Before “I Do”: How to Find the Right Partner for Marriage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Second Mountain" by David Brooks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you mitigate the risk of divorce? What personality traits should you look for? How many different types of love do you need?

David Brooks takes the relationalist approach to life. In The Second Mountain, he outlines the four commitments that are crucial to relationalism. One of these is marriage, and he shares his criteria for deciding whether to marry someone.

Read more to learn Brooks’s advice for how to find the right partner for marriage.

How to Find the Right Partner for Marriage

Because marriage is such a major commitment, you should learn first how to find the right partner for marriage. Brooks claims that, before committing to marry someone, you should spend time reflecting on your decision. In particular, he argues that you should evaluate your partner along psychological, emotional, and ethical lines before marrying them.

You should do so, he writes, because rapturous love alone doesn’t guarantee the success of a marriage. On the contrary, Brooks observes that many married couples initially experience such love, only to eventually get divorced. So, it makes sense to rationally assess your partner to mitigate the risk of the marriage eventually failing.

(Shortform note: Research bears out Brooks’s contention that feelings of love aren’t sufficient for a successful marriage. On the contrary, an influential study found that respect for one’s partner is most strongly correlated with relationship satisfaction, more so than feelings of romantic affection. Consequently, relationships that were built solely on romantic affection without respect are not likely to last.)

First, Brooks argues that you should assess your partner’s personality to look for any underlying red flags; since personality traits are mostly stable for adults, any red flags are unlikely to disappear after marriage. 

Though Brooks considers various personality traits, he specifically addresses attachment style—the way that you deal with commitment in relationships. People with anxious attachment styles, who constantly fear abandonment in relationships, have higher divorce rates, while those with secure attachment styles, who feel stable in relationships, have lower divorce rates. So, Brooks implies we should generally prefer to marry those with secure attachment styles.

(Shortform note: While attachment theory has spawned an enormous literature, its founder John Bowlby’s claim that attachment styles develop through our relationships with childhood caregivers remains the consensus view. According to Bowlby, children with responsive, present caregivers are likely to develop secure attachment styles, whereas those with less responsive, inconsistent caregivers are likely to develop anxious attachment styles.)

Next, Brooks argues that you should carefully evaluate the nature of your feelings toward your partner. To do so, he distinguishes among three types of love: romantic love, friendship, and selfless charity. 

According to Brooks, all three forms of love are necessary to sustain a marriage. If, for example, you only feel romantic love toward someone, Brooks claims that you’re merely infatuated. On the other hand, if you feel friendship and charity toward someone, but lack romantic love, you might cultivate a deep friendship without romantic feelings. So, to form the well-rounded love needed for marriage, you need all three.

(Shortform note: Psychologist Robert Sternberg has defended a triangular theory of love that bears similarities to Brooks’s account. According to Sternberg, consummate love has three dimensions: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Yet, while Sternberg’s notions of intimacy and passion correspond to Brooks’s notions of friendship and romantic love, Sternberg replaces selfless charity with commitment—the decision to actively maintain your relationship.)

Finally, Brooks concludes that it’s crucial to marry someone whose character you admire. Specifically, he argues that admiration of your partner will carry you through difficult times, like when your love feels stagnant. Moreover, because marriage is a promise, you should marry someone with integrity—someone who keeps their promises, rather than breaking them at the first sign of hardship. 

(Shortform note: In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle similarly argues that the highest form of friendship can only exist between two virtuous individuals. So, assuming that you’re friends with your spouse, it stands to reason that the same is true in a marriage.)

Before “I Do”: How to Find the Right Partner for Marriage

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Brooks's "The Second Mountain" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Second Mountain summary:

  • The negative consequences of the West's focus on individualism
  • Why you should embrace relationalism to lead a fulfilling life
  • The four commitments that constitute relationalist living

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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