How We End Up Marrying The Wrong People


posted by on Biblical Opinion, Christian Encouragement, Divorce Encouragement, Relationship Encouragement


Anyone we might choose to marry would certainly be a little wrong for us. I believe it’s wise to be appropriately pessimistic, because perfection in human beings is not really attainable this side of heaven. Nevertheless, we sometimes encounter couples who are able to keep the magic happening in their relationships in spite of the imperfections, and we also encounter couples who exhibit such a grinding mismatch and deep-seated incompatibility, that we have to conclude, that regardless of our spiritual beliefs in the sanctity of marriage and the existence of God’s perfect one for us, there are some couples who simply should not have gotten married in the first place.

So, how do these mistakes happen with such appalling ease and regularity, even though marrying the wrong person is about the costliest mistake any of us can make on earth? It is a mistake that places an enormous burden on us, on the state, on the church, and on the next generation, and it is happening with alarming regularity.

I believe it is extraordinary and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a social and educational level, as perhaps road safety and smoking are. And choosing intelligently should certainly be addressed at a church level, just as grace and repentance are so passionately addressed. And this lack of emphasis upon teaching people to make intelligent emotional choices is made all the sadder because the reasons why people make the wrong choices are so easy to lay out and place in the eyes and hands of a group. I’ve found that the reasons tend to fall into the following basic categories.

One: “I don’t understand myself.”
When we are first looking for a partner, the requirements we come up with are often colored in a beautiful hue of non-specific sentimental vagueness. We often say we want to find someone who is “nice” or “fun to be with.” We want someone who is “attractive” or “up for adventure.” And it’s not that those desires are wrong, they just aren’t remotely precise enough in their consideration of what specifically we will need from another person in order to be happy.

And this is because all of us are crazy in different and particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic and immature, but we don’t quite know the details of our own neurosis, because no one ever encourages us too hard to search them out.

So the first and most urgent task in any new relationship is to try and get a handle on the specific ways in which the other person is crazy, and also to discover how their craziness might mix with our craziness, because a good partnership is not so much one between two perfectly normal and healthy people (there aren’t many of those on the planet), it’s one between two moderately messed-up individuals who have had the skill or luck to find someone whom they don’t threaten into violence or sullenness, and who doesn’t threaten their insecurities into some anti-social behavior either.

In other words, the trick is to find someone with whom we are compatible for the long term, and we cannot trust this decision to pure serendipity nor can we simply roll the responsibility for it onto God, for Him to choose for us His perfect one. I tend to belabor this point, but nearly all of us have married someone that we perceived to be heaven-sent at least once, and God doesn’t have to live in the same house with someone every day; but you do. So we can’t just make our marriage decision to be a spiritual or romantic one, we have to apply some scientific method to the process as well. So we have to ask some very specific questions, and we have to discover who it is in fact that we have, before we commit our lives to them in eternal wedded bliss.

We tend to believe that we are fairly easy to get along with, but the very idea that we might not be too difficult as people should set off alarm bells in any prospective partner. The question is not whether we have a problematic nature, the question is just where the problems will lie, and whether or not someone else could live with those problems for a lifetime, even if they were never to improve or go away.

And I believe we have to discover both the questions and the answers through both verbal and observational means, over a substantial amount of time. That means it’s our responsibility to actively discover our true nature, and the type and texture of person we need; it’s not somehow the responsibility of someone else to simply marry us and figure out how to conform to our nature after the fact.

Maybe we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us, or maybe we can only relax at work. Perhaps we’re not good at explaining why we’re worried or upset, or we’re a little tricky around intimacy or sex. Maybe we have spending issues, or maybe we are overly selfish and not really willing to place the needs of another person over our own. It could be that incidents in our past might have created a secret loathing or distrust of the opposite sex.

It’s these sort of issues that, drawn over decades, tend to create marital disasters. Therefore, we need to know about the existence of these things within ourselves way ahead of time, in order to be reasonably certain that a prospective partner is designed within themselves to cope with and support our various idiosyncrasies. So, a standard question on any early dinner date should simply be, “just how crazy are you, and how will my craziness interact with yours?”

