Military Times

Rules of engagement: How to marry a gem

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Oh, how quickly that match made in heaven can turn into a tattered marriage from hell.

In the military, where honeymoons can be spent counting the days until deployment and anniversaries are routinely observed via combat zone webcam, it can be all too easy to lose the love of your life in the fog of war.

Best thing you can do to give your marriage a fighting chance?

"For starters, don't marry a jerk," says Dr. John Van Epp.

Van Epp, who trains scores of chaplains every year on how to help young troops pick good mates, has written the book on the subject: "How to Not Fall in Love with a Jerk."

What makes so many troops jerk magnets? It's the same intensity that can cause weak marriages to fail. "Military life can be a kind of marriage incubator — things can heat up very fast," Van Epp says.

He calls these "accelerated relationships."

And when things are moving fast, jerks are hard to spot.

Jerk Spotting 101

"Good chemistry is important, but it's not everything," Van Epp says. "Ultimately, you live with the character of a person. There have been a lot of people who've enjoyed the fireworks early in a relationship only to have those fireworks burn them later on."

All that dazzle and sizzle can distract you from seeing the trouble lurking in the shadows. It's why people say love is blind.

"The reality is that there are some people who have issues that will seriously affect a partner in a relationship. Maybe it's how they handle their temper, or maybe a lack of sensitivity or even an addiction," he says.

But those problems are not what make a mate a jerk — after all, everyone brings a certain amount of baggage to a marriage.

"What makes them a jerk is persistent resistance to change," he says. "That resistance becomes very, very difficult to live with."

Jerk-proof your mate

The first rule: Be careful.

Lt. Cmdr. Kay Reeb, a Navy chaplain for a Marine Corps regiment at Camp Pendleton, Calif., has counseled hundreds of sailors and Marines through all kinds of marital messes.

"Probably the most common problem is they don't choose well in the beginning," says Reeb, who took Van Epp's class about a year ago.

You have to look at your potential mate without blinders on, she says. "There are some predatory women out there looking to marry an ID card and get their meal ticket. We try real hard to help our Marines not get snared by that."

That means taking an honest look not just at the small things you may be quick to excuse early in a relationship, but more importantly, at how your potential spouse treats others.

"Look for clues into their real character," Reeb says. "How do they get along with their family? How do they treat others? What do they do when they're angry?"

Slow down

Capt. Samuel Kim, an Army chaplain at Fort Jackson, S.C., says blitzkrieg engagements are an all-too-common factor in broken marriages down the road.

"Getting married right before your deployment may not be the best answer," Kim says. Time your vows "when you know you can spend at least the first year together to build the foundation of your marriage. This is where marriage resiliency begins."

Maturity helps, which is another good reason for waiting. Ensuring the relationship is strong enough to hold together through hard times is key, too.

"Marriage isn't for lightweights," Reeb says. "But you also can't always chalk [marriage problems] up to being 19 and stupid. There are a lot of pulls on marriage. It's difficult to stay married even for civilians, but there are particular stressors for military couples."

Long and frequent combat deployments don't help. Military divorce rates have risen steadily — up 38 percent — since 2001.

Fear that tying the knot right away is the only way to show your commitment should give way to patience. "Take your time," Reeb says. "If it's the right relationship, it's not going to go anywhere. Don't rush into things."

Don't be a jerk

Not marrying a jerk cuts both ways. Along with taking a thorough look at your partner, it's a good idea to look in the mirror, too, says Kim, who has taught Van Epp's class to single soldiers more than two dozen times. "You get what you bring into your marriage," he says.

If you want a good spouse, you need to be a good spouse, Van Epp says. "Embedded in all this is looking at yourself first."

Start by trying to understand who you are and what you think. How do you get along with others? How flexible are you when things don't go your way? What things flip your switch and make you angry or depressed? After all, it's hard to find someone you're compatible with if you don't have a clue about your own potential to act like a jerk.

"If you look up 'jerk' in the dictionary, it says 'a foolhardy person,' " Van Epp says. "A fool is someone who is stuck in their issues and doesn't want to do anything about it. The bottom line is not whether you have a shortcoming, but whether you have an openness to addressing that shortcoming, and how it affects the person you love."

What do you call people who have problems but refuse to try to fix them? Call them jerks — and don't let them call you husband or wife.

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