Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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August 2nd, 2010

How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy (or Girl)

How to listen to the voice inside that’s telling you not to go down the aisle


hownottomarrywrongguy-flashWithin three months of dating a guy, I could always tell why the relationship should end. But most of the time, I’d keep dating him anyway. We were having fun. I thought he might change. I didn’t want to be alone. Some of these relationships lasted for years, but finally that voice deep inside of me started screaming. The gut feeling in the pit of my stomach turned into queasiness that I couldn’t deny. Mind you, these were all wonderful, loving guys. They just weren’t the one I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with.

When I met my husband, Peter, I checked in with my gut at three months. I was sort of wondering if it had gone on vacation, because I wasn’t hearing any complaints. I remember going into a church to ask for guidance, and when I came out, I saw Peter walking toward me, smiling. Instead of feeling sick, that little voice in my head made a girlish squeal of delight.

As someone who has a deep respect for little voices and gut feelings — a.k.a. the spiritual guidance of God — in big decision making, the premise of Anne Milford and Jennifer Gauvain’s new book, How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy intrigued me. While most dating and marriage guides focus on the goal of getting to the altar, Milford and Gauvain ask us to step back and make sure we really want to take that walk down the aisle.

Eighteen years ago, Milford called off her own wedding — and was surprised by how many women confided in her that they, too, wished they’d done the same. Intrigued, she began looking for similarities in their stories: Were there signs? How would you know what the right decision should be? What about the cost of breaking an engagement when wedding plans were underway? She teamed up with Gauvain, a clinical social worker and couples counselor who leads Pre-Cana marriage preparation courses. Together they wrote a smart, wake-up call book for anyone who has second thoughts about their relationship. Recently, we chatted about the book:

Christine Whelan: When you get engaged, it seems like you are jumping on a fast-moving train — and jumping off the train is really, really hard. What are the top five questions men and women should ask themselves if they are in a serious relationship to avoid getting engaged to the wrong person?

Anne Milford: We talked to hundreds of women and asked them: Why did you get engaged to a man who you knew, deep down, was not right for you? We categorized their answers into the following themes:

  • Insecurity or loneliness
  • External pressures
  • Belief that marriage was next logical step
  • Length of time in relationship — didn’t want to “waste the time spent”
“It’s time to pay attention to your gut feelings. Deep down, you know whether he or she is right — or wrong — for you.” — Anne Milford

In How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy, we turn these themes into questions to help our readers determine whether they are getting engaged for the wrong reasons. Here are five key questions to ask:

  • Will you want to marry the person six months from now?
  • Are you under any pressure to get married? (Are you being influenced by your family or friends? Have you set an arbitrary deadline for marriage and that date is looming? Ticking biological clock?)
  • Are you getting married because you think it is the next logical step or you don’t want to “waste the time invested” in the relationship?
  • Are you getting married because you are tired of being alone or afraid no one “better” is going to come along?
  • Do you and your boyfriend share the same goals, beliefs, and ideals for your marriage? Have you even talked about any of this with each other?

CW: Your book is written for women — but it seems like the advice could equally apply to men. Are women more likely than men to knowingly marry the wrong person? If so, why?

AM: The advice in How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy absolutely applies to men. In fact, we have heard from a lot of men who said they found the book extremely helpful. (We think a lot of mothers buy it for their sons!) However, we joke that most men will have to read our hot pink book in the privacy of their own home to avoid raised eyebrows!

In the course of our research, we talked to several men who said they “knew it was a mistake as they were walking down the aisle” and discovered something fascinating. The reasons that men cited for marrying the wrong girl were typically more noble and honorable than the women. The women’s reasons can be described as “selfish” i.e. “I am tired of being alone” or “I want to get married before I am 35 so he will have to do.” The men said they went through with a misguided marriage because of a sense of honor: “I made a promise to her.” Or the most common reason cited by men: “I didn’t want to hurt her.” We can’t say one gender is more likely to marry the wrong person but the reasons for doing so seem to differ. Overall, the men cited more thoughtful reasons for marrying the wrong girl.

CW: Given that, what are five questions couples should ask each other while they are dating or during the engagement period?

AM: The first step is to articulate what you both want and need. And we aren’t talking about eye color, income, beauty etc. Instead, you need to think about what is important to you. For example: “Family is very important to me. I want a spouse who values family and family traditions as much as I do.” Or “My faith is important to me. I want a spouse who wants to grow in his or her faith and actively participate in a church community.” Obviously, this list will be different for everyone.

But the second list is universal. And that’s a clear understanding of the qualities of a healthy relationship. Through Jennifer’s practice and our research, we’ve observed five universal signs of a healthy relationship. Here are five questions to ask while you are dating to help you determine whether the relationship is healthy and fulfilling for both of you:

  1. Do you bring out the best in each other, not the worst? You encourage each other to grow personally, professionally and emotionally, recognizing that change is positive and healthy.
  2. Do you trust each other and know that you can count on one another to do the right thing? There’s no jealousy or second-guessing in the relationship.
  3. Do you have fun together? Playfulness adds spice, and laughter is an aphrodisiac.
  4. Do you share common core beliefs and values? Connecting on an emotional and spiritual level is just as powerful — and important — as a physical connection.
  5. Do you communicate with each other out of care and concern instead of judgment and criticism? Think about it this way: What’s your tone of voice like when you’re critical and judgmental? It’s hard to have a harsh tone when you speak out of care and concern.

Do you have these qualities in your relationship? If not, it’s time to pay attention to your gut feelings. Deep down, you know whether he or she is right — or wrong — for you.

