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February 22, 2006
Posted online April 12, 2006

How to pick a winner in the game of love

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 winner.

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 specialist said.

"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 potential.

"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 perspective.

"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 researcher.

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 mistakes."

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," Barsley-Marra said.

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 sex."

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 area.

© 2005 The Cairo Gate