How can you know if you’ve found Mr. or Mrs. Right? Dr. Neil Clark Warren’s 25 years of marriage counseling have given him keen insight into what can make-or break-a marriage before it starts.
I can still remember when I was a young boy looking at the cut glass toothpick holder that was always at the center of our family breakfast table. It was a delicate little piece, but what caught my attention was the writing on it: “State Fair-Des Moines, Iowa-1915.” I must have asked my mother about it dozens of times, because I specifically remember how proudly she would say: “Your dad bought it for me. We were married that year on August 21st.” And I would silently puzzle over the ancientness of it all.
My mother died a couple of months ago, shortly before she and my dad would have celebrated the 71st anniversary of their incredible marriage, which to me had seemed ancient well over 40 years ago.
And I have repeatedly thought about the monumental decision the two of them made during that month of August in 1915. Not only did it lead to their eating all those breakfasts together and having an infinite number of experiences in common, but it also made possible my two sisters and me, and the 12 grandchildren, and the 12 great-grandchildren, and the two great-great-grandchildren. My dad and mom, because of that single decision in the summer of their youth, had spent thousands and thousands of days together, and they had set in motion all of these other lives.
Obviously, there are not many marriages that last 70 years. But every marriage has an enormous number of consequences, most of which are not apparent when that “summer” decision is being made. When a woman chooses her man and a man selects his woman, they are setting themselves up for something wonderful-or something horrible.
The choice of a marriage partner is so crucial that it makes the choice of a career seem superficial in comparison. When you decide to weave your life into the life of another person, you are changing everything about your existence for the rest of your days. If the other person is right for you-a good fit-your existence will be significantly more rewarding. But if the fit turns out to be a poor one, you may be in for months and years-even decades-of pain and despair.
Why is Selecting a Marriage Partner so Difficult?
Some of us have a hard time making plans just a week in advance. I have a friend who likes to make decisions right now about what he will do a half-hour from now. He despises “mortgaging” his weekend with commitments made during the week. He loves being able to go with his momentary impulse.
Likewise, nearly all of us are concerned about decisions that determine what we will do for an entire year ahead. We have to think for a long time about whether we will still feel good about our plans six or nine months from now. So can you imagine what an overwhelming challenge it is to select a single person with whom we will live for the rest of our lives? What marriage asks us to do is to make a choice that we will stick with no matter what for “as long as we both shall live.”
It would be one thing if we were asked simply to decide on one person with whom we will have all of our children, or one person with whom we will go on every vacation for the next 10 years, or one person with whom we will have all of our bank accounts and retirement funds in common. But it boggles the mind that we are asked to select one person with whom we will do all of these things plus dozens of others-such as sleep with that person every night for the rest of our lives, eat thousands of meals with him or her, and have all things in common forever.
What we are called upon to do is make a sound judgment about the kind of fit we have with a person now and a prediction about the kind of fit we will experience 25, 50 or maybe even 70 or 75 years from now. That’s the impossible part! If you and the other person are going to grow and change over time the way most people grow and change, the possibility that a good fit today will continue to be a good fit in the year 2050 seems at best, remote-at least it’s remote on any human basis.
Is the Mate Selection Process Working in Our Society?
The answer is clearly no. There are exceptions of course: Those 70 years my mom and dad lived together were mostly wonderful. But the statistics on marriage are dreadfully negative. You’ve probably heard them often enough to have them nearly memorized, but listen to them one more painful time. The divorce rate in the United States is far higher than in any other country in the world. Of 10 couples who get married today, five will get divorced. Of the five couples whose marriages endure, more than half will report that they share little if any intimacy.
Moreover, the average marriage lasts only 9.4 years. And some studies indicate that one half of the couples whose marriages are unsuccessful get divorced within two years after their wedding day.
Perhaps the most tragic part of all is that so many children get innocently caught in the desperately confusing and agonizing break-ups of these marriages. Sixty percent of all children born this year will spend at least part of their childhood in a single-parent family. And by the early 1990s it is estimated that 70 percent of all persons in our society will have experienced a broken home-either the home of their parents or the home established around their own marriage.
What is the Problem? Where is the Trouble Occurring?
I’ve been working with people in psychotherapy for nearly 25 years. I’ve stared at hundreds of marriage problems from every conceivable angle. I’ve listened to people talk through their tears and their anger about what went wrong. And I’ve become convinced that we can eliminate hundreds of thousands of marriage failures if we will recognize that most marriages that fail were in deep trouble the day they began. The fact is that most people whose marriages fold simply selected the wrong person to marry.
Does that seem obvious of you? Unfortunately, it didn’t seem obvious to the happy couple when they decided to get married.
