For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
— Mark 8:35 (ESV)

We are often told the secret to a happy marriage lies in finding your soul mate. Find the "One" and you'll live happily ever after, they say.

I am not sure they are right. In fact, I know they're wrong. The fundamental problem with this kind of thinking is that it roots the secret of a happy marriage outside of ourselves, outside of things we can influence, outside of our responsibility.  With such thinking, when things go pear shaped, as they invariably do, we will tend to approach marital conflict with the conviction: ‘I have met the enemy and he (or she) is you!” We tell ourselves, "I can't change until he/she does." But what we really mean is: I won't change until he/she does. This is doubly disastrous: robbing us both of the ability and the responsibility to move things forward for the better, and blinding us to the fact that almost invariably the real problem lies a good deal closer to home than we would like to admit.

I was struck by this a few years ago reading a letter by JR Tolkien to his son about his own famously happy marriage to Edith.

When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still there to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

In the course of His letter he ponders with his son if it might have been possible to find someone in the world with whom he would have been even more compatible than Edith? Given the myriad of choices out there, as hard as it might be to admit, Tolkien concluded that the answer was probably yes-- for both of them. 

And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will… (and the truly great loves) are more nearly achieved by failure and suffering.”

Here is Tolkien's genius. What he seems to be saying is this: I might have found a more compatible woman, and your mother a more compatible man, but we would be fools to believe such marriages would have been the happier for the compatibility, because the secret of a happy marriage does not lie outside of yourself in the compatibility of your spouse. Rather it lies within yourself, and your willingness to die to your own selfish demands for compatibility, and to live, making yourself compatible with another. Serving their needs and interests; dying to our own.

The cynic might within us, of course, might easily repine, "Would not a lovelier spouse make the death-sacrifice easier?"  From one standpoint-- the standpoint of self-interest-- there is some truth here. We are the more easily attracted to lay our life down in the cause of beauty than its contrast. But, and here is the key point, such self-interest is exactly the wrong foundation on which to build a relationship that will only properly sing in the self-sacrificing service of another. Such an inherently selfish motive will provide little help in those days when we find our spouse unlovely, unresponsive, and ungrateful for all we are and do. These are precisely the kind of days when marriages, the really great kind of marriages for which we all long, are won and lost.

As Tolkien reminds us, such marriages are only achieved through failure and suffering. Many days they will feel more like dying than living. But through the strange logic of the cross, such a death-life will make us more alive than we have ever been before.