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

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.