But the good news is that we are developing better ways of determining ahead of time whether a marriage will succeed or fail. One prominent recent study indicates that marriage success or failure can now be predicted before the wedding day with 81 percent accuracy. We are beginning to isolate the factors that contribute significantly to marital breakdown or growth. Let me briefly share with you 10 of the reasons marriages often fail. (In a later section I will offer 10 reasons why marriages succeed.)
1. The decision to get married is made too quickly. In order for two people to make an evaluation of how good the fit is between them, a tremendous amount of information must be shared and processed. That takes time, plenty of time. I say two years or more of thoughtful involvement with each other. Marriage failures often involve people who made a rapid-fire decision about the most important family matter they will ever consider.
2. The decision is often made at too young of an age. Statistics tell us that the divorce rate is twice as high for 21- and 22-year-olds as it is for 24- and 25-year-olds. And the divorce rate for persons under 20 is overwhelmingly high.
The fact is that in our society adolescence often lasts much longer than in other societies. Until persons have reached their mid-20s, they usually have not developed sufficiently-either emotionally or spiritually-to make long-term predictions about life direction possible. In the absence of such predictions, how can anyone judge how well their fit with someone else will be in the future?
3. The couple has unrealistic expectations. One man told me, “I knew when we were dating that we had some serious problems, but I was sure that things would get better after we got married.” A woman, only two years into her marriage, said: “He promised me that after we were married he would stop drinking and start going to church with me, but he hasn’t and he won’t.”
I’ve talked to scores of individuals who, when considering divorce, said that they simply did not know what they were getting into when they got married. Their expectations were totally naive and unrealistic. And I often find that people think of marriage as the place to get all of their needs met.
They think marriage will make them suddenly feel good about themselves.
They’re sure a marital relationship will “fix” a lot of their other emotional and mental problems.
They think the friendship with their mate will take care of all their friendship needs.
Most of this is dead wrong. The fact is that prospective spouses need to get these issues dealt with on their own before marriage, or they are likely to submerge the relationship under the weight of unresolved personal problems.
4. The decision is often made largely on romantic grounds. Television has inflicted on us the idea that romantic love is all that’s necessary for building a lasting relationship. This is outrageous! When we find ourselves in a relationship, and our hormones are sending exciting messages throughout our bodies, it’s like we’re living on a cloud, floating from one form of ecstasy to another. And we may think that marriage will be easy. Now, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with this kind of romantic love. In fact, it’s crucial for a couple to nurture this dimension for as long as they are together. God gives us the capability of feeling this way about a person of the opposite sex, and there’s nothing quite so enjoyable. But if romantic love is not built on far deeper and sturdier realities, it has a tendency to collapse in the face of the tough realities of married life.
As a matter of fact, it is probably true that most young marriages that fail have their beginnings in the billowy clouds of romantic feelings and dreams. This is a great place for a relationship to begin, but a dangerous foundation on which to base a lifetime decision about a marriage partner. The “crashing to earth” experience of these couples-so devastating to them and their families-is usually caused by the lack of steel-like structures undergirding the romance. The greatest fallacy of all is that romantic love is everything that needs to be considered in choosing a mate.
5. One or both persons has a poorly developed self-image. Numerous psychological research studies have demonstrated that there is a high correlation between self-esteem and the acceptance of others. in a very real sense, persons can love others only as they learn to love themselves. A marriage relationship has a far less chance of succeeding when self-esteem is a major problem for one or both of the partners.
6. One or both persons has significant concerns about the personality of the other. If you are thinking about marrying a person, and there are qualities about your partner’s personality that you’re having all kinds of trouble with-like their jealousy or temper or regular unhappiness or undependability or lying or stubbornness or moodiness-ask yourself if you’re willing to spend the rest of your life dealing with these problems. Personality features like these almost never simply vanish when you get married. The key is to require that they be worked through well before you say “I do,” even if it means a delay of your wedding date. If you can’t get them resolved on your own, secure the help of a Christian psychologist, psychiatrist, or marriage counselor. Whatever you do, don’t just “hope that everything will turn out fine.”
7. Communication skills are inadequately developed.
Can you tell your partner what you’re really feeling without fear of judgment and putdown?
Can you share negative feelings with each other?
Does your partner carefully listen to you?
Does your partner seem to understand how you feel
If you can’t answer “yes” to all four of these, you have a communication problem that could cause all kinds of trouble.
8. Even routine conflicts do not get resolved. Daniel Goleman of the New York Times has said: “The ability to talk over problems is more important than how much a couple are in love or how happy the couple were before the marriage.”
I remember counseling with a couple about their impending marriage. They were having a terrible time with this area of conflict resolution. They disagreed about all kinds of things, and they even had different ideas about the best ways to solve their disagreements. She told me that he always had to win every argument, and he told me that he usually ended up feeling responsible for every problem they had. I knew they were in deep trouble, and I recommended that they delay their marriage until they developed the skill to solve their problems in a way that left them both feeling good about themselves and each other.
