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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 10:17 GMT 11:17 UK
Hi-tech help for warring couples - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Figures on wedding cake, BBC
Technology might be able to help you stay together
Everyone knows that computers and technology can damage relationships.

Just ask the partner of anyone who bought Doom 3 this week or read any of the comments posted on the Everquest Widows website.

And everyone knows about people who strike up a cyber-relationship despite already being involved in a real one.

It is clear that spending too much time technology can bring about resentment, accusations of neglect, infidelity and no end of arguments.

But soon the web could help keep relationships happy and healthy.

Computer counsellor

Later this year eHarmony, one of the net's many dating services, is planning to move on from just bringing people together to keeping them together too.

Using the website, couples will be able to go through a series of lessons designed to diagnose what is wrong, and right, with their relationship and then help them fix it.

Dr Neil Clark Warren, the founder of eHarmony and a professional psychologist, believes that people will turn up and try out the system because online dating sites have lost the stigma they used to have.

"Most people now find it a pretty permissible way to find the right person," he said.

Anyone joining eHarmony has to answer a 436 item questionnaire that maps their characteristics, beliefs, values, emotional health and skills.

Screenshot of Doom 3, Activision
These could threaten your spouse
This is used to find out how they stack up against the 29 values Dr Warren believes are key to a good relationship.

It also helps eHarmony reject about 16-17% of applicants who are looking for love for all the wrong reasons.

When the marriage fixing service goes live, a similar questionnaire will be used to work out if two people are as good together as they think.

Since it was set up four years ago, eHarmony has been instrumental in more than 3,000 marriages and follow-up research suggests, says Dr Warren, that relationships mediated by technology are stronger than those that are not.

"We compared them to marriages of similar length" he says, "and so far they give every indication of being better marriages."

Technology has been applied to relationships in another way too.

Psychologist John Gottman working with mathematicians James Murray and Kristin Swanson recently produced a formula for working out which couples will stay together.

By analysing footage of couples arguing and applying this formula they claim to be able to predict who will stay together and who will split with 94% accuracy.

The key to being a happy couple is keeping the ratio of positive to negative interactions above 5 to 1.

Work plan

There are other factors too.

The key to a successful marriage, says Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate, is the conscious and sub-conscious fit between people.

The idea of this "fit" comes from psychologist Henry Dicks and involves the obvious physical characteristics we like about someone as well as the subtler aspects of their personality that we uncover as we get to know them.

Couple after argument, BBC
Couples that talk together, stay together
"They do for you what you need and vice versa," she says. "Very often I think that we do not realise that there's this fit between couples."

Upbringing plays a part in determining what you like too.

"Very often when you track back into people's families when they get together there are lot of commonalities," she says. "There are similarities in family background."

Using a questionnaire to find out how people fit together has its merits, says Ms Northam.

Relate uses a similar questionnaire it calls Reveal to map people's personalities and find out how they get along.

"They are very useful tools."

But, she adds, they are really only the starting point.

Although technology may make it easier for you to find someone you are likely to get along with, it's up to you to bring romance to the relationship or to making a marriage work.

"Chemistry is vital," says Dr Warren from eHarmony and it is something that the tests cannot predict.

What's also key is the work both partners put in to making something work because the fit between couples changes over time and often needs to be re-negotiated.

"Having children is one thing that makes people flounder about a bit," says Relate's Northam.

How a couple re-negotiates this fit will say a lot about a relationship. And, says Dr Warren, technology can only get you started. After that you are on your own.

"The harder you work on it the better the marriage will typically be," he says.


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