Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Don't Marry A Jerk - Or A Jerkette

November 6, 2006

A lot of very difficult and sometimes insurmountable marital problems have their origins in the courtship process. Mismatched couples differ too much in terms of goals, values or interests. Even worse is when one partner discovers too late that their mate has character or addiction problems that plague their marriage. Some couples start out with two strikes against them.

Fools fall in love; wise people grow in love. The initial infatuation can be powerful, intoxicating, and disorienting. Objectivity is impaired. Judgment is clouded. The rose-colored glasses are on. One’s fantasies are mixed with reality.

Lovers see only the good while ignoring red flags and warning signs. They are also good at putting their best foot forward while minimizing their less than desirable qualities.

No quick courtship. The picking of a partner is one of the most important decisions we ever make. It is a decision that has lifelong consequences. It shouldn’t be left up to emotions or a pathway of least resistance. Pre-martial change is much easier than post-marital change. Motivations are at their peak during courtship.

"Married in haste, we repent at leisure." - Congreve

"Men should keep their eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterward." -Scuderi

"As the husband is, the wife is; if mated with a clown, the grossness of his nature will have the weight to drag thee down." - Tennyson.

"Measure a thousand times, cut once." - Folk saying

How to manage courtship. Duly warned, how is the weighty matter determined? John Van Epp, Ph.D., of Medina, Ohio has developed a model of how new relationships grow in attachment. He takes five dimensions - knowledge, trust, reliance, commitment and sex - and discusses their inter-relationship in the bonding process. These five bonding dynamics should grow together with time, mutual self-disclosure and diverse experiences. However, Van Epp feels these bonding dynamics or forces are in a hierarchical relationship.

Van Epp believes, "The extent to which you know the other person should set the limits of your trust, which should set the ceiling of your reliance, which should indicate the degree of commitment you make, which should establish the boundaries of any sexual involvement."

The wisdom in courtship is to not get ahead of yourself as you develop your relationship. For example, mistakes are made when you have sex with someone with whom you don’t have commitment. Or if you are depending on someone you don’t know very well. The greater your knowledge, the more you can trust, the more you trust, the greater your willingness to rely on your dating partner to do and say what they have said they would do, etc.

The genius of courtship is to slow the pace so that you can experience these qualities and gradually raise the thermostat on each of them as you become confidant of each of them. When a person maintains a balance in the bonding areas of their relationship, they minimize their vulnerability to marrying a partner with whom problems can’t be solved.

Five areas of concern. What are the important things to know? Van Epp feels that someone in a courtship should come to deeply know and understand five areas of their dating partner’s life. These critical areas are:

1. The dynamics of their childhood and family experience.

Listen to the story of his or her life. Does it hang together? Does your dating partner have insight into key events or relationships? What did he or she learn from parental mistakes? How much baggage is brought from the past? Meet the family and observe the relationships first hand.

2. The maturity of their conscience.

Does your partner have a sensitivity for the rights and needs of others? How are situations where moral judgment is required and handled? Have there been lapses? How well does he or she live up to their professed standards?

3. The scope of their compatibility potential.

How easy-going is he or she? How rigid? How flexible? What do you have in common? What are their goals and dreams? Is he or she a team player? How controlling?

4. The strength of their relationship skills.

How well does he or she listen? Empathize? Negotiate? Handle conflict or stress? Share thoughts and feelings? How does he or she get along with key people? Does he or she avoid conflict? Have a temper? Can he or she apologize or forgive a mistake? What happens when you express your opinion? Is he or she consistently loving, kind and generous?

5. The patterns of their previous relationships.

Get the story of past romantic relationships and understand the dynamics. What are the patterns? How is his or her insight? Does it make sense? Is it one-sided or is there a full and balanced account of particular contributions to past problems?

How do you probe without being too obvious? Read between the lines. Ask open-ended questions. Come back to points you don’t understand. Put the pieces together.

Time is your greatest asset. The more experiences you have, the more you share, the more you will know. Your knowledge is the basis for allowing the bonding experience to unfold between you.

Love doesn’t have to be blind.