9. Religious beliefs and values are not shared. Experimental studies indicate that this is a crucial area. If one partner is deeply committed to Christ, and the other partner does not share this commitment, the marriage is severely weakened. Unity on this subject is of paramount importance. For instance, if you believe that it is important to pray with your partner, to be involved in the life of a church, and to raise your children with a deep appreciation for the Lord-and your partner says “no thanks” to all of these, look out!
10. There is little encouragement for the marriage from family and friends. I always ask couples what their friends and family think of their relationship. I seldom find a situation in which there is little support for the couple, and yet they seem in other ways to be well-fitted for each other. Exceptions do occur, of course, but not often. The fact is that every couple badly needs all the help they can get to make their relationship a quality one, and if they aren’t getting that help from the people closest to them, I get concerned. If no help is forthcoming, they must have almost everything else about their relationship in near-perfect shape. And if everything else is in such terrific shape, why aren’t their friends and family more enthusiastic?
How Do You Go About Making the Right Choice of a Person to Marry?
This is the section of the booklet I’ve been eager to talk to you about. I’ve hardly been able to wade through all the “danger signs” of the “marriage not likely to work,” crucial though it is to heed these signs. I’ve been straining at the bit to talk to you about what we know about the secrets of finding the exact person who can engage with you in a healthy and wonderfully happy marriage. The fact is that even though we are a long way from being able to select mates scientifically, we have make a lot of headway in understanding what makes marriage selection successful.
In the simplest of terms, what we know to be necessary is this:
You and your partner must have an excellent fit now, not “later when everything gets wonderful after we are married.”
The two of you need to have the skills that make adjustment possible as you deal together with the inevitable changes of life.
And at the bottom of everything there needs to be the kind of deep commitment to one another that will get you through the tough times when the necessary adjustments are waiting to be made.
These three qualities-good fit, well-developed adjustment skills, and solid commitment-will make for long-term marriages that provide stability for many generations. But how do you come by these, and how do you know when you’ve found them?
How Do You Find Someone With Whom You Have an Excellent Fit?
I am asked that question continually, and there are all kinds of answers to it. (I’m going to assume that there are several potential partners available to you.) But one thing is certain: Everything starts with you. It is crucial for you to know yourself extremely well. You can’t make much of a judgment about how well a person fits with you until you know who you are and what you want in a relationship. I am convinced that how we see ourselves has a significant impact on the choices we make about the people with whom we will spend the rest of our lives. If we know what makes us really happy, we will know what to look for. I think that’s why research indicates that the three background circumstances most predictive of marital happiness are the happiness of our parents, our own childhood happiness, and the quality of relationship we had with our mothers. You may be asking what this has to do with knowing yourself. The fact is that when our homes are intact and the primary relationships are healthy and happy, we can do the kind of exploring of our inner worlds that leads to a deep sense of identity.
If these qualities were not true for you, I encourage you to spend some time in a counseling relationship with your minister or a local counselor. Knowing yourself at a deep level is fundamentally important to the mate selection process. After “self-knowledge,” I always talk about the importance of having plenty of experience with members of the opposite sex. My wife, Marylyn, and I have three daughters-Lorrie, Luann and Lindsay. They range in age from 21 to 26. We always encouraged them during their high school and college years to date a number of young men. We believed that by doing this they would each gain a deeper understanding of the qualities they wanted in the man they would marry. Lorrie, our oldest daughter, was married a year ago to Greg, whom she had first dated some ten years earlier. In between, they both dated others, but they both found that no one else satisfied their criteria for a lifetime mate. We feel particularly good about the process by which they became engaged. By the time they were ready for marriage, they had a keen sense of what they were looking for in a partner.
When you know yourself well and you have a clear idea of the kind of person with whom you can make a good fit, and when you have dated a lot of people and feel that you may have found “the one,” your challenge is to assess this relationship with the greatest care. I recommend that you seek the counsel, guidance and support of your parents or other married persons whom you know and deeply respect.
Because this will undoubtedly be the most significant family decision you will ever make, and because you will have to live with the decision for years and years, I encourage you to: 1) Take plenty of time; don’t let anybody hurry you. 2) Pray fervently for God’s guidance. 3) Look at the matter from every angle and be as objective as you can. 4) Have the courage to say, “This relationship is just not right for me,” or “I’m not ready to make a decision with such long-term ramifications” or “We need some professional help before I can even think about making the decision.”
Whatever you do, don’t jeopardize your life by making a decision you know to be unwise just because you don’t want to hurt your partner, or because you think your friends might think badly of you, or because the invitations are out, or even because someone older thinks the two of you would be good for each other. This is your marriage, and you get to make this decision only once in your life (under ordinary circumstances). You, your partner, and any future children deserve the most carefully made and the wisest decision of which you are capable.
