I am an Ethics Fellow at the Wheatley Institution. However, I would like to write about something different from ethics but extremely important. In my various callings as a lay minister in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have counseled many young people preparing for marriage. There is nothing that will bring happiness and success to a person and family more than marrying a spouse who contributes in a positive way to the family and who is a good mother or father. For this reason, I’d like to deviate from my traditional ethics messages and write about choosing a marriage partner.
Rarely do people marry someone exactly equal to themselves. They either marry someone who lifts them or someone they have to drag through life. I have a good friend. He and his wife have six children. Unfortunately, his wife doesn’t contribute much to the marriage. She spends a good portion of each day in bed and on social media. This friend not only has to be the father of the family, but he also has to do many of the tasks that would normally be done by the mother. He is the breadwinner and the chauffeur. He is the chef and prepares the meals. He takes care of the yard, does the shopping, and takes care of the children. Basically, he does everything while his wife is a free rider in the home. I also know of exactly the opposite situation where it is the husband who is the free rider.
One of the greatest decisions I ever made was to marry a great wife. I must admit that it was more luck than design. I was only 23 and really didn’t understand the importance of my decision. I also didn’t understand the appropriate criteria on which I should have based the decision. I married LeAnn because I was physically attracted to her and she was attracted to me. In reality, I knew very little about what kind of mother she would be, what kind of wife she would be, or whether or not she would contribute in a positive way to the marriage and to the nurturing of our children. I got lucky. Being married to LeAnn has allowed me to fly high. I have been able to serve more in the community and in my church. I have been able to be more engaged professionally—I now have approximately three million miles on one airline alone and several thousands more on other airlines. Because I knew that she would take care of the home front better than I could if I were there, I never worried. Yes, I was very involved in our children’s education and lives.As a family, we played hard and we worked hard. We built a cabin when our oldest child was nine and spent lots of time there riding motorcycles, fishing, hunting, and working. I coached all my children’s teams and always helped them with their homework. But I took great comfort in knowing there was a caring mother in the home whose first priority was to do everything possible to build and support our family.
Unfortunately, most young people make the marriage decision more with their heart than with their heads. In fact, the younger they are when marrying, the less their heads are involved. As they get older and are still unmarried, they tend to make the marriage decision more with their heads and minimize the feelings of the heart. I was called to a capacity in my church where I presided over several thousand young men and women. The younger ones who got married usually didn’t worry about how much debt their future spouse had, what kind of worker he or she was, how he or she assumed and carried out responsibilities, his or her education level, or what kind of father or mother their companion would be. Many times they entered marriage blindly, only focusing on the physical attributes of their prospective partner. The opposite was true of the 30-plus crowd who were still unmarried. They worried about everything: They were afraid they wouldn’t be able to provide a living for their spouse and family. They worried about all the things the younger married couples didn’t even think about. As a result, some of them never got married.
My opinion is that couples should never enter marriage blindly. But they also must have trust in themselves and in each other. I believe the best way to make a marriage decision and find the “right”[i] partner is to make the decision both emotionally and mentally, not exclusively with one or the other.
While serving as a stake president, I often counseled with young men and women who had been married and were now divorced. Almost always they suffered tremendous heartache in breaking up with their spouse. In nearly every case, there was a bad habit such as uncontrollable spending, abuse, pornography, or a bad personal trait such as extreme laziness or sloppiness that the person didn’t know about prior to marriage. I often asked these young people why they didn’t discover these habits and traits prior to marriage. Their answer always was, “I didn’t think about it; I never asked.”
No decision a person ever makes in this life is more important than choosing a marriage partner. Because marrying the right person is so important to having a happy and successful marriage, before a person gets engaged, there are several questions he or she should find answers to. Even if they discover answers they don’t like, they can still choose to accept the person, get married, work on the problems, and be happy. The worst situation occurs, however, when these negative issues aren’t discovered until after marriage. I believe that every person who gets married has a right to ask and find out about certain behaviors, backgrounds, and traits in his or her future spouse. It is also important to court long enough to discover if the other person responds to these questions honestly and sincerely and whether or not red flags or feelings exist that suggest future marriage problems. Several of the issues I include below are positive traits a person should look for in a spouse and others are negative traits they should avoid. The following ten traits and habits are things to learn about before deciding to marry someone.
