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Jim Stein, Ph.D.

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How to Get Your Marriage off to a Good Start

Posted: 09/09/10 08:23 AM ET

This is my first opportunity to write for the Huffington Post, and I've chosen a topic that I think will interest a number of readers. This may also be a first for members of my profession; because I'm pretty sure none of them have ever written an article with a title like this before. That's because I'm a mathematics professor.

My guess is that you have the conventional picture of a mathematics professor -- unless you've been watching "Numb3rs" or some such production which romanticizes the breed. We're often viewed as people who think in equations and forget their anniversary and where they parked the car. Okay, sometimes I think in equations -- and I sometimes forget where I parked my car (which is why I always try to park it in roughly the same area in large parking lots that I frequently visit) -- but I've never forgotten my anniversary. My wedding day was the most important day of my life, as it will be for the majority of people who get married. To get your marriage off to a good start, it helps to have a good wedding, and we had a great one.

I'm going to be writing about marriage, and relationships, health, and a lot of other topics -- but what I'm really writing about is decisions. The chances are that if you remember any mathematics, it had to do with numbers, equations and triangles -- because that's basically what mathematics did until the twentieth century. In the twentieth century mathematics greatly expanded its scope, and one of the areas that it studied was the process of making decisions. The result of this was a set of ideas and principles for making good decisions. Your life is basically the result of the decisions you make, and I hope that these articles will help you to make better decisions.

One of the key ideas behind decision theory is the concept of payoffs. Payoffs are how you score the results of your decisions. Some payoffs, such as money and health, are measured in terms of numbers. Some payoffs, such as happiness, are not so easily quantified -- but we all know when we are happy and we can generally make statements such as "I'm happier if I have pizza than if I have fish."

I think a lot of people enjoy taking quizzes if the quizzes are entertaining and there's nothing significant -- such as a grade or a promotion -- at stake. I'll often give a quiz where you are asked to step into someone's shoes and make a decision, as I think the best way to learn how to make decisions is to actually get some experience in making them. The next paragraph starts such a quiz -- from a guy's standpoint -- which might help you get your marriage off to a good start. After you read the next paragraph, you'll be offered the choice of three possible decisions.

Ready? Here we go.

And you thought the big problem was getting her to say "yes!" You chose the time, the place, you had the ring ready, and it all went exactly according to the script. While still basking in the warm fuzzy afterglow of this momentous occasion, your intended proceeded to describe her dream wedding, a relatively modest affair with only close family and intimate friends -- maybe 50 or so people. This didn't set well with either your parents or hers -- although they're not about to rent a football stadium for the proceedings, they're envisioning something much more elaborate in the way of ceremony and celebration. Nobody asked you, but you'd just as soon ink the deal at City Hall and spend the money on a nice honeymoon. Oops, someone did just ask you -- the blushing bride-to-be. Do you tell her that you prefer...

A - A quick trip to City Hall and a nice honeymoon?

Or...

B - An elaborate ceremony and celebration, as the parents seem to want?

Or...

C - A small wedding, as she prefers?

Make your decision, but try to think of a reason that you are making the decision that you make. Here's my analysis of the possibilities -- I give 5 points for what I consider to be the right decision, and score the others accordingly.

A - A quick trip to City Hall and a nice honeymoon?

-3 points - Honesty is the best policy -- most of the time. The big trick is to recognize the exceptions. It's not your payoffs that matter in this instance, at most weddings the groom is an afterthought. This is a great way to get things off on the wrong foot.

B - An elaborate ceremony and celebration, as the parents seem to want?

2 points -- They're paying for it, and if they manage to talk your sweetheart into going this route, so be it.

C - A small wedding, as she prefers?

5 points -- Your payoffs are her payoffs on this once-in-a-lifetime event. The bride is the star at the wedding, and a good way to ensure that she will do her best to make you happy throughout the course of the marriage is to do your best to make her happy on her wedding day -- by letting her have her way on as many details pertaining to the wedding as possible.

I'm happy to say I made the right decision in this case -- we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. And yes, I remembered it -- and the nine that preceded it.