Choosing and Being the Right Spouse

thomasbholmanChoosing and Being the Right Spouse

By Thomas B. Holman
BYU Professor of Marriage, Family, and Human Development
Ensign – September, 2002



President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled that marriage “will be the most important decision of your life. … Marry the right person in the right place at the right time.” 1 But who is the right person? Where is the right place? When is the right time?

Fortunately, President Hinckley and other Church leaders have given us inspired counsel concerning these questions. Moreover, some 60 years of research confirms the wisdom of their counsel.

The right place is, of course, the temple. “There is no substitute for marrying in the temple,” counsels President Hinckley. “It is the only place under the heavens where marriage can be solemnized for eternity. Don’t cheat yourself. Don’t cheat your companion. Don’t shortchange your lives.” 2

But how to find the right person?

We sometimes are given false expectations by movies, plays, and fiction based on the idea that there is a “one-and-only” somewhere out there whom we are intended to marry. This would mean that finding a mate is simply a matter of waiting to lock eyes with the right someone “across a crowded room,” as the song in South Pacific says, 3 heading off hand in hand to the closest temple and then living happily ever after. No matter how romantic this idea is, it is not supported by prophetic counsel. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) taught: “‘Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.” 4

The Right Person

Many of us have the mote and beam problem (see Matt. 7:3–5)—that is, we can easily see the faults of others, but not our own. So before we start holding others up to scrutiny to see if they are worthy of us, maybe we ought to work first on becoming a “right person” for someone else. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles offered this counsel: “If the choice is between reforming other Church members [including fiancés, spouses, and children] or ourselves, is there really any question about where we should begin? The key is to have our eyes wide open to our own faults and partially closed to the faults of others—not the other way around! The imperfections of others never release us from the need to work on our own shortcomings.” 5 Therefore, when we focus on finding the right person, we should also focus on becoming the right person for someone else. The strengths we bring to a marriage will undoubtedly contribute to the success of the marriage.

The first quality many young people look for in a potential spouse is someone with whom they can “fall in love,” which often means someone for whom they feel a strong physical attraction. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “The right person is someone for whom the natural and wholesome and normal affection that should exist does exist.” But he went on to add, “It is the person who is living so that he or she can go to the temple of God and make the covenants that we there make.” 6

Being “in love” and attracted to a person is a good start, but clearly not enough. President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have suggested several other factors we should keep in mind.

“Choose a companion of your own faith. You are much more likely to be happy,” said President Hinckley. “Choose a companion you can always honor, you can always respect, one who will complement you in your own life, one to whom you can give your entire heart, your entire love, your entire allegiance, your entire loyalty.” 7

Elder Scott suggested several attributes of a potential spouse that will contribute to happiness in marriage: “a deep love of the Lord and of His commandments, a determination to live them, one that is kindly understanding, forgiving of others, and willing to give of self, with the desire to have a family crowned with beautiful children and a commitment to teach them the principles of truth in the home.” 8

Some Factors to Consider

More than 60 years of research studies bear out the truth of these inspired recommendations by priesthood leaders. So do my personal experience and observation through years of teaching university classes about good marriage relationships. Research suggests several areas that we need to look at in choosing a spouse 9 if we want to have the greatest chance of success in marriage. These are the individual attributes and deeply held values of the person, the quality of the relationship we are able to build with that person, the person’s background, and the things in our own lives that affect our decisions. Let’s consider each of these.

First, we need to know a lot about the person we are thinking of marrying. As Elder Scott suggested, the person’s beliefs about family life are very important. Research confirms that the more a potential spouse values marriage and family life, the better that marriage can be. Studies show also that the kind of person President Hinckley advises seeking—someone to honor, respect, and give our whole heart to, someone who inspires love, allegiance, and loyalty—will usually have good mental and emotional health, including maturity, self-control, and a healthy sense of self-respect.

The self-respect that prepares one well for marriage is not, as President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) said, “an abnormally developed self-esteem that becomes haughtiness, conceit, or arrogance, but a righteous self-respect that might be defined as ‘belief in one’s own worth, worth to God, and worth to man.’” 10 One young wife’s comments about her husband illustrate how a poor sense of self-worth can harm a marriage. “I love him and I hope he will change. He has poor self-esteem. In any discussion of problems in our relationship, he puts up defenses and throws everything back on me or says he is worthless.”

