Is He the One?: How to Know Whether You Should Marry Him

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litmus test
(Image/Broken Bread Club)

I used to leave a drinking glass by the kitchen sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher, and then argue with my wife when she complained about it.

I wrote that story a year ago, and since, more than four million people read it on this blog, and several million more read it elsewhere.

I call it “the dishes post,” even though it’s about a lot more than dishes. When I was asked today in an email whether there was a way to know BEFORE marriage that someone who by all appearances is a good man, might be a shitty husband, I realized the dishes post also serves as an excellent marriage litmus test.

She asked: “But, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a way for a woman to know or predict that *before* getting married? Red flags are obvious (infidelity, abuse, jealousy, etc.) but what about far-less obvious stuff?”

It’s a good question. And a year ago, I wouldn’t have been brazen enough to answer it. But when millions of people read something, share it with their friends and family saying: “THIS!!! This guy gets it!!!” and guys send me private emails telling me that it helped them finally understand why he and his wife or girlfriend always have the same fight over and over again, and that I helped him save his marriage, I feel emboldened even if it’s unjustified.

The Marriage Litmus Test

It could be dishes by the sink. It could be dirty socks thrown next to the hamper. It could be pee dribble on the toilet seat. It could be muddy shoes on the floor. It could be unrinsed shaving cream and facial-hair stubble crusted to the sides of the sink basin.

It doesn’t matter what the Thing is. Everyone has different Things.

It’s the Thing He Does Which Hurts Your Feelings or Disrespects You, And Then Acts Like You’re Crazy or Wrong When You Say So.

It usually goes like this:

Behavior X = The Thing That Hurts. Sometimes there are several things.

But Behavior X does not hurt him. In other words, dirty socks on the floor might bother you, but it doesn’t bother him. Because it doesn’t bother him, he thinks it’s irrational for it to bother you.

Thus, in his mind, the simple and best solution is not for him to stop throwing socks on the floor, but for you to stop letting your irrational emotions ruin your day.

“Why are you freaking out about something so minor and petty? Just let it go, babe! It’s not a big deal! I’ll pick them up later!”

I think you probably get it. So, here’s the test:

Step 1: Identify things or behaviors your boyfriend does which hurts your feelings.

Step 2: Say so. Kindly. Patiently. Honestly.

If he gets it, and says words and adjusts behavior to demonstrate that he gets it, he passes The Marriage Litmus Test with an A+. Congratulations!

This is uncommon. More likely are the following types of responses:

1. Dismissal — Treating your concern as unimportant like shooing away a flying insect.

2. Outrage — Responding as if you’re wrong, even going so far as to blame you for finding reasons to feel angry and start fights.

3. Avoidance — Denying you the opportunity to explain yourself because “Now’s not a good time for this,” and choosing to focus his energy and attention elsewhere.

Which means The Marriage Litmus Test continues. He doesn’t know how much is at stake, just like cigarette smokers in the 1960s didn’t know that smoking caused cancer. He’s not intentionally causing harm. He’s accidentally causing harm by choosing activities he honestly doesn’t know are bad.

Patience must be maintained. If you flip shit on him during the test, the test results will be invalid, because flipping your shit is ALSO not okay, no matter how easily and automatically you might slip into lashing out angrily.

Step 3: Kindly and honestly communicate that the Dismissal/Outrage/Avoidance response ALSO hurts, just like The Thing.

And for the sake of leading by example, kindly ask when a good time might be to talk about it more with him. NOT to criticize. But to help bridge the misunderstanding because you want your partner to understand where you’re coming from, just as you want to understand his perspective. You want to spend the rest of your relationship not fighting over silly things.

If he refuses to ever talk about it because you’re being a stupid, nagging, bitchy idiot, then maybe it’s time to leave. Because, without a major shift, your relationship is doomed.

If he agrees to a later conversation, and honors that commitment, things are looking good, and he may still earn an A.

Step 4: During the conversation, follow The 4 Easy Steps For Getting Your Husband to Finally Listen to You.

Not everyone’s brains work exactly the same. It is common for two people to view the same thing totally differently, which is why you’re having the conversation in the first place. Just because two people disagree DOES NOT make one wrong and the other right. Not all disagreements have an objectively true answer, like whether chocolate tastes better than vanilla.

