in: People, Podcast, Relationships

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #584: How to Avoid Falling in Love With the Wrong Person

Why do people sometimes fall in love with someone who is all kinds of wrong for them? Their friends and family see lots of red flags about their partner, but they themselves miss these warnings entirely, sometimes to catastrophic consequences. 

My guest today argues that these kinds of errors in relational decision-making happen when someone lets his heart rule without also heeding his head. His name is John Van Epp, and he’s a therapist and the author of the book How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk. We begin our conversation discussing what society’s default template for creating a successful relationship looks like, and how it leads people astray. John then defines what makes a jerk, a jerk, and the signs that you’re dating a jerk. He then explains why it is that people so often miss these signs, by using a model of how attachment develops in a relationship; I think this model is super useful in understanding relational dynamics and you don’t want to miss it. We then discuss why men need to do a better job in helping to pace relationships, instead of only letting women set the tempo. We end our conversation discussing the things you need to know about a person that you’re forming a relationship with, including their relationship skills, family life, and values, before you escalate your commitment to them.

Show Highlights

  • What’s the template people often fall back on when it comes to dating and marriage?
  • How John defines a “jerk” in a relationship 
  • What happens if you find out only later (even much later) that your significant other is a jerk?
  • How relationships get too intimate too quickly 
  • The stages of how a relationship should progress (yes, there’s a lot of research on this!) 
  • What roles do men and women play in this pacing?
  • Is it true that “happy wife = happy life”?
  • What does it mean to really know someone? 
  • Why is it harder in our modern world to get to know people?
  • What are the 5 key areas in which you should get to know someone?
  • What Seinfeld can teach you about conscientiousness

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

How to Avoid Falling in Love by John VAN EPP book cover

Connect With John 

Love Thinks website (use code “artofman” to get a 20% discount on courses) 

Love Thinks on Instagram

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay:

Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Why do people sometimes fall in love with someone who is all kinds of wrong for them? Their friends and family see lots of red flags about their partner, but they themselves miss these warnings entirely sometimes to catastrophic consequences. I guess they argue that these kinds of errors in relational decision making happen when someone lets his heart rule without also heeding his head. His name is John Van Epp, he’s a counselor and the author of the book How To Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk. We begin our conversation discussing what society’s default template for creating a successful relationship looks like and how it leads people astray. John then defines what makes a jerk a jerk and the signs you’re dating a jerk. He then explains why it is that people so often miss these signs by using the model, how attachment develops in a relationship and I think this model is super useful in understanding relational dynamics and don’t want to miss it.

We then discuss why men need to do a better job in helping pace relationships instead of only letting women set the tempo and we end our conversation discussing the things you didn’t know about a person that you’re forming relationship with, including the relationship skills, family life and values before you escalate your commitment to them. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at things. All right, John Van Epp, welcome to the show.

John Van Epp:

It’s very exciting. Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay:

So you are a counselor and you’ve written a book called How To Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk: The Foolproof Way to Follow Your Heart Without Losing Your Mind. So this book, How To Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk, it’s based on a marriage program or a premarital program you developed called PICK. What is PICK and what issues are you trying to address in this program?

John Van Epp:

Yeah, so way back in the mid ’90s, I developed the concepts, worked it through and put it in a certification course where people could get certified to actually go out, get our workbooks, get this training and facilitate it in their own respective locations. So that was multiplying my efforts. So it’s not me doing all the work and it really took off. We started to have singles organizations, the military grabbed it as we headed into the 2000s, social agencies, community initiatives that had federal and state grant money, and by the time we reached the end of 2000s and hit 2010, 2011, we had over a million people having gone through the program being taught by all these certified instructors. And in the middle of that, McGraw-Hill published the book. So the content of the book and then the course itself has a lot of overlap.

Brett McKay:

And with the PICK program, is this for people like couples who are thinking about getting married or about to get married or even people who marriage isn’t on the radar yet, but it’s a plan later on in life?

John Van Epp:

Well, sure, so I think if somebody is in a serious relationship, I think this would be really great material for them to go through, but I really, to be honest, it was designed to go what I call upstream. I wanted to reach pre-relational people. People that were just maybe had been in a relationship or young people even or divorced people that came out of relationship and they were just kind of saying, “Hey, we need a better template of what to get to know about somebody and how to build a healthy relationship because the template we’ve used or the template we’ve learned just isn’t really effective or it’s not worked.”

And so that was really my target audience and it’s been that way. We’ve had over a hundred thousand kids in public schools go through the PICK program with instructors coming into the school systems and teaching it. And that’s been pretty cool. So it’s pretty far upstream. And then we’ve worked a lot with adult singles of all ages. So I think that that’s really the primary place where I’d really like to see your listeners say, “Hey, let’s look into this even more. I’m not interested in a serious relationship right now.” Okay, good, you are the very person that I want to look into this material and think about it and take it because now is the best time pre-relationally.