Two immature behaviors are impulsive spending and losing one’s temper. One young woman broke up with a young man after she observed his problem in controlling his anger. She said to me: “He had a bad temper, and he was power oriented and controlling. I really thought that he would abuse me or my children if I married him.”

There is a need to find a person not only of good character but also one with whom we can have a good relationship. The way we communicate in dating and courtship is a key to building a solid marital relationship. Sincere, positive communication practiced in dating and courtship increases the likelihood of greater commitment, better conflict resolution, and more love between partners in marriage.

Good communication begins with a righteous heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:34). On the other hand, communication from a selfish heart is generally just manipulation. Elder Marvin J. Ashton (1915–94) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “If we would know true love and understanding one for another, we must realize that communication is more than a sharing of words. It is the wise sharing of emotions, feelings, and concerns. It is the sharing of oneself totally.” 11

Steve and Linda, who divorced after five years of marriage, realized this on looking back. Linda said it this way: “We had problems, I think, from the time we started dating. Neither of us is really good at communicating. I think I am a little better now than when we were dating. But neither one of us discussed our thoughts and feelings; we would get full of anger and neither one of us would talk.”

The Effect of Heritage

In addition to weighing a potential spouse’s character and our ability to create a good couple relationship with that person, we need to consider past and present family relationships. President David O. McKay (1873–1970) taught, “In choosing a companion, it is necessary to study the disposition, the inheritance, and training of the one with whom you are contemplating making life’s journey.” 12

Both research studies and experience show the wisdom of President McKay’s counsel. Good family environments and family relationships tend to lead to good quality marriages by the children; poor family environments and family relationships often foreshadow poor marriages by the children from these homes. Young adults from divorced families, for example, may experience some depression and anger and have trouble trusting or committing to others as a result of the trauma of parental divorce. Whether their parents divorced or not, some individuals may have been exposed to poor models of communication and conflict resolution in their families. Children from families that were emotionally cold and distant, chaotic, dangerous, unpredictable, detached, full of conflict, or where addictions or violence were chronic problems may need special help in overcoming such an upbringing.

Fortunately, however, our backgrounds do not have to control the outcome of our lives or our marriages. While we can do little to change our “gene pool,” we can choose how to respond to the events and conditions of our upbringing, and courtship is one of the most opportune times to do so. President McKay also said: “In our early youth, our environment is largely determined for us, but … in courtship and marriage we can modify, aye, can control to a very great extent, our environment. Morally speaking, we can carve the very atmosphere in which we live.” 13

Even if we came from a less-than-perfect family environment, we are not doomed to suffer the consequences of our parents’ iniquities “unto the third and fourth generation” (Deut. 5:9). The very scriptures that warn of wickedness being passed on unto the third and fourth generation also show the way out of a troubled family background. Doctrine and Covenants 124:50 [D&C 124:50], for example, tells us that the iniquities of the fathers will be visited upon the head of the children “so long as they [the children] repent not, and hate me.” Thus repentance and loving the Lord help free us from the sins of our parents.

The Book of Mormon is also full of examples of how to deal with parental influences. It talks about these influences in terms of “the traditions of their fathers” (Alma 9:17). The story of the Lamanites who responded to the teaching of Ammon and his brethren is a powerful example of a people who overcame generations of wicked traditions. In brief, the Book of Mormon teaches us that we can overcome these negative effects by having faith in the Lord, allowing ourselves to be taught by inspired leaders, learning the lessons of the scriptures, suffering in patience the afflictions that parents may have brought upon us, and repenting of any of the unrighteous habits and behaviors we may have picked up (see Mosiah 1:5; Alma 9:16–17; Alma 17:9, 15; Alma 25:6; Hel. 15:7).

It is important to have family and friends on our side and supportive of the upcoming marriage, Elder Richard L. Evans (1906–71) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles advised. “Don’t let this choice [of a marriage partner] ever be made except with earnest, searching, prayerful consideration, confiding in parents, [and] in faithful, mature, trustworthy friends.” 14 Loving parents who genuinely want the best for us, and “faithful, mature, trustworthy friends,” can often act as a sounding board and counsel us on how best to proceed.

