Finding the Love of Your Life: How Not to Choose the Wrong Mate

By: Neil Warren, Ph.D.

Every person I know yearns for love. And the most obvious place to search for it is in marriage. In fact, more than 90 percent of all the people in the United States will marry at least once during their lifetime. But each year in the United States, more than
200,000 marriages end prior to the couples’ second anniversary.

Why do some individuals choose their “lifelong” partners so poorly? Because they have received almost no instruction about how
to do it well. Our society – specifically television and the movie industry – teaches people to rely almost exclusively on their
“natural instincts” when choosing a mate. But romantic feelings, those seemingly trustworthy emotions, offer almost nothing of
substance when it comes to making a wise choice about a potential marriage partner. In fact, they frequently get in the way. They
literally anesthetize you to the critical factors you desperately need to examine.

Here are six traps to avoid:


If anything catches my attention, it’s two people telling me they’re ready to pledge themselves to each other after just a couple of months. I can safely assume their decision is long on fantasy and short on reality. It is an indication to me that the “task” of marriage is being seriously underestimated; that the maturity it takes to make a marriage successful year in and year out has not yet been developed.

A few years ago, an empirical study by researchers at Kansas State University found “a strong correlation between length of time
spent dating their current spouses and current marital satisfaction.” They further found that “couples who had dated for more than two years scored consistently high on marital satisfaction, while couples who had dated for shorter periods scored in a wide range from very high to very low.” Thus, the risk of marital failure is significantly reduced by longer dating periods.

I’m every bit as concerned about hurry-up second marriages – sometimes even more so. The possibility of a rebound effect is
enormous. With this kind of crucial, life-changing decision, you need to be patient and thorough in collecting the important data.

Take your time! It is much easier getting into a relationship than living through days and years of a painful, unfulfilling one.


When two recent high school graduates come to me and declare their plans to marry, my brain immediately flashes Danger. I know the divorce rate for persons under 20 is incredibly high. Social scientists have found that people who marry young are seldom prepared for marital roles.

As a matter of fact, the divorce rate for 21- and 22-year olds is twice as high as it is for 24- and 25-year olds.

The theory goes like this: Young people can’t select a marriage partner very effectively if they don’t know themselves well. In
this society, where adolescence often lasts until the middle twenties, identity formation is incomplete until individuals have
emotionally separated from their parents and discovered the details of their own uniqueness. Prior to their mid-twenties, young adults haven’t defined their goals and needs. They haven’t had time to learn to be independent. They aren’t in a good position to know the kind of person with whom they could form a meaningful life – long attachment. They simply need more life experience.


Even though it was more than 10 years ago, I remember very well when Rick and Sally came to me for premarital counseling. From the beginning, Sally was clearly in charge, always answered first when I asked them questions, and corrected Rick several times as he related his experiences.

Rick hadn’t dated very much, but seemed emotionally healthy and well put together. Sally’s parents were divorced, and she was chafing to get out of the house and leave her mother’s iron-fisted authority.

I put Rick and Sally through the usual tests and interviews for any couple seeking my assistance. And from the beginning, I saw
real problems. Their scores on the various personality tests were not very compatible, and they simply didn’t agree on a lot of things. More than that, there was a feeling of tension between them.

When I tried to bring up one of my concerns from the tests and interviews, Sally would immediately explain it away. Rick often
indicated a desire to talk more about the concern, but when Sally tried to quickly “resolve” and eliminate the problem, Rick always acquiesced. She was too strong. More than that, she was so eager to get married that she wouldn’t look objectively at the facts.

Against my recommendation, they got married.

Only six months later, I heard they were heading for divorce. Under the stress of daily living, significant problems and differences began to appear.

There are a lot of reasons why people are “too eager” to get married. Sometimes they get worried that their partner will have a
change of heart. Or they may be tired of being alone on weekends, and they are convinced that once married they will never have to be alone on a Saturday night again.

Overeagerness is pretty easy to spot. It is clearly one of those causes of marriage failure you want to eliminate from the
beginning. A lifetime decision like marriage requires a clear, unhurried mind.


Selecting a partner to please a parent or some other important person simply won’t work! To make a good decision, you must make it in light of your own needs and dreams and life objectives.

Does that mean you shouldn’t take seriously what the important people in your life think about your choice? Of course not.
Friends and family know you well, and they want you to be happy. So you should listen carefully to their input and consider what
they say. But whatever you do, don’t jeopardize your life by making a decision just because you don’t want to hurt your parent,
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.


Sometimes couples come to me considering a decision about marriage, but their way of knowing one another and being known is
just too narrow, It’s not necessarily that they haven’t dated long enough. They simply have not walked together through the variety of circumstances and situations necessary to really know someone. Here’s an example:

Ever since Bob and Karen met, they’ve been living on a cloud, floating from one form of ecstasy to another. They are
tremendously attracted to one another physically, and they feel wildly in love!

But they haven’t ever talked much about other things. They don’t really know what the other person likes or dislikes in most areas
of life. They haven’t spent much time together with the other family, and they have never had a single argument.

People who are so “in love” don’t usually want to be bothered with “problem talk.” They’re convinced that they have all the evidence they need to choose one another. But it’s crucial that you spend time with your spouse-to-be early in the morning and late at night; in heavy traffic and on country roads; in times of stress and easygoing moments. Observe him or her playing with children, doing household chores and balancing the checkbook.

The more experiences you have together, the better your chances of avoiding hidden surprises.


Recently a woman came to my office to talk about her failed marriage: “I just knew that once I married him, once he saw what
love really was, then everything would be all right. Then he would change and love me back just as much as I loved him. I would be the one to open him up. I would be the woman made life worthwhile for him.”

Then there’s the couple, on the verge of divorce shortly after the honeymoon, who said: “We had no idea we would have so many
areas of disagreement. We can’t even agree on the room temperature at night.”

The truth is, successful marriages require an incredible amount of hard work. You will experience all kinds of pain and there will be problems all along the way. And however well your marriage turns out you will still have dozens of personal challenges to test your mettle. To expect anything different is to set up your marriage for trouble.

But marriage doesn’t have to be rocky. In fact, by heeding these warning signs and changing our mate-selection procedure, we can
experience a lifetime of meaning. So, no more second-rate choices. Great marriages can be our goal.

(The above material appeared in the November 1992 issue of Focus on the Family.)

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