One of the foundational precepts of this ministry is that marriage is not all about FINDING the right person with whom you will spend your life, but BEING the right person. Accepting this belief, however, does not mean we should go out looking for Mr. or Miss Wrong, and then trying to make things work out by superhuman acts of will and effort. In this post, we will explore some ideas for shortening the odds against marital problems, by seeking lasting virtues in a prospective mate.
One of the problems with this process is that, generally, people looking to get married are often young, and their judgment has yet to fully mature. Men, for whom I can speak with some authority, often tend to get distracted by physical aspects of a woman–the babe factor–which can cloud their judgment. My favorite cousin Butch, who has been married a number of times, is a sweet, brilliant, funny, lovable guy, but has, as he puts it, “a bad picker.” When it came to women, he routinely made choices which were doomed from the outset. (As an example, I believe his first wife’s choice of cocktail beverage was scotch and Diet Dr. Pepper. Just sayin’.) His current and, we hope, last wife, is a solid, stable, down-to-earth woman, a scholar of native American heritage, although I don’t know what she likes to drink.
Two observations I’ve picked up during my life have bearing on this topic. The first, from a former boss in the insurance business, states: “Slow as a freshman, slow as a senior.” The implication is that people basically do not change, and marrying someone while keeping a list of those aspects of his or her personality you intend to “fix” is folly. The second, courtesy of my own mother, is relevant to men seeking wives. She advised me, if I was seriously interested in a woman, to arrange to meet her mother, and believed that most women grow up to become close copies of their mothers. She didn’t have anything to say about women seeking men, although I find a number of disturbing aspects of my own personality that closely resemble my father, to my lasting distress.
So, borrowing from the Preamble to the U.S. constitution, in order to form a more perfect union, we should try our best to look beyond the short-term physical attributes of our prospective spouse and focus instead on those aspects of his or her character that will likely be there forever. A word of caution before getting too far into this–there are some dealbreakers out there for which there are no ready work-arounds, among them a tendency toward physical violence or mental abuse, addictions to gambling, drugs or alcohol, etc., A person with all of the following virtues who is saddled with these issues is not a strong candidate as a life partner. Acknowledging these concerns, let us examine:
- Kindness. One of the virtues that is difficult to measure, but that you know when you see it. How does he or she treat wait staff in restaurants, or animals?
- Patience. Try as you might, during 40 or 50 years together you are going to demand plenty of this from your spouse. If he is not generally patient, does he have it within him to be patient when necessary?
- Honesty. One of the footings of marriage is trust, which is impossible with someone who finds it easy to lie. I observed this first-hand in my parents’ marriage, and it made my mother’s life hellish at times.
- Generosity. If he is cheap, or tight with money, it’s going to be a long row to hoe; there’s frugal, and there’s CHEAP. Similarly, this can be a spiritual quality, as we often look up to people we think of as having a generous spirit. Does she come from a sense of abundance, or one of scarcity? Is he inclusive? Does she support charities?
- Forgiveness. Does he or she stay mad, or have a short memory when it comes to getting over slights, whether real or imagined? What about you? Do you have forgiveness in your own heart? If not, is it fair to expect it from your spouse?
- Similar “coefficients of boredom.” If you are a person who is easily bored, and she can be happy curled up on the couch reading a book, there exists the potential for friction. It pays to seek someone with whom you share interests, and who has a similar tolerance for exhilaration and/or quietude.
- Shared theories of raising children. You want ’em, he doesn’t; this issue just won’t resolve itself. If you’re not on the same page on this topic, perhaps you’d be better off “starting to see other people.”
- Complementary Myers-Briggs profiles. Ha–just put this in to see if you’re still paying attention. But seriously, the cliche that opposites attract is a cliche because it’s true. The two of you don’t have to agree on everything, and by “everything” I’m including issues around religion and politics. If you’re able to keep debates from devolving into arguments, issue-oriented stuff like this is relatively unimportant. A side benefit of having different points of view on Issues is that your children will grow up with better independent thinking skills, not having had a strict “party line” to which they were expected to adhere along the way. Upon hearing their parents present opposing points of view on issues, they will have to decide for themselves which position makes more sense. I’m convinced one reason our three daughters are high achievers is because they had to figure out a lot of stuff on their own, after listening to Nancy and me go at it over dinner. (The exception to all of this, of course, is climate change. If one of you believes the planet is heating up, and the other dismisses the thought as claptrap, this single issues can become a wedge in your relationship. Don’t know why I believe this, but I do.)
- Fairness. This is a quality which emerges during difficult times, especially when it comes to fighting. There is no way to be married to someone for half a century without a few real fights along the way. “Fighting fairly” is crucial, as it allows wounds to heal more quickly than does its opposite. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness–are all examples of fighting dirty, and are all highly damaging to your marriage. If your prospective spouse has a strong sense of fair play, this improves your chances.
There is certainly a congruence between these suggested marital virtues and what are generally referred to as The Seven Christian Virtues. Readers are encouraged to comment with other virtues they feel are important to lasting marriages. These are but a few. If you’re fortunate enough to find someone with all, or most, of them, as I did, you will likely live a long, happy life together.