Finding the path to a lasting relationship

Dismayed by the high divorce rate, some people are proposing strategies for choosing a marriage partner.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Neil Clark Warren has been a marriage counselor for 35 years – long enough to help couples confront just about every domestic difficulty imaginable. On the personal side, he's consoled six close friends as they went through three divorces each. His own marriage, happily, has lasted 43 years – and he and his wife, Marylyn, have raised three daughters who also enjoy wedded bliss.

So, suffice it to say that Dr. Warren knows a fair bit about marriage – from his practice, his friends, his own experience, and from his parents, who still liked to hold hands after 70 years together. And he thinks he knows what it is that makes or breaks a marriage.

The key, he says, is not necessarily family background, or chemistry, or even how old people are when they marry. It's ... are you ready? ... choosing wisely in the first place.

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"This choice has more to do with the eventual success of your marriage than everything else combined that you do after you get married," says this voice of experience. "If you choose someone who is highly compatible, it feels almost effortless; if you are mismatched, it's all hard work and good intentions."

OK. Hm-m-m. Seems kind of, well, obvious. But if it's so simple, why do so many couples – a lot of them college-educated, smart people – end up divorced?

In homes across America – indeed, around the globe – couples are splitting up. The data on divorce tell all: 55 percent of all first marriages in the US end in separation or divorce, 65 percent of second marriages do, 75 percent of third, and so on. So Elizabeth Taylor, while perhaps the world's most famous divorcée, is in pretty good company.

Why can't people from your child's teacher to Tom Cruise get it right the first time – or even sometimes the second, third, or fourth times?

It all comes down to ignorance; people have never been taught how to intelligently choose a life partner. It's probably the most significant decision of their lives, and they are essentially clueless.

Some professionals in the business of helping couples and families are keenly aware of this, and they are rushing to fill the void, even proposing specific strategies to put divorce on America's endangered list.

Warren, for one, has come up with a list of not five or even 10 but 29 essential ingredients for a happy union.

"It just grieves my heart to see marriages breaking up in America," he says. His distress compelled him to devote five years to researching marriage, including interviews with 2,000 married people with various degrees of contentment. From his findings, he compiled his list, which is the basis for his latest book "Date ... or Soul Mate?" and his online-matchmaking service, eharmony.com.

Chemistry isn't enough

These key ingredients, or "dimensions," as he calls them, aren't what you might think. Yes, chemistry matters, he says, as does appearance, but those are not the most important, says Warren. "In fact," he explains, "75 to 80 percent of all chemistry evaporates within six to eight months unless the relationship is significantly undergirded by deeper and more durable compatibility."

Intellect, spirituality, kindness, and – most of all – character are the most critical areas, he says. "No marriage will ever thrive if one of the partners is not of good character." He explains that a "character disorder" refers to the tendency of a person to "lie, cheat, and steal in an effort to gain personal advantage." Emotional health is equally important, he adds. "No marriage can ever be stronger than the emotional health of the least healthy partner."

The ability to select a suitable partner comes with age and maturity, insist Joyce Gioia and Roger Herman, who were both married twice before finding each other.

"Societal expectations push people to marry when they are totally ignorant as to what it's all about," says Ms. Gioia. "All my friends were already married at 24. In the '60s, if you weren't married by then, you were an old maid." So she followed suit, only to discover she had chosen the wrong one. And then another wrong one.

But with Roger, she scored. "Three is definitely a charm," they say almost in unison during a three-way conference call. "We were developed enough as individuals when we met that we both knew what we wanted," he says.

To which she adds: "Within two hours, we were finishing each other's sentences. I had more of a 'knowing' sense with him than with the others."

They are not only life partners but also business partners. As founders of the Herman Group, a management consulting firm that forecasts trends, they share the same podium at national speaking engagements and the same conference table at corporate meetings. One social trend they predict is that since people are marrying later in life, when they are more in touch with themselves, the national divorce rate will plummet.

Counseling first, marriage later

Also becoming more socially acceptable is the tendency to seek out professional help before marriage. Premarital counseling has made recent news headlines, since President Bush announced last winter that his administration hopes to spend $300 million to foster marriage among welfare recipients because social science shows that marriage is good for children. A series of experimental programs to provide counseling before heading for the altar is a key part of this initiative.

