The Most Important Thing to Look for in a Life Partner

We may fall in love with any kind of person, but the person we choose to marry ourselves to must embody one particular quality: they must be committed to constant change and transformation.

We should not choose someone who is perfect.

We should choose someone who is perfectly aware they aren’t perfect, and who wants to get better with every rising sun

choosing a partner

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For most couples, my psychotherapy office is a last resort. It takes the deepest courage to make that first phone call to a therapist, and couples often wait until they feel almost hopeless. And I am truly blessed to walk through the valleys with such courageous people.

Yet, I must admit, I take a special delight in couples who call earlier. On a rare occasion, I will get a call from a young couple who is planning to marry and would like premarital counseling.

They come into the office and they usually sit next to each other and hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes and sometimes I feel a little awkward—like I’ve stumbled into their date and should give them some privacy. And quite often, they will say things like “There’s nothing wrong with him; he’s amazing.” Or, “She’s absolutely perfect.” Or, “We get along all the time—we never fight.”

And my alarm bells go off.

Because when I’m looking for the building blocks of a lifelong partnership, I’m not looking for two perfect people. (Mainly because two perfect people don’t exist—we’re all a glorious mess of one kind or another.)

No, I’m looking for two people who know their brokenness, who know they fall short of the best ways to love, and who want to get better at it—one day at a time, year after year, decade upon decade.

When Everyone Got Divorced

In 1970, everyone got divorced.

Okay, not everyone got divorced, but the divorce rate skyrocketed in a startling way. In response, psychologists developed Behavioral Marital Therapy, which included a “caring activities contract.”

It was a bit of a disaster.

Essentially, spouses listed the ways they wanted their partner to change, signed a contract committing the other to doing so, and then each spouse kept a running tally of how often they were holding up their end of the bargain.

The caring activities contract often led to greater conflict, and therapists no longer use it. Because the truth is, as spouses, we are ultimately and utterly powerless over our partners. If our partner truly does not want to change, there is fundamentally nothing we can do to make them change. In fact, our very efforts to coerce change will further entrench our loved ones in their existing behaviors.

In marriage—and in life—you control you. No one else.

Which means the person you choose to spend the rest of your life with had better be eternally interested in taking a look at their own issues, increasingly willing to be vulnerable about their own brokenness, and absolutely determined to figure out what it means to love more deeply and purely.

How I Got Lucky

I remember the night my wife told me her story.

We had known each other for only three weeks, and through the quiet hours of the night she told me about her journey—it was marked by resilience and tenacity and determination. She had plenty of reasons to be angry, but instead she was investing her energy into learning how to love.

And by the time the sun rose, something new had risen in me—I didn’t know what it was then, but I did know I wasn’t going to let this woman go. Only recently have I realized what rose up in me that night:

I’m attracted to people who like to fight—not with other people, but with themselves.

I’ve admitted here on the blog I can be a bit of a mess at times. So, I’ve often wondered how I didn’t screw up my choice of a lifelong companion.

And I’m thinking the answer is this: for all my mess, somehow I must have one thing going right within me—I want people in my life who know they are broken and have decided every day is another opportunity to redeem it. People who fight with themselves first—not in a shaming, self-destructive way, but in a resilient, grace-filled effort to be transformed into a more loving person.

And I guess I lucked out when my wife had the courage to let me see her brokenness and her love.

Choosing Broken, Resilient Hearts

I think the most important question we must ask ourselves—both when contemplating the decision to marry ourselves to one person, and when deciding how much of ourselves to invest in healing a relationship that has gone awry—is, “Do I trust the heart of the person I love?”

“Are they aware of their brokenness? Can they give grace to themselves and to others in the middle of their mess? Are they able acknowledge their mistakes and apologize when necessary? And do they have a deep desire to redeem it all?”

Or is the heart of the person I love organized around ego and self-preservation and power and competition and self-righteousness?

Every relationship hinges upon the answers to these questions.

May we all be asking the right questions.

May each of us be patient, as we wait for that one quiet night when that one person reveals to us a heart of brokenness, and a heart of grace and sacrifice and love.


Comments: You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post

Audio: To listen to an audio version of this post, click on this post title: The Most Important Thing to Look for in a Life Partner [If you would like to save it to your device for later listening, right click the link and choose the option to save.].                