Humility is the defining characteristic of an unpretentious and modest person, someone who does not think that he or she is better or more important than others. Humility, coupled with a grateful heart, is a strength that enriches marriages. A husband or wife who is full of pride and not humility can bring tremendous heartache into a marriage. He or she is more prone to argue, to fight, to put the other person down, to criticize, and to be unable to hold a job. There are two kinds of people in the world: fighters and peacemakers. People who aren’t humble tend to be fighters—a sure prescription for problems in a marriage. Someone contemplating marriage should make sure his or her prospective spouse is kind, humble, and caring. Observe how he or she treats parents, friends, and siblings, and how he or she speaks about others. Try to understand his or her attitude; if he or she is humble, you are well on your way to a successful marriage. Make sure you see your spouse in different situations; watch how he or she reacts when disappointed, frustrated, or hurt, when his or her expectations aren’t met, and when life is tough. See how he or she interacts with others. Ask questions about past jobs, schooling, and other experiences. Watch and listen to how your prospective spouse treats and speaks to his or her parents. Through asking the right questions, listening, and observing behavior in different settings, you can judge how humble and caring your future spouse is. You not only have a right to ask about humility but you have an obligation to judge your prospective spouse’s level of humility.
The second characteristic you should understand about your spouse-to-be is his or her level of integrity. Integrity is becoming rarer and rarer these days. If you have integrity, your relationships with others will be better, you will be more successful in your careers, you will have better families, people will respect you more, and you will always have a clear conscience. Having integrity means that you deal squarely with yourself and with others. If your husband or wife has integrity, you’ll never have to worry about him or her cheating on you, spending money behind your back, being dishonest with you, or worrying about where he or she is. When couples have integrity, there is trust in the marriage and a marriage that has trust is a good marriage. A marriage that doesn’t have trust is not a good marriage. You have a right to ask about and judge your fiancé’s integrity before you exchange vows.
The third characteristic you should assess is stewardship. Is your future spouse a good steward? As parents, my wife and I are stewards of our children. As a professor, I am a steward for my students. As a board of directors member, I am steward for the company’s shareholders. One who fully understands what it means to be a steward will be more successful as a parent raising children and in his or her chosen profession. People who are good stewards always get the job done. They are finishers. Being a finisher makes them more successful in work and in the family. Good stewards are great examples for their children. As you go through life, you will want to be married to someone who is a dependable steward, who does what he or she says she will. You will want to be married to someone who will not only accept assignments and responsibilities but will always get them done. Once you are married, your marriage will probably be blessed with children. Those children will learn from you by what you teach them but even more by what you show them by your example. If your future spouse is a slothful steward (for example, doesn’t follow through on responsibilities and assignments), your children will quickly learn that being a good steward is not important. You never want to send the message to your children that assignments and responsibilities are not important because it will affect you and especially your children for a long time. You have a right to ask about and judge your prospective spouse’s level of stewardship and follow-through.
Closely related to stewardship is work. You absolutely do not want to be married to someone who is lazy. I was conversing with a parent the other day. He said his daughter married a man who just can’t hold a job. His daughter’s husband works hard for a week or two and then decides to sleep in and misses work. Most people who are successful are hard workers. There is no substitute for productive labor; it is the process by which dreams become reality. It is the process by which idle visions become dynamic achievements. Most people are inherently lazy and would rather play than work. A little play and a little loafing are good—but excessive loafing and playing are recipes for disaster. It is work that spells the difference in the life of a man or woman. It is stretching our minds and utilizing the skills of our hands that lift us from the stagnation of mediocrity. As a father, I would be very disappointed if my children didn’t know how to work. I would also be very hurt if my daughter-in-laws and son-in-law weren’t ambitious and hard working. In our neighborhood two young boys grew up as friends. One scored 34 on the ACT test and got a scholarship to college. The other scored 17 and barely was admitted to college. But the second was more ambitious than the first. Today, the second is a pediatric dentist making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year while the first worked in a bike shop for years and today is unemployed. Work always trumps intelligence. You have a right to ask about and judge your future spouse’s ambition and ability to work hard.
