Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

How Rational Are “Rational” Marriages?

How a future partner looks “on paper” can’t predict a relationship's viability.

As a psychologist who’s worked with innumerable couples, it’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed many times. And it’s really saddening to observe: A marriage based on reason, logic, and “good sense”—that, ironically, has proved untenable.

Frequently, the woman is looking for stability after being in several relationships that were full of passion and excitement but, alas, were also unreliable, emotionally volatile, and fraught with disappointment and failed expectations. Or it’s the man who, after sowing his wild oats or being obsessively career-oriented, has decided it’s high time to stop bucking convention and settle down. The mate he finally chooses tends to be caring, accommodating—and domestic. But in any case her overall profile fits whatever features he’s rationally concluded will be most practical for him.

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What needs to be emphasized here is that whomever he—or, for that matter, she—selects is one for whom no particularly strong feelings exist. And whether it’s the man or woman who’s arrived at such a pragmatic decision to make a lifelong commitment to this “unbeloved,” their motives typically overlap. These motives have significantly less to do with the desire to actually be with this other person as the desire (or felt obligation) to start a family, achieve financial security, or simply leave behind the various inconveniences and distresses associated with bachelorhood. Additionally, in some cases they’ve been married before, motivated by an irresistible chemical attraction. And this torrid union turned out so disastrously that they decided the next time around they’d do the opposite: Be a lot more rational—and “businesslike”—in their choice of partner.

But what can hardly be over-emphasized here is that such decisions are made not from the heart but the head. At first, it might seem that such a choice (or perhaps, compromise?) would be eminently sensible. After all, losing one’s mental and emotional balance as a result of falling head-over-heals in love wouldn’t seem especially compatible with circumspect decision-making. The super-emotional “high” of a passionate relationship can be akin to a fire fated to burn out—a flame that simply can’t be sustained. And so not to be trusted. Moreover, it’s doubtless true that the passion of romantic love is susceptible to morphing into one of anger, resentment, and even hostility (think of, as a ludicrously extreme example, The War of the Roses!). If the union has far more to do with fiery attraction than anything vaguely resembling thoughtful reasoning, then—yes—that relationship may well be doomed.

In such instances, what the person with a rapturous heart has failed to consider is the crucial question that must be asked before making a lifelong commitment to another. A question that optimizes the likelihood that the relationship will have what it takes to survive the long haul. And that’s whether—given one’s particular disposition, desires, needs, and values—the prospective partner will in fact be “suitable” to share one’s life with.

But what we might call “logical marriages”—based on an “excess” of down-to-earth common sense (vs. uncommon ardor)—carry their own substantial risks. So moving too far from heart to head can portray yet another sort of imbalance—and a critical one at that. Too often what our intellect alone tells us should work ultimately is unworkable.

So what are some of the issues surrounding these “rational” unions I’ve so skeptically been discussing? And why is “marrying for love”—though hardly a guarantee that a relationship will endure the myriad challenges all marriages face—actually more reasonable than marrying for, well, reason? And why, ironically, might marrying predominantly for more emotional reasons finally be the most reasonable choice we can make?

If we marry someone because they seem to possess most of the qualities we estimate will make us happy, we’re thinking logically—in a utilitarian manner. We’re studiously examining such criteria as whether the other person is dependable, trustworthy, stable, organized, responsible, persevering, confident, capable, and so forth. Obviously, certain gender differences influence our thinking. But generally it’s the traits that are almost universally admired that we perceive as indicating whether or not the match will be a good one for us.

What, however, isn’t typically given enough weight is whether the other person is on our wave length. One aspect of romantic relationships that represents a good omen of long-term compatibility is whether the couple is uncannily adept at completing each other’s sentences. There’s a certain harmonious affinity, or simpatico, that—besides the much more obvious physical attraction—fuels their desire to be together. Which is one reason that it’s almost commonplace for successful couples to talk about how well they “hit it off” when they first met. If it felt that they were just made for each other, it’s because of these strikingly “good vibes.” From the very beginning, they felt extraordinarily “in synch.” And if they were really lucky, they may have discovered that whatever the qualities were on their mental “preference list,” they nicely matched those of the person they already felt so attracted to. But as often as not, they were prepared to alter their preconceptions of what—objectively—they needed in a relationship because this relationship just felt so right to them.

There are few things more important than being able to feel that your partner has a good intuitive sense of who, in essence, you really are. That they “get” you and can almost effortlessly relate to you in ways that makes you feel comfortable . That they can appreciate and be sympathetic to not only your strengths but also your weaknesses and special sensitivities. Otherwise, over time you’re likely to feel hopelessly misunderstood by—and alienated from—them.

The fundamental need to live your life with someone who truly grasps who you are may supersede virtually every other relational “requirement” you might imagine. So it’s not nearly enough that the prospective partner contain the qualities you think will make you happy. Far more significant is that their qualities and your qualities are in accord with one another. That more than anything else is what permits a relationship to flourish.

In the end, therefore, how someone might look to you “on paper” is not a very good measure of a relationship’s viability. Regardless of the other’s many strong points, such “virtues” don’t intimate that the two of you were ever meant to be a couple. And if you marry someone primarily because they have the qualities you’ve “rationally”—or level-headedly—decided you should have in a spouse, you may be overlooking the most important criterion of all. Namely, that your personalities mesh. For, ultimately, that’s what makes a couple a couple.

NOTE: If you know of anyone who might appreciate this post, kindly send them the link. Additionally, if you found this post useful or stimulating, please consider visiting my blog page Evolution of the Self.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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