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Choosing A Compatible Partner

“All You Need is Love” and Other Myths

Yes, I know it’s not terribly romantic, but wiser individuals than I have repeatedly pointed out that love is not enough.

To be sure, love is an indispensable part of a healthy marriage, but all things considered, you’re better off marrying someone you like but don’t love than someone you love but don’t like. The art form here is how to have both, how to find someone to love who, over the long run, you’ll still really like, thus having the best of all worlds.

couple standing back to back in bright colored clothes turning to look at each other in chattanooga overcoming communication barriers

The Three Essentials: Finances, Arguments, and Sex

When couples come to me for premarital counseling, they’re often surprised by my first question: “How do you two handle your money?” According to the best research we have, the number one reason for divorce in America is irreconcilable differences in how couples deal with money. In simpler terms, if you’re a saver and he or she is a spender, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands, a built-in, marriage-long argument. So the number one question on your checklist needs to be: Can I live with his or her style of handling money?

Keep in mind that with this question and, actually, with all my checklist items, you don’t have to be in 100% agreement.

After all, you hopefully didn’t fall in love with a clone of yourself. Some differences are to be expected and can actually enrich a relationship. Consider that you might just be either a little too uptight about money or a little too easy-going about it. Perhaps your new partner may help you develop a more realistic flexibility that still allows you to essentially maintain your core values and beliefs around money. I’d like to suggest that while my checklist, especially these first three items, is very important, there is some room for flexibility and compromise.

The second item, arguing style, is also crucial to a healthy relationship. If the two of you cannot disagree and argue to a solution, you are relatively unlikely to stay married for any significant length of time. Realistically, no two human beings are going to spend sixty-plus years agreeing about everything. How you solve – or don’t solve – your disagreements is crucial to the health of your marriage.

This brings up the point that to solve a problem, you do have to discuss it; you do have to communicate. Here again, I would expect the two of you to have some style differences. Quite often one partner wants to argue things out, while the other tends to either get defensive or go hide rather than face a confrontation. The key is that both of you must modify your communicating/arguing styles enough that you can argue to a solution or be comfortable agreeing to disagree. “If the two of you cannot disagree and argue to a solution, you are relatively unlikely to stay married.”

Sex is a key component of a healthy, life-long relationship. Do you and your partner have, in general, the same interest and desire for a life-long sexual relationship? Can you adapt to the changes children, job-stress, and the daily routine of running a family will have on your physical relationship? Are you both capable of making the extra effort it takes to keep romance in your marriage? This one deserves careful thought as your sexual relationship is critical to a healthy marriage.

Couple in love

Before we proceed to the secondary, but still very important items on our checklist, let’s consider two crucial points. First, what you see is, and isn’t, what you get. Confusing? Consider the fact that almost all of us act healthier than we are while we’re dating and that our behavior during the initial infatuation stage of a relationship may not be exactly the way we will behave during the next sixty years (which is probably a very good thing). We need to expect some changes in our behavior, and in our partner’s, between the initial phase of our relationship and the point where we get married. On the other hand, be very, very, very careful of someone who promises to change a behavior you don’t like after you get married. For example, a promise that “I’ll quit drinking after you marry me” should be viewed with a lot of skepticism. You need to see behavioral changes in undesirable behaviors before you make a commitment.

The second point to make here is that you must trust your intended partner. No healthy relationship can last without trust. If your intended partner acts in an untrustworthy way before you get married, your marriage is in trouble. How to assess this? Simply ask yourself: Does your partner do what she says she’s going to do? Does he call you when he says he will? Are promises kept? If not, then marry your partner at your own risk.

The List Continues

If you have significant differences on the first three items – finances, arguing to agreeable solutions, and sexual expectations – you might do well to consider staying friends rather than getting married. The rest of the items on the list, while also very important, are a little more negotiable. I do suggest you honestly talk over differences on any of these items prior to getting married. Then you must really be honest with yourself and determine whether or not you’ll truly be happy if the two of you differ a great deal.