Chocolate tastes better to me. Others prefer vanilla. The reasons are unique to each individual.

The trick is to understand what HURTS your boyfriend. So many guys mask their pains for fear of losing their Man Cards that sometimes their girlfriends don’t actually know what hurts them.

And it’s truly this simple:

Thing That Hurts Guy = Guy Hurting

And in EXACTLY that same way…

Boyfriend Behavior Being Discussed = Girlfriend Hurting

Each instance of the behavior caused a paper cut. And it just kept happening. Paper cuts. They don’t kill you. But it really hurts and is totally debilitating to get them over and over and over again. And ultimately, too many cuts becomes a fatal wound.

The Test Results

Even though a paper cut won’t kill me, I’m not going to choose a relationship with someone who repeatedly cuts me with paper, even after I point out that it’s happening.

My partner may accidentally give me a paper cut thoughtlessly. If she demonstrates clear remorse and pledges to stop, I will respond differently than if she says: “Toughen up, pussy. They’re just paper cuts.”

Everyone will have a different pain tolerance and threshold, as well as different reasons (they might have children together, for example) for grading the Marriage Litmus Test on a curve.

In the end, it’s up to each person to establish their personal boundaries and to enforce them. People who don’t communicate and enforce their boundaries are doomed to a life of other people making them miserable.

In the end, a guy who doesn’t “get it” or refuses to try will make a shitty husband, even if he’s a good guy in other areas.

He’ll just keep on cutting you with paper. Maybe not on purpose. But eventually, through negligence.

In the end, a guy who believes there’s a clear winner in the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion is wrong, will ultimately prove to be an insufferable asshole and shitty husband who will purposefully or inadvertently teach your kids to be insufferable assholes.

But just maybe, once your boyfriend understands that something that doesn’t hurt him and that he never intended to be harmful CAN STILL HURT YOU, and it registers with him how dangerous and abusive it is when people suffer that way, everything will change.

He may still paper-cut you accidentally now and then. But when you say so kindly, the moment won’t turn into another fight.

It will turn into a moment that brings you closer together.

Because he knows what he didn’t before, and because he’s a good guy, he’s going to try hard to not hurt you.

And because you know that when you do feel hurt, it will be safe to tell him, and you can trust he will always have your best interests (and those of your future family) at heart.

Sometimes, he’ll disappoint you and you’ll be upset that you have to end your relationship. It will hurt. But hopefully one day that pain will be replaced by gratitude for avoiding a toxic marriage.

But othertimes, he’ll surprise you. In a good way. Because he passed the Marriage Litmus Test.

Because you found the one for you.

And that’s where Happily Ever After — at least the real-life, non-fairytale version — begins.

42 thoughts on “Is He the One?: How to Know Whether You Should Marry Him”

  1. So we’ve been married for 22 years, very happily, though naturally there are things we both do that disappoint or irritate one another, so the part I don’t really get in your post is the sentence where you say : ‘If he gets it, and says words and adjusts behavior’. I pressume you intend to mean it to work both ways and that women may be willing to adjust their behaviours too and perhaps both be accommodating of one another’s failings. I guess we all need to show we are making an effort to love one another well but I think you are hard on yourself and maybe all men just a little bit.

    1. I think in this instance, he is answering the question the gal asked about knowing whether “He” is the going to pass the test. Plus, Matt is always very clear that HE is a dude and HE knows what HE did to mess with his marriage so he speaks to THAT above all else. Obviously, you are correct. It goes both ways, just change the pronouns and Voila! 🙂

      1. Fair enough, yes it dawned on me afterwards that he would be speaking from a man’s perspective – obviously 🙂 ! There is definitely a discrepancy in the tidiness standard in our household too, on the whole I think women are more bothered by these things. I’m constantly having to remind myself that the socks on the floor are not quite as bad as my grumpy face about the socks on the floor 🙂

    2. You and I are in alignment on this. I promise.

      I understand not everyone can warp inside of my brain to know what I think and feel, nor is it reasonable to expect that every person who reads a blog post has total context because they’ve spent their lives with better things to do than read my drivel.

