Family planning is a controversial topic today that evokes strong feelings and images. But there is a place for biblical “family planning,” in light of the reality of family life as a decades-long process to which God calls us. Indeed, the family, along with work, is the focal point of life as God designed it. That’s why Paul devoted so much space in Ephesians to the issues of married couples (5:22–33), children (6:1–3), and fathers (6:4).
If a couple marries in their mid-twenties and live into their seventies still married, they will have spent 50 years together. That’s a substantial commitment! One would never enter a business contract for that length of time without clarifying the commitment and costs involved. Yet do young people have any idea of the lifetime of work they are taking on when they repeat their marriage vows? Often not.
Perhaps it would help to know that there are six stages of marriage. Each one requires husband and wife to work together as a team, combining their unique temperaments and strengths. As with any team activity, they must pull in the same direction if they expect to complete all six stages with their marriage intact.
Of course, not every couple or family follows the pattern outlined below. But what matters is not that a family adheres to a certain timetable but that it recognizes there are seasons of family life and that building relationships is a lifelong process. The following six periods are by no means distinct categories but overlap quite a bit.
1 The Honeymoon Years
During this first period of marriage, two people from different family experiences and value systems begin to discover one another. Differences and similarities surface in areas such as finances, sexuality, faith, use of time, and personal habits. Each difference affords an opportunity for conflict and, hopefully, growth. Patterns that the couple establish during this phase will tend to affect what happens during the next five phases.
The honeymoon typically ends with the birth or adoption of the first child. For some, it ends with the realization that there will be no children. In all too many cases, it ends with the dissolution of the marriage itself.
2 The Childbearing Years
The birth or adoption of the first child brings a rapid transition. New babies, though welcome, can feel like an invasion— an abrupt intrusion into what, up until then, had been a relatively cozy twosome. Often the father especially feels displaced as the mother and infant bond through birth, nursing, and nurturing.
The childbearing years can be extraordinarily draining. Young parents often give out more than they receive from their children. They may be able to offset the deficit somewhat by revisiting some of the practices that they so valued during the courtship and honeymoon phases of their relationship. They’ll need to deposit lots of emotional support into each other’s “reserve bank accounts” if they hope to maintain a positive balance during the demanding child-focused years.
This period typically ends when the last child begins school.
3 The Child-Rearing Years
As a couple’s children pass through elementary school and high school, new authority figures emerge, such as teachers, TV personalities, coaches, music teachers, youth pastors, and perhaps most influential of all, peers—both friends and bullies. Before, parents had the final word. Now others suggest or impose new values, decisions, and schedules.
That makes child rearing a great time for parents to help children think about themselves and the world. Discussion, prayer, and support can create an atmosphere of unity that is essential if young people are to face the many factors that compete with the family. If the parents are secure, they can help their children tackle the tough issues that they themselves have been dealing with all along.
During the child-rearing years, which may stretch over two decades or more, parents need to keep making deposits in each others’ bank of emotional support. One way to do that is to keep dating and to guard time alone with each other. Again, too many marriages never make it through the stresses and strains of the childbearing and child-rearing phases, and the families break apart.
4 The Child-Launching Years
With the onset of puberty, children begin to notice the opposite sex and discover love outside the home. This is the beginning of the leaving process, as children become adults in their own right and take steps toward independence, usually through work, further education, relationships, and marriages of their own.
In this phase, young adults tend to experience numerous trial runs of freedom, not all of which succeed. It helps for parents to remain available when their children lose their way. Failure, whether in academic studies, financial matters, experiments in freedom, or an unintended pregnancy, offer important moments for learning and sometimes for forgiveness. If young people never experience the freedom to fail, they may never learn to leave the nest and fly on their own.
5 The Empty-Nest Years
They’re gone! Now it’s just two again. Now the couple will find out whether they’ve grown together or apart over the years. Unfortunately, by this point, many couples have developed child- or career-centered marriages rather than strong relationships between themselves. Though understandable, this can be tragic, since the empty-nest phase typically outlasts the first four phases combined. No wonder so many marriages come apart as soon as the children have grown up and left. The couples have built their lives around their kids, and now they have nothing left in common.
By contrast, though, empty-nest couples who have cultivated their marriage through the years can experience a joyous recovery of full attention to their relationship. They have more time to spend with each other, and often more money to spend. They may also have the bright privilege of welcoming grandchildren into the world.
6 The Alone Years
The death of either spouse brings the survivor into the final phase of family life. For so many years, the person has lived in relation to his or her spouse and children. Now, the sudden experience of being alone again exposes the level of growth the individual experienced during marriage.
Some couples never establish patterns that make for strong individuality. They become so intertwined and dependent on each other that the loss of the partner causes the surviving mate to crash or wither. But if the person has cultivated other relationships among friends and family and developed personal interests and hobbies, life can still be somewhat joyful, despite the painful loss of one’s lifetime partner.
Where is your family among these six phases of family life? God calls couples to a lifetime of work. Are you practicing biblical “family planning” with a view toward the long haul?