My date with Mr. eHarmony

Neil Clark Warren is the Christian evangelical who runs Internet dating titan eHarmony. I'm a pagan feminist who's leery of the religious right. Would sparks fly?

Published June 10, 2005 4:21PM (EDT)

"We were scared," eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren explained to me over the phone. The 70-year-old psychologist and Internet dating entrepreneur was trying to tell me why it had taken him a month to return my calls. "We thought you would categorize us in some religious way which we think is unfair."

I was a little surprised by Warren's candor and by his savvy. While I hadn't decided what I thought about eHarmony or its founder, I had heard a few disturbing things about them. I went into my research with as open a mind as possible for a confirmed secularist writing about a dating site that attracts a lot of Christians, and won't match gays or depressed people or anyone who's been married more than twice. Which is to say, I was curious but ready to disapprove. And my suspicions about the company increased the longer it took eHarmony to get back to me.

I seemed to be the exception, since Warren has granted recent interviews to publications such as the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He's the public face of an Internet matchmaking company that has, in five years, become one of the industry's top five and that boasts the most marriages-per-coupling of any other site. All of its broadcast ads feature Warren, its waggly-browed founder, who promises to help you find the love of your life. In the ads, Warren comes off as either unctuous or avuncular, depending on your perspective, which might conceivably be skewed if you happen to be homosexual, in which case Warren will not help you find the love of your life. Unlike other dating sites that allow customers to browse for potential partners who appeal to them, eHarmony visitors fill out personality questionnaires and are matched with other users according to Warren's "29 dimensions" of compatibility.

Since it's not a secret that Warren is an evangelical Christian with strong ties to the conservative Christian community -- including a prior business relationship with Focus on the Family leader James Dobson -- I suspected that his views on social issues came straight from the Christian right, and the longer the company dodged my calls the more skeptical I got.

Eharmony, it turned out, had been equally skeptical of me. "Salon, I think, is known for being harsh," Warren said. "I wouldn't want you to make me sound bad because, for instance, I believe in God or I pray."

It's an issue Warren is sensitive about, especially right now, as he makes a break from Dobson's ministry. In late May, after Warren began to publicly distance himself from Focus on the Family, Dobson announced a formal separation of sorts on his radio program. It's a significant split; the conservative, evangelical community nourished Warren's nascent business, and now he appears to be leaving it behind for the secular world. Part of his reluctance to talk to a reporter who he guessed would press him on religious and social issues may well have had to do with the delicacy of his situation. Is he a moral man who has begun to question the narrowness of the Christian right, especially their position on gays? Or is he a savvy opportunist looking for a bigger market share? And if it means that he is opening himself up to a more nuanced and accepting worldview, does it really matter?

Finally, after increasingly aggressive phone calls to the site's outside publicity firm, here we were, talking at last. It was hard to believe that we would have many of Warren's 29 dimensions of compatibility to work with. I am a pagan, single 30-year-old feminist with strong suspicions about the ever-creeping tentacles of the religious right. Warren is a married psychologist grandpa with a divinity degree, a Californian by way of rural Iowa; he has three daughters, nine grandchildren and strong suspicions about the liberal press.

But we wound up talking for two hours straight. During the conversation, Warren grappled -- honestly, it seemed -- with his feelings about homosexuality, his pride in his multiracial workforce, his commitment to marriage, and his belief that I should really consider dating an Asian guy. I occasionally felt played, as if he was pulling out some shiny tricks to show a lefty reporter he isn't James Dobson. But I also thought we genuinely connected.

"My agenda is to try to do two things: to change the world and build a business," Warren told me. I had read similar statements from him before, and the saving the world part had always sounded scarily messianic. But in conversation, his tone was so earnest, so nakedly committed to lowering the divorce rate -- which he feels he can do through eHarmony -- that I felt I should congratulate him on his good intentions.

