by Betsy VanDenBerghe at First Things. Re-blogged with the author’s permission.
In one of his lesser known comedies, playwright Neil Simon depicts the irrationality of undiluted physical attraction through the love-struck yearnings of Norman. A ’60s radical, second in his class at Dartmouth, and writer for a subversive magazine called Fallout, he falls hopelessly in love with the Star-Spangled and athletic Southern girl from Hunnicut who’s moved into his San Francisco apartment building. “I’ve become an animal,” he tells his friend Andy. “I’ve developed senses no man has ever used before. I can smell the shampoo in her hair three city blocks away. I can have my radio turned up full blast and still hear her taking off her stockings!”
When Andy remains skeptical of the unlikely couple’s compatibility, Norman demands, “Did you ever hear of physical attraction? Pure, unadulterated physical attraction?” Andy replies with a sage definition: “It’s when one hippopotamus likes another hippopotamus with no questions asked.” To which Norman rejoins, “Exactly. Now it’s five-thirty and my hippopotamus will be getting off her bus. . . . Leave me alone.”
I can’t help but wonder what would happen to Norman Cornell and the un-requiting object of his affection, Sophie Rauschmeyer, were the play to undergo a makeover today. Would it end differently than Norman gradually coming to his senses towards the conclusion and realizing, after multiple conversations and encounters, that his intellectual inclinations and incendiary worldview probably aren’t the best fit for someone whose reading material consists of Sports Illustrated and whose goal in life is to marry a United States Marine? According to stereotype, today’s play might conclude with Norman and Sophie hooking up, or moving in together before Sophie realizes Fallout isn’t exactly the Reader’s Digest.
Researchers from the University of Portland, however, found that young people today actually preferred traditional dating relationships to hook-ups and are indeed very interested in long-term love. Although recent findings from the Pew Research Center confirm that so-called Millennials marry in far smaller numbers than their Generation X or Baby Boomer counterparts, a large majority of them—69 percent—still want to marry. They just don’t feel ready economically.
Maybe they’re also not ready emotionally or psychologically. Relationship formation today tends to cloud judgment, obscuring the most important factors that contribute to a lasting relationship, according to scholars and therapists who write about preparing for a successful marriage. Instead, the emphasis on pure, unadulterated attraction—whether it’s to the way someone looks, or to his or her career prospects or intellectual inclinations—takes precedence. While attraction definitely plays a valid role in marriage formation, other components do, too.
When David Brooks of the New York Times gave his widely quoted commencement speech line that “if you have a great marriage and a crappy career, you will be happy [and] if you have a great career and a crappy marriage, you will be unhappy,” he also described his failed attempt at convincing university presidents to create courses on how to marry. “Everybody should get a degree in how to marry,” he explained. “Nobody listens to me.” However, at least one innovative professor, at Boston College, assigns students to go on actual dates after receiving this plea for help at a campus lecture: “How would you ask someone on a date? Like, the actual words.”
Fortunately, a few self-help marriage prep books offer motivated young adults a course of their own. How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, by marriage therapist and researcher John Van Epp, offers five essential factors to consider in a relationship—factors not only by which to judge potential marriage partners, but by which to evaluate yourself and make needed improvements. These factors, I recently told my son for whom “not having read or at least seen Lord of the Rings” is a deal breaker, should take precedence over books, films, looks, alma mater, or online persona. The first two cover familiar territory: Analyze compatibility in familial, religious, and financial values and priorities, and work on communication skills like self-disclosure, mutual assertiveness, and ability to apologize.
Van Epp’s other three factors may not seem as significant to the uninitiated, but the experienced can vouch for their importance. For example, pay attention to how your partner, or you, behave, and behaved, in other relationships, including with strangers, significant others, family members, and in various situations. Sooner or later, he claims, all these relationship scripts will merge in marriage and predict how she or he treats you—or how you will treat a spouse. The fourth factor consists of getting to know patterns of family background (expressing affection, resolving conflict, parental role modeling, and dealing with differences) because early attachment matters in our ability to form healthy relationships and can deeply influence our approach to family life. People can and do overcome less than ideal home situations, but according to Van Epp, the motivation to change is much stronger before than after the wedding (emphasis added).
Number five seems particularly crucial to those serious about long-term marriage: What are my or my partner’s patterns of conscience? Without a healthy conscience, Van Epp points out, all of the above matters very little: relationship skills actually become manipulative and self-serving in the hands of someone with very little conscience. How do you or your partner handle feelings of guilt and admit to being wrong? Interestingly, though, a healthy conscience not only avoids being underactive (never apologizing, oblivious to shortcomings), but also eschews being overactive (neurotic, rigid, controlling, and self-centered in its own way).
Perhaps the greatest challenge the Jerk book poses to fledgling relationship students in a Girls-saturated zeitgeist consists of Van Epp’s theoretical method of coming to terms with all of these considerations. He calls it the Relationship Attachment Model (RAM), and holding off on sex is a crucial component. According to RAM theory, the only safe zone in a relationship consists of never going further in the following bonding dynamic than you have gone in the previous one: know, trust, rely, commit, and touch. Accelerating the steps or going out of order provides a recipe for unhealthy relationships and ramps up the likelihood of falling in love with a jerk, or at least the wrong hippopotamus. Van Epp spends several pages helpfully debunking the view that sex doesn’t necessarily transform a relationship.
David Brooks, in his frustration over colleges not helping students in the art of marriage formation, recommends reading Austen. Think of her heroines, and a hero, who may have ended up with Wickham, Willoughby, or Lucy Steele had they not abided by the eighteenth century RAM plan, or, as a more academic marriage expert, Scott Stanley, puts it, found “low cost” ways of getting to know their suitors. According to Stanley, sex and moving in together attach a precipitously high cost to a relationship—involving not only premature intimacy, but also shared rent, cars, relatives, and often children. Consequently, a couple often “slides in” to marriage rather than commits to it. Conversely, low cost methods of courtship, like dating, taking classes, pursuing shared interests, working on projects, and getting to know each other’s families, writes Stanley, contribute to what he sees as the ultimate foundation of a lasting marriage: commitment. Another low cost way to add depth to a relationship consists of taking surveys found at relate-institute.org, which help couples understand the various factors, influences, and beliefs each partner brings to the table.
My husband and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in June. We met at a group activity and, admittedly, felt attraction for each other. I immediately responded to his mention of a book by Malcolm Muggeridge about Mother Teresa. He liked my long hair. Neither criterion turned out to be the basis for our marital satisfaction. Ends up he’d actually only heard of the Muggeridge book, and a few years after we had children, I cut my hair. But even better, my hippopotamus actually turned out to be Mother Teresa, always the one to clean up kids’ vomit or to sleep on the worst side of any bed. He continually exhibits what yet another marriage expert, Ty Tashiro at the University of Maryland, calls the winning trait for marriage—agreeableness—which bests the other “big five” personality traits: extroversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. I’m prone to what Tashiro calls the loser relationship trait, neuroticism, but contribute healthy doses of conscientiousness and extroversion to our union. To me, though, the grace of God beats any and all other factors in creating a lasting marriage. May it be upon young people today as they seek out lifelong companions.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.