It's a major decision—selecting one person, out of many possible candidates, with whom to spend the rest of your life. Marriage is a gut-deep commitment—and not one to be taken lightly.
Choosing poorly could lead to years of protracted pain, emotional suffering, and a long ledger of divorce court-related expenses. The cost of a poor choice is enough to cause some individuals to become anxious and avoid deep relationships altogether. Choose wisely, however, and you have a wonderful soulmate. A frequent source of joy, comfort, and inspiration.
Sounds good, yes? But here's the rub: Picking the right spouse is hard—really hard. This is due, in large part, to the following: The qualities that first attracted you to someone are, very often, not the qualities that make for a wonderful marriage.
“What ho?” you say (channeling a little bit of Bertie Wooster). Yes, it’s true. A moment’s reflection will convince you. Consider, for example, the qualities that you hear friends gush about when they first fall deeply "in like" with a new romantic interest:
- “She was gorgeous, the most beautiful woman at the party.”
- “He was just like a little lost puppy. So cute and shy. But then when he had a few drinks, his real self-came out, and he was the center of attention. No one could ignore him at that point because of his sheer presence…What a dream. I think I can help him come out of his shell.”
- “I cannot remember ever meeting a woman so smart, but also such a flirt…I mean she flirted with everyone, but I was the guy she left with at the end of the night! Oh yeah, baby, big win. She is so into me.”
- “We both love collecting Hummels! He even has a photo collection of every Hansel and Gretel Hummel ever made.”
- “Can you believe it? She loves the Raiders…how gnarly is that? We can wear matching Raiders gear all winter and tailgate in our own driveway.”
In the long run—by which I mean over the course of 30 to 50 years—none of these qualities is likely to help you form a deeply stable and rewarding marriage.
Let there be no misunderstanding. Of course, it’s important to feel attracted to your spouse. Likewise, you should share at least some common interests.
But mere attraction and mutual interests do not provide the ballast, or stability, needed to help a marriage grow year over year. This is important to keep in mind: Healthy marriages grow. Unhealthy marriages remain the same. They become stagnant. Or, worse, they deteriorate and die.
So what qualities in a mate make for a marriage that will grow? What qualities increase the chances that many years from now, you will end up as two well-seasoned citizens who have weathered the storms of life and can look back upon decades of shared adventures and smile at the memories?
Let’s look at the essential characteristics of a spouse that lead to this happy state:
Insecurity breeds suspicion, dependency, and resentment. The insecure spouse is constantly fighting doubt. Yes, we all have moments of self-doubt and areas of insecurity. But here, I’m referring to a more general tendency—a broad orientation towards confidence versus insecurity.
If your spouse constantly wrestles with extreme insecurity, it will gradually weaken your relationship. You will be called upon for constant reassurance in order to push back against your spouse’s painful, incapacitating self-doubt.
This need for constant reassurance is seen in highly dependent people. The million-dollar question, however, is: What goes hand in hand with high dependency? The answer is resentment. Someone who requires your constant emotional reassurance will eventually feel a tremendous sense of resentment. Likewise, you may also begin to resent the need to chronically bolster the flagging confidence of your spouse.
All of this puts tremendous pressure on a relationship. It eventually begins to rot the tender feelings each spouse once had for the other. Instead, bitterness begins to take root.
Confidence, on the other hand, puts no special demands on one’s partner for reassurance. Instead, it acts as an invitation for greater trust, intimacy, and adventure.
Those who possess a generous nature are not likely to view themselves as the epicenter of the universe. Generosity is kryptonite to selfish desire and ambition. The two qualities do not harmoniously coexist.
If you want to go through life with someone who enjoys sharing the adventure, rather than insisting on being the center of the adventure, find a generous soul.
Often mistaken for false modesty, humility is simply the heartfelt understanding that you are not the center of the universe. It requires a recognition that your needs, your pain, your ambition, and goals are not of central importance.
Are they of any importance? Of course. At times, your concerns will even be of great importance. But on most days, they are not so pressing as to overshadow the needs of others. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it's thinking of yourself less.”
When humility is missing, there will be little grace shown for the mistakes of others. Marriages, however, require an abundance of grace. It acts as a disinfectant that allows the injuries caused by mistakes to be cleaned out and to heal.
If a spouse lacks humility, grace is likely to be in very short supply. That means that the emotional hurts that invariably occur in any relationship will heal more slowly—and some will remain forever. After a time, one or both partners will respond by building strong, impervious walls to prevent further hurt. That’s when intimacy begins to die.
Find a soul that balances confidence with humility, and you will be blessed many times over.
Charles Dickens wrote, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
No one wants to journey through life with a companion who seldom smiles, or one who approaches each morning with a grim expression of doleful determination. If that is what you are looking for, make friends with an IRS auditor.
But if you want a happier life, then look for a soulmate who is able to laugh at his or her own foibles and frustrations. Someone who finds humor in the everyday routines and nuances of which others take no notice.
