However less-than-perfect a match may be, we older married folks can at least be glad we're not having to choose a mate all over again. Meeting up today is complicated-even among Christian young people, as WORLD's June 4 cover story demonstrated. Church socials and singles hangouts just don't cut it anymore. One in six new marriages results from an internet dating site, but results are not yet in as to whether computer matching is more successful than the traditional kind.
"Looking For Someone," a recent article in The New Yorker, is a fascinating survey of how some of these programs work. OK Cupid asks subscribers to submit and answer questions that are supposed to give clues to individual personality; more questions answered over time yield a clearer picture of subjects and their ideal mates. Match.com uses algorithms to distinguish stated preferences from revealed preferences (what one actually seems to like, as opposed to what one says he or she likes) and sorts the data to find others who responded in similar ways.
Since the goal of the unabashedly Christian eHarmony is successful marriages, the approach leans more toward sociological research than mathematical formulas. The eHarmony "relationship lab" in California recruits couples to talk about themselves and their marriage while under observation by trained professionals behind two-way glass. This is intended to help researchers identify strengths and weaknesses in the couple's composition and apply what they learn to other prospective partners.
In a hurried and fractured world, scientific matching can help simplify a complicated issue. If you asked your single friends about their experiences with reputable online dating services, you would probably get about as many positive responses as negative. But there are two problems with an over-reliance on computer matching.
The obvious one is that we're notorious liars about ourselves, especially online, and understandably so. Suppose you were a single guy reading this profile: "Closer to 40 than 30, 5'4", 181 lb. Like old movies, spend too much time watching. Great sense of humor that few appreciate. Love moonlight walks among the beach-theoretically . . ." You might admire the honesty but wouldn't click on the picture.
The second problem is that no personality profile can predict how one will respond to an unforeseen crisis. Too many young people are haunted by their parents' divorce, a seminal tragedy over which they had no control. Fear governs their choice of a mate, and the fear of failure is almost as great as that of being alone. Susan Gregory Thomas, in a new memoir, writes of being so terrified of putting her children through the divorce trauma she suffered that she and her boyfriend dated for eight years-eventually moving in together-to be sure that they were compatible before marrying.
But after years of marriage and children they had drifted so far apart they divorced anyway. Probabilities and playing house cannot placate the great unknown future.
However they get there, whether on a whim or a questionnaire, when a man and woman come to the altar they're going to make wild promises that would give pause to a riverboat gambler. "Twenty-nine dimensions of compatibility" can't predict the shaping of character in the crucible of crisis, especially if the crisis is the marriage itself.
Marriage is God's greatest sanctification tool, and if we're too intent on finding our soul mate, we could miss His greater purpose in conforming every individual believer to the image of His Son. What matters is not so much the algorithm, but the analogue: as Christ loved the Church. What ultimately matters in a Christian marriage is not a tailorish concern for fit and measure, but how intent man and wife are on modeling the greater mystery. For God also makes wild promises that have absolutely nothing to do with compatibility. Ezekiel 16 is the picture of a spectacular mismatch that He did not abandon, and never will.
So choose your mate with care, but don't be afraid. Even if you miss your perfect match, God will sort you out.