The back wall of Donna Shugrue’s office features a poster of Rose and Jack from “Titanic,” along with massive portraits of her two daughters with their husbands. A large board full of pictures of smiling couples hangs behind her desk, reminiscent of the thank-you letters and holiday cards that doctors sometimes show off in their offices. Only, instead of healthy patients, Donna has happily married clients.
Before I saw Donna’s ad hanging on the wall of the bathroom at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs, I didn’t know matchmaking existed outside of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After a tumultuous two-week experiment with Tinder over winter break, I was skeptical of the idea of finding love through any kind of formal dating program. But when I read that Donna had married over 700 clients in her 27 years of matchmaking, my curiosity was piqued.
I went home and filled out a “dating profile test” on perfectlymatched-dating.com. I answered each of the 46 statements with a number from 1, “Clearly Agree,” to 5, “Clearly Disagree.” The statements varied from “My feelings are easily hurt” to out of left field statements like “Wearing designer clothes is worth the extra money,” “The nicest people attend religious services regularly,” “I rarely have headaches,” “I believe in the theory of evolution,” and “People who get sexually transmitted diseases deserve it.” Many of them didn’t seem to have anything to do with romantic compatibility. They challenged the belief that most people hold about love: that it happens as a result of some kind of inexplicable chemistry or spark. We romanticize love even more when it “doesn’t make sense”—think Romeo and Juliet. Love, in my mind, had nothing to do with religion, headaches, or designer clothes.
Donna called me with my results a few days later. Before I could tell her that I was seeking an interview and not just her service, Donna went straight to her explanation. She gave me a score from one to 10 in categories of temperament, sociability, conformity, affection, religion, and finance.
A week later, I am sitting across from Donna at her office in downtown Colorado Springs as she explains the way her matchmaking process works. Within minutes she is rattling off client stories, peppering the memories with love advice. Her stories varied from sad to sweet to hilarious.
“Leroy,” she says, showing me his picture on the wall, “had the corniest sense of humor I’d ever experienced … after the interview I thought, God, I know I’m going to hear about this in feedback from his matches.” The first woman she set him up with told Donna he was nice and good-looking, but “cracked one corny joke after another.” The second and third matches went the same way. “But the fourth match was her,” Donna says, pointing at the woman smiling next to Leroy in his picture. “And when she called me with feedback the first thing she said was, ‘He’s so funny!’ I was like, ‘Yes! He is! If you think he is!’ And guess what? They’ve been married for years now.”
Donna’s service uses similarity to predict compatibility. Over and over, she tells me that the key to a successful and lasting relationship is to find someone who thinks the same way that you do. According to Donna, the saying “opposites attract” might be true in the short term, but usually fails to create a relationship that lasts. She says temperament is an exception, “because if you have the same temperament you’ll either butt heads and fight or avoid confrontation to the point of avoiding communication. Opposites in temperament can balance each other out.”
Donna explains all this to me with so much confidence that I find myself immediately believing her, questioning my conviction that love stems from “chemistry.” I am surprised by how quickly Donna and I hit it off—our conversation lasts almost two hours longer than we’d intended. At the same time, I’m not surprised at all: Donna and I are similarly fascinated by personality and compatibility. We are both able to talk for hours about the way people relate to each other. But, unlike those of us who prefer to think of love as requiring nothing other than some mysterious ingredient, Donna takes a pragmatic approach to romance, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle factors, religion, social habits, and finance—all of which I’ve always considered of secondary importance. Donna looks at compatibility with one end goal in mind: stable, lasting romance.
Personally, I am wary of approaching love with an “end goal” in mind. This is, at least partially, the source of my skepticism regarding dating services in general. There’s a danger in searching for love instead of just falling into it. With apps like Tinder, for example, you’re frantically looking for someone to fill some sort of role in your life, whether it be a hookup or a serious relationship. It’s almost as though the person is secondary to the role, and when you try to fit a person you meet into that role, you run the risk of not actually seeing them for who they are. Or worse, you end up marketing yourself for the kind of role you want to play for another person.
In Donna’s service, all clients have the same general goal: they want a long-term partner. Donna makes it clear that her matchmaking services do not cater to people interested in hookups or casual dating. In her words, the people who come to her are “serious” about meeting someone. And Donn makes any variation of that goal (some clients want kids, some clients don’t want to get married, etc.) clear to each party from the beginning.
