Founder of eHarmony’s Advice on Marriage

Why Neil Clark Warren, founder of eHarmony, thinks everyone ought to be happily married.

Like every father, Neil Clark Warren worried about whether each of his three daughters would marry the right guy. But not every father turns that concern into a billion-dollar matchmaking business.

As a clinical psychologist and theologian for nearly 40 years, Warren had counseled thousands of couples who couldn’t get along. He was a front-row witness to what he calls the horror of divorce. Statistics painted a bleak picture for his girls.

“Half the people who get married in America are ending up divorced, and of those who stay together, half say they’re not very happy,” Warren notes. How could he help them beat the odds?

To find out why marriages failed, Warren conducted over 500 “divorce autopsies,” interviewing the former spouses, their children and even their parents. The big surprise was that rifts in the relationship had roots far earlier than expected: “We found that over 70 percent of the couples indicated that they were in pretty deep trouble when they first married.”

Warren wondered how he could help people do a better job at selecting a mate. He decided to administer a series of standard tests to 5,000 married people to assess their compatibility. After a rigorous statistical analysis, he says, “we ended up with 800 really solid subjects. We had 200 people in the very happily married category, 200 who were pretty happy but not totally, 200 who were not very happy at all but not ready to quit, and 200 in the very discouraged group.”

Warren then compared the very happily married people with the very discouraged group and struck gold: The two groups had significantly different answers in 29 categories. He hypothesized that if he could bring together people with similar responses in those categories — which include curiosity, intellect, appearance, sexual passion, sense of humor, anger management, self-perception, spirituality and values — the likelihood they’d find the ideal partner would soar.

In the late 1990s, online dating was in its infancy. “It was almost all men and it was a little sleazy,” Warren says. “But in time, I began to see that was the only way we could put people together in a good way.”

Warren launched eHarmony on August 22, 2000. By December, 20,000 people had signed up. The future looked promising. But the dot-com boom had already begun to fizzle, and the company’s initial $2.5 million capital was running out. “Another round of financing brought in $625,000, but that’s all we could get,” Warren recalls.

By March 2001, they were down to $300,000, barely enough to cover payroll expenses. Warren was ready to give people back their money and go out of business. Then he and his co-founder, son-in-law Greg Forgatch, discovered and corrected a glitch in their model that had prevented many users from getting more matches. The business started to grow again, and by July 2001, they were back in the black — where they’ve remained ever since. Today there are 18 million registered users, and the site is responsible for over 100,000 marriages.

Now 73, Warren is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the business, but he is still very much involved in the overall strategy and vision for the company. He spends his time with wife Marylyn (they’ve been married for 48 years), enjoying their new home in Kennebunkport, Maine, their daughters (all happily married) and grandchildren — and thinking up new ideas for the privately held business.

Looking back, Warren is astonished at how eHarmony has grown and evolved in just seven years. Although he has always urged people to dream big dreams, he says, “I didn’t come close to dreaming a dream this big. I mean, 18 million people on a site. The financial reward. The fact that eHarmony has become a household word. Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live have spoofed eHarmony.”

So what is Warren’s big dream? “I’ve often said that my dream is to get the divorce rate down to single digits. If we could ever do that, it would be the greatest single social revolution in the history of the human race.”

What exactly do single people want?
They are dying for a deep sense of companionship and to feel really good about themselves. When you find someone who makes you feel good about yourself, you want to be around that person all the time!

What’s the one essential quality to a successful relationship that most people overlook?
Honesty. I find singles are too forgiving of people who lie to them. They think they won’t lie the next time. But liars tend to be liars.

What’s the most important of your 29 criteria for compatibility?
Emotional health. No marriage can ever be stronger than the emotional health of the least healthy partner.

Do opposites attract?
I have been the greatest opponent of this because I believe so much in the importance of similarities. The truth is, opposites attract, then they attack.

You don’t just help singles. Tell us about eHarmony Marriage.
It’s our online marriage wellness program, and it’s private and personalized. Couples fill out a questionnaire and receive a report indicating where their relationship is strong and where they could make it stronger. There are exercises on conflict resolution, sex, trust and more.

What’s next?
We’re turning our attention to helping people find a life vocation, which could be satisfying for so many. Unhappiness at work for one spouse can place a heavy burden on a marriage. Apart from your marriage, making the right decision about where to work is the single most important thing you’ll ever do. Our research team is working full-time to identify the criteria that will help people find a vocation they love and a satisfying place to fulfill it.

What’s your favorite love song?
Billy Joel sings about “don’t go changing,” which strikes me as very odd, since adaptability has been key to my marriage lasting 48 years!

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest