No one wants to seal the deal and then discover afterwards that they have signed up for serious marriage problems. How can you tell if the person you are currently drawn to, dating or living with is The One True Love with whom you should take the giant leap from the comfortably familiar world of singleness or partnership into the full commitment of marriage? Can you trust your gut to tell you who is a good choice to marry? Is cohabitation a good way to assess if a true love will be likely to make a good mate?
My answer to those last two questions would be no and no. There's lots of folks that a given person can love. It's only a small subset of those you could love who are likely to be solid choices to be your marriage mate.
And as to co-habitation, that's a real slow way to gather data about whether your true love will be a good marriage partner for you. Cohabitation can result in sliding into a longterm relationship that was never meant to be, using up critical years of potential child-bearing age, and perpetually postponing making a permanent partner choice.
So how's a person to know who's a right match as a lifelong partner?
Your gut gives you important intuitions, definitely worth listening to. Your heart tells you about your feelings like sexual attraction and affections. Listen to it as well. At the same time, how can you also engage your head, the place where you gather, store, and assess data?
Here's five tests to help you go beyond what your gut feeling may be telling you.
Test #1: Know Thyself
Many years ago when I was in college I escaped doing homework by reading a book by Erich Fromm called The Art of Loving. Two sentences in that book seared themselves into my memory. Here’s a somewhat paraphrased version of them.
1. When you first start choosing people you might love, the attraction goes to folks who are like what you are not. I chuckled thinking of various of my friends at the time, like my quiet and studious small town-Idaho roommate and her flamboyant East Coast athlete boyfriend.
2. As you mature into your full identity, like a tulip bulb gradually blossoms into a tulip flower, you hopefully will choose people who are like what you like best about yourself.
That sentence helped me to know within 24 hours of meeting the man who has now been my husband for over forty years that he was The One.
Here’s an exercise that can help you implement Fromm’s wise insight to pick Mr. or Ms. Right.
Close your eyes. Allow images and words to come up as you think about what you like best about yourself. Write them down. List at least three to five attributes.
After a few minutes re-read what you have written. That will be a description of the person with whom your partnership is meant-to-be.
Is that all there is to it?
Certainly not. Yet this exercise is excellent as both a starting point and a final re-evaluation guide.
It's a starting point in that your sense of what's most important to you can give you ideas on where to be looking. If what you most value about yourself is your scientific curiosity, look for places where scientists are likely to hang out. Go, for instance, to scientific conferences. If being religious is important, look for churches or synagogues that appeal to you, and especially ones that have singles activities.
As a final re-evaluation guide, say for someone who's already a lover and seems to be heading toward cohabitation or marriage, this exercise is worth doing again.
Here' a case example:
Robert adored Sherry. She was smart, funny, generous and sexually exciting to him. At the same time, they spent so much time at his apartment that it seemed to him he should think about inviting her to move in.
Yet Robert hesitated. Rather than slide into each subsequent stage of their growing partnership, he wanted co-habitation to be just a short interval before a long engagement and eventual marriage. If he was going to invite Sherry to move in with him, he'd better look ahead down the road and decide if he really was wanting to stay on the marriage track with her.
When Robert did the exercise of labeling the key parts of what he liked best about himself, his alarm bells went off. Catholic was at the top of the list. He was from an Irish Catholic family and had grown up loving going to church. That was the place where his sometimes argumentative family always felt most harmonious and in tact. His spiritual side was so nourished by going to church that he had considered for some time even becoming a priest. At the same time, he knew that Sherry was equally committed in her Jewish religion. Religious observances at home such as Friday night dinners were an especially positive part of her family of origin's closeness.
As Robert thought about how central Catholicism was to his identity and Jewishness was to Sherry's, feelings of sadness rose up within him. He realized that to build a cohesive family together one or both of them would have to give up too core a part of his identity.
Robert decided that instead of inviting Sherry to move in with him, he would explain his concerns. Together they faced the realities of their different identities, talking openly about what a future together might look like. Their mutual choice at the end was to declare their love for each other, and then part.
Initially Robert and Sherry both suffered a long period of mourning. Eventually however each found new partners. With these more fully-matched spouses, both built highly successful and loving families.