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “Belief is Fragile (Hold It Gently).”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kim

    I love the story about your wife, so much. I’ve been married for twenty years, and I spent most of those years hiding my vulnerability and my mess from my husband. He knew a little…some symptoms (eating disorders, substance use/abuse) and little tidbits of my story, but without a good role model in my life to show me that it is OKAY to be vulnerable and honest and that it is possible to still be loved, I struggled through life trying to appear “perfect”.

    I’m finally learning that being me is okay, that we ALL live inside some kind of a mess, and that being honest and vulnerable gives people the chance to love us MORE.

    The same thing is true with friendships…my friends are people who have seen my own vulnerability and shown me theirs, and those friendships are deep, and real.

    I’m still learning this lesson – every day!
    Thank you for another post full of grace.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kim, we’re all learning with you, I think. And the way you are sharing your story at Good Enough Grace is always an inspiration to me to be more vulnerable and open to grace. Thank you!

  • Jennifer Newell

    When I met my husband he thought the chances of getting married and having a family had passed him by. He had been caring for a parent and the days were passing quickly. He did not want to put the pressure on a relationship that caring for a ill parent would. I would like to think I taught him to have hope for a better future and to work through the hard things and to thrive for the life you really want. The funny thing is now almost 23 years of marriage, when times are tough he is now the one teaching me. It is through his unconditional love that I have found my safe place to fall. I know he will be there in the good and in the bad. As long as we are in it together regardless how messy it gets, we will come through it. Thanks Kelly, I know for me my marriage is better not because of changes I expect in my husband but because of the changes I expect in myself.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenn, In our dialogue, this quality of seeking to work on yourself, has always been so clear, both in your marriage and your parenting. Your family is blessed to have you as a their wife and mother! As always, please give my best to your husband.

  • annie joseph

    Dr. Kelly, this is such a comforting counsel. Your blog is the answer to my prayers, coz here in India, seeking professional help is an absolutely no no thing.(I mean, ‘my god, and all the while I thought they are happily married”!! kind of thing.)

    Thank you so very much for being the answer to my prayer. I read your blog regularly and gain a lot of comfort and counsel from it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It is indeed sweet of you to take the time to share such affirming words with me. The comfort extended is mutual. Blessings to you on your journey!

  • Caroline

    I have been reading your blog for a few months now, and I absolutely love it. But, it was just the other day that the idea of grace “clicked” for me. My husband and I were fighting…for many reasons. We went to bed very angry with each other. I hardly slept that night. But when I woke up, I decided I was just going to let it all go. I decided that I would forgive him and forgive myself for the things we had fought about. And instead of “hashing it out”, as I am usually inclined to do, I just reached out to him with total love. The result was wonderful. The last few days have been some of the happiest we have had in a very long time. One of the things I often complain about is that I don’t feel he is very considerate of me…as in, when he says or does things, I don’t feel he always considers how they affect me. The last few days, he has been much more considerate than normal. It is amazing. Now, I will say that I believe it is in our nature to argue – often and aggressively – and I don’t think that will ever change. But, I do think that you are helping me find ways to avoid those arguments becoming full on vicious fights. For that, and for the last few days, I want to thank you for starting your blog. It is wonderful!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Caroline, I just write words, you’re living it. You inspire me. And I think you’re right on. My wife and I are both intense people who don’t mind a good argument, but I think grace can exist in the midst of that, too. Thanks for the reminder. Blessings to you both!

    • Sonya

      Your forgiveness is just a wonderful thing. I was wondering, have you looked into NVC (non-violent communication)? This concept has changed the dynamic between my husband and I when we argue. And yes, we still argue, but it doesn’t get as heated and mean as it used to in the past. Essentially the idea is that you state your needs and how not having them met makes you feel. For example, you could say “My need for recognition is not being met and it makes me feel disappointed”. This takes the burden of blame from your partner and gives him the choice to contribute in a different way to meeting your needs. It is difficult at first to always be mindful of how you state your emotions and it is definitely a practice, but it has worked for us tremendously.

  • Alice

    Amazing and true….unreal; yes, the person who knows they are not perfect, can say, “I’m sorry” and and love and let go…
    A heart that works to grow in love…

  • Anna

    I really liked the last line about being patient and waiting for that one night when a heart of brokenness and grace are shared. A good reminder to not settle. Patience.

