Few SI readers are in a spouse-seeking phase of life. What follows is mostly an effort to organize some thoughts for my own kids and, likely, a future teen Bible study or Sunday School opportunity. Perhaps some readers will find these thoughts useful in their own family or ministry setting.
A brief word about prayer and the will of God. The advice here takes it as a given that the process should be conducted prayerfully. It also assumes that prayer is never a substitute for due diligence. Third, it assumes that although God has a plan for every life, it is not our role as believers to “know the plan.” Our role is to behave wisely, obediently, and worshipfully, and experience the plan as it unfolds. Last, it rejects the idea that the way we follow God’s leading is to get a feeling of peace about an option, then basically go with our gut. “What does your heart tell you?” is Disney, not doctrine.
Five questions for evaluating a potential spouse:
1. Is he or she truly a believer?
The question has two key words: “believer” and “truly.” The importance of the first term can’t be overstated. Scripture is clear that, besides “where we go after we die,” the regenerate and the unregenerate differ in many profound ways. A brief sample includes …
- a different orientation toward God (Rom.8:7)
- a different father (John 8:44, Gal. 4:6)
- a different kingdom (Col. 1:13)
- a different state of mind (2 Cor. 4:4, 1 Cor. 2:14)
- a different inner life (Rom.8:9, John 7:38)
- a different path to maturity (1 Pet. 2:2-3, Eph. 4:13, 2 Pet. 3:18)
Though being human makes us all a whole lot alike, there is an incompatibility between believers and nonbelievers at the deepest level—and over time, that incompatibility only grows.
The term “truly” in the question is worth a pause as well. Relationships that are moving beyond the casual friends level usually include a growing tendency toward wishful thinking. We tend to see what we want to see in the one who has stirred our affections. Getting past at least some of that fog is vital.
While only God can see the condition of a person’s heart, a reasonable level of confidence that someone has (or has not) passed from death to life is possible with time, humility, and earnest prayer for help to see things as they are rather than only as we want them to be.
2. Does he/she have the same understanding of the meaning of life?
Due to immaturity, some Christians evaluate major life choices—as well as routine daily choices—in ways that do not reflect a biblical understanding of the meaning of life.
For them, “Am I living life well?” is a question about achieving their dreams, reaching their potential, etc., rather than a question about how well they are fulfilling their responsibilities to their Maker and Master. They might never say “I have to do what makes me happy,” but that about sums up their decision-making process.
But stewardship and responsibity for the glory of God are the meaning of life for us mortals (See Thoughts on the Meaning of Life). Anyone who understands that, and habitually looks at choices through that lens, must be sure any potential life partner shares these commitments and habits of thought.
Plenty of disagreements will occur in any marriage. But fundamentally different visions of what life is all about—and therefore how options must be weighed—results in clashing priorities and a serious lack of common ground for working out differences.
3. Do we have the same view of our marital roles?
Marriage, as God designed it, assigns some responsibilities to husbands, some to wives, and some to both. The particulars are much debated, and I’ll not attempt to work through them here. For now, three brief observations:
- The God-given responsibilities of husbands and wives are not identical. (Yes, a wife has a “place”—because a husband also has a “place”!)
- Few things will cause more turmoil in a marriage than incompatible views of what eachother’s “place” in the home and family is.
- Lots of marriages work pretty well with flawed views of a husband’s place and wife’s place—But only if they have essentially the same flawed views. (Other things being equal, getting roles right does work better than the alternative, but agreement on roles is indispensable.)
Young people looking for life partners should determine as well as they possibly can how their potential spouse views his/her role in the marriage and family.
If it hasn’t already been done, someone should should publish a series of common marriage-and-family conflict scenarios for courting couples to discuss. Conflicts commonly occur over approach to parenting, money management, and how disagreements will be resolved when they can’t reach agreement or compromise. If the two haven’t genuinely agreed in advance on who’s job it will be to “make the final decision,” their marriage is probably doomed.
4. Does he/she possess the essential skills of relationship?
Some people really can’t be married to anyone—at least, not happily or for very long.
The reason is that every close relationship relies on some basic skills and habits in order to survive—let alone thrive. This is a multiple-book-sized topic. For now, I offer a few top-tier examples to illustrate what I’m taking about.
- The skill of respectful disagreement. A person who is unable, or habitually unwilling, to strongly disagree with another, while maintaining a positive view the other’s motives and character, should not be considered marriable.
- The skill of compromise. A person who is unable, or habitually unwilling, to consider compromises when there is strong disagreement over a course of action should not be considered marriable.
- The skill of listening. A person who fails to show a consistent hunger to understand you, and a recognition that you are the best source of the best information about you, should not be considered marriable.
- The skill of being criticized. A person who is unable, or habitually unwilling, to receive criticism without seeing it as personal rejection should not be considered marriable.
We all fail in these areas at times. What a spouse-seeker should try to find out is if that potential life partner has a chronic or terminal lack of any of these skills. One huge clue is if the potential spouse has a history of failed friendships and highly strained family relationships. As the old saying goes, “the common denominator in all your failed relationships is you.”
If this pattern is evident, chances are good that a careful look at how this person relates to those close to him/her will reveal that he does not respectfully disagree, compromise, listen, or receive criticism.
5. Do we agree on our approach to parenting?
Assuming the relationship fundamentals are in place (1 – 4, above), couples can work through the details of how they carry out parenting tasks from day to day after the chidren are born. But given how strongly parents feel about their children and what’s best for them, young people moving toward a possible marriage should make sure they agree on some fundamentals before they wed.
Areas of agreement should include:
- The status of chidren. Are they basically adults in small packages or do they have fundamentally different responsibilities and rights?
- The parenting model. Aside from the obvious duties of provision, protection, and love, are parents authority figures with the right and duty to rule over their children or something more like caring friends who provide advice along the way … or something in between?
- The maturing process. Couples should mostly agree on how children mature. Should children be protected from potentially harmful influences until they have the habits, character, and understanding to process them? Or do they become mature only by exposure? (Should they have a TV, computer, smart phone, and unfiltered Internet access in their room when they’re 6—or more like 16 … or 20?)
Choosing a spouse is not a science. But many of the worst marital disasters follow certain patterns and happen over and over again. Because the patterns are so common and predictable, they’re also not really all that hard to avoid—if we take off the rose-colored classes and honestly evaluate that potential partner.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement electronic library service.