February 22, 2006
Posted online April 12, 2006
How to pick a winner in the game of
By Betty Barsley-Marra,
URBANA - Store that cherished Valentine keepsake away and wipe
the stardust from your eyes. It's time to get back to romance
as usual. If you're really serious about playing smart with
your heart, Betty Barsley-Marra can tell you how to pick a
A University of Illinois Extension educator with 30 years of
experience in relationship education, Barsley-Marra teaches
"How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk or Jerkette," a program
developed by psychologist John van Epp.
The biggest lesson you have to learn is not to let your heart
get ahead of your head when you're picking a partner, the
"I don't discount the importance of chemistry or
powerful attractions that can happen when you meet someone.
Researchers are very clear about how strong those feelings can
be," she said.
"But your brain has to have time to collect vital pieces
of information about the person you're considering. If you
don't pace your emotional involvement, you won't be able
to exercise good judgment about that person's relationship
"Then it won't matter what your head is telling you,
you'll ignore it, dismiss it, or diminish its importance--and
you may end up married to a jerk or jerkette," she said.
For that reason, she advises not jumping into a quick sexual
relationship, even though her students don't like to hear it.
"Sexual behavior changes your brain chemistry, it can be
very intoxicating, and you can have a hard time thinking
clearly," she said.
So what vital pieces of information should you be looking for
while you're squelching all your natural impulses?
Look for a well-developed conscience, Barsley-Matta said.
Although you can't locate a person's conscience as easily
as their dreamy eyes or a killer body, it's something
you're going to appreciate in the long haul, she said.
Important for all the obvious reasons, a strong conscience also
lets its owner see things from another person's
"If I had to choose between good relationship skills and
a person with an excellent conscience, I'd pick the
well-developed conscience," she said. "Relationship
skills can be learned if a person is motivated enough, but we
just don't have a lot of success helping a person develop a
conscience in adulthood."
Should you look for a soulmate who can finish your sentences?
"Aim for compatibility in your personalities, lifestyle, and
values. But you don't need to find someone who's exactly
like you. Having a few differences and knowing your partner can
still surprise you keeps life interesting. What's important
is that you respect each other's differences."
Does your potential partner fight fair? Does she communicate
well? When you have a fight, is there a lot of eye rolling or
name-calling? The better predictor of divorce is not how often
couples argue, it's how they treat each other during an
argument, says John Gottman, a University of Washington
Get to know your partner's family. Their behavior is a
strong predictor of the way your partner will act when she
marries. It's the way she thinks a family should be.
"Psychologists call this the family within, and it's a
strong influence on the family member you'll become. So
don't close your eyes to any warning signals you see.
"People can overcome dysfunctional childhoods," she
said, "but they have to be aware of their own issues and be
committed to dealing with them."
Barsley-Marra also asks students to examine their past
relationships and their partner's. "Be careful that
you're not playing out a script you've had your whole
life but with a different character. And you want to know the
other person well enough to believe what she tells you about why
past relationships failed and what she's learned from her
Gathering all this information takes time, and that's why
you need to take your time before making a commitment. How much
time? "Potential partners are on their best behavior for at
least three months, so stay very vigilant about protecting your
heart during that time. Only at that point will you begin to get
isolated glimpses of behavior that concerns you,"
And researchers would really like you to wait two and a half
years before tying the knot. "Couples who wait that long
have a much better success rate because they've seen their
partner in a variety of situations--when he's bored, when
he's stressed. By that time, there's usually been a lot
of togetherness involving talk and interaction, not just
Think you can't wait that long? Your biological clock is
ticking? "Sometimes people get panicky because they
don't think they're ever going to find the right person.
They just feel it's the right time for marriage, and
they're so flattered to be chosen, they forget to choose
back. Clearly, you don't think very well when you're
panic-stricken," she said.
That's when a jerk or jerkette can move in and take
advantage of a good person's good nature.
"Unfortunately, nice people tend to attract jerks because
they have well-developed consciences. They believe in giving
people second or third chances. They want to be sure they're
being fair. Or maybe they believe that they can work at the
relationship hard enough for both of them," she said.
"But that's not so, and it's not fair to
you," Barsley-Marra said. "Take a deep breath, slow
down, and listen to your head as well as your heart when
you're picking your life partner. It's the most important
decision you'll ever make, and you can't afford for your
judgment to be clouded."
Barsley-Marra is currently teaching a class in Elmhurst and
plans to offer "How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk or
Jerkette" in Lake County this summer, Kane County in the
fall, and McHenry County in early 2007. Sign up by calling those
Extension offices. If you live elsewhere in Illinois or can't
wait that long, call your local Extension office and let them
know you're interested in having the class taught in your