all of us marry the “wrong” person.  We’re all human and imperfect and sinful. The key, then, lies in working through the inevitable hardships that you’ll encounter as a couple. It’s in the continual sacrificing, listening and loving that husbands and wives become soul mates.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of ways singles and couples can sabotage their marriage before it starts, but it covers the things our marriage experts and counselors hear most frequently when talking with people in marital crisis.

What other insights can you add to this list?

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Lynda Putz More than 1 year ago

--Refuse to embrace the God-given roles of a husband and wife: Our culture says those roles are intertwined, but God developed them for a reason. When a wife leads/rules the home, chaos will ensue because it goes against God's perfect plan. Learn the roles, embrace the roles, be grateful for the roles. God truly knows best!

William Harris More than 1 year ago

--#6: If you're really "smarter than a fifth-grader," you'll wait until you're 27 years old, having long ago lost your innocence, but you've finished 18 years of schooling, you've paid off your Bimmer, saved enough money for the down payment on a 5-bedroom house on a 2-acre lot, and you're a partner in a law firm.  Then, it's safe to get married.

  You see, a fifth-grader is too young to get married, but not too young to dream and to believe that money can buy everything.  However, a seventh-grader might be old enough to quit dreaming and want the real thing.

  So, how long should young teen-agers wait to get married?  Five years to finish high school?  Ten years to finish college?  Or fifteen years to become financially secure?

Lynn Care More than 1 year ago

--Airing your dirty laundry in public seems to be an acceptable thing to do these days. Ladies, dont complain about your husband's bad habits to your friends, you may find someone who is willing to take him off your hands!

Shelly Hansen More than 1 year ago

--Hi! Thx for posting.  I think it is dangerous to have an attitude that "Nobody is perfect and God can do miracles so I'll trust Him to deal with anything that is challenging" if you do not have peace about the relationship.  In other words, you can spiritually approach a marriage you do not have peace about which is a type of leap of faith.  While it is good to have faith, it is also good to be wise and not approach marriage with a foolish, immature perspective.  Marriage is very challenging and God can and does do miracles.  If I was going to give advice to a young woman, I would encourage her to consider if this man is who she wants parenting her children...is he a godly leader?  He will be leading your family.  I also think it is important to recognize that your marriage ultimately and foundationally is an act of faith between you and God.  Your life-mate is the person you get to wife/husband, empowered by your obedience to and faith in your Great God.  Happily married now 25 years! ;o)

Spencer Tilley More than 1 year ago

--6.  What you see is what you get

Many people marry thinking that their future spouse will change.  In other words, many people go into marriage thinking that the idiosyncrasies, habits, and personality traits that either irritate or annoy them will change.  Unfortunately usually they don't and a failure to recognize this can lead to disappointment as well as conflict after marriage.

Cynthia Martin More than 1 year ago

--Very good article. I think another pitfall that sucks some people in, perhaps especially women, is the fantasy that they are going to change their spouse after marriage. Small things, like which brand of toothpaste or how your spouse squeezes it out are made to build tolerance. Big things, like he likes to spend lots of time with the boys and she likes to flirt, are not going to disappear just because you've gotten married. Be happy with the essential character and behaviors of your prospective spouse before you say "I do"!

Oh, and I do think you should dream of a soul mate. Perhaps not in the romantic "Prince Charming" sort of way, or the "there's only one for me!" trap. In a way, you cover it in "don't marry an unbeliever", but to me it goes beyond that. You should marry someone who not only has a good, godly character, but someone you are comfortable with, can laugh with, and can share deeply with. Is this not a soul mate?

Nick Robertson More than 1 year ago

--I have found that when a couple starts dating to start talking about what I call pr-engagement counseling. I highly recommend counseling that digs into many areas of the individuals lives that directs them to focused discussion that will give each a good idea of the others personality and how their relationship with Christ is lived out. This is what we also refer to as intentional dating. Through this process they not only learn about each other; they also learn about the role Christ will play in their marriage.

Nancy Bradford More than 1 year ago

--Challenges that we had even with pre-marital counseling were 1) not easily adapting to "new household rules" since both sets of parents had been great guides -  whether it was different ways to get the last drop out of the toothpaste tube or how to best fill the dishwasher - most didn't matter, but some did and as young people we didn't have enough perspective/maturity to discern the difference; 2) escaping instead of confronting - may still be doing some of this, but I know many couples where one or both went to parents/friends/silence for help when the going got tough instead of facing and working through the disagreement (one of our blessings was being far enough away from family and having a really tiny apartment that escape was not possible); 3) balancing becoming one with each having to tolerate/embrace the other's commitments to work/school/family that ebb and flow.    That first year for us was a doozie with all of these threats to our marriage.  

Greg Williams More than 1 year ago

--Thanks for a great article!

Implied in #1 is one that needs to be stated separately and unequivocally - Sexual activity before marriage/Pornography (can be stated as 2 more ways to sabotage your marriage but also need to be connected as they are in reality and the devastation they cause on relationships and marriage/families!!!  Regardless of the fact that it is so prevalent in today's culture and even in churches should not mean that we don't warn folks against it and encourage them in purity and chastity or a return to self-control and abstaining from sex prior to marriage, if they've already 'crossed the line' so to speak, as this is almost always a key in marital breakdown in today's culture.  Thanks again and God bless in Christ!