      But I do hope it goes without saying that I don’t support domineering spouses.

      Not everyone defines “love” the same way, even though I believe it only has one meaning.

      It is selfless.

      It is generous.

      It is kind.

      It is patient.

      It is forgiving.

      It is humble.

      And in marriage, love must be given without the expectation of it being returned.

      Certainly, a marriage won’t last if only one of the partners loves.

      One should not subject themselves to a failing marriage, and it’s really tricky and unique to each individual relationship to determine when that is.

      Husband gets drunk and punches wife. Everyone’s cool when she leaves.

      Wife runs up $80,000 in credit card debt without telling her husband and jeopardizes their family’s ability to stay in the home. Everyone’s cool when he leaves.

      But what about the 90% of divorce cases?

      They don’t involve anything that makes headlines. They’re just two good people who married young and over the course of five to 10 years of lousy communication and thoughtless actions, broke their trust and emotional connection with one another.

      There’s no way for a stranger to say when it’s okay or not okay for one of them to choose a life where every day doesn’t feel miserable and joyless.

      So, the marriage is conditional. But the love cannot be.

      I think one of the things that will really help is if men, collectively, develop a better understanding of, and capacity for, empathy.

      To understand that a dish by the sink CAN actually cause pain in his spouse because it means something to her that it doesn’t mean to him.

      An American soldier might not think twice if he sees someone trampling around on the national flag of Zambia.

      But he or she might lose it if they see someone disrespecting the American flag by stomping on it.

      In the end, is there really a difference? A country’s flag was getting walked on. But one of them meant something much different to the soldier.

      It sounds so simple and obvious, which is why I believe so few people recognize the gravity of all this.

      It’s so subtle and nuanced that no one is afraid of it. No one feels pressure to have the conversation in classrooms, and around dinner tables, and around watercoolers at work.

      But this inability people demonstrate (more often men, in my estimation) to recognize this simple truth is what destroys marriage and families.

      I am hard on myself.

      And there’s absolutely room in this world for women to be having conversations about behaving with more love and empathy in their relationships (but I’m not going to be the one to point fingers and say that).

      I think the brokenness children feel when they lose their home, and the helplessness parents feel when they lose time and parental influence over their kids, and the crushing blow we suffer emotionally and psychologically when the foundation of our lives break — our families and home life — I think it’s all so important and severe, and that it’s not treated so by the population at large.

      We all scream at each other over political arguments on Facebook.

      Are these things which capture our attention and earn our energy REALLY more important than the preservation of our closest personal relationships?

      Until we prioritize, we’ll continue to break.

      And as we continue to break, we can’t help with any of the macro-level stuff happening in the world because we don’t have the energy nor emotional capacity to even help ourselves.

      1. Again Matt…you open eyes and hearts….. We all have boundaries and deal breakers ,we have established standards that provide our personal being ( mental-physical-emotional) with security,consistency, safety , sanity and overall wellness. Unfortunately if those boundaries deal breakers standards etc. are kept in silence they become a festering growth that breeds resentment, anger , mistrust and hatred. Once those have been violated by our spouses our survival mechanisms take over. We begin to doubt ourselves our self worth and the worthiness of our once beloved. We start to imagine what life apart would be like. We see the person most loved in our life as the enemy. We want out ! We need to find the security in others or in solitude . We become broken. We act!…..but then will this extreme reaction make things better? Should we have used better reasoning? A better avenue? Did we really think that this was the just “add water” and stir part of being a life partner? What was the initial investment? I don’t have all the right answers…no one does….hell I’ve stood at the gates of Divorce Hell….but I would not allow us to be influenced by the glamour and disingenuousness ,of that place…my kids deserved better…my wife deserved (what I had vowed) better…I deserved better. So what did I choose? The least costly most powerful option….respect. Respect is by far the nuclear weapon of keeping the foul and evil that enters a relationship at bay…respect opens the door to better communication…..respect allows you to share what each other’s boundaries deal breakers etc are and how to honor them in kind…respect is what gives to one’s dignity a feeling and assurance of worth by your love. We can never allow complacency in a relationship…never…it has to be nurtured, grown, loved and fought for!… I realize that just about every time I post I mention a fight but it is how I view it…..there was a time when it was a major battle to save my marriage and it got ugly but in the end WE were victorious. So it how I view the journey…you all my view it differently….but nonetheless I applaud you all for taking the journey and if needed the fight… bless you all.