Neil Clark Warren is an evangelist for marriage first and foremost -- but happy marriage. "My dad and mom were married for 70 years," he said. "They had a nice marriage, but they were not a very well-matched couple." Warren grew up on a farm in Iowa; his father owned a Chevrolet agency, a John Deere store, a grocery, and once ran for supervisor of Polk County, though even his mother voted against him. (She thought politics was a dirty business.) "My dad was just so stinking bright and my mom was so sweet, but she was two standard deviations below him in intelligence." Warren described his father as a guy who "wanted to talk about things like, Why do you think the Jews and Arabs are continuing to fight over the earth?" while his mother "didn't know where the Middle East was." The result for Warren, he said, was a childhood spent "sitting there with two people who never talked. I was bored to death growing up."

Warren moved to Long Beach, Calif., as a young man and attended Pepperdine University, where he met his wife of 46 years, Marylyn. Marylyn Warren handles eHarmony's public relations and was vice president and head of development for the Huntington Library in Los Angeles for 11 years. "She didn't work until our third daughter went off to college," said Warren. But when she did, "she loved it and she was treated with so much respect. That was the time when she and I learned that it was not my superiority in any way that dictated that I should be the breadwinner. She could have done it just as well as, if not better than, I."

Warren sounds like a man still breath-catchingly in love with his wife. "There is nobody on earth I want to be with every night except for her," he said. But he stressed that their meeting "was total luck. We didn't have the slightest idea of what we should have been looking for [in each other]."

Warren, with a master's in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary (1959) and a 1967 Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago (where he studied with humanist Carl Rogers), became a professor and later a dean at Fuller Theological Seminary's Graduate School of Psychology. He maintained a private practice until 2000.

Years of counseling unhappy couples left him distressed about the state of the American union, and his obsession with figuring out how to save it built as his daughters got closer to choosing their own mates. He published a pamphlet in 1975 titled "Selecting a Marriage Partner" and went on to write 10 books, including the alliteratively titled "Finding the Love of Your Life," "Learning to Live With the Love of Your Life," "Loving the Life You Live" and "Date ... or Soul Mate? How to Know If Someone Is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less." Three of his tomes were published by Focus on the Family, though Warren is now trying to buy the rights back from Dobson.

Warren partnered with his son-in-law, former commercial real estate developer Greg Forgatch, in 1995. "We tried everything," he said about their attempts to get the word out about his compatibility research, including putting out a series of videotapes that sold about 5,000 copies. "Then we came to the conclusion that single people in America do not want more education about relationships," said Warren. "They're sick of that. They want somebody."

Based on conversations with 5,000 married people in the late 1990s, Warren formulated his predictive model of compatibility, the 29 dimensions, which include curiosity, intellect, appearance, sexual passion, artistic passion, obstreperousness, sense of humor, anger management, quality of self-perception, feelings about children, spirituality and values orientation. Warren and Forgatch launched eHarmony on Aug. 22, 2000.

Now the site boasts more marriages per match than any other Web site; 10,000 can be documented. But Warren and Forgatch both suspect the number is closer to between 30,000 and 50,000. They'd like to get better figures, but in an earlier conversation, Forgatch had pointed out that they're not interested in volume; they want to know if their formula is working. "Not every marriage made at eHarmony is going to last," he said. "But the purpose of being here is to lower the divorce rate. That's Neil's vision -- literally to change the world."

The Pasadena-based eHarmony is private, and Forgatch wouldn't disclose profits. But last year it attracted an impressive $110 million in venture capital and has advertising partnerships with companies such as Earthlink, ThirdAge, Friendster and Gannet newspapers. Warren and Forgatch crow about the 28-30 percent rate of conversion between those who visit the site and fill out the free profile to those who fork over $50-$250 to become active members. The average conversion rate in the Internet dating world hovers around 4-9 percent. But most visitors log on to eHarmony with a mission, because they've seen an ad or spoken to a satisfied friend, not because they're looking to get their online jollies. There are no jollies to be had at eHarmony. "We don't have anything that's revealing or promiscuous or tantalizing in our advertising," said Forgatch. "Because that stuff has nothing to do with long-lasting relationships."

