Real Living: Debate - Should you follow your heart or your head when you're looking for someone to marry?

Two young people who had never met before were married in Birmingham last week after a radio station assessed their compatibility. A publicity stunt, of course, but is the underlying principle sound? Yes, says Sarah Litvinoff - being in love is a kind of madness. Not true, says Helen Carey; it's the magic ingredient and shared interests will never match up

Being in love is a hormonal narcotic, says Sarah Litvinoff, and it's mad to make life decisions while under the influence.

It's touching, and baffling, how much faith our otherwise cynical society puts in romantic love as a predictor of marital compatibility. Actually, it verges on the barmy.

Witness the attitude to pre-marital psychometric testing and marriage preparation classes, which aim to give a couple a better understanding of each other: to see what they have in common, where they are poles apart, and strategise how to deal with it all. The voluntary take-up is virtually nil. The most common response is "It's so unromantic!" So what if they have totally different views on finance, who does what in the home, or even whether to have children? What does it matter when she loves the sound of his voice, he's crazy about her wacky sense of humour, and they can't be together for two minutes without wanting to tear each other's clothes off?

Of course it doesn't matter - apart from the tiny detail that it is precisely these mundanities that will have them eventually duelling in the divorce court.

The couple whose marriage was made in radio heaven have a better chance than most of making it work, as experts are alleged to have matched them with care. That's assuming they are remotely serious about it, which would be more surprising than the stunt itself. But what people want to know is: will they fall in love? That's what counts.

Why? The love we first fall into bears no relation to "love". Real love can follow, but not necessarily, and it feels different. It's extraordinary that our rich and subtle language uses the same word for two quite separate emotions. We persist in believing that this heady intoxication is a sign that we are meant to be together, despite the fact that we have all witnessed (and experienced) that it is often a temporary madness - pace the Titania/Bottom mini-drama of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Who hasn't woken up astonished, sometimes after years, and been unable to understand why they'd felt as they did, or - worse - fretted about a loved-one who has the dreamy unfocused stare of someone under the influence of hormonal narcotics? The problem is that most engagements and marriages take place during this crazily unrealistic period, which then ends - as all altered states do.

Current psychological thinking is that we fall passionately in love with people destined to tear the scar tissue off our deepest emotional wounds. The promise is that staying with them - and using the pain to learn how to heal oneself - results in tremendous personal growth and development. Only usually we don't stay. When the romance anaesthetic wears off, and the pain starts, most of us are off. Look at the divorce statistics.

I like the idea of arranged marriages, assuming that those who are arranging do so out of love and concern for your happiness, and real knowledge of what you need. It might mean the loss of the exhilarating romantic high, or the po-tentially transforming agonising low, but it makes room for the sustainable middle ground of lasting contentment. The trouble is: I'd practise what I preach and be the arranger, but I don't think I could bear to be the arrangee.

Logic is no way to choose a partner, says Helen Carey. The trouble is that we've forgotten about instinct.

Love exists. Even though we can't precisely define it, we acknowledge it. And I think we can differentiate between "loving" someone and being "in love". We love our children, our parents, our pets, our friends. But we are only "in love" with our partners. "In love" is that feeling of coming home, that unselfish accepting, reciprocal yet unconditional sense of finding a soulmate. It is far more than the delicious but sadly short- lived, stomach-twisting feeling of lust.

We know the language of true love even if we don't experience the emotion, and we pursue it. Take the massive success of The English Patient, Titanic and Captain Corelli's Mandolin - love stories all, and however much the pundits compliment the quality of the writing, the special effects and camera angles, those stories win through because they get us where it hurts. In the heart. Everyone mocks Mills & Boon, but somebody buys them - in their millions.

We are fascinated by love and yet suddenly we are sceptical about whether we need it in our own lives. We are dubious about finding such an elusive and uncontrollable emotion for ourselves. We won-der whether questionnaires, aptitude tests and astrological analysis may provide a more reliable and less risky method of choosing a partner.

This is a problem of our time. We live in an analytical anti-risk society. We are taught to assess options and to keep them open, we go on training courses in life skills and childbirth. We consult experts about our future, our diet, our decor. We have forgotten about instinct. We have forgotten how to listen to our hearts. Those abiding love stories are all about the power of love over logic.

Cynics (and Darwin) would say that love is nature's way of making us pursue an illogical course. Who in their right mind would hitch themselves exclusively and forever to one member of the opposite sex and then endure the agony of childbirth? But nature wants us to reproduce and it wants its offspring protected and provided for. And however much we fight it with logic and science, invariably nature knows best.

Nature has given us the ability to love because love is the only thing that provides that ability to tolerate, to overlook flaws, to want to make that crucial compromise. Love removes the element of choice - that nagging thought that there might be someone better round the corner. Ultimately love is that secret ingredient that no amount of shared interests can replace. Hobbies, although great day to day, don't provide sufficient empathy to overcome those gender divides, nor the real emotional challenges of life. You can't play tennis when you've found a lump in your breast or when your pet dies or when your child is being bullied at school.

Marriages without true love may well survive but they will never have that depth of feeling and experience that deep down we all long for. Who remembers a love story in which two accountants sat down and thrashed out a prenuptial agreement?

I hope for Carla and Greg's sake that they do find love. If not with each other, then in due course with someone else.

Helen Carey writes romantic fiction. Her latest novel, `On a Wing and a Prayer', is published by Orion, price pounds 5.99.

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