      2. I agree, ultimately it’s relationships that define us, make us happy and are the most meaningful aspect of our lives, even into eternity. The keys in this whole discourse I think are healthy communication within a framework of love. As someone aptly said once, somewhere, the main problem in any marriage is your own selfisness, not the other person. Once both parties adopt that point of view, it all gets a whole lots easier!

        1. And I think the role the rest of us play is in trying to build a mechanism for helping young people grasp these concepts and ask the right questions BEFORE marriage.

          I totally agree with you, and I NEVER thought about it until I was divorced.

          The quality of our human relationships is the single-biggest earthly influence on how we experience life. On whether it’s good or bad.

          And we invest countless hours and resources teaching children Shakespeare and biology and the War of 1812 and how to calculate square roots.

          But we don’t dedicate hardly ANY hours nor resources teaching children the life skills required to help relationships thrive. Generation after generation after generation. Not knowing any better because they didn’t learn them either, and then inadvertently raising another generation who doesn’t know better, and they will inevitably raise ANOTHER generation for more of the same.

          We figured out that drinking while pregnant harms babies and now mostly people don’t do it.

          We figured out that eating cheeseburgers and milkshakes every day makes you gain weight and causes heart disease, so now people who worry about that make different choices.

          We figured out that smoking causes lung cancer, and now fewer people than ever smoke, and the expectation is that our children mostly won’t grow up doing it.

          Someday, people are going to figure out that these nuanced concepts are what destroys marriages and relationships, and instigate the trickle-down effects that follow.

          And people are going to learn better ways to speak and think and behave.

          And when they do that, couples are going to thrive. And their children will, too, both because they never watched their home break, and because they have great behavior models for how to treat their future marriage partners.

          I hope I get to see and feel some of those cultural changes during my lifetime.

          And I hope my son gets to raise his potential kids in a world where this is ingrained in our homes and education systems.

          If it’s as effective as the No Smoking campaigns have been in the past 30 years, I think it will be the single, most-impactful positive societal change in human history.

          It can’t be overstated how many shitty things would go away in such a life.

          We’ll see.

          1. Too true! We should’ve spent hours being drilled in legitimate differences, accepting influence, healthy boundaries, projection, fear of intimacy, self sabotage, full respect living, emotional maturity and positive and creative negotiation/problem solving. In my opinion. 🙂

          2. I would love this, I really wished people had discussed toxic/abusive relationships constructs with me, when i was like, 11, before hitting high school and having intense relationships which were deeply unhappy and negatively affected all parties.
            Good idea

  2. Fantastic. It is so true that something which may seem totally innocuous to you may be completely debilitating to someone else. This is especially dangerous when that someone else is a person that you love. This is yet another reason why communication is so important in any kind of relationship. I have a question for you though Matt… What are your thoughts on the rare occasions where the girl or guy that is doing the complaining is simply just immature or a control freak? That does happen too. Anyhow, thanks for sharing here… I enjoyed the read.

  3. Great post, Matt! Yet, as someone who chooses to be single, I am always perplexed that “everyone” sees marriage as the ultimate goal or validater. I have been married twice, yet even though I’m in a relationship now that we would like to keep “forever,” I can’t foresee a reason why I need to marry again. I believe I actually try harder to be a good partner when it’s a choice… and if it stops being right for me, I want to exit without all of the legal entanglements.

    That being said, I mentally replaced marriage with life partnership.

  4. I’m sorry but I really need to speak up about one point in this post. There is no competition between chocolate and vanilla. Chocolate always wins… unless cheesecake is an option.

  5. I’m sorry but I really need to speak up about one point in this post. There is no competition between chocolate and vanilla. Chocolate always wins… unless cheesecake is an option.

    1. I felt so passionately I wrote it twice….. Damn phone. However, I’m commenting while on an elliptical so I feel I was moderately successful.