  • Katie

    This post was very well articulated. Thanks for sharing! Loved the insight.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Katie, and you’re welcome!

  • Sarah

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. love every part of it 🙂

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  • Broken Yet Healing

    I loved your post and may we all find spouses who are aware of their brokenness and are determined to help themselves and us to make the life this humanity yearns for since Adam and Eve’s creation. Amen.

    As much as I am looking forward to meeting my Mr Right, a part of me can’t help being skeptical. Your wife was lucky that she met someone like you who was willing to work through her brokenness. For me, time and time again I have tried to put myself in vulnerable situations by sharing my deepest insecurities and “brokenness” with a significant other. However, as soon as they learn those things about me, it’s as if they start using them against me. Those qualities of mine that they once look up to suddenly now become their reasons to leave me. Instead of offering to protect me and embrace me with their hearts, they start nit-picking about my weaknesses and use them against me. Sigh!

    I was supposed to get married this month until things crashed. I worked so hard to ask the right questions and to answer all kinds of them to the best of my ability but still… Thus, the failure is haunting me right now – crying out loud that how could I open up my chest of insecurities and vulnerabilities in front of the wrong guy. In the process of getting things right, I have actually caused more hurt to myself and it’s hard to even imagine a husband. Sigh!

    Anyhow, despite life’s hurdles, I do believe in funding my other half soon. Soon, God-willing.

  • Michelene

    I loved this article and posted it with your link on a fb group called step families south africa … it is my swan song and I am glad to hear I am not a lone voice in the wilderness!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Glad you found us here at UnTangled, Michelene. You are not alone!

  • Debbie

    I love this! I love the idea that not being perfect is not only okay, but actually preferred.

  • Gilly

    Dr. Kelly, I have come across your site and have listened to your information on a Life Partner. Unfortunately I only realized what I had after my husband died and I am still very young at heart and would like to find a new partner, a best friends and maybe a husband. I am lonely and have tried online dating and I really should write a book about all the untruths and why men can not tell the truth or at least those who have contacted me. I find I am very open and with most men online they want sex and I find it difficult as I want to date and get to know them taking one step at a time. Once we kiss well really next thing is the bedroom. Then they tell me oh by the way I am married…and then the chase is over and they are gone.

    On the good side of this dating I have learnt much about myself and my youth and as my father died when I was a child and I was a late bloomer and why I married an older man much later in my life and now an searching for a new life partner. You are right about perfection and why search for it as it really does not exist. I am an intelligent well educated woman and some men find this exciting, however, most do not.

    Any words of wisdom or articles I can read would be greatly appreciated.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Gilly, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best medium for the kind of guidance and advice you deserve. With everything you’ve been through and are going through, I’d highly recommend getting connected with a good counselor who can give you the attention and thoughtfulness you need right now. Blessings to you.

  • Bethany Dean

    Such a lovely post, and a lovely site, full of the most inspirational and beautiful messages I have ever read. I’m considering working some of your thoughts into my wedding vows! I’m happily engaged to a beautiful mess who knows his vulnerabilities and flaws, and he’s constantly battling to be a better person – even though I tell him every day that he can’t possibly get any better in my eyes. He does the same for me. Thanks for reassuring my confidence in us, I’ll check back and read some more!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Bethany, and you’re welcome! Blessings to both of you in your marriage.

  • Kaitlyn

    As I sit sobbing, and teetering between “stay” and/or “go”, this article hit home. My partner and I are at the 3 year mark now and things have begun to get quite messy. In the past, I have run. I have run from myself, from the person, and from any part of the situation that renders me potentially vulnerable. Now, with her, I have made a commitment. We’ve signed the papers, bought the rings, and took those vows. I can’t run. I won’t run. We are both unhappy currently (mostly as a result of allowing our relationship to become stagnate and letting passion slip away), and we are hanging on by a thread. However, at the end of that thread is some serious love, commitment, and desire to grow and examine ourselves to become a better, stronger, healthier couple. Thank you for reminding me that it is ok to be a mess, and to admit to it. Thank you for allowing me to embrace a platform where I don’t feel so alone and I can bask in my sloppy, yet loving relationship. From the bottom of my currently tattered heart – thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kaitlyn, If my daughter grows up to be half as thoughtful, courageous, and articulate as you, I will be blown away. Blessings to you and your partner as you work together through this tough time.

