Years ago, an acquaintance of mine went to a priest – a friend of his – and excitedly related that he’d met the woman he wanted to marry. He had just met her days before and didn’t know her very well, so the priest asked him why he wanted to marry this particular woman. The man eagerly explained she was a devout Catholic, raised in a devout family, went to daily Mass, and prayed the rosary regularly. The priest’s response was most interesting and to the point: “Blah, blah, blah…is she pretty and can she cook?”
Now it may seem the priest was being flippant and dismissive of his friend. But the more I reflected on his reply over the years, the more I could see the deep wisdom it contained. Being a Catholic I know the importance of a marriage based on a shared faith. When a couple shares the same faith, their marriage is enhanced as is their ability to raise children. They’re on the same page. And yet, using the faith as the only criteria for your choice of a spouse can be a big mistake.
The concept of marriage exists in virtually every culture and among every faith tradition, and even among those with no faith or religion, which makes it clear that it is a fundamentally human institution. Thus, meeting some basic human standards is important for making a marriage work. Let’s look at four important criteria everyone should keep in mind before making a final selection.
Criteria #1: Physical Attraction
I’m sure I raised some eyebrows on this one…physical attraction? Isn’t that shallow? It can be, but let me be clear: I didn’t say physical beauty. That’s very different. That would be shallow. I said attraction. Marriage has a physical component to it that cannot be ignored. If you are repulsed by someone, or when you kiss him you feel like you’re kissing your brother, then you may want to file him as a friend. He may be very handsome, but if the chemistry isn’t there, that is telling you something. You may meet someone who is beautiful by worldly standards yet feel no real attraction. Or you may meet someone else who is rather average, or even less so, and feel a strong pull. Pay attention to all of your feelings…they give you important information. Even if all your friends think your prospective spouse is dreamy or gorgeous, if you’re not feeling it, then rethink it. But let me clarify one thing: I’m not talking about instant attraction. Sometimes attraction grows as you get to know someone. If your feelings don’t develop before you get engaged, don’t assume they will once you’re married.
Criteria #2: Similar Values
Let’s say you are a Catholic looking for a Catholic spouse. Great! Unfortunately, however, you can meet a cradle Catholic whose values are more like Hugh Hefner’s than St. Hugh of Lincoln’s. Or you can meet a “devout” Catholic who believes in all the doctrines of the faith but is harsh, rigid, and judgmental of others. Ultimately, the heart and values of a person are a better predictor of future happiness than simply their theological knowledge or religious affiliation. Optimally, you’d like to find someone who both shares your values and also shares your faith. But don’t fall into the trap that simply being from the same faith tradition is enough. Instead, start with values and move on from there. But if marrying some of the same faith tradition is non-negotiable for you, don’t marry someone outside your faith hoping he or she will someday come around. Some do, of course, but many don’t, so it is best to be honest with yourself and your prospective spouse.
Criteria #3: Psychological Wholeness and Maturity
When looking for a spouse and potential parent for your children, psychological wholeness and maturity are extremely important and should be non-negotiable. No, I’m not saying a potential spouse must be perfect. None of us are. But marriage, by its very nature, presupposes the emotional health and maturity of both spouses.
Too often I’ve seen people gloss over this important area. They believe that can change their prospective spouse by their example, and so are not bothered by childish or immature behavior. It may even be cute in the beginning, but when life starts to happen and children come along, having a partner who is grown up and able to be a support to you is indispensable. Working out problems in therapy before marriage can pay big dividends in terms of future happiness. Talking to a counselor about red flags that you may be seeing can be very helpful for you in discerning if the concerns indicate serious emotional problems or immaturity with your partner, or simply natural gender differences, or even fears, or old baggage that you may be bringing to the relationship.
Criteria #4: A History of Successful Relationships
This is a biggie. Does this person have any real friends? Is he close with his family? Or perhaps too close with certain family members? How he relates to his parents, especially the opposite sex parent is often indicative of how he will relate to you. Be observant here, taking note also of how his parents relate to one another. We generally learn most from what we see and experience growing up. If there were strained relationships in the family of origin, this could be a predictor of trouble in the future.
Has your prospective spouse had good romantic relationships in the past that simply didn’t work out, or does he recount his war stories constantly, blaming everyone else for the failure of his relationships? If his last five girlfriends were addicts, cheated on him, or is being described as “crazy” you’d be smart to start to wonder what’s up with that pattern. If you meet someone who has been previously married, does he take some responsibility for the demise of the marriage, or does he see himself only as the victim? Sometimes it’s true that someone’s spouse was awful. It happens. But even then, when the ex’s problems are recounted as being that extreme, what was he doing with that person to begin with? Has he taken an accounting of what signs he missed before marrying such an individual? Did he marry too quickly? (If so, is he impulsive?) Also, is he unable to forgive his ex, remaining tethered to her emotionally? Recognizing our own failings and shortcomings and learning from our mistakes is essential for establishing healthier relationships in the future.
Don’t Act Alone – Involve Others in the Process
Getting input from friends and family about your prospective relationship can also be invaluable. Are your friends and family supportive of your relationship? Outwardly most will seem to be, but asking someone close to you for their very honest feedback may save you years of heartache.
Talking to a counselor or coach can further can help you clarify your goals and intentions and evaluate the prospects that you meet. Navigating the dating world, especially for those who take their faith seriously, is not easy these days. You don’t want to compromise your values but as you get older and few prospects are available this may seem like an impossible feat. It’s not. Especially for women, when you feel the clock ticking, it can be tempting to jump at whatever prospect you find, ignoring red flags, and hoping for the best. Have faith. Pray. God wants you to be happy and He does have a plan for your life.
What happened to the man mentioned earlier who impulsively wanted to marry the woman he had just met? No one around him thought the marriage was a good idea and the wedding felt like a slow motion accident that eventually ended in disaster. His focus on only one factor in considering the relationship was costly for all involved. Remember, the goal is not marriage per se but for you to live happily ever after. Start by making a firm decision to be happy right now as you are and you’ll be surprised how much more easily you’ll attract the right person.