Why I believe there is a “right person”

by Kristin on January 13, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by timparkinson

We learn early on in life that choices aren’t easy. It starts small—a five-year-old staring at 101 ice cream flavors, trying to decide which one will live up to her expectations and fill her with contentment rather than second-guessing or regret. Later we choose what instrument to play, who to invite to our slumber party, which college to go to, what to wear to the big job interview, and maybe, eventually, who to marry.

Somewhere along the line, way back with the ice cream flavors and slumber party invitations, I learned two important things about choices: Each possibility and choice comes with consequences, but that doesn’t mean that only one choice is right. In other words, life isn’t a big game show, with God shuffling around coconut shells asking you to pick the one with the prize under it, or urging you to guess the right door to open and walk through. Maybe I would wish, as a little girl eating my Blue Moon ice cream cone, that I had based my choice less on color and more on flavor, but I still had ice cream, and there would be another chance to make a different choice.

In general, it was very liberating to move from a “God has a Plan for my life that I must uncover” to a looser, more free-flowing navigation system: “There’s more than one good path available here, so I can take the information I have, make a choice that feels right, and move forward without fear or regret.” The more I embraced this belief, the less I deliberated. I was better able to go with the flow as it presented itself.

Some choices are bigger than others

But then I got married. To the guy I was in a serious relationship with when I graduated from college. It seemed right at the time, and why not? After all, I believed there wasn’t just one right man in the world for me. There were several paths, I was choosing one, and it would all work out.

I still believe that general philosophy, nine years after our marriage ended. But I also believe that the people who are “right” or “not right” for us fall into a full spectrum rather than into two categories. In other words, there are definitely people out there that are much MORE right for any given person than others. It’s really important to take the time, if you can, to really examine yourself and the decision.

That’s why I was a bit disheartened when I read this book excerpt about marriage by Tim Keller. The headline—”You Never Marry the Right Person”—caught my eye and raised my suspicions. After all, maybe I’m just being a romantic idealist, but I do feel like I married the “right person” when I married Jason, my second husband, four years ago.

In the article, Keller says several things I agree with, like “…today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.” (Agreed—my expectations were definitely too high when I was in my 20s; a divorce sort of served as the ultimate reality check.) And I generally like the definition of marriage Keller gives: “…two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love and consolation….”

But the idea that “you never marry the right person” doesn’t sit right with me. Keller quotes Duke University Ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas:

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.

I agree, it’s wrong—even dangerous—to go into marriage or have children with the primary goal of personal fulfillment. But I also believe that some people bring out the best in us and help make us more whole, while others amplify the worst in us, and leave us feeling more shattered. I know it’s silly for me to debate the likes of Keller or Hauerwas—I haven’t written an entire book or thesis on this topic, but I have lived a life, and I’ve learned a lot through my experiences.

Who you marry matters—a lot

Ultimately, that’s why I felt the need to write a post on this topic in the first place. Not to ignite a debate, but to say this very clearly to anyone who isn’t yet married but thinks they might want to be some day: There may not be a single “right” person for any of us, but there are definitely people who are more right than others. It is possible to be married and say, year after year, with great confidence, “I married the right person.”

And there’s real danger in believing “you never marry the right person”—the danger of not taking this incredibly important decision seriously enough.

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  • Sarah Louise

    oh sweetie, you had me scared there. But yes. I agree. There are people that are “more right” than the “wrong wrong WRONG” people. Yes, any relationship is two flawed people, but if those two flawed people can make a life that nurtures one another, there is a unity that could never have happened if those two people hadn’t gotten together.

    (And I say this with even less “experience” than you, except that my mother never thought she’d marry my dad and their relationship is a testament to us all, and my BFF never thought she’d get married, period, and her marriage is a blessing as well.)


  • P.

    Kristin, thank you for posting on this.

    My own decades-long marriage is coming to an end. Normally, I really like Tim Keller’s work (even when I don’t agree with it). But when I read that excerpt of Keller’s book earlier this week, I was stunned at the arrogance.

    Like you, I came to my relationship having been recently stripped of the “right one” mentality; I thought “as long as he’s a Christian and we have a few common interests, it’s going to work out fine.” Wrong. We had deeply incompatible communication styles (your line about amplifying the worst in each other fits well). No amount of work helped. Turns out, he brought a dark secret into the marriage, and harbored it all those years. Secrecy and concealment in one area will never allow for honesty in any area, and that’s why nothing ever got any better. I see that now.