Brett McKay:

Well, I think it’s interesting you’re teaching this stuff to high school students because this is like important stuff. Your marriage, your relationship, is one of the biggest things that have the biggest impact on your life yet we don’t really teach kids like what they should look for in a partner. So you mentioned we have a template that we fall back to because we don’t get this sort of intentional instruction. What does that template look like and why isn’t it not effective?

John Van Epp:

Yeah, so the template that people fall back on is usually what I consider to be several different unanalyzed beliefs that tend to drive the culture at large. One is intuition. I’ll know when I know. When I’m in with somebody, it’s kind of the click factor. As soon as things click with me and this person and… I’ll just know when I know I. Nobody needs to teach me anything, I just figure it out and I know it intuitively. The second, and that doesn’t work, there are some people that perhaps do have that innate ability, but the vast majority people don’t have that good of judgment or you might say they haven’t been trained to have their intuition function at such a high level of really knowing and being able to predict longterm relationship potential of an individual that they have some kind of chemistry or attraction to.

A second, I would say template that’s used is the belief that relationships that are healthy or good or… It’s kind of a dichotomy. It’s either healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, functional or dysfunctional. And they have this dichotomy and they believe that if it’s on the positive side of the dichotomy, they’re good, they’re healthy, they’re functioning, then a relationship just runs itself. If I have to work at it, that must mean something’s wrong with it. And that concept, anybody that has ever had a longterm relationship, a friendship even, knows that unless you have some kind of concerted effort, ongoing energy investment into the relationship, the relationship tends to start deflating. But still we believe that more about a romantic relationship than any other. I’ll just know when I know, the click factor, it’s in my intuition and if it’s really good, it just goes at its own pace and it runs itself.

And I don’t have to have any kind of training, information, involvement. And it’s kind of like asking people, “When do you feel is the right time to have sex?” A lot of people would just say, “Well, I’ll just know when I know and when it feels right.” And it’s that intuition and the relationship will just go there when it’s the right time to go there as if the relationship is this thing outside of myself and the other person and I don’t have any involvement in pacing how this relationship develops. Those two things I found were extremely detrimental and they left lots of burned, crashed relationships in people’s histories. And actually then all of those hardship experiences get brought into the next relationship and complicate things even more. So we came up with a different way of getting to know somebody and building a relationship and actually being more informed and intentional, and we found it to be way more successful of all ages, by the way.

Brett McKay:

So you mentioned that intuition can result in people if they’re not lucky, they might look out, but typically they don’t. Just relying on intuition leads you to end up falling for a jerk. So for definitions, how do you define a jerk? What makes a jerk a jerk in a marriage or relationship?

John Van Epp:

Well, I think the starting point, Brett, is all of us at one time or another act like jerks, right? Can you admit that as well?

Brett McKay:


John Van Epp:

Okay, but you didn’t elaborate on it. Probably everybody would like to hear a story too from you, but we’ll go on.

Brett McKay:

I’m sure they would.

John Van Epp:

We’ll let you off the hook. But I’ll say for myself, I’ve made very jerk decisions over the… I’m in my 60s now and so been married for 40 years. And in my relationship with my kids, my wife, we all make mistakes and errors. So the word is not trying to say first of all that you got to find a person that is perfect. The second thing I would say about what the word is not saying, these are kind of disclaimers, is that the word is not saying that the jerks are a particular gender. We all gender neutral. No matter what you are or how you define yourself as a human being, everybody can act like a jerk. But I would say there is a marked difference between acting like a jerk and what we will say is being a jerk.

So a couple things. First I’ll just say some simple signs of jerkiness is lack of clear insight into how their behavior is impacting other people that they’re in a relationship with. That makes people a little jerky. Some people have that insight but they don’t have any real care about how they’re… They’re like, “Wow, you made somebody really feel bad. Well, that’s their problem. I’m not responsible for their feelings.” So there’s either lack of insight or care about how my words or my actions impact others. I think a second sign or warning flashing signal that this person could be a bit jerky is if they’re really lacking, woefully lacking, some relationships skills like the skill of empathy or the skill of apology, how to admit their faults and they talk things through, woefully lacking communication or how to handle conflicts.

And so there’s these warning signals, but I would say we could probably spend this entire time making a list of all of the things that people can do that would throw them in a category of acting like a jerk, but the bottom line of being a jerk is they have a persistent resistance to addressing and actually changing whatever gets put on the table is bothering others. So in other words, when you’re in a relationship with somebody, one of the key areas to look for, I call it a global characteristic of a person, is do they have the change factor? Do they have the ability to have insight into themselves, see something that keeps repeating as a pattern and bothering you? And when it gets put on the table and you talk about it, they actually take it to heart, they take responsibility and they do something to make a change.

