Few pains hurt like the long ache of loneliness. That experience can motivate singles to obsess over finding and keeping the perfect spouse. Sometimes it even drives people to end perfectly healthy relationships for fear of finding a more perfect choice somewhere.
Regardless, even the most laid back of the matrimonially available crowd must wrestle with the desire to find the absolutely perfect spouse.
The desire is understandable. Few decisions in life carry the weight of a covenantal commitment (Ephesians 5:22–33). If done correctly, your marriage will be a dominant influence on your decisions for the duration of its life—sometimes giving unsurpassed satisfaction and other times requiring gut-wrenching sacrifice. For most people, they have never come close to making such a long-term and life-altering decision before, and therefore they want to be as diligent as possible about making the right decision.
But sometimes we cross the boundary from merely trying to be a good shepherd of our hearts to actively trying to wrest control from the almighty and trustworthy God. A little bit of the original temptation plays out in our own lives (Genesis 3:1–7), Is God’s plan really sufficient? Does he really know what he’s doing? Can he really accomplish it without me?
Once we understand our motivations more clearly, we can bring them to the throne of grace more swiftly. Our hearts cannot help but be restless on this subject because it carries such weighty implications, yet our hearts can find genuine rest in the love, wisdom and might of a gracious God (John 14:27).
Assess Your Expectations
Motivations are one thing; expectations another. If you asked most people, they would affirm that there is no such thing as a perfect spouse. However, I’m betting that most of those same people would probably also affirm the “perfect-for-me” theory of spousal selection. That is the idea that there is some perfect person somewhere on the planet, and if they could just find them, the two would be perfectly happy together. Their interests, strengths and shortcomings would all blend in perfect relational harmony.
Let us disabuse ourselves of that expectation. No perfect person on this earth is waiting for you. Find me a potential spouse, and I’ll show you a sinner—because we are all sinners. And no matching or mixing of sins leads to perfect blessedness, because that’s not what sin does. Sin is selfish, deceitful and power-hungry. Marriages require us to be sacrificing, honest and willing to serve. Your spouse may complement you, but he (or she) will never complete you. That’s the job of Christ.
When I’m evaluating couples in premarital counseling, I’m looking for three components: character, chemistry and compatibility.
Character is the domain that lets me know that two people value the same things. In order to be able to have a long-term healthy relationship the couple must be able to build up trust. As my friend and former professor Jim Hurley would say, “Trust comes from repeated acts of trustworthiness.” Consequently, I ask, do both partners have the same idea of what it means to behave in trustworthy ways?
Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly room for differences of opinion in every relationship, even differences of priority—but this is about fundamental commitments and worldview. This is why Paul warns against being “unequally yoked” because it is so difficult to make a relationship work when we cannot agree what is right or wrong. As Christians, we should excel here. Our morality is not built upon our instincts but upon the unassailable word of God. We have an unshakeable foundation that clearly marks what is acceptable Christian behavior and what is not (Romans 13:8–10).
Chemistry is the domain that lets me know that two people are really attracted to each other. Common refrains in counseling. One of them is when one spouse is not attracted to the other. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common I’ve found is that people have tried to fight against the trend in society that relationships are almost exclusively about looks and lust, so they have fallen for the opposite lie, that looks don’t matter at all.
Chemistry is not just physical attraction—it’s also emotional attraction. Are these two people at ease with one another? Do they laugh together? Do they seem to look forward to seeing each other? Genuine chemistry is the platform upon which infatuation springs, and it should remain once infatuation has begun to subside.
Without chemistry, people often find themselves sharing their life with a roommate, not a spouse. The good thing about chemistry is that it can be cultivated over time. Attraction can and does grow; it can go from smoldering ash to open fire over time.
Compatibility is the domain that lets me know that two people are able to work well as a team. Character and chemistry can both be high, but if a couple doesn’t work well together as a team, the road will be long and tough. Couples are often drawn to one another based on opposite strengths. The old adage is true: “opposites attract.”
Spenders marry savers, introverts marry extroverts, black-and-white thinkers marry gray-scale thinkers—the list is nearly endless. What I’m looking for is whether or not the couple leans into these differences or fights against them. Whereas with character I’m looking for unity, with compatibility I’m looking for diversity. Diversity can be an incredible area of strength, but only if the couple has the wherewithal to appreciate each other’s competence while working on their own incompetence.
We should be diligent about making sure we are well-coupled before heading down the wedding aisle. We should understand our motivations, we should set biblically informed standards and expectations, and we should use careful discernment. But our hope is not in finding the perfect spouse, but in resting in the perfect Savior. It is not my marriage that will complete me, but Christ.