For the purposes of this article, I am assuming that you feel confident in being able to know whether you like the person you are dating. And that you are also satisfied with your ability to assess your emotional feelings towards the person you are considering marrying. Based on this, the question headlining this article is that you worry about how well you will be able to make the rational evaluation about the person’s suitability. In a sense, you fear that you may end up marrying the wrong person because it felt emotionally right even though in reality it was not. This article will therefore provide you with a robust framework for sizing up the person you are dating for their marriage-worthiness.
To begin with, let us divide the matter into three broad headings. 1) character traits 2) life and spiritual values, and 3) personal features. Each category has several dimensions.
The factors that will most influence the success of the marriage are the fundamental character traits of the people involved. Some character traits play an especially significant role in a relationship. The five most important traits affecting relationships are (in descending order):
- Emotional stability. Low in anger, irritation, hostility, touchiness, defensiveness.
- Agreeableness. High degree of niceness and friendliness.
- Conscientiousness. Making an effort for the relationship, having determination and not being fickle.
- Openness. Willingness to share, to listen, to be generous.
- Extroversion. How outgoing and loud a person is, how fun-loving and exciting.
These personality features are described in greater detail in the article titled “The Five Fundamentals – The Factors Most Important to Look for in a Spouse,” so I will only briefly summarize here. Marriage, if nothing else, is a long-term gambit; hence, stability is vitally important. In addition, having a non-volatile personality is helpful in a super-close relationship like a marriage, where the couple must work closely to manage their lives and their combined family. A kind and pleasant disposition is likewise vital, as life with someone naturally inclined to be generous and compassionate will make for a more peaceful and amicable relationship. Conscientiousness helps the relationship directly, as it means greater motivation to invest in the relationship’s success. It has manifold indirect benefits; conscientious people have a strong work ethic and get things done, which can obviate a great deal of strife in a marriage.
Of the five, the first two are the most important when it comes to marriage. While, in reality, many people will give great weight to less essential features, the truth is that these character traits will be the ones to most determine the quality of the marriage. The reason that character is so important is that it represents our natural disposition and ability to behave in a prosocial manner. Of course, people can and do override their personality, but this is not something that happens easily or as often as people like to believe.
Life and spiritual values.
“Values” refers to more than abstract philosophical ideals. It means the set of ideas that guide a person’s attitudes and actions. The “value” is the reasoning the person gives to a meaningful “why” question, such as “Why did you start a pension, you are only 27?” The values-based answer would be, “Because I believe in the virtue of saving for the future.” Another example, “How do you find time to go to the class every day?” to which the response may be, “For me, personal growth is not an optional extra.”
In other words, values refer to preferences that are based on more than a whim or taste, but rather are rooted in a coherent belief system. Values are not the belief system itself, but the practical distillation of that belief system. Because values are based on a deeper commitment to what is perceived to be right and wrong, they are much more likely to persist over time and across circumstances. People do not change their values very easily. Common values will greatly increase the harmony and functionality of the marriage. Conflicting values – some values in particular – can cause enormous conflict and undermine the respect needed for the marriage to last.
There are religious or spiritual values. These, people find easier to understand. They include a wide range of matters of the person’s choices in dress, music, reading material, and visual entertainment, as well as the more obvious commitment to time spent davening and learning. Broad agreement about kashrus observance, attendance at minyanim, and such like are likewise necessary. Another area is the question of service to others. Some people are committed to a life of service and are prepared to make the attendant sacrifices. Others want to prioritize their own quality of life. This goes beyond a career plan (which often changes and evolves) and touches on the person’s core values.
Then, there are worldly values, which people often ignore. One of the greatest sources of marital strife is disagreements on financial matters. His or her attitude towards saving or spending money is important. Another area is the person’s goals surrounding their material lifestyle. Some people have dreams of a glamorous home and a fancy car, while for other these things are unimportant. If one party views those things as a life priority, while the other does not, they are likely to be pulling in opposite directions. It may be important for you to understand their attitude towards children. Some people clearly adore children or are highly committed to raising a family, while others have different priorities in life. This is likely to affect their view of the family size they aspire to, and also how dedicated they will be to the children that may arrive.