That sounds simple, but there are a lot of people in relationships that are unwilling to address issues that a person’s put on the table or maybe multiple people put on the table that, “Hey, this is something about you that offends others, bothers others. I really like to try to change this.” Well, and they have a defense resistance to that. So I would just start with a very simple definition of the difference between acting like a jerk versus being a jerk is whether a person has the change factor. They have a willingness to be open and receptive to something about themselves that needs to be addressed and change and they put in some concerted effort to do it.

Brett McKay:

Well, and the problem you highlight in the book is that people don’t typically realize they’re in a relationship with a jerk, someone who’s has jerkiness qualities till it’s too late, and by then they’re so entwined in the relationship that it’s hard to get out and you’re like, “Man, how did I get into this? How did I miss this when I first started dating this person?”

John Van Epp:

I call it the head and the heart need to work together and accelerated bonds. So when you get into a relationship, there’s something that is attracting you. It could be a kind of a sexual chemistry, you could be really attracted to the person. If it’s got some romantic aspect to it, then you would expect that there’s some kind of a attraction and hopefully it’s mutual attraction, and that is like a magnet pulling you toward each other. But then there are bonds, major bonds that I say exist in every relationship, whether it’s romantic or not, that I put together in a tool that we call the Relationship Attachment Model.

It’s this kind of graphic that’s going to date me if I call it a graphic equalizer, but if you think of a soundboard with sliders that go up and down, it is depicted, these bonds that occur in all of our relationships are depicted as a slider. And they can have a very low level and they can move up to a very high level. And what I say is there’s somewhat of a progression. It lies which bonding factor, which aspect of the relationship is going up really high, but they get into a relationship and some of those areas of connection in the relationship, what I call these bonds, some of them go up super fast almost superficially, and they don’t fully know the person. So the know is actually the first of the five sliders, how much I know this person or they know me, and that might be actually very low, but their trust or their reliance or even their touch in terms of just attraction and so forth or even getting involved sexually, those things can go up super fast, create premature feelings of bond and closeness.

Why are they premature? Well, they’re premature because my bond is greater than what I truly know about this person. So I don’t know if they’re a jerk or not a jerk. I don’t know what the patterns are of how this person’s going to act. I know how they’ve treated me, I know what we’ve experienced together in the six weeks we’ve been seeing each other and now we’re sleeping together, and I dropped my friends and I’m spending bulk of my time. So another slider in this model I developed is called rely. How much I depend on this person or how much I’ve put into a sense of them depending on me or me depending on them, how we’re meeting each other’s needs. So a lot of my needs are now all getting funneled into this relationship with this person of six weeks.

And if you go to my trust, which is another level, that is like all the way up because everything’s been good so far. For six weeks, everything’s been good. But my know is locked into actually time. And you can’t get to know the patterns of a person until there’s been enough time for certain things to surface. And then a pattern by definition is something that keeps repeating. So there has to be additional time beyond it surfacing for something to actually repeat. Well, six weeks, a lot of times is not enough time for even somebody in a relationship to get mad at you. So you don’t even know how they’re going to treat you if they’re mad at you. So here you are sleeping with them, channeling a lot of your needs and the reliance and your belief in them, your trust belief is way up and yet your know is really low.

And that is the norm for how many, many people today are building relationships and it really is a recipe. It’s a a potential recipe for catastrophe because as your know goes up a little more and you’re round the corner of what we call the 90 day probation period rate, when things are really starting to surface that didn’t surface in the beginning and maybe some things are starting to repeat. So you’re starting to see a few patterns, all of a sudden you hit this three month mark, this 90 day, and all of a sudden you’d be like, “I thought I knew this person, but I’m really wondering, do I really know them?” And people are shocked as if they thought they fully knew them but they’re their knowing wasn’t high on that level. It was their trust, it was their rely, independence and meeting each other’s needs and it was their touch was super high.

So I can explain that model a little more and in a more organized way, but just answering your question, why do people get involved, all of a sudden realize, “I thought I knew this person, they seemed great, but now they look like a jerk,” it’s because our definition of a jerk was they’re not acting like a jerk 24/7, it’s that there is a repeating pattern that doesn’t surface typically in the beginning of a relationship, but over time begins to surface and when addressed does not change and starts to have major defenses on it changing.

So accelerated relationships are the norm. They’ve been the norm for a long, long time. I was growing up in the ’70s and accelerated relationships were happening when I was in high school back in the ’70s. And so over those decades ever since, accelerated relationships have just become more and more the norm. But I think that they are a very unwise way and a very risky way that we do relationships. And we need to talk about guys for a minute. So I’ll let you keep asking questions but I do want to speak directly to guys as stepping up, being pacemakers of relationships rather than saying guys will just do whatever women let them do.