    Maybe “you never marry the right person” — but it is certainly possible to marry the wrong one.

  • http://greenergrassmedia.com/blog Paul Merrill

    Wow. P’s comment revealed something that is so important – it’s great, if at all possible, to have complete honesty before the marriage begins. And during the marriage. (I’m not commenting on any communication issues of P’s marriage – I have no ideas what happened with that and don’t need to know.)

    A friend died recently, at the young age of 47. Blood clot. He and his wife divorced about 7 years ago. He had hidden some serious stuff from her, and it broke their marriage apart. If they had been able to communicate it through, things may have been different for his last 7 years on the planet. I still grieve that she completely cut him off when his terrible thoughts and deeds came to light.

    Unrelated, my marriage is now past the 22 year point, and we hit a really rocky patch about 2 years ago. God’s complete grace and mercy are what carried us through. Neither of us can claim that we are super-human enough to have provided what it took to pull us through that rough time.

    Right one? I think my Heather is, for me. I am very thankful to God and to her for our marriage.

  • http://greenergrassmedia.com/blog Paul Merrill

    And P, I have come to a point where I am very rarely judgmental about divorce. I never know all the issues that lie beneath the surface. And I can only guess at how incredibly hard it must be to approach and go through a divorce.

    May God give you grace and mercy as you navigate those waters.

  • P.

    Thank you, Paul.

    And I completely agree with you about honesty, before and during. Secrets kill.

    I appreciate your encouragement.

  • http://www.alise-write.com Alise

    Like Sarah I was a little, “huh?” going into this, but I absolutely agree with you. For a long time I would have said that when you marry, they become the right person, but I’m not so naive these days.

    That said, I knew pretty much from the minute that I met my husband that he was “the one.” And 15 years later, I still feel the same way. And that’s a pretty good feeling.

  • Brandon

    You made some great points Kristin. Thanks!

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    As someone who is not yet married and generally wary about marriage in general (not the idea of it, just the idea that I might end up with the wrong person), I really do love your last line: There may not be a single “right” person for any of us, but there are definitely people who are more right than others.

    Strangely enough, I’ve seen this with my parents, who have been divorced for 25+ years. As a child, I couldn’t understand how or why they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be together, but now that I’m an adult and have had my own relationship experiences, I can see so much more clearly how “more right” my step-parents are for my parents. I don’t know that my mom and dad were ever definitely wrong for each other, but it’s obvious now, all these years later, how “more right” they are with their current spouses.

  • Kirstin

    Your idea of the “full spectrum” of “wrong” to “right” strikes me as really, true. There are two things I really like about it.

    (1) It’s a model that takes into account the fact that timing, circumstances, and one’s own mental state can make the same person more right or less right. Had the man I eventually married I been in a context that required us to marry rather than simply moving in together after dating for a year, I suspect we would have been divorced within two years. We both had a lot of growing up to do, and living together–then having a long distance relationship–then living together again gave us the time and space to mature together. “Till death do us part” earlier in our relationship would have been far too much pressure, and we would have simply collapsed under it.

    2. Everyone may have a wide range of “not as right as others” and “REALLY not right,” but there are some people who are simply “WRONG” for anyone. Folks with undiagnosed/untreated borderline or narcissistic personality disorders are just bad news for anyone, but unless one has clinical training or prior experience with such people, it’s not always easy to see where “not perfect” shades into “pathologically manipulative.” I fear for the generous and self-sacrificing souls who read Keller’s book and keep on trying to fix an inherently bad situation. The notion of a spectrum I think is better for, as you say, taking the time to “really examine yourself and the decision” and recognizing the nuances that distinguish garden variety human flaws from mental illness.

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, at least based on the short life thus far of my marriage. I think, first, it’s important to know oneself and have a realistic set of expectations about what marriage truly is and will do. You also have to do whatever you can to try to know your partner through communication and even counseling. If you’re in a good place after that, then there absolutely can be very right people for you — people who complement and enhance your life.