CW: In your book, you talk a lot about red flags and listening to your gut. To me, that’s sounds a lot like the Catholic idea of discernment — being quiet and listening to God’s voice and guidance. We all know that we should do it, but it’s a challenge. How do we learn to see red flags for what they are? And what’s the best way to discern whether a relationship should move toward marriage?

AM: When we speak of gut feelings, or that little voice in our head, I think we are really talking about our conscience. It is the same voice or feeling that we heard or felt as a child when we did something wrong. Unfortunately, as we grow older, we squelch that voice. Instead of training ourselves to tune in to the voice of God, we can slowly train ourselves to tune Him out. The subtle voice that called out to us when we took candy from the candy store as a child will help us make the right choices as adults. Consider this: If your boyfriend or girlfriend says or does things that are counter to your morals or beliefs, how does it make you feel? If something feels funny or doesn’t “sit right” — pay attention. Define what concerns you and then think about how that behavior or attitude will look 15 years from now. Your choice of spouse is a decision that will dictate a good deal of your joys and sorrows. God wants what is best for you. Pay attention to what He is trying to tell you.

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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Anthony

    Thanks for this interesting interview. I am a single man and would like to read this book. I also appreciate the post by Erica, it gives another perspective to the issue and nicely complements the article.

  • Erica

    Hmmm…I hate to be the contrarian here, but this “when in doubt, get out” formula seems a little too simplistic and self-serving to me. It also seems to be based on at least two presuppositions that strike me as wrongheaded. (I haven‚Äôt read the book but am basing my observations on how it is presented in this interview.) The first presupposition I would challenge is that our inner voice or ‚Äúgut‚Äù is always trustworthy. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn‚Äôt. Your inner voice may be the voice of God, or it may be the voice of fear. The task of discernment is to discover which it is, and this is by no means a simple process.

    The second presupposition that seems to be lurking here is the romantic myth of our time. In it‚Äôs more na√Øve formulations it goes something like this: there is one perfect person out there for us, who will fit us like a glove (and we‚Äôll instantly intuit it), and with whom we will find supreme happiness. To counter this, I turn to theologian Richard Gaillerdetz‚Äôs wonderfully sober and hope-filled book, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (IMHO, should be required reading for any Pre-Cana program). Gaillerdetz‚Äôs thesis, which appears to go against the grain of Gauvain and Milford‚Äôs book, is that in a certain sense we always marry the wrong person. What he means by this is that we will (almost always unconsciously) attract a partner who will bring up our childhood trauma and with whom we will ‘play out’ that trauma so that as adults we can respond differently and hopefully heal. (It‚Äôs worth noting that Gaillardetz is not giving his blessing to abusive relationships, but rather the marriage is to be a safe place in which this trauma can be reenacted). If this sounds like a bit of pop psychology (which to me, Gauvain and Milford‚Äôs book seems more so), Gaillardetz puts his argument on a spiritual basis. He would argue that while happiness, romance, and fun are the by-products of a good marriage, the goal of a Christian marriage is no less than our salvation. The marriage is the crucible in which we work out our individual salvation together.

    In closing, I am glad that my husband and I did/did not do five things before our wedding:
    1. Did not heed “the committee in our heads,” that is, did not give in to our doubts and fears
    2. Did externalize our inner doubts and fears by openly communicating them to each other, our priest, and trusted counselors
    3. Did not listen to certain of my friends who felt they knew better
    4. Did read Gaillerdetz’s book (and several other good marriage books)
    5. Did pray for the wisdom to discern God’s will and the courage to carry it out

  • David Ashby

    I’m now very happily married, and there was no doubt in either of our minds when we got married. With previous girlfriends, there had been doubt and my mother who has been a marriage counsellor for a long time told me that if there is any doubt, it’s not right and don’t marry.

  • Mary

    I wish I read this 12 years ago. We are still married, but somedays I struggle with the idea of staying in the marriage. He is not abusive, but our beliefs and morals do not mesh well and this is a persistent problem in our relationship.

  • Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft

    This is such an important discussion. I think so many women have stayed with guys way too long just because they’ve put so much time into the relationship and feel like their are no options. Thanks for writing this. I hope it opens some eyes.

  • cathyf

    I got engaged when I was 19, on the second date, with a guy 7 years older than I. I found out later that I was at least the 3rd woman that he proposed to within a week of starting dating. The other women took this as a sign of trouble and extracted themselves posthaste, but I was young, and very foolish, had never dated anyone seriously before, very much in love with the idea of being in love.

    The first time I tried to break off the engagement, I did it on his “turf”. (He had moved away for a job; I was still in school; I tried to go visit him and break it off at his place.) I was terribly upset by his surprise and unhappiness, so I relented. One of the things that happens when you lie to yourself about what you feel is that you go emotionally numb. And like when you are sitting somewhere and your feet fall asleep, it HURTS to come back to life. I mistook that pain as a sign that I was doing the wrong thing, and so really messed things up!

    But our God is a God of 2nd chances. (And 3rd. And 7 times 70th.) For try 2, I waited until he was visiting me. And I told 3 friends that I was doing it before I did it, and spent many hours discussing it with them and they were totally convinced that I was making the right decision.

    During the 4 months that I was trying to figure out how to extract myself from this slow-motion deer-in-the-headlights mess that I had made I prayed a lot. In retrospect, I saw that I was continuously surrounded by at least 2 dozen people who would ask me what was wrong, and when I finally did it I took 3 of those lifelines. It was a long time ago (26 years), and I am still enormously grateful that God found a way to give me the resources to do what had to be done — and the kick in the butt to do it!

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