Brett McKay:

Well, yeah, so let’s summarize this Relationship Attachment Model because I thought it was a very useful tool for people. So the idea is that there’s these five sliders which you call bonding areas, and the first one is know, then you said trust, rely, commit and touch. And the way you talk about in the book is that in a relationship you have to go through these in a progression. You can’t go too fast like you said. You can’t accelerate to touch before you get to know the person because that’s just going to lead to disaster or commit. Like there’s a lot of people who end up living, moving in with somebody, but they don’t really know that and they find out the person has lots of debt and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know yet.” Or like, “You’ve been in jail? I did not know you’ve been in jail.”

And so that’s why you want to make sure you know. And I think the big takeaway I got from that is that you never want to go further in one bonding area than you have gone in the previous. So like you never want to go say if you’re still in the know period of a relationship, you don’t want to over commit or over rely or over trust before you get to know that person better.

John Van Epp:

That’s a very, very perfect description of it. So if people are imaginative, they can imagine in their mind this image of five sliders going up and down and what you just said is know. Starting from the left, it would be know and then trust and then rely and then commit and then touch. And exactly what you said, they’re representative of a piece of the whole of what a relationship is. A relationship is the interaction of these five areas. How much I know somebody, how it interacts with how I trust them, how that interacts with how they meet my needs or I meet their needs and how we rely. And these things are like two way streets, so you could get a little more complicated with a model and say it’s not just how I know them, but how I have let them get to know me or how they trust me and I trust them.

So they do have a little more complications. We start thinking of them as two way streets, but they are pieces of the whole. And when you think of a brand new relationship, any relationship, there’s just an intuitive wisdom to not let a level go higher or faster or develop in a greater way than any of the levels to the left. So you’re right. If the know is low, then I shouldn’t have my trust go significantly higher than what I know somebody. If I’m trusting somebody way beyond what I know them, it definitely puts me at risk. But even if my know is up a little bit, if my trust isn’t fully developed and I step into, like you said, moving in with them, that makes my commitment really high. We have lots of interesting research. Literally, I don’t know if everyone knows this, but there have been over a thousand research studies on moving in together outside of marriage.

These are, I’m talking about in academic journals, they don’t have any particular religious… They’re almost always out of university settings, and then because there’s so many research studies that have been done, there have been what they call meta studies, which then take all of the research that was done from like 1980 to 2015 and let’s take all of the research and group it on cohabitation in unmarried relationships, so unmarried people moving in together. Let’s take all of that research for those last 15 or 20 years, whatever, the metastatic is looking at. Basically a summary of it confirms this logic, this intuitive logic of my model that the people that move in together are forming a reliance way higher than their trust typically and way higher than what they know somebody.

So the know, trust, rely, commit, touch progression, their rely is really high, their touch is really high, their commitment is kind of skewed. They don’t want to go to a full commitment of marriage which truly is historically the greatest commitment. We are going to commit together, to be together as a union for life. That’s been the historic definition of what marriage is. And they’re not ready for that but their rely is really high, their commitment is a little bit crooked you might say, and mid range, their touch is all the way to the top. Their trust is mid range because they’re not quite sure if they can believe everything good about this person but they have enough to move in together, and they’re know, even though they might say their know is really high, there’s a ton of things that they don’t know about each other.

What all the research in the meta analysis as well as most of the individual studies, you can’t really find any good research that says this approach of moving in and then eventually getting married is producing better marriages. But there is a lot of research that says the breakup rates are significantly higher than the breakup rates in marriage. And you might be like, “Well, that’s good.” So they move in together, they realize it’s not going to work out and they break up. But we also find the after effects of those breakups can be more similar to the after effects of divorce than ever realized. And so people are thinking this is like a no fault, no risk approach to checking out a relationship and they move in and their hearts are bonded and they’re living together and their rely is really high and maybe they see problems and because their reliance is so high and they bought a house together, they’re living together and they both put money out and bought a house, now their dependence, their co-interdependency has just moved significantly up.

Or they bought a dog together. Even that. Or in the millennial generation, which is, what? Maybe 22, 23 years old to 38 years old now, having a kid when you’re not married, and that generation is now over 50%. It’s 55%. And just a quick stat, they looked at these moms that are having kids when they’re not married and they asked them, “How many of you are going to eventually marry the father of your child?” Well, it was around 70% said, “Yeah, we’re going to marry the father of our child.” They did a five year follow up with these millennial moms and only 16% five years later had married the dads and over 50, it was actually 65% plus had moved on to another guy. So just think how complicated life is becoming.

So I’m elaborating on what you said, but there is an intuitive logic that says as you get to know somebody, and we can talk, Brett, about what does it mean to get to know somebody, what are the key areas, but as you get to know somebody, let the ceiling of how much you truly know them, let that set the ceiling of your trust. And as you are getting to know them and checking out your trust based on that, we call it the three T’s by the way, you’ve got to talk. So that’s good to get to know them and build trust, but second T is you’ve got to be together in various situations and moods and states of life. When they’re stressed or when they’re angry or when they’re, we already said when they’re mad at you, this togetherness and diverse moods and settings takes the third T, it takes a lot of time.