While most people seem to focus on the practical facts – does he go to shul? What music is she into? How does he spend his money? – it is just as important to look to the values. If a person is sincerely committed to learning – you can tell by how passionate they are when they talk about it – but they have let it slip for a while, their values count for a lot. Their value system tells you more about who they really are than what they happen to be doing at any given time. What they do can change quite easily, but who they are is a better basis for what they will be like over the life-course.
Please note, however, that this idea about discrepancies between the person’s values and their current choices has a major caveat. If a person professes a set of values, but is not living up to them at present, that does not mean they are a faker. On the contrary, it most likely means that they would like to live up to their values, but are falling short of their own standards.
However, if a person falls short across several values, then you have good reason to suspect that their attachment to their values is weak or insincere. If a significant discrepancy keeps repeating itself, your ability to rely on the values they “preach” is greatly diminished. The more times there is a breach between their professed values and actual lifestyle, the less seriously you can take their value declarations.
The best way to think of values is: “For what things is this person willing to make a meaningful sacrifice?” In general, it is important to have a reasonable level of compatibility about values. However, some people are more tolerant and easy-going and would find it possible to compromise. We discuss this in the article titled, “We have Different Religious Level, Is This a Problem?”
Many people put most of their emphasis on personal features, even though of the three major categories described here, they are the least important. Personal features include the person’s dress style, such as whether she dresses in a trendier style or he dresses in a more formal style. People’s dress sense often evolves, and most people would be ready to change their dress style to please their spouse. It is not uncommon that someone will be turned off by their date’s eyeglasses, but would rather end the relationship rather than ask them to wear different glasses to prevent that from getting in the way.
Physical features – from height to weight, from hair and eye color to nose shape and size – typically draw a great deal of attention, but they tend not to have a great deal of influence over long-term happiness in marriage. Of course, physical attraction is important, but when trying to decide whether a particular physical feature is worth walking away over, you need to consider that it is one of the least stable features (people’s appearance changes) and one of the features least likely to determine marital satisfaction.
There are many personal features that people may regard as important, such as education level, parental wealth, and family background. It is not for anyone to say what features a person should prioritize – this has to be their personal choice – but it is important to note that people labor under tremendous assumptions when it comes to these things. If you are having a hard time finding someone you find suitable, you may want to consider whether some of these personal features are as relevant as you imagine. There is very little evidence that they determine how compatible people truly are.
When considering what personal features you are looking for, please do the math. The more uncommon they are, the greater the unlikelihood of you finding such a person. By way of illustration, if you are looking for a person with blonde hair, that already rules out around ninety-five percent of people. If you want the person to also be 5’6″ for a woman or six foot for a man, you have now reduced your search down to approximately one percent of the population. If you then want the person to be in a professional career (dentist, lawyer, etc.), you are now down to perhaps an eighth of one percent (0.125%). Even a single additional uncommon feature – say a particular family background – and you are down to near-zero percentage of meeting such a person. And that is even before you have considered the values and character traits the person possesses.
Getting your priorities straight.
We have presented three major categories to help you choose a life partner: character traits, values, and personal features. They are in descending order of importance to marriage, both in terms of how subject they are to change over time, and also in terms of how much they contribute to marital happiness and success. Personal features are more important in terms of who we are attracted to and how we fall in love, but are less impactful in the year of marriage to come.
It is wise to balance your focus towards those aspects of the person that most strongly predict a good marital outcome. If you like his dress style but he has a poor work ethic, you will soon find out that his style of dress is far more likely to change than his conscientiousness. If you like her family background but she is not emotionally stable, you are likely to discover that her family background will not contribute much to your marital happiness, while her emotional disturbances most definitely will undermine it.
Another major difference between these categories is in relation to how much incompatibility matters. A couple needs to be compatible when it comes to personality and values, but can sustain much great divergence when it comes to personal features. For example, when it comes to values, if people are on very different religious levels, or if they have opposing attitudes towards saving money, these differences could cause major problems in the marriage. By contrast, if one person is tidier and the other messier, or if one person likes vacations and the other prefers to stay home, those differences do not pose a problem if one or more party is easy going about it. In short, is a myth that couple need to be the same in everything.