Capture the Flag

I began an argument in three previous articles on why pre-engagement counseling makes more sense than pre-marital counseling. You can read those here: Center Stage, Trust the Process, and Asking the Right Questions. While I do believe in pre-marital counseling, I offer a few reasons why it makes sense to put your relationship under the microscope before the proposal.

Capture the Flag

Have you ever played capture the flag? The rules are simple: Two teams hide a flag within agreed upon boundaries of a playing field. The challenge is to locate and steal your opponents’ flag without being tagged and thrown into jail. If you find the flag and make it back to base, your team wins.

Capture the flag is a lot like pre-engagement and pre-marital counseling.

Here is the reality: your relationship has red flags. They are present. Not green or blue or yellow ones. Red ones. At the beach, lifeguards use red flags to represent danger. One red flag waving in the ocean breeze warns swimmers to use extreme caution. The current is strong, and the surf is high. Only the strongest swimmers should even consider immersion in the water. Two red flags signify to everyone, even say Michael Phelps with floaties, to stay completely out of the water.

A wedding, aside from the ceremony and reception, involves two people extremely skilled in self-protection who stand at an altar mouthing phrases about sacrifice and love but who actually anticipate getting their own needs met in and by the other. Welcome to life in reality rather than life as it was meant to be. Our self-centered perspectives often blind us from the issues we need to see. Given the inevitable that your relationship has red flags, your options heading into marriage are as follows:

  • Denial: Let’s pretend there are no red flags.
  • Overly Ambitious: Let’s find and get rid of the red flags.
  • Pretend: Let’s hope the flags are white or green or pink or blue.  Anything but red.
  • Reality: Let’s hope to expose and deal with the red flags as much as we can before marriage.

It would be blissful to enter marriage after having disposed of any relational cautions or concerns. It is not going to happen. In capture the flag, the game rules state hidden flags must partially show. It would not be fair for one team to bury a flag five feet deep in the ground. Uh oh. In the realm of emotions we often lay our secrets and true selves beneath mountainous dirt piles of shame and guilt. We are skilled at burying our red flags. I mean really skilled. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. Our shame has been burying aspects of our identity for our whole life (and unfortunately it takes a relationship to illuminate and expose them). 10,000 hours computes to 416 days. Thus if you are twenty years old age, you have under your belt at least 173,200 hours of practice. You are beyond mastery.

Timed or Untimed Capture the Flag?

If counseling is about capturing the flags, and a dating couple wins as flags are discovered, the real question before marriage becomes this: Would you rather play timed or un-timed? Traditional pre-marital counseling becomes a timed game of capture the flag. You basically get four to eight sessions to find and deal with red flags. Hopefully they surface. You spend the sessions in a hunt for red flags and if the time runs out, you get married anyway. Then the game continues, except the bullets become real.

In pre-engagement counseling, the game of capture the flag is un-timed. I recall Gandalf’s warning to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gandalf urges the young hobbit ring bearer about the severity of his task and the evil which hunts him. Regarding the ring, Gandalf warns, “It wants to be found.” When it comes to the red flags in the relationship, most often the opposite rings true. They do not want to be found. Certain things do expose them, however. Conflict, communication, and life events all provide context for our red flags to peak out from under rocks. An un-timed process of pre-engagement counseling provides more opportunity for real life to expose caution signs. For a race car driver, “stop” or “yield” signs are an annoyance. For a couple who seeks wisdom on whether to commit their lives to one another, a “stop” or “yield” sign is a gift.

I have a friend who jokes that the goal of pre-marital counseling is to get the couple to delay the wedding. His point has some merit. Any married or divorced person who has lived authentic marriage will stress the importance of choosing the right mate. In thinking about marriage, the goal needs to be: how can we best set ourselves up for success?

Pre-marital and pre-engagement counseling are both forms of capture the flag. If you are in a dating relationship headed toward marriage, seriously consider whether you want to play capture the flag and whether you want to play it under the constraints of time.

Photo copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo


Luke Brasel writes about relationships, intimacy, parenting, and Christian spirituality. He is passionate about the intersection of theology and the human heart. He has a counseling practice in Nashville, TN where he helps people follow their pain to understand their story and recover their heart. When he is not counseling, teaching, or writing, he is learning more about life and love from his wife and twin daughters. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 Start Marriage Right. Disclaimer