All of us intuitively understand that for relationships to survive and thrive character matters. What is less understood, however, is why character matters so absolutely.
The short answer: because we love imperfectly.
In other words, if being in love means that we are at least as concerned with our spouse’s happiness as we are with our own, then we fall in and out of love with our spouses all the time. When we cease caring about their well-being and become self-centered, which unfortunately happens from time to time, they need to know they can, fundamentally, still trust us. That is to say that despite the inevitable difficulties and setbacks of life, they need to know we are the kind of person that chooses to do what is right even when we don’t want to. Individuals whose behavior is overwhelmingly decided by how they feel in any given moment aren’t trustworthy because no one feels like doing the right thing all the time. No one.
It is only when doing the right thing is the last thing we want to do that the quality and depth of our character is truly measured (see Luke 22:42).
If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve all heard of someone telling their significant other in the midst of a bad break-up, and for good reason, “If there is any chance for a future together, you have to change. However, you can’t change for me. It can’t be because you want to save the relationship. It has to be for you. You have to change for yourself.” What they’re telling us is that to commit confidently to a future together, i.e. to inspire trust in the idea that long-term happiness will result from our union, we need to change because changing is the right thing to do. To change for any other reason almost guarantees unnecessary future heartache and pain – possibly even divorce. In fact, under the circumstances, it would be difficult, even naïve, to believe that change for any other reason is anything other than a temporary (perhaps manipulative) fix to get what they want in the moment. So if change is motivated only by certain externalities, just give it a minute. After they get what they want, chances are they’re going to want something else.
For this reason, emotions can be good servants; however, they are terrible masters. Our brains are constantly responding to internal and external stimuli. Our survival instincts of freeze, flight or fight, are regularly being triggered by all sorts of events and circumstances. In each of these instances, however, if we only ever reacted by freezing, fleeing or fighting, although we may survive physically, in literally every other sense (mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) we would be killing ourselves and especially our relationships.
That is because trustworthiness requires that our behavior is determined not necessarily by what’s in our head or heart, but by what’s right and true. Regardless of what we feel like doing, to appropriately qualify for someone’s trust requires us to consistently subject our thoughts and feelings to enduring, universal principles. That is true character. And it is character we can trust. Indeed, character is really about the only thing we can trust. Under enough stress, everything else eventually fails.