        1. Hahahaha!!! Well played response there. Yes and no. I haven’t had cheesecake or chocolate in quite some time now. However, I feel I may never have started going to the gym if it weren’t for the many indulgences in my past.
          This post lost me at chocolate.

  6. Hmmm. I’m not complaining or criticizing this post at all, I just enjoy reading this stuff and comparing it to my own marriage. I think Matt is awesome too, and everyone has to figure it out in their own way.

    “If he gets it, and says words and adjusts behavior to demonstrate that he gets it, he passes The Marriage Litmus Test with an A+. Congratulations!”

    I’m just not feeling it. We need to know he has boundaries, what I call edges, a lot of women’s security and sense of safety comes from being able to reach out and sense those edges. So if he’s freaking out and screaming that you’re crazy, he’s got not edges,no self preservation skills, and your emotions are a threat to him. Conversely however, if a guy got it, said the right words,and adjusted his behavior, I’d feel as if he had no boundaries either.

    “In the end, a guy who believes there’s a clear winner in the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion is wrong…”

    Yes, but a man that can’t even stand up for chocolate is a man that can’t stand up for you,either. Not all opinions are valid, not all choices are equal.

  7. While I mostly agree with you, I think it also leaves a wide-open door for insisting that your partner/wife/whatever must adjust their behavior to make you happy. Today it’s a glass next to the sink. OK, fixed, look at me, amazing listener! But now it’s dirty socks on the floor–just, you know, fix that too and then we’ll be good. Then it’s… You get the idea. Honestly, I think you take a person the way s/he is, dirty dishes and socks and all. Your relationship should be better than an ultimatum.

    1. There’s a lot to talk about here.

      It’s not possible to cover All The Things in one blog post. I wish that wasn’t true.

      I hear you. And I agree with you.

      But there’s a line somewhere in the middle, and I imagine it looks and feels different to everyone standing next to it.

      Here’s the bottom line for me:

      It’s obvious to me now that a husband’s refusal to accept his wife’s influence on these little things (socks, dishes, whatever) wrapped up in a package that looks and feels to her like blatant disrespect and resentment COMBINED with her feeling neglected and undesired because he works late, or plays golf, or plays video games, or whatever he chooses to invest his time in that doesn’t involve her; is the most commonly cited condition for an unhappy wife wanting to leave her marriage.

      And the emotional responses the two of them have to one another’s frustrations with the other’s choices and feelings slowly breaks down their connection over time. Erodes it. Like acid.

      They never touch each other anymore, even if they both theoretically want to. It just feels broken and wrong.

      Then one has an affair, and everything explodes, and they divorce, and all anyone ever talks about is the affair and how horrible the cheater was to ruin a marriage with such selfish behavior.

      And the real problem continues to lurk undetected.

      This inability to connect in a way that’s bigger than these little things you and I might consider petty.

      I’m NOT saying I think it’s right or SHOULD be this way.

      But I am saying that all the evidence in the world shows that it IS this way.

      As much as I like to operate from a framework of idealism, I don’t think humanity can afford to with our most important relationships.

      Because they’re not ideal.

      They’re messy.

      When our things get messy, we clean them up and reorganize.

      Someday, more people are going to figure out how to do that with their relationships too.

    2. I think some people operate on a level where you love someone, dirty dishes and all. Other people do not.
      I don’t think this test is anywhere close to a one size fits all. In my very humble opinion, people probably know from the getgo if they could be married to this person.
      Truthfully though, everyone has their dishes. It’s a huge metaphor for basically everything that can bother a person. For his wife it was dishes, for another woman it could be laundry, and the list goes on. What I wonder though is if success in marriage just comes down to luck? Two people, who paired up and have the right habits that don’t annoy the shit out of one another.
      I know it’s probably more complicated than that but could it just be that simple? Can you really change who you are?

  8. Since Matt seems to be addressing women, in how they should go about seeking a husband…I would just add that I highly recommend Lori Gottleib’s book “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough”. Fantastic stuff there, that Miss Gottleib wishes she had known 20 years earlier. You can benefit from her mistakes, and it took a lot of guts on her part to open herself to that kind of scrutiny.