    I think for the same reasons I was flabbergasted when I saw this book at the bookstore recently: Get Married This Year. Marriage isn’t a thing that should be conquered, just like you can’t go into it expecting to get a certain kind of fulfillment for your life.

  • Sarah

    As a 41-year-old who just ended yet another compatible-but-wrong relationship and deeply wants to find a “right” one, this post interests and troubles me to an extent – I (sometimes desperately) hope that there is a right one, somewhere, for me, but have never found him.

    It’s harder and harder as I get to know and accept myself and what is “right” for me to even find someone who meets basic interpersonal needs and compatibilities – the more you know what would or could be right, it seems the less options are available. The prospect of finding right just seems to get more and more challenging. I guess I’m saying I agree with you, but that I wish things were reversed – that my thinking was more free-flow now. It would make this journey easier.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sarah Louise, I’m glad what I’m saying here made sense once you got into it. It’s a tricky thing, because I don’t completely disagree with what Keller is saying, but I think it could be taken and applied by people the wrong way, with serious consequences!

    P, I am so sorry that you’re going through this. What a shock it must have been (and must still be). You worded the mentality I had: “I thought ‘as long as he’s a Christian and we have a few common interests, it’s going to work out fine.’” From what I can tell, it’s a philosophy many, many other Christians (especially young ones) take into marriage. It’s exactly this very real possibility of marrying the “wrong person” that prompted me to write this post. Thanks for sharing your story, and may you have hope and strength as you move forward.

    Paul, thanks for your honesty and compassion in and around this topic. You can’t fully comprehend how important it is for divorced people to hear someone say something like this: “I never know all the issues that lie beneath the surface. And I can only guess at how incredibly hard it must be to approach and go through a divorce.”

    Alise, it’s a pretty amazing feeling, to look at your husband each day and think “I married the right guy,” isn’t it? I certainly don’t want to encourage people to have unrealistic expectations and think they’re going to find someone “perfect,” but I really want them to believe they can find someone who is “right.” My marriage isn’t perfect, but it is right. (Maybe that’s what I should have titled this post! The difference between ‘perfect’ and ‘right.’)

    Brandon, thanks for reading and letting me know what you think! I was worried that the finer points of what I was trying to say might not come across.

  • P.

    Kristin, thanks for your kind and supportive words. To be honest, for the last few weeks I’ve been checking this site, knowing you’d understand.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Meredith, I’m so glad that rings true to you, and that you’re in a place where you can use what you know about yourself and the world to make good choices. Thanks, too, for sharing your perspective on your parents’ marriages. I think/hope my kids will say the same about the way our second marriages have worked out.

    Kirstin, I’m beginning to think everything about being human is contained within a spectrum! What you said about “timing, circumstances, and one’s own mental state” is so important to keep in mind as we navigate all of the choices we’re faced with, whether they’re about relationships, our careers, or any other aspect of life.

    The Modern Gal, you nailed this: “I think, first, it’s important to know oneself and have a realistic set of expectations about what marriage truly is and will do.” When I got married the first time, at 22, I didn’t have either of those important matters figured out. I’m so glad your marriage has that foundation! (And that book you mention? SCARY!)

    Sarah, I think the very things you are struggling with—that you expressed in your second paragraph—are at the heart of why many people get married too young to someone who just “seems like a good fit.” There is a sense that the older a single person gets, the more set in their ways they get, and the less success they will have making a marriage work. I’m sure there’s *some* truth to that, but I was 35 when I met my second husband—we each had definite ways of doing things by the time we met, but we were just compatible in so many important areas that we didn’t face that sort of rough transition and struggle. About that whole “meeting someone right for you” part, all I can tell you is to hang on to the hope! There were so many complicated issues after my divorce that I never imagined I would meet someone at all, let alone someone so right for me in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed of. I know it doesn’t happen for everyone, but please have hope that it *can* happen!

    P., I’m glad you’re here and I hope I can continue to encourage you and help make this very difficult time a little less so.

  • http://gracerules.wordpress.com/ Liz

    I’ve always thought that either extreme (“there is only one right person for you” or “there is no right person for you”) is dangerous. I love how you put it:

    There may not be a single “right” person for any of us, but there are definitely people who are more right than others. It is possible to be married and say, year after year, with great confidence, “I married the right person.”