What to Look for in a Marriage Partner
If you’re single and seeking a spouse, then this is a question you’re asking.
If you’re married and a leader, then this is a question that single people are asking you, hoping you can offer insight.
What’s the question?
How do you know who you should marry?
Of course, marriage is not the be all and end all of life, and it’s fine if you never get married. But according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, some 79.6 percent of men and 86.2 percent of women will get married sometime in life.
In my late teens and early twenties, I had a long “list” of specific traits, skills, and attributes that I was looking for in a prospective marriage partner.
For instance, you may think the following item on my list was idiotic, (and it was) but at age 18 I wanted my future spouse to have a shorter second toe compared to her big toe. Hey—shapely feet were important to me, and I just couldn’t imagine my wife having big old spindly second toes, of all crazy things.
As time went on, my list became much shorter. Part of this, I hope, was due to an increased maturity on my part.
Part of it was pragmatic thinking—the longer you wait to get married, the more your options dwindle. You need to cut to the chase and ask yourself what’s truly important.
I was talking to my mom once about what she was looking for when she married my dad. (They were married in 1960 at age 22 and 20.) And she remarked how she was a bit concerned at that young age that his hair was thinning on the top. She didn’t know if she wanted to be married to a bald husband.
Today my parents are in their mid-70s and still happily married. My mom just laughs at that criteria now. “To think of all the things we’ve gone through together over the years,” she said recently, “Having my husband be bald is the farthest thing from my mind.”
I married when I was 29, and what follows below were the only things left on my list by the time I got married. By having a shorter list, I wasn’t “settling.” I was learning.
And I know now, after nearly 17 years of marriage, that the things below are pretty much the only things that matter in a committed long-term relationship.
If you’re looking for a marriage partner, or if you know someone who is and that person is seeking perspective, then consider what follows the essentials of what to look for in a marriage partner.
Here is what to look for:
1. Some level of physical attraction exists between you.
Some level of physical attraction can’t be ignored, particularly in the beginning of a relationship. Physical attraction is not everything, but hopefully you will be proud of your spouse and like the way he or she looks.
Physical attraction comes and goes. It can also be changed by aging, accidents, or disease—and if your spouse becomes wrinkled, (which will happen), blemished, gains weight, or even becomes disfigured as time goes on, then you still want to be in love and committed to that person. So physical attraction is part of the list, sure, but it’s in flux and needs to be held loosely.
Sometimes people will seek the feeling of “electricity” in a potential spouse. Or they will want their potential spouse to be the best looking person in the room. But I don’t believe either of those is terribly realistic or important over the long haul.
If you always expect your spouse to be the most attractive person in the room to you, then that puts a lot of stress on both of you. Plus, after you’re married, other people undoubtedly will come into your life who look attractive to you or to your spouse, so you both will want to be able to handle those feelings of attraction without damaging your marriage relationship.
I’d frame it this way: if you’re searching for a specific build or height or hair color or body type or shape of nose or length of toes, then throw those specifics away.
Instead, when it comes to physical attraction, look simply for a person who looks “satisfying” to you.
Or think of it this way: when you realistically look at yourself, look for another person who looks to be the other “half” of your future family. How does it sit in your soul when you imagine yourselves on a Christmas card together?
2. You can both communicate with each other.
Talking things out is one of the most important activities you and your spouse will ever do. Any number of situations will arise in a marriage where the path forward isn’t initially clear, and you and your spouse will need to communicate together to figure things out.
I don’t mean to say that you or your prospective spouse need be fabulous conversationalists. That’s not what I’m getting at here. You just need to be able to wrestle through issues together and come to solutions.
Along with communication, a spouse needs to be able to “field” his or her marriage partner. It’s baseball imagery, and it means you can “catch and handle” anything that comes your direction.
Say, for instance, that one person is highly extroverted and is used to talking all day long. Then the other person needs to be able to handle this communication style somehow without being worn out by it.
Or perhaps one spouse is used to talking about deep subjects, or expressing anger or frustration in a very verbal or emotional or emphatic way. The other spouse doesn’t need to be exactly the same, but he or she will need to be able to handle this.
I once dated a young woman who was absolutely wonderful in so many areas, but when it came to talking, she had a tendency to clam up. We dated for six or seven months and finally concluded that it wasn’t going to work out between us. For whatever reason, when it came to this all-important area of communication, we just didn’t connect.
Ask yourself: can you truly talk to this person, and can this person truly talk to you?
3. You share similar spiritual interests and values.
Spirituality is something that a person tends to feel deeply or have strong opinions about. And when a married couple isn’t on the same spiritual wavelength, then it’s hard for each person in that relationship to share what’s most important to him or her.