Test #2 MP’s Checklist for Marriage Potential
MP, a writer who has recently ended a two-year cohabitating love relationship, agreed to let me share with you the checklist he put together for his decision to marry or to leave. Thank you MP for sharing your wisdom with us.
___Has their life together (job, money, stable, etc – can take care of themselves)
___Unwillingness to harm, willingness to heal (they never maliciously and intentionally try to hurt you and when they unintentionally hurt you, they work to heal the wound.)
___I’m not embarrassed to take them anywhere
___Passes the “Brandon Test: Brandon is one of my best friends and no matter the situation I'm excited if he's coming with me because I know if Brandon is there it will be more enjoyable. He's fun, easy to get along with, and low maintenance. He makes bad situations more bearable and good situations even more fun. Does your partner make situations better/more fun/easier by being there with you, or make them more difficult/stressful?
___Must not just love her, but like her – I would want to be her friend if I weren’t dating her.
___Has a history of long-term important friendships/relationships. It's a bad sign if a person can't maintain relationships with important friends and family if that’s what you are looking to launch.
___GGG. GGG is a term created by Sex and Relationship advice columnist Dan Savage. As Wikipedia writes: “In his March 1, 2007 column, Savage summarized: "GGG stands for 'good, giving, and game,' which is what we should all strive to be for our sex partners. Think 'good in bed,' 'giving equal time and equal pleasure,' and 'game for anything—within reason.'
Test #3: Uncle Manny’s Gotta Have It
My Uncle Manny, a master of homespun wisdom, said before you marry someone who seems to be your true love, one essential question needs to receive a clear yes: “Do you respect that person?”
Remind you of the song? “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”….
The longer I’ve been helping couples to heal and upgrade their marriages, the more I appreciate Uncle Manny's guide.
Is the person you are considering as a mate someone you respect?
Can you promise yourself that you will always treat that person respectfully?
Do you respect that person enough that you can transfer the primary loyalty that up to this point may have been to your parents or a best friend to your new partner? And has your potential fiance differentiated enough from his/her prior attachments (parents, ex-spouse, best friend etc) that they will transfer that primary loyalty to you?
Test #4: Deal-Breakers
I write in an earlier post about the three problems that most often destroy marriages according to what I have seen in my clinical practice. Abusive anger, Affairs, and Alcohol or other substance abuse predict either divorce or marital misery. If the person who feels now like a true love partner shows signs of tendencies toward any of these three detrimental habits, pay attention. Get help or get out.
Psychologically unhealthy mental illness syndromes also should put up giant red flags. Bipolar illness is very hard to live with. So are psychotic episodes, paranoia, and seriously pathological narcissistic and borderline personality disorders unless you want a life filled with drama, fighting, disappointment and upsets.
Beware in addition of old-fashioned character flaws. Dishonesty, sadism, meanness, and the like make for a difficult marriage and usully disqualify someone from the role of loving life partner..
Test #5: Collaborative Skills
True love alone can be insufficient to make a marriage last. Arguments make for marital unpleasantness. So does excessive distance.
The good news is that sustaining an emotional tone of sunshine rather than storms is for the most part a matter of skills. That is, close and cooperative communication in relationships depends on skills that can be learned.
What if my loved one doesn't quite pass these tests? Does a marriage partner have to be perfect?
The good news is that good skills for talking cooperatively together about differences may trump almost all of the difficulties the above tests may indicate. Marriage starts with love, benefits from good matching, requires basic good mental health and good character, thrives on respect, but also takes a reliable toolkit. There’s a free test of skills on my poweroftwomarriage.com website that you and your loved one can take right now.
Once you see where you stand, which skills you have and which you might want to strengthen, the key question is how willing are you and your partner to roll up your sleeves and learn what you need to know to be good spouses?
That answer will tell you a lot about whether you, as well as your loved one, are going to turn out to be good at the project of marriage, and even more important, how willing you each are to keep growing better at it.
How do these five tests help in assessing if your true love would be a good partner choice for marriage?
Assess with these tests what your loved one will be like as a marriage partner. The tests enable you to add the slower information-gathering and decision-making that your head can give you to the powerful intuitive feelings of your heart and your gut.
With all three essential organs in gear, go for it!
(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship assessment.
Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.
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