What Are the Signs of a Healthy Dating Relationship?
The 10 signs I am going to list are a compilation of all I have heard from the hundreds of people with whom I have worked on marriage and family issues through the years. They are basic, and if one of them is not true of the relationship you are analyzing, I suggest that you be very careful about proceeding with that relationship. If two or more of them are not true, I hope you will be deeply concerned and that you will pursue all the assistance you need before making any final decision.
1. You are each other’s best friend, and you genuinely like being with each other. A recent survey of over 300 successful, long-term marriages indicates that for both men and women this matter of friendship is considered to be the most important ingredient of all.
2. Communication is easy, natural and free. You feel that you can tell each other anything without fear of judgement or put down.
3. You have numerous spiritual values and ideals in common. You have both demonstrated the depth of your commitment to Christ and to other men and women.
4. You both think of marriage as a lifetime commitment.
5. When you experience differences between each other, you are able to work them out. You seem to know how to resolve conflict.
6. You love to laugh together.
7. You feel thoroughly known by your partner and deeply cared for.
8. Your family and friends seem genuinely supportive of the two of you as a couple.
9. You feel romantic about each other much of the time, but you feel comfortable and content with each other almost all the time.
10. You have a relationship that feels sane and safe and stable. You sense that there is a solid fit between both of you at many levels.
Intimacy: Perhaps the Most Important Work in Relationship Building
There is one last matter that I must discuss with you, because I have come to see that it may be the most crucial matter of all. I had heard about intimacy for a long time before I really knew what it meant. And now I have tremendous respect for all that the word intimacy represents. It’s almost always present in quality marriages, and it’s almost always absent in marriages that are in trouble.
An intimate relationship involves the sharing of that which is innermost for two people-hence, the very personal and the private. It is when we have shared the personal and private parts of ourselves-the innermost in us-that we feel woven into each other. As human beings we are, at our centers, made up of a rich and constantly changing stream of feelings, fantasies, evaluations and thoughts. If we want another to really know us, we need to share this many-sided and ever-changing internal set of events. And if we want to know another, we must listen as they reveal the same innermost thoughts and feelings to us. This kind of sharing takes time. And it takes all kinds of trust. You certainly have to feel free from the fear of being put down and judged
Now here is the crucial part: It is when we engage in living and communicating intimately that we get woven together at the deepest levels of our existence. And it is this kind of woven-together experience that produces relationships which last forever. Without this kind of depth, we tend to be fastened together with loose and superficial bindings which are easily broken under the stress and pressure of living together.
So, when you and the one you love are puzzling over whether you have a relationship that will last and make you happy, ask yourselves this important question: “Do we share the most personal and private parts of ourselves with each other, and if we do, is there a quality to that sharing which lets us know at our deepest level that we are in harmony and that we really fit?
When All is Said and Done, Is Marriage Really Worth It?
You must sometimes wonder if marriage is worth the work and the risk. When the majority of marriages are such a great disappointment, and when failing marriages can bring so much pain and agony to so many, you would be less than thorough if you didn’t consider the possibility that, for you, it might be easier and perhaps less painful to remain single.
But the idea that men and women are incomplete without each other is an idea that permeates the Bible. In I Corinthians the apostle Paul said, “But remember that in God’s plan men and women need each other.” And there is a wonderful passage in Ecclesiastes that says, “Two can accomplish more than twice as much as one, for the results can be much better.”
A good marriage is an incredible experience. I can testify to that after 27 years of marital happiness. I am convinced that there is nothing in life to rival the experience of a man and a woman in love and a family that is grounded in the love of their parents.
Now We Have the Tools-Mate Selection Can Improve Significantly
It is crucial that we do an infinitely better job of mate selection in our society. We have paid far too little attention to this vital area for scores of years, and now we are paying the price as a nation and a culture. But we are capable of bringing about a dramatic historical change. As parents and friends and professional community, we have more help to give and more reason for giving it than ever before. Our goal must be to provide maximum assistance to every young couple considering marriage.
We have excellent premarital testing tools available, and we can provide counseling services that will make an enormous difference to these persons as they select their mates and begin the formidable task of constructing a Christian marriage and home. This matter of helping our young people select the right marriage partner is, in my opinion, the most significant challenge we will face in the area of family life for the rest of this century and beyond.
If we do the work of which we are capable, we can turn those frightening divorce statistics around. Men and women can be taught to select mates in ways that will contribute to enduring and satisfying marriages. And thereby they will make it possible for a significantly higher percentage of our nation’s children to grow up in the security of loving, intact homes in which they and their parents can become all God intends for them to be.
Copyright © 1990, Neil Clark Warren, All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used with Permission