This blog post has a purpose – to prompt young people to reflect on the qualities they aspire to find in a prospective life partner before they become entangled in love and feel they have found their future spouse.
More than a decade ago, I meandered into an airport bookstore in Stockholm and, on a whim, purchased a book for my transatlantic flight. The book was titled Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston. It quickly became a cherished favorite and the only book I have read five times.1
In his chapter, True Love is the Apple of Eden, Livingston argues for,
“…a course in human personality and behavior that contains useful information on how to avoid catastrophic mistakes in one’s choice of friends and lovers.”
He then outlines an envisioned curriculum with these main sections:
- The Definition of Love
- Guidance on Personality Disorders (characteristics of those most likely to break one’s heart)
- Attributes of a Successful Marriage Partner
The last two points inspired me to create an exercise for my children around this topic – How to Think about Selecting a Spouse.
The keyword being think rather than feel.
This blog post walks you through that exercise. But first, I want to spend a minute discussing the problem with how we generally think about and approach spousal selection.
Many people hold flawed or overly romanticized notions about spousal selection. The prevalent idea is:
After a chance encounter, you fall madly in love. Then you get married.
Being in love is a wonderful feeling but a poor reason to marry someone.
Because it is entirely conceivable that you fall in love with a jerk. And then you marry that person. Once the emotionally charged romanticism wanes, you discover you are simply married to a jerk. Not a good recipe for a thriving marriage.
“I wouldn’t fall in love with, much less marry, a jerk,” you say.
Don’t be so sure.
Evidence: a lot of jerks are married.
Clearly, countless individuals have made that very choice. Are you considerably wiser and more rational than them? Maybe. Probably. But I’ll submit that love, as an all-consuming emotion, is more powerful than your ability to out-reason it, once ensnared. The feeling of love overwhelms2 and blinds us to warning signals we should have otherwise noticed.
Being in love is therefore an insufficient selection criterion for your spouse.
The problem isn’t that we have an innate flaw in our thinking about spousal selection; rather, we’re not adequately taught how to properly think about it during our youth, before falling in love happens to us.
So, what are we to do?
The goal was to construct a simple exercise to help young people build a framework of how to think about the criteria they might use to select a spouse, and to hopefully avoid a catastrophe, BEFORE they fall in love.
The result is the 30-minute exercise described below.
My wife and I did this exercise with our kids years ago while we ate dinner in the car in the Chic-fil-A parking lot. We brought pens and paper and we all five participated (kids plus parents). It proved valuable, engaging, instructive, and fun.
My hope is that you might also find value and meaningful discussions by trying this exercise with your kids or with your friends.
The Exercise – A Framework to Help Develop Your Criteria for a Spouse
This 4-step process involves creating three lists and some discussion. The exercise is ideal for families with teens or small friend groups. Expect ~30 minutes.
STEP 1 – Create Your 3 Lists
- List the traits/qualities/attributes/behaviors you definitely want in your future spouse. (kind, loving, caring, etc.) You should have at least 5, but perhaps 30 or more. Whatever makes sense to you. Pause and do this now before you move to List #2.
- List the unwanted traits/qualities/attributes/behaviors for your future spouse. These are the non-negotiable deal-breakers you do NOT want in your spouse. (lying, cheating, stealing, etc.) You should have at least 5, preferably more. Pause and do this now before you move to List #3.
- List the major areas/topics you and your spouse should agree upon to have a successful marriage. (faith, money, children, etc.) These are areas if you disagree, it will be more difficult to have a truly cohesive marriage. Consider areas where if you do NOT agree, you might have less respect for your partner, another barrier to a healthy relationship. You should have at least 5, preferably more. Pause and do this now before you move to Step 2.
STEP 2 – Share & Improve Your Lists
Once you have created all three lists individually, everyone in the group should read and discuss what they wrote for List #1. If you like a trait someone else mentioned, completely plagiarize, and add it to your list.
In the same manner, share and discuss List #2 and List #3.
Once everyone has shared and stolen ideas from each other, you should each have a more fully explored list of traits/qualities/behaviors you either want, do NOT want, or think are important to agree upon.
Hopefully this also provokes interesting discussions with some depth.
STEP 3 – Rank Your Lists
Go through all the items on each list and force rank them into the “Top 5” or “Top 10”.
Discuss with the group any changes you made and how you ranked them. Why did you rank them this way?
Retain your lists for future reference. Periodically review, edit, and update them as you think of things.
The goal here isn’t to arrive at one set of “right” answers. There’s no one right answer nor one best list. It will differ from person to person, with significant overlaps.
There is no perfect spouse.
There is no perfectly crafted person made just for you (nor should there be because this is an immature, self-centered view – because it’s not all about you).