Life is difficult, and relationships are challenging. Marriage is particularly challenging: two imperfect people attempting to make a lifelong commitment in the face of life’s uncertainties and heartaches. Just as one needs to periodically clean out a closet or a room—and give things away that are no longer serving their purpose—so too does forgiveness help keep life leaner, cleaner, and lighter. Lack of forgiveness means burdens continued to be carried. Also, you both will mess things up—unless you want to carry around a long list of grievances, be ready to forgive.
Trust is essential for a strong marriage. Knowing that your spouse is honest provides a foundation upon which to anchor that trust. If, on the other hand, your spouse is not honest with you, then where does the foundation lie for you to develop trust?
Honesty goes beyond simply being truthful with one another. Just as importantly, it involves the capacity, and desire, to be truthful with oneself. From time to time, each of us must face something that we find overwhelming. It may be a realization about our self or about a problem in our marriage or with our spouse. The temptation, for some, will be to gloss over the problem—to minimize it, or even deny altogether that the problem exists.
This lack of honesty takes a toll on the marriage. Problems that are minimized, or denied, cannot be resolved. When serious problems are brushed aside, relationships invariably suffer.
The bottom line: You need to know that the person you have committed yourself to can be trusted to honestly interact both with you and with their own thoughts and feelings.
In any relationship that involves risk, loyalty ranks high as a prized virtue. When soldiers go off to war, the loyalty of the people standing to one’s left and right is of supreme importance. When business partners have invested their life fortunes in a joint venture, loyalty allows them to move forward, knowing that each has the other’s back.
It is no different with marriage. Loyalty is essential. Consider the traditional marriage vows: "Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?” Loyalty is laid down in this promise as the cornerstone of a lifelong relationship.
Think this is asking too much? Without loyalty, what is your option at the altar? "I promise that for today, and maybe tomorrow, I will love and cherish this person. I may remain true during the good times, but my options remain open regarding what may happen during the tough times…and if things get really bad, all bets are off.”
Find someone who is loyal, or do not marry at all.
Duty is a quality that many consider very “old school,” passé, out of style, and belonging to a different era. Such characterizations badly miss the mark. A sense of duty is a sign of maturity—a willingness to sacrifice the freedom to act on one’s immediate desires and feelings in order to fulfill a higher obligation.
Every marriage has conflicts and hardships. During these difficult times, a sense of duty pushes us to do that which is best for our spouse (and for our marriage).
That is because duty transcends feelings of affection, attraction, and goodwill. Those feelings—the ones that make it so easy to be generous and thoughtful to a spouse—cannot be counted upon. Emotions are fickle. We cannot simply conjure up a sense of affection or love on demand. A difficult day at work may cause them to be missing altogether.
What then? When the warm winds of affection, desire, and empathy for your spouse have gone AWOL, what is there to lean upon that propels you to behave as you should?
The answer is that duty. Like a good soldier who stands post no matter what conditions beat down upon him, duty remains. Duty carries the day until those warm feelings return.
Empowered by a strong sense of duty, each of us is drawn to behave in ways that are normally motivated by affection. We can still speak kindly, act graciously, show concern and thoughtfulness. A strong sense of duty provides a bulwark of steadiness against the vagaries of emotion.
What’s more, by keeping us on course, it also smooths the way for repairing the hurts that caused those feelings of affection to first recede.
Each of us, at one time or another, must face risks that involve potential heartache, setbacks, uncertainties, and anxiety. When these moments are met with a lack of courage, one is likely to be swept up by fear. Wise decisions are seldom made on the basis of anxiety. Choices in life that are based on a desire to avoid that which one is afraid of will frequently lead to deep regret.
What’s more, decisions made on the basis of minimizing fear will end up robbing you of the opportunity to grow stronger by facing your anxieties. No soldier became a better warrior by running from battle. No athlete became better in his or her sport by avoiding competition. Courage will not eliminate fear, but it will overpower fear and keep it from controlling you in the big moments of life.
A full and deeply lived life requires courage. It is an essential quality for your spouse to possess. Do not look for someone who is without fear—that is simply a foolish individual. But do search for someone who refuses to be controlled by fear.
There is an infinite number of characteristics that attract people to their soulmate. Some of these qualities are more important than others; the nine described above are essential. They are like the foundation of a house—stability is had when these attributes are present.
Of course, there are many other qualities that can, and should, be looked for in a spouse or long-term partner. But these will differ from the fundamental qualities we’ve just examined in that they are specific to your unique personality and personal preferences.
Examples of these type of qualities include whether someone is romantic, creative, spontaneous, sports-minded, etc. If the nine qualities we’ve just discussed are similar to a home’s foundation, these other qualities are akin to a home’s architectural style (colonial, Mediterranean, contemporary, and so forth).
Both sorts of characteristics are important to consider for a happy marriage. The foundational qualities, however, are essential to get right if you wish to enjoy a relationship that continues to mature over the course of your lifetime.