What to Look for (and Run from) in a Future Spouse

A couple, who have already determined what to look for in a future spouse, sitting at an outdoor cafe table holding hands.
When I left college without a girlfriend, I decided it was time to get serious. So I went to the library and checked out some books about dating. I was basically hoping to find a book entitled Dating for Dummies. Better yet, Dating for Catholic Dummies.

After all, the Catechism doesn’t tell you how to find a girlfriend or boyfriend, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what to say to the woman sitting next to you at the church barbecue, much less at any random bar. Believe me, I checked. (Pope Francis, can you get on that? Please…)

I didn’t find all of my answers at the public library that day, so I decided to just wing it. In the process, I’ve picked up a few dos and don’ts along the way, starting with the basics.

First and foremost, you’ve got to have standards to set when choosing a partner, some which will be negotiable and some not so much. It may sound simple, but learning to differentiate between the two will help you find what you’re really looking for.

Set realistic standards

Part of what makes dating difficult, particularly when you’re dating with marriage in mind, is that a lot of what we think about love and dating and marriage, even from the youngest age, is based on a particularly romantic — even fairly-tale-like — take on love.

Think of a term like “happily ever after,” for instance. We get that from fairy tales and assume it applies to real-life relationships.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — we should want to live happily ever after. I’d hate to meet someone who’d want something like “pissed-off-ever-after” or even “slightly-annoyed-ever-after” or something like that. But that idealism of fairy-tale love must come with a healthy dose of reality.

It’s for this reason that I’d recommend those who are dating to identify a happy married couple (or several) to get to know — and maybe even sit down and interview them. Ask questions like, What are the most important aspects of your marriage? What makes your marriage the strongest, and you the happiest? What would you consider to be non-negotiables for someone just setting out on the dating scene?

Then, consider sitting down with a priest for the same purpose. This may surprise some people, but priests have the unique vantage point of being invited into every stage of marital life — with many different couples — from engagement and the wedding day to marriage counseling when things get rocky and everything in between. They also can speak to the important spiritual aspects of marriage and what to look for in a future spouse in that regard.

I’ve learned that the answers a priest and a happily married couple can provide are much more reliable than what any Disney movie or romantic comedy offers. Why? Because their answers are firmly rooted in real life and real love.

Never negotiate with terrorists…or with these attributes

Once you have a sense of what marriage actually is and what it requires, you’re much more prepared to make a list of requirements for a future spouse — and separate those from what we might call preferences.

True requirements for a future spouse are non-negotiable. This is something that would be a true *deal breaker* in that you either wouldn’t start dating someone — or you would break up with them — if you knew about it.

Many of these are no-brainers — or at least should be. He or she must treat you with respect, as an equal. No ifs, ands, or buts. What does this mean? Well, to start, absolutely no physical violence. But also never even the threat. No sexual coercion, and that even extends to pushing sexual boundaries. No verbal abuse. But also it’s important that your opinion is valid and you’re listened to. You’re never manipulated. Mistakes are forgiven, not held against you, even if specific faults aren’t overlooked. Trustworthiness in crucial: lying will not to be tolerated, especially a pattern of lies.

Less obvious are basic relationship things. You should enjoy normal things, like friendship, talking to each other, being together. You don’t have to be best friends, believe it or not, but you do have to enjoy being around each other, because you’re going to be around each other for the rest of your lives. And he or she should keep up a positive, healthy lifestyle, free of serious addictions to substances or otherwise.

Last but not least, you’ve got to be attracted to each other. I’ve met at least three people who got married to their “best friend” only to realize later they were kind of just talked into the romantic aspect of it. Once the excitement of the wedding day wore off, that became a big issue.

Stand your ground on these deal breakers, and you’ve built yourself a strong foundation for finding the right person.

Negotiating the negotiables

Anybody who’s ever tried their hand at online dating can tell you that many of the profiles come with some serious demands: from the classic “must love dogs” to “Trump supporters swipe left” to my personal favorite, “must be 6’ tall to ride this ride,” some of us are rather, shall we say, picky.

Which is fine, I guess. So long as we don’t go overboard with requirements that should be better thought of as preferences. And not all preferences are created equal, either.

In 20 years, what’s going to matter more to you — how he or she looked on your wedding day, or how he or she has treated you over the years? How his or her faith has made you a better person and strengthened your relationship with God, or the depth of conversation you share? How good he or she is with your children? How responsible he or she has been with your finances?

If we’re all honest with ourselves, myself included, there is one part about choosing a partner that most resides in la-la land: looks. From airbrushed cover models to picture-perfect Instagram profiles, it’s all too easy to become overly obsessed with the externals.

One particular guy I know comes to mind: he practically makes a hobby out of rating women’s physical attractiveness — yet, no joke, he hasn’t been on a date in 10–12 years. Or one woman I know who judges potential boyfriend material based on — wait for it — his shoes. As if she couldn’t meet a great guy in Asics and just buy him a damn pair herself.

Of course, attractiveness can be a mysterious thing, and I’m certainly not advocating throwing it out altogether. But when we put seemingly arbitrary requirements on potential matches before we even meet them or know much of anything else about them? That seems to me like we are unnecessarily narrowing the number of fish in the sea.

Negotiables are exactly that — negotiable. And they have to be, if only because you don’t get to 3D print your spouse according to your exact specifications. You actually get to meet real live people, and then decide from there if he or she is dating or even marriage material. And for that, it would be helpful to have a sense of what’s most important, even among those you’d consider negotiable.

Once you have those things sorted out, dating actually becomes pretty fun.

Grotto illustration of Dating for Dummies textbook.

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