Time Together — Time Apart

In my clinical experience, the question of how much time a couple should spend together and how much time, as individuals, should be spent apart can be a challenging issue in a marriage. We all differ on this dimension. If you tend to be something of a free spirit who values his or her time alone or with friends, be very careful of marrying someone who wants to be with you every minute. You are likely to feel smothered, your partner to feel abandoned. This is not a good state of affairs. Talk this one over carefully before you commit to each other, and, as with any verbal agreement, you may want to test it. Don’t hurt each other by pretending to be something you’re not.

couple holding hands

Common Interests

After 35 years of doing marital therapy and pre-marital counseling, I’m still surprised at the number of couples I see who seem to have few, if any, common interests.

Yes, they may both love their children and go to their soccer games together, but that’s about it. You need things you enjoy doing together. The children won’t be there forever.

Passion and excitement in a marriage are at least partially maintained by enjoying activities with your partner. At the very least, you have to have a genuine interest — and show that interest — in your partner’s interests, even if you don’t participate. You need something to talk about besides work and children.

Neat vs. Messy

I know, this one sounds trivial, and it can be. On the other hand, if you’re very neat, consider being married to someone who is, shall we say, a bit messy and lackadaisical in housekeeping. Once again, if you can’t accept clothes tossed over the furniture…

Spiritual Values

Couples prove every day that you don’t necessarily have to be the same religion or have the exact same spiritual beliefs to be happily married. What you do have to have is an honest respect for your partner’s spiritual and religious beliefs. In practice this respect might translate into listening to him or her talk about the church service and never, ever making him or her feel guilty that going to church interferes with something you want to do. While it may be a little easier to marry someone with the same spiritual values, the key point here is to mutually respect and support each other’s spiritual life.

Activity, Ambition, and Goals

This is a rather broad category of questions. Let’s start with activity level. Opposites do attract, no question about it. If I’m a bit hyper and you’re a bit laid-back, your calmness will appeal to me, while my energy may appeal to you. However, if these differences in activity level are too great, what attracts will begin to repel. Consider, for example, if working out, staying fit, and watching your diet are really part of your life, how happy are you going to be with someone who refuses to go to the gym and seems totally unconcerned about his or her physical appearance? Likewise, if you enjoy travelling, going out with friends, and partying, will you be happy with someone who wants to spend every evening at home? Now remember, in a healthy relationship we expect some differences, and we expect reasonable compromise. He or she may begin to go out a little more than before, you may stay at home a bit more than you like — and, need I add, you should be a good sport about it. Then you can live with someone who is more or less active than you are.

Similarly, if you are very ambitious, achievement- and goal-oriented, how likely is it that you’ll be comfortable with someone who is content to stay in a career with little chance of advancement? This difference can cause major marital friction.

Family, Friends, and Emotional Baggage

When you marry an individual, you’re really marrying into a system of his or her present and past relationships. If you have difficulty, for whatever reason, getting along with his or her family or friends, you need to see if you can work through these difficulties before, not after, you commit to a long-term relationship. Likewise, if he or she has not worked out a civil relationship with an ex-spouse, be aware that he or she, and you, will have to deal with the continuing emotional turmoil that is likely to result from their interactions. Again, in many cases you and your partner may be able to support each other when faced with difficult family problems; after all, you’re supposed to be there for each other. Just make sure you’re really ready to take on these issues.

Intellectual Levels and Pursuits

You and your spouse will generally do better if you have approximately the same levels of education. In addition, it’s generally a wise idea to check out what topics you and your intended enjoy talking about together. Remember, you don’t have to have exactly the same intellectual level or conversational interests, but it sure helps if there’s some overlap.

Husband shielding his wife from the rain

Improving the Odds

What all of this amounts to is this: you can indeed improve the odds of choosing a compatible partner by using some version of this checklist. What a checklist can’t do is guarantee that you and your partner will have a successful marriage.

No checklist is foolproof, and, as mentioned previously, we all pretend a bit during the dating phase. Part of the wisdom in waiting a while to get married after you’ve become sure of each other is that most people become a bit more real as a relationship matures. Take your time!

In addition, remember that our best available research indicates that partners in even the most successful marriages report that basically five out of every six days are great. For human beings, being human beings, that sixth day may be just a bit challenging. We all get moody, we all have bad days, and we’re all inconsiderate at times. Keep in mind that apologies, patience, learning what to ignore, communication, and commitment are characteristics of successful marriages. Keep your expectations in line with reality, and, odds are, if you choose wisely, you’ll have a great married life.

Tom Cory has lived in Chattanooga for 35 years. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Miami University where he received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. He specializes in interpersonal and marital therapy. Tom can be reached at

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