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  • Thad Joshua Schrader

    Reading this I am humbled. The woman I fell in love with and I did this exact thing after spending time together for about a month.

    We talked about past relationships and how we were and what we wanted for a future. Now however, she is doing the exact opposite and running away from us and into a marriage with another man.

    We had a great relationship and didn’t fight. We talked about everything. And no matter what I say, she still can not give me a reason why all this is happening. Some of her friends have even told her that it’s not going to last and they will be here for her when it falls apart. I’ve seen this type of marriage before and have stated the same thing. Not right away, but I have recently.

    I know I am not perfect, and that she is not either. We have both stated it many times in the past and even now. Going to share this article with her as well and see if it helps her to think about things more.

    Maybe I’m trying to hold on to something that may not come again. But I refuse to give up on the person I fell in love with, am still in love with, and even through this entire debacle have grown even more in love with.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thad, I’m glad you found us here at UnTangled, and I hope some of the reading is an encouragement to you, regardless of the direction your relationship takes. Blessings to you, Thad!

  • Diana

    As Anna (below), I really liked that last sentence. I had the exact same experience, but I was, during that night, in your wife’s shoes. And instead of him going (as I was inviting him to do, as I was stating I am too broken and I need to first heal), he just didn’t let me go and wanted to see that brokeness together with me. So we are looking at it together still, but the gap is closing with every rising sun.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is beautiful, Diana! Blessings to you both as you close “the gap.”

  • Mcbrain

    Love is just stupid .I cant do with it and cant do without it

  • Mcbrain

    The woman who gives one joy is capable of making one sorrow ful

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  • Patricia.

    aww.i’ve just started to read you, and i’lll keep on doin’ it.I really do think you can “”speak “” what most of us can’t just explain.But you can.ANd I love it.!I”m in that kind of relationship myself,with messy ones.But we are both messy so the trouble is double.

    • drkellyflanagan

      “We are both messy so the trouble is double.” I love that, Patricia. Welcome to the blog, I’m glad you’re finding content that resonates with you!

  • jasminette369

    But how do you know if the relationship has gone too awry, especially when you find out about things going on for years, when you totally trusted that person.

  • Lisa Duggan

    “Or is the heart of the person I love organized around ego and self-preservation and power and competition and self-righteousness?”

    May I add that the heart of a person my also be organized around supreme self-protection, from deep childhood (or adult) trauma and wounds? These emotional patterns still lead to one-sided relationships but may be harder to break free from because we feel compassion for the damage or neglect our partner suffered. When this compassion trumps our own self-care it becomes toxic.


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  • emptyness

    i would much rather be with someone who is broken, recognizes his brokeness, and is working through it; rather than someone who thinks he is perfect, does nothing wrong, and not willing to look deep inside himself to promote change. I choose the perfect one. Trust me…go with someone who is broken. I am broken, we are all broken in one way or another. The difference is some of us admit it and work through it, striving… while others deny it and live superficially. It very difficult for a marriage to thrive when one spouse thinks he/she is perfect, and the other admits brokeness…

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  • Nightfaze

    It is strange to me that I have never known what I wanted in a partner until I met him. Now, I know what I was looking for before I met my soulmate. I wanted to meet someone who would be able to let me constantly evolve as a person. I am, in life, always studying myself and the people I love. I needed to find someone who could come along on my adventures and not be afraid to get to know me all over again, and again, and again. I wanted to find someone who would not be afraid to look at themselves and to see their strength and weaknesses, and not be afraid to change, transform and evolve through life. I found the man I will grow with, and who understands that we must also grow individually. But the beauty of it is, we will never grow tired of each other, because we will always have something new to explore, discuss and share about one another. We have been together for 6 years, and there is nothing more exciting but finding out how differently we feel about ourselves over time. I think the best part, my favorite moments, is when we both realize that our love and connection is still deepening and growing. I never though love could keep growing… I always though there would be some kind of limit to love. Thank you for sharing your blog.

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  • Daymarew

    totally agree with you. i cant imagine myself getting married to an all knowing and 100 % certain person. Imperfection is the gap I find in another person for me to catch up to who she is and how together we can mend whats broken.

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