The Right Time

President Hinckley offered this counsel about timing: “I hope you will not put off marriage too long. I do not speak so much to the young women as to the young men whose prerogative and responsibility it is to take the lead in this matter. Don’t go on endlessly in a frivolous dating game. Look for a choice companion, one you can love, honor, and respect, and make a decision.” 15

Waiting too long is clearly ill advised. But jumping into marriage too quickly can also be a problem. President Lee advised that a young man not think of marriage until he is able to take care of a family of his own, to be independent. “He must make sure that he has found the girl of his choice, they have gone together long enough that they know each other, and that they know each other’s faults and they still love each other. … Brethren, think more seriously about the obligations of marriage for those who bear the holy priesthood at a time when marriage should be the expectation of every man who understands [his] responsibility.” 16 Women also need to wait until they are mature enough to assume the responsibilities of a wife and mother, without waiting too long while pursuing less important things.

Making the Decision

After thoughtfully and prayerfully considering all of these factors, we must be sure the decision we make is based on inspiration, not infatuation or desperation. As we seek a spiritual confirmation, we need to keep at least five things in mind.

First, we must be worthy to receive the inspiration we need.

Second, we must understand the balance between agency and inspiration. As Elder McConkie taught, “We make our own choices, and then we present the matter to the Lord and get his approving, ratifying seal.” 17 The experience of one young man illustrates this: “There are two things in my life that I’ve always felt would be important: a career and marriage. Yet at the time I didn’t feel like I was getting a response. I prayed, ‘Heavenly Father, this is so important, I need to know whether or not it’s right.’ Then toward the end of our courtship, I went to the temple. I was so frustrated because I wasn’t getting an answer either way. After praying and waiting for an answer, I got more frustrated and gave up. That was when an impression came to me: ‘You already know the answer.’ Then I realized that God had answered my prayers. The decision to marry Becky always made sense and felt right. I can see now that God had been telling me in my heart and in my mind that it was a good decision. And later, at the time of the ceremony, I had another confirmation that what I was doing was right.”

Third, we may seek several witnesses if we feel the need for additional confirmation. Sometimes we may have difficulty distinguishing between spiritual impressions and our own emotions, desires, or fears. A spiritual witness may be confirmed again in various ways. In His infinite love, mercy, and patience, our Heavenly Father is generous with His counsel and response to His children.

Fourth, we can learn to discern the differences between inspiration, infatuation, and desperation. Inspiration, as we have already seen, comes when one is living worthily, exercises agency righteously, and studies the situation out carefully. It can be confirmed by multiple spiritual enlightenments and peaceful feelings (see D&C 6:15, 22–23). Infatuation is usually manifest by an immature “love” that includes great anxiety, possessiveness, selfishness, clinging, and overdependence; this may be more likely with individuals who lack emotional and spiritual maturity. Desperation is often associated with social or cultural circumstances that create an atmosphere (at least in the person’s mind) of “now or never”; pressure from peers, family, or cultural norms may lead to an unwise decision. A desire to get away from an unpleasant family situation or fear of failure in school or work can cause someone to look desperately to marriage as a way out of a problem. Such fears and anxieties often speak so loudly in our minds that we cannot hear the still, small whisperings of the Holy Spirit.

Fifth, the spiritual confirmation needs to come to both parties involved. A person should not feel that if his or her prospective partner receives a confirmation, he or she is therefore released from the necessity of seeking a similar personal confirmation. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has discussed this issue: “If a revelation is outside the limits of stewardship, you know it is not from the Lord, and you are not bound by it. I have heard of cases where a young man told a young woman she should marry him because he had received a revelation that she was to be his eternal companion. If this is a true revelation, it will be confirmed directly to the woman if she seeks to know. In the meantime, she is under no obligation to heed it. She should seek her own guidance and make up her own mind. The man can receive revelation to guide his own actions, but he cannot properly receive revelation to direct hers. She is outside his stewardship.” 18

Not long ago, my wife, Linda, and I were reminiscing about our courtship, and as I looked back, it seemed to me that I had been immature and inexperienced. I asked how she had dared to marry me. Her simple answer was, “I saw potential.”

In that same vein, as we search for a mate with whom we can spend the eternities, we would do well to remember Elder Scott’s counsel to recognize potential for growth: “I suggest that you not ignore many possible candidates who are still developing these attributes, seeking the one who is perfected in them. You will likely not find that perfect person, and if you did, there would certainly be no interest in you. These attributes are best polished together as husband and wife.”