Mixed marriages sometimes do work, of course, but you’d be surprised how many areas of life are affected by spirituality. Holidays. How to raise children. Ethical issues. How you handle stress. Areas of entertainment. Whether or not to attend church. What outside learning opportunities you engage in. What books you read. How your character grows and develops over the years.
Even if your level of spirituality is defined as “non-existent” then it’s usually best to look for someone who feels the same way.
In my early 20s I worked as a youth director at a church and I dated someone on and off who was a Christian and spiritually minded. But she couldn’t accept the fact that part of my job meant educating middle school, high school, and college-age students about matters of the faith.
To her, young people needed to be “left alone” to discover these matters without any outside influence—and she felt strongly about this.
Both of us had strong communication skills, and we discussed this matter at great length on and off over several months. But in the end, the issue proved troublesome enough that both of us realized a long term relationship between us wasn’t going to be prudent.
Ask yourself: do I share common spiritual values with this person?
4. You are genuinely friends.
When you’re first dating a person, there’s a tendency to feel “wild” about that person. You see each other through rose-colored glasses. You’re confident that you will always feel the same way about this person.
When married, feelings of romance come and go, yet what can hold a relationship together is friendship. Do you enjoy one another’s company? Do you share similar interests? Can you be happy just hanging out together? Do you like each other’s personality?
Note that not every interest needs to be shared. You may love golf, but she may hate it. That’s fine. She may love scrapbooking while you don’t. No problem.
But at the core of your relationship, you have a common understanding of each other. You can spend a day together and not be annoyed with each other at the end of it. You like being with this person, and this person likes being with you.
Before you get married, plan a strategic date or dates doing something completely routine and unexciting together. Go to the post office and mail a package together. Go to Target and shop for shampoo and deodorant.
Because it’s easy to go on fun or adventuresome dates only. Dinner and dancing. Concerts. Movies. Rollercoasters. Trips to Paris. Sure.
But if all you have between the two of you are the times of excitement, then it will be too easy to be enamored with the activity on the date, rather than being enamored with the person you’re dating.
See the difference?
Much of “real life” involves doing routine things. If you’re still interested in a person while standing in line together at the post office, then know that you’ve got a really good thing going.
5. You’re mindful of the “tone” each other sets.
This one is trickier to define, but I’d say that any person contributes to setting a tone in an environment, and you will want to understand what sort of tone is set by your future spouse.
Maybe the person you’re dating is really bookish and introverted and loves staying home nights and going for long walks in the quiet wilderness.
That’s a “tone” to be mindful of. If you marry a person like this, then know this is how this person approaches life. It will affect everything from career to parenting styles to the atmosphere inside your house to where you vacation together and more.
What follows isn’t a dating example, but I once had a housemate who was big into weight lifting. He was very driven in everything he did, and he loved to work long hours. He was always running, always on the go. When it came to life, he was intense, intense, intense.
That’s a “tone” to be mindful of. Some people love a tone like that. Others are put off by it.
I don’t mean to say that your “tone” and your spouse’s “tone” need to be identical.
I’ve talked in blogs before about how my wife was raised with Texas and California in her roots. Her family of origin was more demonstrative in everything—from how they expressed affection to how they disagreed.
But I was raised with reserved, polite, apologizing Canada in my roots. We kept our expressions of emotion to ourselves, thank you very much.
So it’s taken time, but my wife and I have worked out these issues of “tone.”
6. You’re aware of each other’s true character and integrity.
Sometimes young women are attracted to “bad boys.” And sometimes young men are attracted to “wild girls.”
Dating a dangerous person might prove fun for a season (or might not). But ask yourself, is this really the person I want to be with forever?
What you want in a marriage partner is a person of integrity, compassion, kindness, and hope. You want to become a strong person of character yourself. You want to marry a person with a similar outlook on life.
Watch how the person you date interacts with other people. Is she rude to the checkout clerk at a grocery store? Does he cheat on his taxes? Does she frequently lie? Is he consistently angry or violent? Does he or she snap at you, or belittle you or consistently put you down?
Character can be developed. It’s not to say that a person needs to be perfect. Everybody makes mistakes and falls short of the glory of God.
One of the questions that inevitably come up in a dating relationship is the issue of past relationships. And almost everybody has made a mistake or two along the way.
I’d say that the answer is not what that person did in the past, but who that person has become today. If a teen shoplifts a candy bar when she’s 14, that doesn’t make her a confirmed thief when she’s 27.
If a person has truly learned from mistakes, grown from them, and continued forward, then much can be forgiven and overlooked.
7. You have the will to commit to this person.
Are you familiar with that phrase—the will to commit?
That means when you look at the person you’re dating, you can see yourself being married to him or her, and you’re good with that.
I’d call this “satisfaction” or “contentment” with the idea of marrying a person. Sometimes it’s a decision you make. Sometimes it’s more of a feeling that develops in your gut.