"Long-lasting" is an adjective that could be applied to the eHarmony Personality Profile, which I had plenty of time to fill out while waiting weeks to hear back from Warren. The 436-question test was a mix of multiple-choice, free-form and true-or-false questions about me and the man I hope to meet. When I was finished, I received a long evaluation telling me that I have a strong sense of humor, am optimistic, verbal and "may sometimes talk too much." Accurate. Though I couldn't help noticing that these were the qualities I had ascribed to myself by answering hundreds of questions. After 436 queries, I had clearly hoped that the eHarmony compatibility algorithm whatnots would be able to present me with driving directions to the home of my future Prince Charming. It was a little deflating when they simply informed me that I crave "excitement and a variety of activities."

Soon after I got my profile, I began receiving matches, without having coughed up a single cent. I couldn't communicate with them without paying, but I could check out their online profiles. Phillip from New York was "enthusiastic about activities and planning." A perfect match! No, seriously. The last book he'd read was "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian," which he enjoyed because he "loved the 'primal' feeling of the narratives!" Eh. Shero from Kansas (I never figured out how to control the geography of my matches) wrote in his profile that, "family is a word that means security and happiness to me. Hence, I won't be enjoying going out, partying, watching TV or sports unless my family is with me." Next!

Then there was Curtis from Kansas, who wrote that the one thing that is most important to him is: "Romance and Jimmy Buffett ... I find romance in so many things, and when I taste it I want more. Then there is Jimmy Buffett. I love to go to his concerts. I do every year, and usually wear a straw hat with a 4-foot inflatable shark on it." The last book Curtis read? "A Salty Piece of Land." By Jimmy Buffett.

This is why I am not cut out for online dating. If I happen to fall in love with someone only to discover he's a parrot-head, I will learn to live with it. To know it from the get-go ... well, to be frank, it's going to hinder my ability to fall in love.

But I wasn't as interested in whether my matches had a thing for Buffett so much as whether they had a thing for Jesus. Since one of the popular urban legends about eHarmony is that if you reveal in your profile that you don't regularly attend church or aren't Christian, you won't get any matches. It's true that about a dozen of the Personality Profile questions touched on faith, but they were nondenominational. I was asked to identify myself as "Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto, Other, Spiritual but not affiliated with a religious group, or neither religious nor spiritual." I admitted I was not affiliated with any religious group and didn't attend religious services. I wrote that faith was not an important part of my life and that the religious affiliation of my matches didn't matter. In short, I was honest, but checked off all the "wrong" boxes. I got more than 20 matches anyway.

Yet there were undertones that were hard to miss. Two of my matches "closed" our connection -- sending the message that they weren't interested in hearing from me based on what they saw in my profile. One, Aaron from Florida, wrote that "the physical distance between us is too great." But his profile revealed that his pastor is the most influential person in his life and that God is one of the things he can't live without. Mark, from Ohio, didn't offer a reason as to why he was closing our match, but according to his profile, God is one of the three things he is most thankful for, and one of the five things he can't live without.

"We never had the desire to be a Christian dating site," said Warren. But there's a reason that Christians have done better than others at eHarmony. The company did not advertise for its first two years, leaving word of its existence to spread through the Christian community where Warren was best known. "I knew quite a few people in the Christian world and I would take any opportunity I could to get on television," said Warren of the early days. In addition to appearances on secular shows like "Politically Incorrect" and "Oprah," Warren also did time on Christian airwaves. "I was on every program I could get on; it just happened that I could get on more Christian programs," he said. Warren said that when 10 eHarmony couples were featured on the "Focus on the Family" radio program in 2002, the company got 100,000 new registrants -- producing far better odds for those who had accepted Christ to find like-minded singles. It's not that eHarmony was "restricted" in the country club sense of the word. But it was definitely self-selected.