But the problem is, that our knowledge of our own craziness is not at all easy to come by, and certainly gaining clear insight into the craziness of another person is like looking through thick smoke as well. It can take years and years of analyzing our own tears and fears before we truly understand what makes us tick, and most people don’t even want to dig into themselves that deeply, let alone delve into the psyche of another person. We’d rather just go with our initial feelings and hope for the best.

And to be honest, prior to our first marriage, we were rarely involved in dynamics that properly held a mirror up to our disturbances. And whenever a relationship threatened to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tended to blame the other person for the failure and simply call it a day.

We know that our friends won’t usually confront our difficult natures because we’ve chosen them for that reason, and after all, they’re not looking for a confrontation when they’re with us, they’re just looking for a pleasant evening out. Therefore, we end up blissfully blind to the awkward sides of our natures until those wild sides are confronted in a relationship or marriage.

On our own, when we’re furious, we usually don’t scream because there’s no one there to listen – therefore we can often overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for fury. Or maybe, left to our own devices, we might work all the time, because there’s no one calling us to come home for dinner, without grasping how we might manically use our work to gain a sense of control over our lives – and how we might create a living hell for anyone who tried to stop us. We might only think at night, about how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us cold and strange if ever it felt like we were becoming too deeply committed to someone.

So, one of the greatest privileges of being on our own, is the flattering illusion that we are, quite and truly, a very easy person to live with. And armed with such a low understanding of our own characters, we simply aren’t in a very good position to know who we should be looking for, and why they should be looking for us as well.

Two: “I don’t understand other people.”
The extreme lack of knowledge of ourselves that we carry around is compounded by the fact that someone we might meet will probably be stuck at the same low level of self-knowledge as we are. However well-meaning that another person might be, they too are in no position to grasp, let alone inform us, of what’s wrong with them. So, two people with almost no self-knowledge are at a real disadvantage when it comes to any real discovery of how to make a long-term relationship or marriage work between them work, or even whether it’s worth it to try.

Naturally, we make a stab at trying to know our new person. We go and visit their families, perhaps we visit the place they went to school. We look at pictures, we meet their friends, maybe we meet their exes. And all of this contributes to a sense that we’ve really done our homework. But it’s kind of like assuming we can fly after we’ve successfully soared a paper airplane around the room.

We’ve put a short list of investigative questions in our book, Working Through The Crisis, but we need to know about the intimate functions of what makes another person tick before we commit our lives to them in marriage. And we need to know their attitudes and thoughts on things like: authority, humiliation, introspection, intimacy, projection, money, children, aging, fidelity and probably a hundred other things. And this knowledge probably won’t be made available to us in standard chat session, or even in several months to a year of spending time together. And we can’t really even assume that someone who might be fixated on us, would even tell us the truth after all that time.

For instance, in our courtship, I learned that conversation was a critical component in my wife’s life, so I can remember telling her one night at dinner many years ago, “honey, I will always have time to listen to you.” Well, she has discovered that I still am good for a conversation with her, but it’s not really in my nature to do that. Now that was a relatively minor prevarication on my part, and we have worked our way around it, but what if I had hidden something serious, like a tendency to fly into a violent rage at the very hint of criticism.

See, in this superficial culture that we live in – in this age of texting and sexting and internet dating and Facebook flirting – in the absence of all the knowledge we should have about someone – we are led, to a large extent, by what a person looks like. There just seems to be so much information to be gleaned from a person’s eyes, nose, forehead, freckles and smiles. But this is like thinking that we can learn everything there is to know about nuclear fission from taking a picture of the outside of a power plant.

We often tend to ‘project’ a wide range of perfections into our beloved person, and these projections are often based on very little evidence. In elaborating a whole personality from a few small details, we are doing for the inner quality of a person what our eyes naturally do with a cartoon sketch of a face. We don’t see the cartoon as someone who has a face like a pie-plate, a sideways check-mark for a nose, eight curly pencil-strands of hair and no eyelashes. Without even noticing, we simply fill in the missing parts to create what we want the face to look like. Our brains are programmed to take tiny visual hints and construct entire figures from an incomplete picture, and we often do the same when it comes to the character of someone we decide we want to draw close to and marry.