    You can also find her on YouTube, doing some daytime talk shows where she is asked about the book.

  9. Oh, and just to add this: shared values are probably the most important factor for a successful marriage. If a couple has opposing values, it will be difficult to maintain a successful marriage.

  10. Shared values are a really good point. While I totally get Matt’s dishes post and the issues with socks on the floor, those are not really “our values.” I’m laughing here, because from a female perspective those things can become our values very quickly, but they are not.

    So what Matt is basically saying is, does your wife’s feelings and opinions matter to you? Are they important? It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with them, but do they have value to you?

    There are plenty of men in the world that either don’t care or don’t know any better, and flat out, women’s emotional well being, contentment level, is not even on their radar as a concern. Those are the kind of men I would avoid totally. You will have no voice, they will have deaf ears.

  11. Thank you. Wish you’d written this and I’d read this earlier my ex would have failed the test, but then again…wouldn’t have a super awesome kid without the pain.

  12. Great post. Marriage is for adults who are ready to cope with unpleasant surprises and, accept endurance and understanding of one another as a way of life. You never going to meet a perfect person to marry but you must marry for love sake and stay married for love sake inspite human imperfections.

  13. They key, I think, is to remember to listen to everything, even little “This bothers me”, I said a little “This bothers me” to someone I used to know, and she either didn’t listen or went and DID IT TO ME to hurt me, because she was angry.
    She did the avoidance dance, discussing her point of view (which is legit, and which I respect), but not once asking my perspective or how to compromise, and that’s when all the fond feelings died officially
    Your a good guy, with great ideas, and your out here fighting the good fight and giving good advice, and I’m proud of you .

    1. Nice thing to say. Thank you very much.

      This stuff really matters to people and affects their lives. Yet so few talk and think about it in ways that help. And it’s unfortunate so many of us have to learn the hard way.

  14. Just wrote a blog on this (Dear Lucille: How Can I Have a Happy Marriage?) Children only know their own needs. Grownups know their needs and are able to see the needs of others. Ya gotta be a grownup to sustain a marriage. Show me a person who never learned to see the needs of others and I’ll show you one lonely son-of-a-gun.

  15. I’m the type of person who isn’t so quick to point the finger. After reading this, I realize that when something that does hurt ME, and I know doesn’t hurt HIM, I automatically think that by now he should now what bothers me and what doesn’t. Even though we have never sat down and had a heart to heart about any of this. We do always have the same fight over and over again, and after reading this, I really think I have some tools that can help him and I prevent this in the future. That is if he is on the same page as me. Thank you Matt!! 🙂

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  17. Well he failed the never chet part. But i gave him another chance.. Hoping hes being honest now and really doesnt wanna mess things up cause of our 2 kids. And he doesnt make me feel safe…the obvious way that you the way he’ll never hit me or put his hands on me, because he has out of frustration. And im probably shitty too because i get upset. But he shouldnt put his hands on me. But if i leave him there is so much at stake. For example, i dont believe in vaccines anymore…and how could i homeschool our daughters if we are not together and i have to work? Breakups are far easier without kids. I hate being with a man who doesnt respect me and makes excuses for EVER putting his hands on me. No love. Our relationship feels doomed and i dont want to leave cause of the kids. I keep hoping things will get better but they dont. We arent married yet andi dont want to spend my life with one who disregards my feelings and thoughts and just thinks im irrational so he ignores me. I feel im living with my enemy sometimes.
    I love your articles i just wish he would read them…but he wont cause he wouldnt admit to it and doesnt like to read…unless its about ufc or motorcycles. I guess im screwed.
    And ive been a single mom for 10 years and i dont want that the rest of my life!

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  20. You’ll probably never read this, but while men hunted, women in tribal societies did the majority of the gathering, & provided most of the calories for their tribe. Not sure what you think women did all day if you really think men were doing both the hunting AND the gathering.

  21. This is a wonderful test! I’ve always known that there was something in the way someone responds to the “little things” that hurt their s/o, but never the reasoning behind it. You have explained it very well.
    I’ve applied this test to a couple of things that happened between me and a guy who was interested in a relationship. He did not get the A. Needless to say, we are not moving forward from here.

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Matt Fray

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