That seems to be changing with the ubiquitous eHarmony television and radio campaign. According to Warren, the company spent $50 million on national advertising last year and is headed toward $80 million this year. The numbers of non-Christians now aware of the site make it less and less of a conservative, faith-based pool. Some of the eHarmony users interviewed for this article acknowledged that their group of matches had tilted to the political right, but many told stories of having been matched with secular liberals, artists, stoners, organic farmers. None of those interviewed considered themselves religious, and none cared that eHarmony's founder had an evangelical background ... as long as it didn't have an impact on the site.

During the course of our conversation, Warren peppered me with questions about my family and did a little diagnosis on my own love life. When he discovered that I am single at 30, Warren surprised me. I figured that a religious man -- who runs a pro-marriage matchmaking site no less -- would tell me to get a move on. But he didn't. Instead, he urged me to wait until I found my perfect match. "I can tell you," said Warren, sounding very sad as he recalled counseling couples who hit and spit at each other in his office, "that it is just awful to be in a bad marriage." He asked about my family, and I told him that my parents were about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. He immediately asked, "Do they like each other?" Yes, I responded, very much. "Well there you have it. I can tell you that that's the most important thing they ever gave you," he said. Warren believes that parents who are actively engaged in their own relationship give their children the best chance for future happiness.

It sounds like the kind of family-values claptrap I tend to summarily reject. Kids who grow up with unhappily married or single parents have happy lives, too. Maybe they develop different kinds of emotional muscles than I have, but who's to say that's a disadvantage?

Yet I found myself agreeing with Warren that if parents are married, then ideally their marriages would be about intellectual and sexual and social companionship with each other and not simply about kids or money or vows or other ties keeping them together for the sake of being together. That doesn't seem a bad dynamic to celebrate. And that's what Warren was saying. He was comparing his 70-year-married folks to my 40-year-married folks and admitting that I had gotten the better deal. For Warren, matchmaking seems not to be about marriage for the sake of marriage (or for the sake of church and country), but about the quality of the unions we form.

I was wondering if faith -- Christian faith -- plays a crucial role in Warren's estimation of a good marriage when -- boom -- he asked me about my religious background. When I told him about my Baptist mom, Jewish dad and Quaker education, he was interested, and told a story about visiting a Quaker meetinghouse in Princeton while he was a theology student there. But then he asked, "Has your mom maintained any of her background?" No, I said. "That's too bad," Warren replied. He didn't ask about my dad.

As for my romantic prospects, Warren had some grim news. He said that because I was bright, I "lose at least 95 percent of candidates because of IQ." Great. Apparently, I also need someone articulate, ambitious and energetic. In short, as Warren said, I am "looking for a rare, rare, rare person." He laughed when I told him that I had received more than 20 matches but that only a couple sounded even remotely appealing. "Well, you'd be lucky if you found one in that batch," he said, adding that one is all I need. When I asked if he had a guess as to why most of my matches had been Chinese or Indian, he surmised it was because I had checked that racial difference didn't matter to me. Then he offered this advice: "I would say that if indeed racial things are not a big issue -- and frankly they would not be for me -- then I can tell you that there are so many great qualities to Asian people and I would be looking at Asians. I don't know why you were matched with mostly Asians, but I do know that some of the really strong people in this country who are available and smart and quite Internet savvy are Asians."

When I pressed Warren on whether there was a relationship between his faith and his business, he clarified that his response was "not an eHarmony answer" but "a Neil Warren answer." "We don't talk about this very much but here's my answer: There's no question that there's a relationship in my mind. Christian faith is all about God's great love for people, his attributions of value and worth. We can take that principle and move it throughout our 154 employees. We have employees from lots of different countries and we treat them with great dignity and respect. We have as many Hispanics as there are represented in California, as many African-Americans, as many Asians; we have many people who would say they are agnostic or atheist. And we try to treat them as persons of great value and then encourage them to move that dynamic out into the world."

I wanted to believe him. But he was protesting a bit too much. And the "some of my best friends" school of racial understanding has never equaled enlightenment. I was also afraid that Warren, who had admitted his wariness about what he perceived to be the lefty press, was manipulating me.