5. Internet and Social Media:
Too many young men and women spend excessive time on the internet and social media, time that could be used productively to get an education, to develop skills, and to work. We now live in an age of technology and computers; we live in a virtual world. Husbands or wives who are addicted to the internet often withdraw from live, face-to-face interactions and choose instead to play on their computers. Unfortunately, spending time on the internet, playing video games, or using social media is not only a waste of time, but it often leads to other problems like pornography, illicit relationships, chat room conversations, insidious video games, and withdrawal from meaningful relationships with one’s spouse. You don’t want to be married to a virtual or synthetic husband or wife whose most meaningful relationships are on the computer instead of with you. A husband or wife cannot have one kind of relationship with images on the computer and a different, more loving relationship with his wife or her husband. Pretty soon, a spouse’s expectations will align with what he or she sees on the Internet. Before getting married, make sure you know the internet and social media habits of your prospective spouse. Ask questions until you feel comfortable that you truly understand whether your spouse is an internet, video game, or social media addict.
Because money issues are the number one reason marriages fail, you should talk freely about money and your philosophy concerning money prior to engagement. Before getting married, you should know your partner’s propensity to spend and what he or she likes to spend money on. You should find out whether your future spouse is a borrower or a spender and how much debt or assets he or she has. If he or she has debt, is it credit card debt or student loans? Understanding one’s financial history usually provides a good predictor of his or her spending habits in the future. You should understand the debt philosophy of your partner-to-be. Is he or she a willing borrower for almost anything or committed to live on what you make? You should understand his or her financial priorities. You should also talk about financial goals and how you will achieve them. You should understand the earning potential of your partner based on his or her education and work ethic. You should understand whether your future spouse will want to work professionally in the future or be a homemaker or a breadwinner. If one of you doesn’t want to work full-time, will that be okay? Have you talked about how you will divide financial responsibilities? I remember counseling with a young, divorced man who said that it was primarily money that broke up his marriage. He stated that no matter how hard he worked or how much money he made, she spent more. He said they were always broke.
We live in a competitive world where a good education opens the doors of opportunity that may otherwise be closed to you. According to a recent study, college graduates make significantly more money than high school graduates and the gap is widening.[ii] Among millennials ages 25–32, median annual earnings for full-time employees with college degrees is $17,500 greater than for those with high school diplomas only. That gap steadily widened for each successive generation in the latter half of the 20th century: In 1986, the gap for late baby boomers ages 25–32 was more than $14,200, and for early boomers in 1979 it was far smaller at $9,690. The gap for millennials is also more than twice as large as it was for the silent generation in 1965 when the gap for that cohort was just under $7,500 (all figures are in 2012 dollars). Put another way, today’s young high school-only grads earn about 62 percent of what their college-graduate peers earn. In 1965, the figure was nearly 81 percent. But the value of a college degree goes far beyond the financial benefits. The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports that college graduates enjoy higher levels of saving, increased personal and professional mobility, improved quality of life for their offspring, better consumer decision making, and more hobbies and leisure activities.[iii] According to a report published by the Carnegie Foundation, benefits of higher education include being more open-minded, more cultured, more rational, more consistent, and less authoritarian.[iv] The report stated that these benefits are also passed along to succeeding generations. Additionally, the same study found that college attendance has been shown to “decrease prejudice, enhance knowledge of world affairs and enhance social status” while increasing economic and job security for those who graduate from college. Research has also consistently shown a positive correlation between completion of higher education and good health, not only for oneself but also for one’s children. Parental schooling levels are positively correlated with the health status of children and increased schooling and with lower mortality rates.[v] A number of studies have shown a high correlation between higher education and cultural and family values and economic growth. According to one study, more highly educated women have a tendency to spend more time with their children; these women tend to use this time to better prepare their children for the future.[vi] The authors report that college graduates appear to have a more optimistic view of their past and future personal progress. What you should realize is that education will not only provide your family with more opportunities and options, but it will determine where you live, who your friends are, and all the other benefits already mentioned. I personally believe that one who has the discipline to graduate from school will have the discipline to be successful in many other endeavors. You have a right to ask about and judge your prospective spouse’s educational level and aspirations.
