Last July I celebrated my first wedding anniversary. I suppose I’m still newly married, so my short experience with marriage hardly qualifies me from deep anecdotal considerations. Still, I think about marriage a lot apart from my own experience. And I think there is at least one insight that is largely unrecognized.
Many, I believe, rely on a compatibility model of marriage; if two people are compatible they will be happily married and stay that way. This model sees marriages like an assortment of different shaped blocks and holes. If we match the right block to the right hole, then we win and the marriage works (that analogy ended up unintentionally dirty).
I think modern culture has embraced this model for the most part. It is widespread in popular movies, where a sister or friend consoles they’re loved one after a break up or divorce by saying, “you just have to find the right one”, or “there are other fish in the sea”. The dating scene is all about matching personality types accurately. Dating websites advertise that they cypher through data and match people that they’re most likely to be compatible with. In a more radical form, some have actually opted into the idea that there is actually 1 single person on the planet who is just right. This is a hyper-compatibility model.
I don’t think the compatibility model is false. It is true to some extent, some pairs of people work better than others. But it’s over appreciated in lieu of an ability model. Some people just don't make good spouses.
Marriage success is about ability more than it is about matching compatibility. Part of this ability overlaps with other relationship abilities that we have with friends or family. So if one has trouble keeping friends, or gets into family feuds regularly, that person has demonstrated a lack of abilities that contribute to making a marriage work.
Other parts of marriage abilities don’t overlap so well with other relationship abilities. Marriage is a unique relationship in a lot of ways. But it is still a relationship that depends on abilities that some people are better able than others. Perpetual reassurances of love and affection are not really required in most relationships. But marriages are more likely to need them in order to be fruitful.
Many of these abilities that are required in being a good spouse are internal virtues, others are external actions (skills). The internal virtue of patience prevents conflicts, while conflict resolution is an external undertaking. It’s a skill that good managers learn to develop, and it’s a skill that good spouses should learn to develop. Virtues like diligence keep the house in order. Humility keeps your spouse from becoming antagonized. Selflessness nurtures reciprocal care. The character of a person is going to make that person fail or succeed as a spouse. It also helps to develop skills like making others laugh. Or being a good cleaner. Or making oneself more attractive.
These are abilities that some are naturally talented at, but everyone can become better at. But why does it go so unrecognized? Two answers come to mind. One is that it’s hard. It places a burden on individuals that they would rather go without. Another answer is that it’s not very nice. It means that people who haven’t been successful aren’t just different, but actually not very good at this. Often there is higher demand for pleasant lies than harsh truths.
If the compatibility model were true, I would expect marriages to be more successful than ever. Individuals have a much broader sample of possible spouses to choose from, so I would expect that this would lead to better fits. Imagine you have one specifically shaped block (a circular shape) and your trying to find a hole it best fits in. In the past you had a limited selection of holes, some more circular than others, but you will find a less circular shape than if you have a very broad selection of holes. Because of communication, transportation, and filtering (dating sites / dating scene) developments, we should be more able to find the person who best fits us. But people are still having serious trouble making their romantic relationships work, and divorce rates are very high compared to historic standards.
So in order to have an awesome relationship and marriage, be an awesome person, and find an awesome person to be with.