So if you let your know set the ceiling for your trust and how you know and believe in them as that’s getting tested out, you keep pulling back your reliance to keep a little bit of a balanced life, not overly investing. The same with your commitment. And if you pace it that way and then you do everything you can to hold your physical involvement with them in check, I know everybody’s like, “Man, just you got to jump in the sack and check things out right away.” But all research from biological to psychological and social finds that jumping into sack with somebody, even in a hookup, creates chemicals in the brain that prompt a sense of connection and bond. And so we’re creating bonds that don’t match the other areas of the relationship.

And this skewed sense of I’m bonded to them, I can’t stop thinking about them, I’m spending my time with them, but this other area is not fully developed like how much I know them, whether I can fully trust them. These areas are not fully developed, whether they really will meet my needs in responsible ways or whether they will be more self running and self focused and I didn’t realize that for the first few months. Doing a relationship with the logic of the Relationship Attachment Model, that intuitive logic, don’t let a level go higher than the previous to the left, that has saved a ton of people heartache and decisions and helped them to use it as, I call it, a relationship GPS system to help them navigate their relationship in a way that is wise and safe and actually very rewarding.

Brett McKay:

So earlier you mentioned you want to talk about guys taking charge and being a part of this pacing of it. So talk to that. What role does a guy have in a relationship and pacing the relationship?

John Van Epp:

Yeah, this has been… So I had a counseling practice if I back up, in Northern Ohio for 25 years and it was something that just bothered me so much. And then after designing programs, so we have a lot of programs now. I don’t have a private practice anymore, but we have a lot of programs that have been trying to do more preventative than remedial work. Obviously a counseling practice does a lot of remedial work. Trying to fix something that broken. Like now I want to just help people try to avoid things breaking down by making better decisions on the front end.

One of the things that always just got me was this sense that respecting what a woman wants and what she’s willing to do in a relationship is the role of the man. He is just to be thoughtful and respectful and not pressure her in any kind of way. And if he does that, then that is enough to be an outstanding art of manliness guy, okay? And I’m like, “Okay, that is all good, but that’s not good enough.” The man should be selective about who he’s getting involved with. He should have some criteria of what he wants from a female and what he doesn’t like in a female, and he should definitely have some kind of a value system about how to intentionally pace the acceleration of the relationship.

And if she is like on the third time they’re hanging out together, she’s like, “Hey, why don’t you come up to my apartment?” He’s like, “Are you sure? Is that okay with you? That’s great with me.” That permission that she is giving doesn’t remove the responsibility he has of saying, “Hey, I’m pacing this relationship.” And I’m going to tell her, “I think this is early to be jumping in together and you know I’d like to. Man, I’m attracted you, I find it’s an exciting conversation to even talk about this, but I’m going to hold back because I really think that if we do this relationship differently, we might be able to either develop a really great relationship and see where it’s going. And that’s going to be a totally different landscape if we do this relationship a little differently. And I’d love to talk why that’s important to me.”

I just found even parents didn’t teach their boys that this is a responsibility of a young man or an older man, a middle aged man. It doesn’t matter. This is the responsibility of the man in the relationship, not just the woman. And so forever, it seems like women were the gatekeepers of any kind of sexual involvement and it wouldn’t be on that. They were actually not just the gatekeepers, but the relationship managers. This is a big problem in marriage. A lot of wives want their husbands to join with them and be relationship managers. “Hey, why don’t you plan a date? Why don’t you think about something that’d be fun to do? Why don’t you look at what we need in our relationship? Why don’t you come to me and say, we’ve got to improve our communication? Why am I always the one doing all this?”

Well, it goes all the way back to how boys are raised. And boys are raised to not be relationship managers and to not be the gatekeepers of the physical, sexual area of a relationship. And so I say we’ve got to up the responsibility and the empowerment of men in relationships. Men should be much more engaged and they should be much more positive about taking this on. Like, “Hey, this is a good thing. I want to have some involvement.” When my wife and I dated back at the end of the ’70s, we met in college and we dated in college before we got married for a couple of years, and I’m thankful looking back. I was very much a relationship manager meaning, what do I mean by that? I was thinking about, “Hey, what is going on in our relationship? Where are we? What are things we need to talk about?”

I would bring up topics, I would prompt things. It was a mutual… We both did it, but I can remember even as a 19, 20 year old being very engaged in that way. And I definitely was thoughtful and we talked about what we were going to do in our physical relationship and what boundaries we were going to set and not do. And that that helped us to establish a best friend relationship that has been foundational now for, like I said, over 40 years. So I just think that there’s no way to get around that. And if we help men develop that sense of role in relationships, it empowers men and gives them way more sense of thoughtfulness and involvement than I think a lot of times they’ve had in the past.