8. Moral Cleanliness and Personal Faith:
Is your future spouse a person of faith? Does he or she meet your personal standards of moral cleanliness? Does he or she know what is right and always do it or does he or she just know what is right and often doesn’t do it? Let me use an analogy: in ancient Greece, the Spartans were renowned for their virtue and for being the most pious of all Greeks. There is a story told by Plutarch about the Spartans at the Olympics. In the crowded throng at the Olympic Games, an old man was looking in vain for a seat from which to watch the events. His stumbling attempts to find one were noticed by many Greeks from other states, who mocked him for his age and difficulty in finding a seat. When, however, he came to the section where the Spartans were seated, every man among them rose to his feet and offered him his seat. Somewhat abashedly, but nevertheless admiringly, the other Greeks applauded them for their behavior. “Ah,” the old man said with a sigh, “I see what it is. All Greeks know what is right, but only the Spartans do it.”[vii] One who is a person of faith participates in the private worship of prayer, scripture study, and service. He or she doesn’t live on the edge when it comes to movies, music, dating, or other activities. He or she is not casual about beliefs, about everyday clothing, about speech, or about anything else standard- related. You can’t live a double life about faith and be happy. As you seek a companion, look for someone who has values and faith similar to yours and a determination to uphold those values and faith.
9. Physical Health:
How is your future spouse’s emotional and physical health? Does he or she suffer from depression or other emotional issues? Is he or she physically healthy? Do you both agree about the importance of good health, good eating habits, and exercise? Is one of you bulimic or anorexic? Is one of you a vegetarian or vegan? Emotional or physical issues that you both understand and know about are probably okay. But, unknown emotional or physical issues that only manifest themselves after the difficulty and struggling of marriage are experienced can cause severe problems in a marriage. A man I know spends almost the entire day every day in bed. For him, it is his way to not to have to face reality. The wife in this family is not only the breadwinner but she also does double duty getting the children ready for school, fixing most of the meals, and being both the homemaker and the wage earner. Her life is much more difficult because of her husband’s emotional instability.
We live in a world that is filled with filth and sleaze, a world that reeks of evil. It is all around us. It is on the television screen. It is in the movies. It is in the popular literature. It is on the internet. Pornography is like a raging storm, destroying individuals and families, utterly ruining what was once wholesome and beautiful. If you want to marry someone who is addicted to pornography, make sure you understand the consequences. As stated previously, it is impossible for a man to have a loving relationship with his wife but to treat other women as objects. Pretty soon, what he sees in pornography he comes to expect as normal and he starts treating his own wife the same way. I have seen this tragic event happen many times. Young men or women who treat others as objects will soon degrade themselves in other ways. Their negative habits will escalate and soon graphic pictures and images will no longer satisfy them. Pornography is a cancer that rots happy marriages. You have a right and obligation to yourself and your future family to ask and to judge whether your prospective spouse is a user of pornography or participates in other illicit activities.
In the end, who you marry and how you and your spouse treat each other will have more to do with helping you achieve happiness and success in your family than anything else you do. You not only have an obligation to look for a mate who qualifies for you based on the above traits, you also must do all you can to become that kind of person. Neal A. Maxwell[viii] once offered the following counsel about overcoming preparing yourself for your marriage partner. He said:
Some of us have the mote and beam problem. If the choice is between reforming others [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. Therefore, when we focus on finding the right person, we should also focus on becoming the right person for someone else.