You Never Marry the Right Person

How our culture misunderstands compatibility.

In generations past, there was far less talk about “compatibility” and finding the ideal soul-mate. Today we are looking for someone who accepts us as we are and fulfills our desires, and this creates an unrealistic set of expectations that frustrates both the searchers and the searched for.

In John Tierney’s classic humor article “Picky, Picky, Picky” he tries nobly to get us to laugh at the impossible situation our culture has put us in. He recounts many of the reasons his single friends told him they had given up on their recent relationships:

“She mispronounced ‘Goethe.’”
“How could I take him seriously after seeing The Road Less Traveled on his bookshelf?”
“If she would just lose seven pounds.”
“Sure, he’s a partner, but it’s not a big firm. And he wears those short black socks.”
“Well, it started out great ... beautiful face, great body, nice smile. Everything was going fine—until she turned around.” He paused ominously and shook his head. ”... She had dirty elbows.”

In other words, some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love and consolation, a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. Rather, they are looking for someone who will accept them as they are, complement their abilities and fulfill their sexual and emotional desires. This will indeed require a woman who is “a novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling,” and the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.

You never marry the right person

The Bible explains why the quest for compatibility seems to be so impossible. As a pastor I have spoken to thousands of couples, some working on marriage-seeking, some working on marriage-sustaining and some working on marriage-saving. I’ve heard them say over and over, “Love shouldn’t be this hard, it should come naturally.” In response I always say something like: “Why believe that? Would someone who wants to play professional baseball say, ‘It shouldn’t be so hard to hit a fastball’? Would someone who wants to write the greatest American novel of her generation say, ‘It shouldn’t be hard to create believable characters and compelling narrative’?” The understandable retort is: “But this is not baseball or literature. This is love. Love should just come naturally if two people are compatible, if they are truly soul-mates. “

The Christian answer to this is that no two people are compatible. Duke University Ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas has famously made this point:

Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become "whole" and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Hauerwas gives us the first reason that no two people are compatible for marriage, namely, that marriage profoundly changes us. But there is another reason. Any two people who enter into marriage are spiritually broken by sin, which among other things means to be self-centered—living life incurvatus in se. As author Denis de Rougemont said, “Why should neurotic, selfish, immature people suddenly become angels when they fall in love ... ?” That is why a good marriage is more painfully hard to achieve than athletic or artistic prowess. Raw, natural talent does not enable you to play baseball as a pro or write great literature without enduring discipline and enormous work. Why would it be easy to live lovingly and well with another human being in light of what is profoundly wrong within our human nature? Indeed, many people who have mastered athletics and art have failed miserably at marriage. So the biblical doctrine of sin explains why marriage—more than anything else that is good and important in this fallen world—is so painful and hard.

No false choices

The reason that marriage is so painful and yet wonderful is because it is a reflection of the Gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once. The Gospel is—we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared to believe, and at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.

The hard times of marriage drive us to experience more of this transforming love of God. But a good marriage will also be a place where we experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level.

Excerpt from THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE © 2011 by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller.  Published by Dutton, A Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.


Steve Cornell


Steve Cornell commented…

I often tell couples that it's one thing to be in love another to love someone for a life-time! Yes, many people want too much from marriage. They have unrealistic ideas of marital bliss. They’re in love with the idea of being in love until they learn that loving another person requires effort. They fail to see that all married people struggle to some extent to keep their marriages healthy and strong.

But as said here, unrealistic or idealized versions of marriage or of the person you plan to marry will quickly shatter in married life.

When sinners say, “I do” we cannot expect perfection! There are risks involved because there are sinners involved. You will probably get hurt but what you do with the hurt is the important part. The key to marital harmony is not the removal of all conflict (that happens in heaven), but a shared commitment to a reconciling spirit between two people who have been reconciled to God through their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Marriage offers the closest possible relationship of intimacy and companionship we can enjoy. I’ve been married for almost 30 years and for most of those years, I’ve done a lot of marriage counseling. Marriage can be a relationship of mutual encouragement, acceptance and partnership, but sadly good marriages are increasingly rare. Fewer people are willing to apply the intentional commitment and hard work essential for good relationships. Those who want a good marriage without the effort required, set themselves up for the cycle of fantasy, disillusionment and divorce.

It would help many couples to take a closer look at the wedding vows before and after marriage. See: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/to-love-and-to-cherish-accord...



J-Co commented…

I've never been married nor am I on the path towards marriage. BUT, I will say that I don't think the author was being negative or hopeless. I think he was just saying the perception that the person you end up marrying is the perfect match for you is inaccurate. The best we can hope for is someone who understands our faults, is accepting of them, and is willing to move past it. Everyone deserves to be with someone patient enough to make them better. I agree with the writer as a single person because it actually gives me hope. I hate to be that person, but Hollywood and our society have completely damaged us in terms of our willingness to try. "We grew apart" and "We just don't fit anymore" seems like a bunch of nonsense. It sounds like two people saying, I'm not having fun, I want to try something else. Movies make it seem like marriage consists of a lot of googly eyes, the occasional fight that usually results in "make-up sex" where everything is ok again. From what I've witnessed, that's not the case.

But, this is coming from a single person so take it as you will!

Kevin Allard


Kevin Allard commented…

In response to FM and Aaron, the point about the title is to critique the view which holds that if you find Mr Right or Miss Right, everything will be easy and so you'll never have to work at anything. That view is responsible for many divorces and unhappy marriages. On the subject of hearing God in prayer, God can speak in anyway he chooses but he has never promised that he will tell us who we are to marry and he does not expect us to wait until we hear him before we make a decision. Instead he expects us to use the wisdom that he gives us to make wise choices.

Amanda Rucker


Amanda Rucker commented…

It is perfectly possible to marry the "right" person, all while keeping Christ at the center of said union, and coexisting perfectly in your own imperfection. There is no such thing as the perfect union or marriage, but compatibility will always hold importance, and God has a way of bringing certain people together in good faith. I am very much in agreement with a great deal of this article, but can also attest to the enjoyment associated with easily loving my husband. TRIALS aside, nothing about loving him has proven to be truly difficult.



Sweety replied to Brett's comment

I disagree Amanda. There is no such thing as a marrying the "right" person but there is such a perfect union (man and woman) representing Christ and His Church (the Bride). Compatibility is fine, not that much important as it is NOT the reason you would come together, but rather it is God who wills for marriage to happen.

Melvin Frederick


Melvin Frederick commented…

Excellent! This has totally helped me to see things in my relationship different

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