Brett McKay:

And women will appreciate it too.

John Van Epp:

I think so. And what I would say, if a guy’s doing this well, so we’re not talking about control freaks. So just to put a couple of disclaimers out there, we’re not talking about control freaks, we’re not talking about interrogation, we’re not talking about authoritarian approaches. None of those things I’m talking about. I’m talking about just upping their involvement and being thoughtful about the relationship and actually engaging in the relationship on a regular basis from the very beginning all the way on into longterm committed relationships. And absolutely, the partner will be very, very appreciative about it. And if not, then that guy ought to really step back and think about what does it say about this partner that doesn’t like me getting involved and taking some charge of this pole arena of what we do together, what we talk about and what our physical relationship is like. Why is she like this? What does that mean about her? Because I would say that’s a red flag.

Brett McKay:

So yeah, that idea that happy wife, happy life, no, that’s not good. It’s probably going to lead to a lot of heartache and just not having a good time.

John Van Epp:

Well, if that is interpreted to be happy wife, happy life, so all that means is I can be totally passive. If that’s the interpretation, then I agree that that’s not a good, but if happy wife means, “Hey, if I engage, if I’m involved, if I’m helping to pace the relationship, if I’m managing it in a mutual way, if I’m thinking about what she needs as well as what I need and we’re putting those things on the table and I’m an initiator, not just a responder.” If I am doing those things, I would say you’re going to have a much happier wife and a happier life as well because those are the things, if you read all the books, they’ll all be saying the same thing. Guys need to step into that kind of involvement. And I’m just putting it upstream at the very beginning of a relationship. Guys need to be stepping in and they need to be told this is a good thing for you to do.

Brett McKay:

So let’s delve deep into the know factor because in the book, you spend a lot of time in this know area of bonding because I think it’s hard in the dating arena today. Oftentimes people are dating complete strangers. Like they meet at college, they’re potential partners from Detroit, they’re from California. It used to be like way back in the 19th century, like you grew up in the same home town, families knew each other generations. You knew the person. Not so anymore. So what does it mean to know somebody in a relationship?

John Van Epp:

Yeah, you’re so right. I came across this book written right on the edge of the 1950s. So it was coming out of the ’40s which was, if you think back to history, that’s the World War II, when came out of the Depression and all those things, and it was also the era where we had not quite yet stepped into the 1950s of suburbs. People lived in the cities. And anyway, it was the Burgess, the leading sociologists of that time period, and it was a book called, I think, Love, Marriage and Courtship. It was a great little book I found and I came across this study that in the 70 percentile, I don’t remember exactly if it’s 73% or 74%, but of the people in a study in the city of Philadelphia, people that got married, married somebody that they had lived within six blocks off. So 70 people will say that up at the 75%. So three out of four people were marrying somebody that was in their neighborhood.

And you’re absolutely right. That is not really what’s going on in this day and age. People are meeting online and building long distance relationships on a very, very regular basis and meeting in different settings where they have come from. Backgrounds that are very diverse. And the diversity is great. I love diversity, but understand diversity makes figuring out compatibility much more complicated. It’s not that relationships have become simpler, they’ve become more complicated and yet the relationship information for what we’re talking about being upstream has, I think, really been depleted. So the people guiding the process and friends and relatives and family. It has just all dropped off and people are marrying much later, so they’re more independent and on their own, and they almost become dependent on like assessments online. Like I’ll take eharmony and then I’ll do this assessment and it will start helping me connect with people. And okay, so this is where wisdom is found is in some kind of an online assessment.

And I like things like that, but I think we need to go way, way beyond that. So empowering singles with key target areas to explore and talk about in their relationship. These are the most important areas to get to know and we want you to understand them, to have some in depth information about them because you are the one running your relationship, not some online assessment. You’re the one that is ultimately making the decisions, not some algorithm. And so we want you to be empowered with this so you can go into it. This really came out of, Brett, when I was in my private practice in the mid 90s, I was also teaching marriage and family coursework in graduate school, and I came across some research that had to do with characteristics of people before marriage and how they predict some kind of outcome after marriage.

So some of them were individual characteristics, some of them were relationship characteristics, but they were things basically that you could get to know about somebody before marriage that predicted how that person seemed to function after marriage and what the outcomes would be. And I thought, “I wonder how many research studies have been conducted on something about a person, like unmarried characteristics that predict marriage outcomes.” So I set myself, and that’s really how this book came about, I set myself on the journey of collecting all of the research I could find that was about that. And I found hundreds of research studies that nobody had ever organized or cataloged, and I began to put them in categories and found that there were really five key areas that covered the vast majority, almost all of this research. And so I put them in a little acronym and they became five core chapters of my book.