So, in an incomplete and ineffective courtship, we don’t fully investigate a person with an ability to terminate the relationship should some deal-breaking behavior appear, we simply look superficially at the person and fill in the blanks with what we want to see.

We often are very good artists of elaboration when it comes to placing qualities we want onto someone we desire. I once counseled a marriage-bound couple who was at odds over some serious money and control issues, and I asked the man in question, “if you are so unhappy with the way she does everything, why are you still pursuing her.” And his response was very telling, he said, “are you kidding me, just look at how beautiful she is!” But the level of knowledge and acceptance of another person that is required for a marriage to work is so much more than that. And in that way, our superficial social practices that we’ve built around choosing a marriage partner are deeply wrong.

Three: “I’m not used to being happy.”
We often believe that when we are seeking love, we are seeking happiness. But it’s usually not that simple, because we often view happiness as familiarity, and that can really complicate any plans we might have for genuine happiness.

See, we often tend to recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood, since it was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up in childhood may not have been at all straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come to us ensnared with other, less pleasant dynamics like: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, etc.. So, in short, the love we were familiar with in childhood was love mixed with liberal amounts of suffering.

So then, as adults, we might well reject a reasonably healthy candidate whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but because they are somehow too well-balanced, too mature, too understanding, or too reliable. So this person is so right they feel wrong somehow. The overall rightness of this person feels unfamiliar and almost oppressive. So, we lean toward candidates whom we are unconsciously drawn to, not because they will make us happy, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways. It is what I have come to call, “an acceptable or comfortable level of misery”.

So we marry the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong to us. We often feel that we don’t deserve a healthy person. Our insides can’t handle drawing close to a healthy person because we have no experience of healthy relationships, and because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied. So, we are continually rescuing broken people because that makes sense to us.

Four: “I’m so tired of being single, I’ll take anybody.”
We are never in a good frame of mind to choose a partner rationally when we are convinced that remaining single is unbearable. I believe we have to be utterly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to have a healthy chance of forming a good relationship, and this opinion is shared by lots of knowledgeable people. And the reason all of us feel this way is because its so important for you to get completely away from the idea of being more enamored with not being single anymore than you are enamored with your potential spouse. And that ability to discern your feelings and attach to a new person for the right reasons will take a lot of time to accomplish after a dissolved relationship.

Five: “I can always trust my instinct/God will bring His perfect one.”
Back in the old days, marriage was a perfectly rational business. It had to do with matching up your acres of land, and was agrarian and utilitarian in nature. It was prearranged and ruthless and it was often devoid of any feeling at all. Some cultures are still traumatized by this thing called “the marriage of logic and reason.”

Now, we’ve replaced the marriage of logic with the marriage of instinct, or the marriage of romance and feeling. And this notion of marriage says that how we feel about someone should be the main factor in guiding us to whom we should marry. And on top of that doctrine of allowing our feelings to be our guide, we spiritually religious folks invariably add a godly component to the mix by saying that surely God has lent His opinion and affirmation to our marriage decision by sending us His perfect one.

So, if we feel ‘in love’ and we believe that God has lent His approval to our match-up, that is usually enough to seal the deal with no more questions needing to be asked. Feeling in love is the triumph, and friends and family can only applaud the arrival of the feeling, respecting it as one might the visitation of the Holy Spirit Himself. Parents and friends might have serious reservations about the couple’s choice, but everyone is left to believe that everything will surely work out for the best for the star-crossed lovebirds.

So we’ve cast aside, in western culture, the intrusion and snobbery of the arranged marriage, and we’ve fully embraced the marriage for love and romance, or the romantic marriage. And so thorough is our rebellion against the logical and unfeeling ‘marriage of reason,’ that we seemingly have thrown the baby out with the bath water in believing that applying any logic to the decision of whom we marry is something akin to heresy.

And so committed are we to romantic marriage, that we have those who believe that a person shouldn’t really think too much about who or why they are marrying, they should simply go with their feelings, because analyzing the decision or applying charts and questions of pros and cons to the decision-making process just feels way too cold and un-romantic.