However, the lists you just created should serve as a practical guide for what you think might lead to a successful marriage, what you think might lead to a disastrous marriage, and a list of due diligence items you and a potential spouse might jointly explore to ensure alignment on the big-ticket items.
Now, you have thoughtfully sketched the attributes that could define the type of person you might choose to marry (or avoid marrying). This framework may now serve as the scaffolding around your thinking about an ideal future spouse.
If you retain and refer to this list as you navigate the journey of falling in love, you will improve the likelihood of a successful marriage by potentially avoiding a catastrophe (or two) because you started from a practical, reasoned approach rather than a purely emotional approach.
If you rely solely on your heart and feelings in the moment, you expose yourself to the potential risk of a life-altering mistake that can profoundly and adversely change the entire trajectory of your life. Sounds dramatic, but I’m not overstating this.
Trust me when I say, the choice of your marriage partner holds more significance than you might imagine in your youth.
STEP 4 – Become Eligible to Marry Your Ideal Spouse
It must be disheartening to meet someone who precisely matches the criteria from your lists only to realize you lack the very attributes you desire in them. If you don’t measure up to your own standards, why would someone who does, choose you? They wouldn’t, or at least, they shouldn’t.
To be an eligible candidate for your ideal spouse, you must also meet their standards. Otherwise, you won’t make the cut.
How do you do that?
To attract your ideal spouse, strive to become the model person you have described on your own list.
Endeavor diligently to align your actions to the qualities on your first list, especially in your youth. That is, emulate behaviors that continually transform you into the person you aspire to become, modeled generally after the type of person you wish to marry. Simultaneously, strive to avoid the traits you detest from your second list.
If you neglect your own transformation, you didn’t really create a checklist. You made a wish list – things you hope someone else will fulfill in abundance to compensate for your accumulated deficiencies because you didn’t put in the prior work on yourself. Too bad for them, if they marry you.
I know. Sounds harsh. But someone should say it.
- A key ingredient to set yourself up for a successful marriage is to clarify what attributes make for a great spouse and to define filters for those to avoid, such that you might compare candidates against your pre-established criteria.
- The key to attract a great spouse is to work on yourself before you meet them such that the reciprocity draws them to you as well.3
- Finally, ensure alignment on key issues before you marry that great person.
With all this as a foundation, my wish is that you fall deeper in love over time, rather than the opposite.
Bonus Step 5 – You Now Have an Aim
In creating these lists to help filter for your eventual spouse, you have now described the type of person you might aim to become – a decent outline that approximates an honorable and worthwhile initial life trajectory.
Establishing an aim, at least directionally, is the starting point of an adventure.
It’s wonderful and challenging to have an aim in life, especially when young.
Wonderful – because it can continually align you with a true north.
Challenging – because you have now established a lofty standard by which you might compare to your current self, an ideal that judges you. And you will fall short. The good news is, perfection isn’t the goal. Perfection is the aim, the general vector. Improvement is the goal and the metric by which you should review progress – across long durations (measured in years).
The next logical question: If we have an aim of the type of person we would like to become, how do we become that person? What are the actual steps to execute that plan?
To keep the length of this post manageable, I’m going to pause here, leave you with the exercise to do for now, and push that discussion to the next blog post or perhaps an update to this one.
TO BE CONTINUED…
P.S. What I Wrote On My Lists During Our Family Exercise
Here are my lists from when we did the exercise as a family years ago. Of course, this is with the benefit of being married for ~25 years at the time. My lists will differ from your lists, but feel free to steal some of my items to improve your lists as well. But I’d encourage you to develop your list before you read mine.4
Traits/Attributes I Would Like
- Positive, caring, generous, frugal, easy-going, forgiving, affectionate, intelligent, hardworking, patient, capable of connecting, honest/integrity, humble, sincere, bold, head-strong, strong-willed
Characteristics I Do Not Want
- Arrogant, conceited, jealous, envious, hypocritical, rude, self-centered, controlling, overbearing, ignorant, lazy
Note: There are certain basic character traits almost everyone finds repulsive. Namely: liars, cheaters, narcissists, and hypocrites. These should all be top-of-list items. You might manage a marriage with someone lazy, but a narcissist is an impossible marriage partner.
Things We Should Agree Upon
- Family (children, parents, in-laws)
- Goals, ambition, career paths, concept of home (location, moving frequency, city/rural), politics
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- Livingston is a master. He delivers practical life insights wrapped in thoughtful, beautiful prose. His tone is delicate, approachable, and direct and prompts you to ponder the more important things in life. This book so profoundly influenced me, I decided to write Livingston in 2016 to thank him. My search for Livingston’s email revealed he had passed away just a few months prior. I was saddened for this loss and felt it unfortunate I had not thought to write sooner.
- By contrast, Acts of Love overcomes.
- And then continue to work on yourself after as well. And serve each other.
- But, if you’re like me, you will just plow ahead and read my list anyway.