And they are also in the PICK program and we have an online version, so people can… They don’t have to go to a live class. They could just jump online. We call it Head Meets Heart and it goes through the same areas. It goes through that Relationship Attachment Model we’ve talked about, it goes more in depth into those five areas and then it goes very in depth into the five key areas to get to know about somebody that we’re talking about right now.

Brett McKay:

And what are those five key areas? Just as a summary.

John Van Epp:

Okay, so I’ll put them in the order of the book. So there are a little different order in the programs but in the book, they start with what I thought would be the logic. Like you meet somebody and you start hanging out together. We use the word dating as we’ve been talking, but I don’t know who uses that word anymore. Relationships have become so undefined, which is like a whole nother topic. But when I go on college campuses now and everything, they say if somebody is dating, they don’t call it dating more, they call it talking. So what do you guys do when you’re talking? So that’s what it is. So I just tried to be like, “Okay, what would be the logical progression of these five areas?” And it’s not cutting stone and they’re not like finish one and go to the other, but usually the first thing that you begin to see is what I call compatibility potential. So you see like you’re talking to somebody and it’s that click factor that I mentioned earlier. It’s that sense of chemistry. It’s some commonality.

And so I define three major areas of compatibility that I think go a lot deeper than just that initial, but I think that’s kind of it. Do we feel a little bit compatible with this person? And then the second major area is relationships skills. And so you figure that out. How does the person talk? How does the person handle themselves with me? How do they interact with me in terms of their skill level? If you think of a relationship skill, if we wanted to find that, just think in relationships, there are activities that we do. We talk, we share, open up. That’s all parts of talking. We plan things to do together. So there’s activities, whether it’s recreation, whether it’s a project, whether it’s work, we support each other, we make priorities, we meet each other’s needs.

That takes a lot. We can figure out what the person needs. I call it being a kind of sore of another person. How much am I an expert? I want this other person needs, right? So these are activities. The proficiency of how good you are at a particular activity is your skill level. So skills are not some separate category of the activities that make up what we do in relationship, skills are just the measure of proficiency that we have at doing that. So how good am I at talking and listening would start to fall into what we call a communications skill. So obviously you start hanging with somebody, you not only initially see this first category they said it’s how are we clicking? What’s our compatibility? What’s our chemistry? But then you also are doing activities together and you start to see how good they are at these particular activities.

Those two things by the way, are not enough to really tell you what this person is like. They’re important areas, but there are other areas that don’t surface so quickly. And the third one is what I called a relationship scripts. How a person treats everybody else. Forget about how they treat you. Think about how they treat a co-worker or an authority figure or their family or extended family or how they treated an ex or how they broke up with that ex or how they talk about people. A lot of times, how they’re treating me doesn’t really match how they treat some other significant people in their life, even maybe a stranger or somebody that is a waiter or a waitress, a service person. Sometimes how they treat these other people in other arenas is starkly different than how they treat me.

But I like how they treat me, but also that’s their business. But a lot of times, those scripts over time start to get turned into the relationship and they start surfacing in the relationship. So they’re not a good friend, they don’t pay a lot of attention to a person that they’re friends with or maybe certain family members. They tune them out. They don’t look very conscientious toward those people and they never like pursue… Like shouldn’t you call your brother or, yeah, whatever. Or your friend always reaches out to you, but you never really reach out to them. And you see this kind of passivity in how they treat others but they’re so involved with me and they’re constantly with me and they’re constantly talking to me and we’ve been together now two and a half months. And man, I don’t even pay attention to their relationships scripts with others.

Huge red flag because it’s really likely that as you round the corner from three months into maybe 13 months passing your first year, all of a sudden, or maybe even second year, you start to see some of those relationships scripts are starting to become normative in how they relate to me. And that was, I could see it in the first couple months of our relationship, but I minimized it because I didn’t think it had any significance. Compatibility, their actual skill level of relationship activities in things that they do, the scripts of how they treat others, their relationship patterns with others, that’s number three, now we start to get into the really deep stuff. The fourth one is what they learned and have taken out of their family upbringing.

This is not easy to get to know in the beginning of a relationship because usually if we hear anything about family, we just hear some easygoing stories about families, but you have to look really hard. Family upbringing, whether it was adopted family, a biological parent family, a single parent family, whether it was an institutional or a foster family or they group home, whatever everybody grew up in during those 18 years, whatever period of time you want to say, they were experiencing and internalizing things from those family dynamics. From how the family related, how they retreated and they become some of the strongest predictors of what they’re going to then take out and re-establish in the families they establish or the relationships that they establish in their adulthood. So the fourth area is what I would say, what they learned and took out of their family. It’s not always what happened, but it’s what they took out.

