After our wedding ten years ago, my husband and I received all sorts of unsolicited advice from people about how to remain married. Quite ironically, some of that advice came from those who had divorced. I never understood whether their admonitions reflected what they had done or had not done in their own marriages. Regardless, given that a much loved family member has recently gotten engaged, I feel compelled to offer some unasked-for advice as well, especially since I'm supposed to be something of an "expert" in this area.
1. Make your wedding an event that reflects and celebrates the values that you and your beloved hold most dear. Perhaps what has gone wrong in many American marriages is that most weddings are showpieces of capitalist and consumerist culture. Many engaged couples spend more time thinking about decorations than about their vows and choose their guests based on who will give the best gifts rather than who will most support their life together as a couple. Unless you're really bound to the idea of increasing the profits of the bridal industry, I'd suggest keeping the wedding party small and foregoing the guest book and cake cutter (you'll never use them again), expensive invitations (they just get thrown away), and the decorations (really - who needs three candelabras and $1000 worth of flowers?).
2. Be intentional about nurturing your marriage. No one would hold onto a job for long if all they did was to show up. Every now and again, a furniture store near my house holds a big sale and has someone stand on the shoulder of a busy highway, holding a sign advertising the sale. Most of the time, it seems clear that the person holding the sign is not a permanent employee of the store but is rather someone that the owner or manager found on the street and invited to come make a few bucks for the day. Granted, it's not the hardest work - it mainly involves holding a large poster and occasionally walking back and forth. But still, it requires some intentional effort. The person can't just stand there and hope that the sign will hold itself. Marriage is no less. Simply having a wedding ceremony and living in the same house does not make or maintain a marriage. The wedding ceremony is not a magic trick that binds you irrevocably together for life. You've got to nurture a marriage as if it is a living, breathing organism. Like any living thing, if you don't feed it - or you feed it the wrong type of food - it will die. And by the way, watch out for pests - jealous friends, intrusive family members, jobs that sap your joy and energy, disagreements over money.
3. Learn the art of forgiveness. When I first got married, I couldn't understand when long-married couples warned me that there are times in marriage when you won't like your spouse. But it's true. Over time, what you now consider quirky idiosyncracies - or perhaps slightly annoying habits - will become the bane of your existence. Even worse, through the eyes of your beloved you will discover things about yourself that you never wanted to know. As a friend once told me, being married is like having a mirror held up that reflects your negative attributes. So you'll need to learn to forgive not only your beloved, but also yourself. By the way, the mirror's not all bad. When held rightly, it also helps you to recognize strengths about which you were unaware and it affirms the best parts of you.
4. Value the wisdom of others but discover the path that is best for you and your beloved. Several years ago, a colleague came to me and asked for some advice on marriage. Like my husband and I, he and his fiancée were young, black, educated, and had highly demanding careers. And neither of them was interested in being the type of couple where one is subordinate to the other. Yet so far, everyone had given them - actually, her - the same advice: "Remember, he's the head of the household so your job is to support him." Perhaps in desperation, he had turned to me, a person with only five years of marriage experience. There wasn't much I could tell him other than this: "Ultimately, you and your fiancée together will have to decide what kind of marriage you want. If it's a marriage that looks different from those of your elders, then they may not be able to tell you how to achieve it. So you'll have to figure out which of their advice suits the two of you. And you just might have to improvise."
5. Most of all, consider your marriage a journey. Even as someone who studies, counsels, and teaches about marriage, I find that my so-called "expertise" goes out the door when I get home. I'm not sure that anyone ever gets this thing really figured out. Even we professional experts are always personal novices. Life is always changing and new challenges are always just around the corner. What seems stable one minute can be topsy-turvy the next. At times you may have no clue where you are or how you got there. But as long as you consider such things to be ordinary bumps in the journey, you'll have a much greater chance of adapting and making it to the next bit of straight road.
Many blessings on your engagement.