"I've begun saying to our people that we've got to reach every person on earth," he said. "These Iraqis who keep getting killed every day, they are just as valuable as the GIs getting killed." This statement was so targeted to the pet issue of a so-called liberal media that I was pretty sure that while he may have meant it, Warren was also carefully telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.

He was certainly aware of the stain political involvement could have on his business as he continues to expand it. And he wasn't shy about bringing it up. Before I even murmured James Dobson's name, Warren was anxious to proclaim his distance from his friend and former associate. "I have a lot of respect for a lot that goes on in Focus on the Family," he said. "Where I get nervous is when people think we're political like Focus on the Family. You kind of have to trust me on this, I guess, but we don't talk about things like abortion. I wouldn't have the slightest idea where our employees would stand on that issue." Warren said that he has "a position on every social issue," though he declined to outline any of them.

A few days after I spoke with Warren, Dobson responded to recent interviews in which Warren has distanced himself from his former booster. "I introduced Dr. Warren and his books -- and eHarmony, more recently -- to our listeners specifically because he was and it was decidedly Christian in nature," Dobson told his radio audience on May 26. "Dr. Warren is anxious to change that direction. So ... we will go our separate ways ... with reluctance and regret." A salty response posted on the Conservative Voice Web site beneath a story about Dobson's on-air comments suggested that some feel the split between Warren and Dobson is less about ideological distance than it is about money, and Warren's desire to broaden his company's commercial appeal.

But if that's the case, why won't he budge on gay marriage?

When I asked Warren about his refusal to serve same-sex couples, he listed several reasons for his policy. "First, we're into marriage," he said, pointing out that gay unions remain illegal in almost every state. He also doesn't feel there is adequate research on how men can be matched up with other men, or women with women.

Businessmen have approached him and asked for his help in building a company designed specifically for gay couples. Warren was proud to tell me that he advises them to research the kinds of compatibility that make gay relationships last. "It did my heart good that these guys I talked to, these gay guys, have since said, 'Neil Clark Warren was sympathetic.' That meant the world to me," he said. But it's also pretty clear that eHarmony is not about to reverse its own policy. Warren is simply too torn on the issue.

When I told him that I found it sad that my gay friends don't have the opportunity to take advantage of the eHarmony compatibility elixir of which he is so proud, he was quiet for some time. "I love the spirit with which you make that point," he said thoughtfully. "And we do do a lot of talking about how we love the idea of being inclusive." He paused again, sounding slightly shaken. "It's just not an easy point! We've got thousands of years of history of the human race in which this was never treated as a marriage and there are a lot of people who think it's just not going to have the same kind of stability over time.

"Where Focus on the Family and a lot of these other places come from is that there are six places in the Bible that say homosexuality is wrong," he said. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. But then he continued: "On the other hand, in the Old Testament if you work on the Sabbath day and you're guilty then you should be shot."

I was surprised to hear him play out his internal debate so openly. Sure, he remained fairly benighted on issues of homosexuality, but I had to acknowledge he's from a different time and culture. I wish that I'd been able to have a conversation this frank with my late grandfather, who was not exactly open to sexual, religious or racial differences -- and whom I loved very much. How could I not appreciate the fact that Warren was at least engaging the topic? Far from dismissing homosexuality as an aberration, or suggesting that gays are going to hell, Warren brought up his best friend's daughter, a lesbian who has two children with her partner. "She's a dear person to us, and a very strong spiritual person," he said. "And when I start seeing things like that, I think we've got to start to think about that maybe this can work."

Then again, Dick Cheney has a gay daughter he loves, and he is a linchpin in an administration that would discriminate against her. And the fact remains that, open as Warren is to conversations about homosexuals, he's still refusing their business.

It may be that having to face these questions, not just from me but from other reporters, as his company grows out of the conservative community in which it started is forcing Warren to reconsider -- perhaps not his policy but at least his preconceived notions of what gay people are. "I literally would like to at some point put my money where my mouth is and see research done on it," he said. In the meantime, he added, "We have to get real civil with one another."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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