But clearly, welfare clients aren't the only people who could benefit from such help.

During his frequent premarital-counseling sessions, Warren tries to assess a couple's compatibility in those 29 different areas. "If they aren't well-matched, I tell them exactly that," he says. "It might sound brutal, and they usually don't want to be talked out of marriage, but I don't want them to fall into that huge pit of people for whom marriage doesn't work out."

For some people, gauging compatibility on more than a few fronts might seem like a pretty daunting task.

Corey Donaldson ascribes to a different strategy for finding the love of your life: asking questions – lots of them. After interviews with 1,500 people who've had varying success with marriage or dating in their lives, he compiled a list of about 500 questions that he believes can identify divorce-causing issues. They range from "If we are unable to have children, should we adopt?" to "Does it matter to you who earns most of the money?" and "How would you rank all of the priorities in your life: work, school, family, spouse, friends, hobbies, and church?"

It was his desire to succeed at marriage, after a three-year, long-distance relationship, that was the catalyst for this project. It has since become a personal crusade and landed him an offer from Random House to write down his findings. From the home he and his wife share in Ogden, Utah, he wrote "Don't You Dare Get Married Until You Read This!"

"We ask questions at every juncture of our lives," he says, "and marriage is the most important."

So why do people fail to ask the key questions? "They don't know the questions they should be asking," he says. "And they fear disruption of the fantasy of romance, so they avoid areas of potential conflict."

Mr. Donaldson is convinced that asking revealing questions – and then asking yourself if you can realistically live with the answers – will lessen divorce.

"Overwhelmingly," he says, "people I spoke to who had experienced divorce said that the issues of conflict existed before the wedding."

Washington divorce attorney Marna Tucker would say that Donaldson is on the right track. "It's lack of communication that often leads [clients] to me," she says. But she has a different approach: She urges couples, especially with second marriages, to enter into a prenuptial agreement. "If for no other reason," Ms. Tucker says, "at least it gets them talking about difficult issues with the help of a savvy professional."

Take time to reflect

In one case, a couple she worked with decided to take more time to sort things out before taking their vows. "The husband was extremely controlling," Tucker recalls. "There was a 'his and hers,' but not an 'ours.' When I brought this up, the woman left the room in tears. She later told me this was exactly what she'd been feeling. Two years later, they got married, but it was a much different deal than it would have been."

From what she's seen, people who take time out after a failed relationship are more likely to succeed the next time. "They gain a much better understanding of what made the marriage fall apart than those who might have had someone else waiting in the wings," Tucker says.

A little soul-searching after a split can help one bring more wisdom, serenity, and wholeness to the next relationship, as Lauren Gilligan has found. The 20-something Bostonian has experienced enough disappointment with dating to have arrived at some hard-earned conclusions.

"I had to realize that I'm not defined by my boyfriend, but by who I am and what I stand for," she says with a maturity beyond her years. "I'm now in a happy and healthy relationship. And it's all because I'm happy with who I am, what I'm doing, and where I'm going. And he complements all that."

But she is not beyond learning from others' strategies. It's people such as Ms. Gilligan, who have never married and are determined to get it right the first time, who could reverse the trend – no small matter, according to Warren, who insists that a drop in divorce would have far-reaching effects.

"Marriage is the most important social issue in America today," he says. "If you get marriages right, you will change the whole fabric of our society."

One pro's checklist for finding a 'soul mate'

These 29 dimensions must be "matched and managed" for a relationship to succeed, says longtime relationship counselor Neil Clark Warren. Further details on each dimension can be found in his new book 'Date ... or Soul Mate?'

1. Good character.

2. Quality of self-conception (knowing yourself).

3. Absence of emotional red flags.

4. Anger management.

5. Obstreperousness (tendency to find fault).

6. Understandings about family (children).

7. Family background.

8. Intellect.

9. Energy.

10. Spirituality.

11. Education.

12. Appearance.

13. Sense of humor.

14. Mood management.

15. Traditional vs. nontraditional approaches to life.

16. Ambition.

17. Sexual passion.

18. Artistic passion.

19. Values orientation.

20. Industry.

21. Curiosity.

22. Vitality and security.

23. Autonomy vs. closeness.

24. Communication.

25. Conflict resolution.

26. Sociability.

27. Adaptability.

28. Kindness.

29. Dominance vs. submissiveness.

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