And the final one, which is extremely important, and I haven’t found anybody to talk about it but me, and that’s the conscience. People have a conscience. It’s the dynamic value system that operates in them. But there’s a relationship conscience. There is a sense of not just right and wrong but empathy is prompted by the conscience. The conscience is like that internal voice that monitors you as you are living life. It tells you stop, slow down, don’t do that. I’ll just mention a show. A lot of people when Seinfeld was on and now they watch all the reruns but going to some of the writer, not just Jerry Seinfeld but then Larry David and then the Larry David show. Well, if you want to see someone that depicts what good old Sigmund Freud called a Swiss cheese conscience, I think Larry David is like the perfect example where sometimes he’s super conscientious and then other times he’s like so, in your space, he’s so inappropriate with somebody but we all laugh at it if you like to show. If you don’t like to show, please don’t be offended.

But there’s a lot of humor there but he is showing kind of that conscience that some things stick, some things just go right through and he seems so uninsightful, unempathetic and so forth. This doesn’t always reveal itself right away. These five areas, how you and I clicked together, the key here is of a compatibility. How skilled you are in some of the most important areas of relationship activities like communication, problem solving, conflict, empathy, apologies, things like that. The third is how do you treat other people because that’s such a strong predictor of how you act in relationships in general and it’s probably going to come into our relationship? And then let’s get deeper into our family stuff. What did you take out of your family? And then finally, deep inside of you, what is the maturity and the functioning of that conscience that is such a strong influence on how you live your life and then how you’re going to ultimately relate to me in a relationship?n

Brett McKay:

Ad this like you said, it takes talking, it takes being together and it takes time. A lot of time. What more time do you think it’s going to take?

John Van Epp:

It does. And if I put those five areas back into that Relationship Attachment Model, going from left to right is know, and then as I dropdown box, just think about these five areas. What am I getting to know about compatibility? What am I getting to know about skills? What am I getting to know about their relation scripts? What am I getting to know on a deeper level about their family and what they took out of it and how those experiences have shaped them and what am I getting to ultimately know about their character and conscience in this inner sight?

And as I get to know those key areas, which definitely take time, you can’t sit down with somebody and pull out 101 questions and say, “While we’re waiting for dinner to come, I thought I would just ask some questions here that came from this podcast that was really interesting on how to avoid getting involved with a jerk. No, I’m not saying you’re a jerk but let’s go through these questions. I have 20 for each of five categories.

Larry David would do that of course, but if you know these areas, and in my book I do have about 20, 25 questions for each of these five areas, so over a hundred questions. If you know the target areas and the questions, then as time goes on and it feels comfortable, these things can just become part of the fabric of how you’re talking together. And as your know slowly goes up, it tells you how you can trust and believe in them and it tells you how much you can look to them and depend on them. And these three actually all interact. How they meet my needs, how I trust them, how they come through for me, what they share, what we talk about. And as they interact, they inform how invested I should become in my commitment and where I should set some boundaries and our physical relationship to touch.

Brett McKay:

Well, John, we’ve talked about a lot right now, but there’s so much more we could talk about. I think we’ve got to have you back on the show to discuss this more. But in the meantime, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

John Van Epp:

Oh, that’d be great. Well, first of all, I would love to come back on anytime. Just let me know. I’d be glad to. And we have some free things and then we have some things that can be purchased. And so let me just start with the book. So they can just jump on Amazon and find the book that way. That’s no problem. Again, it’s published by McGraw-Hill and it’s called How To Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk. But if they also go to My Love Thinks like, love, L-O-V-E, thinks, T-H-I N-K-S, not stinks and it’s my. My Love Thinks because we say love should think. It shouldn’t just be intuitive. The head and the heart should work together. So if they go to My Love Thinks, they can get a lot of free resources. We have a whole library of free resources and we have a blog that’s free that is always giving information.

There is also, we have online courses and right there from My Love Thinks they can click online courses and if they use the code artofman, A-R-T-O-F-M-A-N, artofman, they can get a 20% discount on any of our online courses. And the online course that goes with the content we’ve been talking about is called Head Meets Heart. So it’s about the head and heart working together obviously. And then finally Dr. Morgan Cutlip, who happens to be my daughter. We work closely together. She’s very involved in all of this. She has an Instagram, My Love Thinks, where she puts out daily relationship tips. She also does the blog that I mentioned on My Love Thinks, but if you go to @mylovethinks on Instagram, you can sign in and get these free resources just from her daily tips. And they really are good. I think they’re helpful. She goes through the spectrum of singles on into committed relationships and marriage.

Brett McKay:

Well, fantastic. Well, John Van Epp, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

John Van Epp:

It’s been great talking to you.

Brett McKay:

My guest there is John Van Epp, he’s the author of the book, How To Avoid Falling in Love With a Jerk. It’s available at and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website,, not Also check out our show notes at where you find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives wells, thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. A lot of things about relationships on there. Check that out. And if you’d like to enjoy add free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so and state your premium. Head over to, sign up. Use code manliness at checkout to get free trials to premium. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, whatever platform you use to listen to podcast. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think we have something out of it. Shoot him a text. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you not only to listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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