Mark and Gina came to see me on a chilly, rainy afternoon. The weather outside seemed to match the mood in my counseling office when this couple plopped down on the couch across from me. Their whole demeanor was frosty and frigid.

“What brings you in for therapy?” I asked them.

They looked at each other, and then Mark spoke. “To put it bluntly, we’re miserable. We’ve been married four years, and every day has been a challenge. We’re wondering if we should even keep trying.”

I asked Gina if that was the way she saw it.

“I’m afraid so,” she replied. “About two days after we returned from the honeymoon, we both had the sickening feeling that we had made a huge mistake. It’s been downhill since then.”

As our session unfolded, Mark and Gina told a story I’ve heard scores of times from marriage partners in peril. After a blissful courtship, they married and almost immediately discovered vast differences. They were opposites when it came to communication style, conflict resolution, personal habits, and a few dozen other qualities that come to light when you live with someone. Somehow all these differences were pushed aside and ignored amid their initial intoxicating feelings of infatuation.

So they ended up at my office, attempting to figure out how a relationship that held such promise could plummet to the depths of drudgery.

Gina said something that day I wish every single person could hear and grasp:

“I realize now that I had no idea who I was before I got married. I was thirty years old, and I just wanted to get married while I had the chance. Mark was a nice guy who had a good job and came from a solid family. I figured, What more could a girl want? Unfortunately, I had only the slightest notion of my deep longings, my unique personality traits, my strengths and weaknesses. And since I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t have a clue about the kind of person I needed for a partner.”

As this couple painfully discovered, you can’t select the right person to marry until you know precisely who you are—unless you’re lucky. But nobody should rely on luck when it comes to a decision that determines who will be your lifetime roommate, financial partner, joint parent of every child you have ... and ten thousand other crucial matters.

You can make a great choice of a marriage partner—and the place to start is with a careful understanding of exactly who you are. The more you know about yourself, the clearer will be your sense of inner direction when it comes to finding the love of your life. With increased knowledge about your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual qualities, your skillfulness as a mate selector will soar. People who find dating confusing and bewildering almost always lack familiarity with themselves.

Scratch Beneath the Surface

I’m often amazed and alarmed at the lack of knowledge singles have about themselves. Whether in therapy or discussions after speaking engagements, I frequently ask single men or women to tell me about themselves. Most do well at describing external aspects of their life: “Well, I work as a computer programmer, I love to ski and roller-blade, and I’m very active in my church group.” But when asked about their personality type, communication style, character strengths and weaknesses, or dreams for the future, they grope for responses: “I, uh, well . . . I guess I need to think about that some more.”

So how do you go about understanding yourself better? There’s no crash course on self-discovery, but let me offer five ways to get started:

  1. Write in a journal or notebook every day. You don’t need to write for more than ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s critical that you record your honest thoughts and feelings as they come to you. The goal is to practice tapping in to your internal reservoir.
  2. See a counselor. You don’t need to be in crisis to visit a therapist. Schedule four or five sessions to explore your family background, personality makeup, and goals. You may wish to take a personality test (such as the MMPI or Myers-Briggs) and discuss the results with the counselor.
  3. Read something every day that stimulates your internal process. For example, I read a chapter of the Bible every morning. Other people prefer poetry or psychology books or novels that explore spiritual themes. This kind of reading has a way of leading you toward the center of who you are. If you read with a personal perspective—that is, how the writing affects you and speaks to your daily needs—you will get more deeply in touch with your inner thoughts and feelings.
  4. Spend regular time with people who know themselves well and who encourage you to talk about what you feel most strongly. Get personal with these people. Try to understand them as best you can, and tell them as fully as possible about who you are.
  5. Pray. Prayer is meant to be a conversation with God. It involves pouring out your heart to Him about what is most on your mind and then listening intently to what He says to you in response. I try to do this every day, and I can tell you that prayer has had more influence on my life and my work with people than anything else I do.

The payoff for all this self-discovery and self-awareness is simple but profound: Men and women who know themselves well stand an excellent chance of selecting a mate well suited to them. Conversely, those people who are largely unaware of their inner workings make a decision as if they’re spinning a roulette wheel—they cross their fingers and hope for the best.

When it comes to something as critical and all-encompassing as marriage, it’s simply unwise to “hope” for the best when you can know for certain who would make the best partner for you.

(I include a detailed process for getting to know yourself in my book How to Know if Someone Is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less.)



Dr. Neil Clark Warren is a psychologist and popular speaker based in Pasadena, Calif. His best-selling books include Finding the Love of Your Life and How to Know if Someone Is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less.

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