If you invest several months or years into a dating relationship, forming strong emotional bonds with your boyfriend or girlfriend, the pain you'll both experience if you break up will be tremendous. And if you end up getting married despite not being good matches for each other, a bad marriage will inflict even more pain on you both. So it makes a lot of sense to try to discern as early as possible whether someone is a good potential marriage partner for you.

Here are some ways you can date efficiently and wisely:

  • Get to know yourself well. Think and pray about how God has uniquely wired you. Seek to understand what interests, talents, personality traits, and experiences have shaped you, what motivates you and why, and how you relate to other people.

  • Commit to looking for a potential mate who shares many similarities with you. Realize if you and your mate are very similar, you'll be able to achieve a greater level of intimacy and avoid much more stress than couples who are opposites. Although opposites often attract in the short term, over the long term, opposites irritate each other while couples with common traits and values can build deep love relationships.

  • Compile two lists -- one of 10 qualities your potential spouse must have, and one of 10 qualities you couldn't stand in a marriage partner. For example, you might list compassion on your "must-have" list and smoking on your "can't stand" list. Consider such areas as intellect; spirituality; moral character; energy and ambition levels; appearance; education; personal habits; and attitudes toward family, friends, career, money, and sexuality.

  • When you're on a date, focus on the other person rather than yourself. In natural ways, bring the conversation around to topics you cover on your "must-have" and "can't-stand" lists. Pay attention to your date's behavior as well as his or her words. Is he kind to the waiter in the restaurant? Does she drive too fast?

  • Pay particular attention to your date's emotional health and moral character. If the person is unhealthy in either of these two areas, you shouldn't pursue a relationship with him or her, since marriage to that person will likely bring much heartache and involve great time and effort to try to heal. Look for someone who is honest, generous, and kind.

  • Consider your date's potential. Rather than focusing on superficial qualities, put most of the weight of your consideration on the qualities that reveal the most about the person's values. Think about whether your date's dreams for the future overlap your own, and whether he or she appreciates your own attributes.

  • Ask yourself whether or not you feel completely free to be yourself around your date. A good marriage partner should make you come alive in his or her presence.

  • At the end of two dates, you'll usually have enough information about your date to make an informed decision about whether the relationship has enough potential to continue to merit your time and energy. Sometimes the discernment process will take a bit longer, so allow extra time if the person seems to have all the qualities on your "must-have" list but you're not sure yet whether he or she has any qualities on your "can't-stand" list.

  • Don't compromise! If you discover that a date has a "can't-stand" attribute or lacks even one of your "must-have" qualities, let the relationship go and trust that God has a better future in mind for you.

  • When you decide to end a dating relationship, do so with courage and dignity. Let your date know that you like him or her, but have realized that you all are not good potential marriage partners for each other. Remind yourself that telling the truth is always friendlier than neglecting to do so. Expect your date to potentially be hurt, but realize that you're being kind to him or her by ending the relationship before you all have formed emotional bonds.

Adapted from Date ... Or Soul Mate?: How to Know if Someone is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less, copyright 2002 by Neil Clark Warren, Ph.D. Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tn., www.thomasnelson.com, 1-800-251-4000.

Neil Clark Warren and his wife, Marylyn, have been married for 42 years. A bestselling author and the founder of eharmony.com, he holds a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Chicago. He lives and practices in Southern California.

If you're married, how long did it take you to discover whether your current spouse was a good match for you as a potential marriage partner, and how did you discover that? If you're single, what fears do you have about marriage, and how have you relied on God to help you overcome those fears as you date people? Visit Crosswalk's forums to discuss this topic by clicking on the link below.