So that means, the most romantic and perhaps the most spiritual thing a couple can do is to propose and accept very quickly, perhaps after only a few weeks, and then get married in a rush of enthusiasm, without risking any of the ‘reasoning process’ that has produced so much wasted time and so many complications for so many others. We often believe that, if God has indeed provided His perfect one, then waiting for a legitimate period of courtship, discovery and bonding is tantamount to a lack of faith. So all of this reckless abandon creates a feeling of rapturous freedom and joy, as everyone struggles to believe the couple can actually beat the odds. But sadly, they usually do not.

Six: “I want to put my current happiness in freeze frame.”
We often have a desperate and fateful urge to try to make nice things permanent. We want to own the car we like, we want to live in the country we enjoy as a tourist. And we want to marry the person we are having a good time with right now, or the person we feel deeply connected to, in the false reality of living together.

We tend to believe that marriage should set in stone, the happiness we’re feeling with our loved one right now. We naturally want to bottle up and save the joy we feel when we first get together, and so we convince ourselves that a quick marriage ceremony or simply moving in together, leading to a marriage ceremony will somehow preserve these feelings forever. But sadly, we’ve learned as a culture; there is no connection between the transient feelings produced in a false reality and the long-term feelings produced in the permanence of marriage. The romantic feelings we have in the midst of a false reality are mostly produced by that false reality, and marriage not only doesn’t magically hold these feelings in suspension, the permanence of marriage changes everything.

But, the act of getting married and making the relationship permanent doesn’t keep the relationship at a beautiful moment, in fact, the act of getting married often decisively moves the relationship on to a very different moment indeed. Now marriage may not take your relationship to the stress of a mortgaged house, two small children and a long commute, but it will definitely take it somewhere other than where you are right now. And the only ingredient your new feeling of being locked into marriage will have in common with your old feeling of romantic partnership, will be the partner himself or herself; and that partner might be the one ingredient you didn’t want to bottle up and save. So, the point we’re making is; there’s just no cheap substitute for a long, pure and investigative courtship.

Seven: “But my/our love is special, we’ll beat the statistics.”
Well, the statistics are not encouraging. Everyone has in front of them plenty of examples of unfortunate marriages and brutal divorces. We’ve all seen our friends come unstuck, and we all know that marriages in general face immense existential challenges. And yet we are reluctant to apply this insight to our own lives. We simply want to believe that, the long-term failure of more than half of all marriages is way to brutal to comprehend, so we assume that this rule somehow applies to other people and not to us.

And, in our loving reality of the moment, a statistical probability of more than one in two long-term failures in marriage seems to be a wholly acceptable challenge, given that, having found true love in the first place means that we have already beaten far worse odds. Our beloved feels like one in a million to us, and with such a winning streak going for us, the gamble of two to one odds in marriage seems entirely containable. But given the overall cost of a marriage failure, this gamblers mentality is short-sighted indeed.

Eight: “But I just want to stop thinking about love.”
Before we get married, we are likely to have had many years of turbulence in our love lives. We have tried to get together with people who didn’t like us, we’ve started relationships and broken up, we’ve gone out for endless gatherings in the hope of meeting someone. We’ve known a little excitement and some bitter disappointments. So it’s no wonder that, at a certain point, we’ve had enough of all that.

Part of the reason we want to get married so badly, is to somehow release the grip that love has had over us for so long. We’re exhausted by the endless drama of singleness; we’re restless for new challenges in life; and we hope that marriage will end the long and painful dominance that love and disappointment have had over our lives. But it often doesn’t do that. There can be as much doubt, hope, fear, rejection and betrayal in a long term marriage as there is in remaining single. It’s usually only from the outside that a marriage looks peaceful, uneventful and nicely boring.

So we’ve stopped believing in planned marriage because the very idea sounds abhorrent to us, and now we’re seeing the downside in the lack of permanence of the strictly romantic marriage, or the marriage of instinct. But the only choice we’re left with is to simply not marry at all. And that is not a bad idea, but at the end of all this discussion, we have to draw the conclusion that, if we are ever going to marry again, we must stop making and breaking the vow, because that equation is killing us.


  1. Bill York
    • Jeff Brown

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