In college, I shared an apartment for a semester with a guy who was very cerebral. He lived in his brain. When the time came for him to be married, he looked at all the young women he knew, picked one who worked with handicapped children, and asked her outright to marry him. It was that straightforward. That calculated. And she said yes.
I asked him to explain his method, and he said that if this woman had the patience and character to work in the job she did, then he knew she would make a good life partner. End of story.
That’s an extreme example of a will to commit—albeit a very intellectual one only. Some people do get married on logic alone, although I’m not saying that’s the ideal or normative way to choose a spouse.
I dated a young woman in my early 20s who had everything “on paper.” She was great in so many areas and I truly did care for her. We dated for nearly a year and I knew I “should” marry her, but try as I might, it always felt like I was talking myself into things. We eventually broke up. Why? Because I didn’t have the will to commit to her, and I knew she deserved that in a marriage partner.
I dated another woman who expressed that whenever she imagined our futures together, she never worried about me bailing on the relationship. But she worried that she would bail on me. I had the will to commit to her, but she didn’t have the will to commit to me. We eventually broke up.
When it came to dating Mary Margaret, my wife today, I never needed to talk myself into the decision. I had the will to commit to her almost instantly.
She, however, did need to wrestle through whether or not to marry me, and it took her two years. When she did come to the decision, it was real and deep and unwavering.
And that’s okay. Sometimes a person will become attracted to another person on a slower scale. The attraction is still there, it just takes longer to build and become evident.
Whenever I consider this discussion, a few additional issues come to mind.
First, when you pursue marriage, go into it with the mindset that divorce isn’t an option. I mean, sure, divorce is always an option, and it does happen. But have that discussion with your prospective spouse before you’re married. The understanding is, hey, we’re going into this thing believing and acting that we’ll always be together.
Second, if you’re already married, then the person you married is the right person for you. Sometimes when you read a list like this, you start saying things like, well, my spouse doesn’t do that. Or, my spouse could improve in this area. That’s not the point of a list like this. Do everything you can to make your marriage relationship work.
Third, if you’re dating someone right now, and you realize it’s not working, then it’s perfectly okay to break up. In fact, sometimes breaking up is the most gracious and loving thing you can do—both for yourself and for the other person. If a relationship is not working, then it’s not working. The wise and compassionate thing to do is have the courage to end the relationship. Gently free that person, so he or she is able to marry someone else.
Fourth, beware of snap decisions about any prospective spouse. When you’re in the zone of considering people and being considered, it’s easy to glance at a person and quickly cross that person off your list. Sometimes a snap decision will be wise. But at other times, you will want to take your time and see if feelings of attraction develop, if communication issues can be worked through, if a friendship can genuinely develop, if a will to commit arises. Sometimes the best marriage partner will be someone you already know—a true friend—but might have never considered in that capacity before.
Fifth, when it comes to the list of non-negotiables, there always will be exceptions to the rule. In her senior years, my adoptive grandma, Blanche Robinson, married a man because his wife had died. And just before the wife died, the wife had asked Grandma Blanche to marry him to look after him, because she knew that he (an elderly man himself) wouldn’t do well alone. Grandma Blanch was good friends with the woman, and said yes. Not because she loved the man, or communicated well with him, or any of the other stuff. She married him as a ministry. Hey, it does happen.
Last, every marriage involves some sort of concession. Even with the list above, which is pretty broad-based. Maybe the person you’re considering marrying has everything on the above list, but you just can’t stand the way she eats an apple. That’s a concession you need to make. They happen. Live with it, love her anyway, and she’ll give you grace too with your faults.
“Go to it right merrily” …
It takes boldness to be married. When you get married, you cross a line in the sand. To be married is not to be single anymore. You open doors and you close them. And it can take courage to make that decision and cross that line.
To a young man who was vacillating on the question of marriage, the legendary sixteenth century friar and professor Martin Luther wrote these words of advice:
“Chastity is not in our power, as little as are God’s other wonders and graces. But we are all made for marriage as our bodies show and as the scriptures state in Genesis 2. ‘It is not good that man should be alone.’
“I fancy that human fear and timidity stand in your way. It is said that it takes a bold man to venture to take a wife. What you need above all else, then, is to be encouraged, admonished, urged, incited, and made bold.
“Why should you delay, my dear and reverend sir, and continue to weigh the matter in your mind?
“It must, it should, and it will happen in any case. Stop thinking about it, and go to it right merrily.
“Your body demands it. God wills it, and drives you to it. It is best to comply with all your senses as soon as possible and give ourselves to God’s word and work in whatever He wishes to do.”
Question: how would you define what’s most important in a marriage? Tell some stories here. If you’re married, how did you know that “this was the one”? If you’re single, what’s most important to you?
Read Marcus Brotherton’s newest book, FEAST FOR THIEVES, a novel to be devoured.