Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Critique: "Finding the Love of Your Life" by Neil Clark Warren

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Before I say anything by way of critique, I need to eat humble pie (though I do prefer rhubarb). Neil Clark Warren is possibly the most successful matchmaker in the history of the world. eHarmony was his brainchild, and it works. Warren’s ideas have caused many thousands of people to be happily married, and mine have not led to a single marriage of any kind, not even my own. Though I will disagree with him in some parts, it is not out of a lack of respect. eHarmony is the only new thing that I know of that has any claim on having improved marriage in America (excepting the Church, whose attendees have much lower divorce rates that non-attenders; but the Church is a few thousand years old).

Importance of Choosing

Unfortunately, I happen to disagree with his primary thesis. I do not believe that selection is the most important thing in a marriage. My evidence is that most humans for most of history (and billions today) have been in marriages they did not choose with someone who was selected with none of Warren’s criteria. Arranged marriages worked and are still working. One of the most important patriarchs in Warren's faith and mine is Isaac, who was married to a woman he never met, Rebecca, who was selected for him by his father’s servant. A theory of marriage needs to account for as much of the data as possible. And it seems to me that Warren’s fails to account for most of the data. If he were arguing that American marriages work thusly, he'd be on a lot stronger ground.

Nevertheless, I agree with nearly all his pillars of support, but I cannot make the final leap. It’s certainly good to have something in common with your partner. It’s good to be ‘healthy’. It’s good to have passionate and compassionate love (eros and agape) for your partner. But where I disagree is with the relative importance of commitment and selection. Commitment for Warren is one of his 9 chapters, while selection is what everything seems to be in support of. In my opinion, these should be switched. If they were, it would allow for success in arranged marriages, and it would give hope to people who have made a bad choice.

Marriage Determinism

Warren seems to have been heavily influenced by the ‘scientific evidence’ and, in my opinion, by the determinism that is often associated with men of science. As a philosophical critique, I strongly disagree with his statement, “Nevertheless, a careful observance of each of them will significantly increase your odds of a lasting and satisfying marriage” (163). The philosophy expressed here is that one’s satisfaction depends on external physical factors. This is exactly wrong on the Christian view. There are philosophies that would come to this conclusion, but Christianity is not one of them. Jesus was constantly saying, “My kingdom is not of this earth,” emphasizing that visible success on planet earth was not what counted. Paul writes from prison, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, [therewith] to be content” (Phl 4:11) and “Rejoice in the Lord alway: [and] again I say, Rejoice” (Phl 4:4). Medieval philosopher Peter Abelard continues this line of thought, and argues that even a malicious demon who put you into the Matrix (my translation of his ideas), could not ruin your happiness, because it was founded in Heaven, not earth. ‘Odds’ have nothing to do with it.

Good marriage is not necessarily ‘happy’ marriage. One’s satisfaction in marriage has nothing to do with the other partner. I would argue that the prophet Hosea was satisfied in his marriage, though he, by God’s command, married a prostitute who continued to cheat on him after marriage. Or consider God Himself, for whom Hosea was a physical example: God continues to love us and does not need to be loved in return. Consider God’s marriage to Israel by Warren’s criteria: He selected Israel not for any similarity He had with her, but simply because He chose her. Israel was not holy. Israel was not strong. Israel was not wise. Yet He chose Israel. Satisfaction comes not from being loved, but in loving others. This, I think, is one of the most profound things about marriage. It is never anything but an insane promise, an insane promise we’re supposed to keep. Warren asks, “Can you ever know enough at the beginning to commit yourself for a lifetime? This is a question that plagues me!” (136). As my pastor Scott Treadway once said, “I don’t care how long you’ve been dating, when you get married, you’re marrying a stranger.”

Marriage will never be a rational choice. There is far too much uncertainty. Warren’s suggestions indeed reduce this uncertainty and perhaps prepares people for what they will have to endure. But in the end, Warren redeems himself from the determinism of the rest of the book when he admits, “love is a decision.”

Scientific Evidence

To his credit, he cites sociological research on the subject. But to my disappointment, the evidence (by medical standards), is laughable. I recognize that it is not fair to apply the standards of one discipline onto another. But when words like ‘fact’ are used, that evokes the scientist in me. And the scientist in me thinks that a cross-sectional study of 51 middle-aged wives would barely even count as preliminary evidence, let alone something to base a conclusion on (9).

In medicine, we don’t believe anything until we have multiple confirmations from extremely powerful studies (large-scale, multi-site randomized control trials). Thousands of subjects need to be studied under extremely well-controlled circumstances. For drug trials, you need thousands of subjects, and the cost to control and carefully measure each subject is $50,000. And even then there is a huge amount of uncertainty (according to Ioannidis  at Stanford, less than a third of these studies are true (Ref 1)). I was very surprised to see so strong an assertion based on an incredibly weak study design on an extremely small number of people. But I’m not well-read in the psychological and relationship literature; perhaps this is a common thing to do in psychology research.

But weak evidence in support of a true idea does nothing to invalidate the idea. In fact, I happen to agree with most of the things he used surveys to prove. Perhaps it has been my time at Stanford that makes me eager to attack vulnerable-looking scientific claims.

Last Word

I disagree with his conclusion, with his deterministic attitude, with some of this evidence (and the tone with which he presents it). But the other 90% of the book I agree with. Each individual chapter is, by itself, probably true. And I’ll probably end up following most of it. By luck, I happen to be turning 26 this month, and if I found someone in the next two years, I’d be exactly in Warren’s marriage sweet spot (28-30). I don’t want to marry someone too young; and I don’t want to marry someone I just met; I don’t want to marry a crazy woman (Chapter 1 is full of good advice!). I want to find someone with similar values, with whom I can work together on shared goals, and who loves God with all her heart. I hope to talk through similarities and differences with my partner, and to work through or compromise on the differences and arguments. I will strive to be flexible, and I hope to find someone who is herself flexible. I think it’s important to be able to listen and discuss things dispassionately, while developing passionate romantic feelings toward her, and most importantly to have ‘compassionate’ agape love for her. All these things I agree with whole-heartedly.

I’m glad Warren wrote this book. It is a valiant attempt to improve marriage and is full of good advice. It has challenged my thinking, produced ~2000 words of my own though, which is pretty good for a little 150 page book. My own ideas on marriage have been crystallized a bit more though this challenge. Most importantly, he didn’t just write this book. He made this book a reality for thousands upon thousands of people. Thank you, Dr. Warren.


  1. It is difficult to know from this review and critique whether Warren's books, website, and methods are successful or not. You said that this was a "successful match-making site resulting in 542 marriages a day" but how do we know these marriages were successful? Did he follow up on them? How long did these marriages last? Did they last a lifetime? It seems like matches are relatively easy to make; people make them all the time. The greater challenge is keeping commitments and promises: "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, til death us do part."

  2. I agree that I'd like something more definitive. Does it work or not? I think such research possible, but I haven't found it yet.

    I don't know the actual result of the marriages, but it does suggest that he's good at getting people married. He's able to get people to make promises. What you're implying is right: if these marriages don't last, then this statistic is disastrous! And perhaps it is naive of me to praise something before there is hard data available.

    I'm not sure matches are quite as easy as you imply. More and more people in my generation are opting to not marry (or marry later than ever before) and the frustration and failure in the matchmaking arena is widespread.

    Thanks for the comment!