The first thing Donna does for a client is identify potential matches with scores that are close to their own. “All my matches start with these scores. That’s how strongly I believe in them,” she says. She points again to the photos on the board behind her. “These are couples I’ve matched who are married or in relationships. If you look at where the scores are compared to each other, you’ll see that they’re pretty close.”
After Donna finds matches with similar scores, she shares information from the “interview sheet” with each party. “Before you meet someone, you know where they were born, how many brothers and sisters they have, whether or not they own their homes, whether or not they have pets, what religion they are, if they go to church, what church they go to…” the list goes on. Donna does not share each party’s income with the other, though she does keep it in mind herself. “I definitely pay attention to it when I make a match,” she says, “because to some extent, income is a matter of lifestyle choices, and you want someone who can make similar lifestyle choices.” The question on her test about buying designer clothing makes more sense now.
After filling out an interest and activity sheet, Donna has her clients do a special exercise: they write down what their ideal relationship would be. “You sit down and you think, What would the right person for me be like? What kind of qualities would I want him or her to have? The best way to draw that out of yourself is to think about past relationships or marriages that you’ve had and what you’ve really liked about that person. And then think about what you didn’t like, and turn the negatives into positives and write it down.” She leans in. “And I’ll tell you a little secret that I don’t tell anyone until after they’ve written it: what they ultimately describe is themselves.”
Although Donna does screen for physical preferences, she encourages her clients to move beyond their assumptions about what physical characteristics they’re attracted to, unless those boundaries are “written in stone.” According to Donna, women tend to limit themselves according to height preference, while men limit themselves according to weight preference. “I’ll have a five-foot tall woman and I’ll say, ‘What’s the shortest you’ll go?’ And with no hesitation she’ll say, ‘Six feet.’ I’ll say, ‘Eliminate everybody below six feet, why would you do that?’ She’ll say, ‘Because I like tall men, they make me feel protected.’ Well, the reality is that you can feel safe and protected by somebody who is your own height or even shorter than you are.”
In fact, a picture is the only significant thing, apart from income, that Donna does not share with her newly-matched clients. She tells each party the eye color, hair color, height, and weight of their match, but does not provide photos. All first dates are literally “blind” dates. Her service stands in stark contrast to dating apps, where photos are the first (and sometimes only) thing you see. Online dating feels like an emotionally risky guessing game: participants try to gauge from photos how attractive, normal, nice, or interesting other participants are (often unsuccessfully, since it’s easy to lie, or at least skew the truth of who you are, through carefully selected photos).
Unlike Tinder, Donna makes a match according to the scores first, and then hopes the two clients will be attracted to each other. For Donna, compatibility precedes attraction. Her pragmatism is surprising for someone whose entire career is based on helping people find love. But maybe Donna’s success rate just speaks to how easy it is to fall in love with someone once the practical factors are in place. “I can’t tell you how often someone will call me with feedback and say, ‘That’s somebody that I probably wouldn’t have picked for myself,’” she says, “but in a one-hour meeting they’re already feeling some kind of spark.”
Even when Donna occasionally pairs people up who have a difference in one or two scores, she makes sure they both go into it knowing about that difference. She points to one of the photos. “Marsha was an eight in sociability and Jay was a five. He was a three in finance and she was a six. She was more outgoing than him, he was more budget-minded than her. And boy, was that reflected in their relationship from the beginning.” Donna tells me about a couple of money-related squabbles, and about how Marsha wanted everyone in her family to meet him on the second date. “I said, ‘No! He’s much more shy than you are. That will take him out of his comfort zone, and it’s too soon to bring your family into the picture anyway. You just met him!’”
Marsha and Jay, Donna tells me, married after only three months, contrary to one of the rules she prescribes to her clients to ensure that their relationships last. “I tell people, don’t even have sex for the first three months!” She explains that it takes most people that long to get relaxed enough to be themselves, which is when you can start to identify whether things are or aren’t working. “But once you’re physically involved you’re emotionally involved. It takes the focus off the friendship and puts it on the intimacy, and that’s not what you want to do when you don’t even know someone.” She tells me that the couples who wait for three months are the ones who are most likely to end up on her wall of success (Marsha and Jay are an exception). “I’ve seen relationships that I thought had potential end because they were intimate too quickly, and they didn’t know how to deal with it, because they didn’t know each other.”
The no-sex rule is one of Donna’s three big rules. Rule number two is “Don’t ask yourself where it’s going or how this person could fit into your life long-term for six months” because “you don’t have enough information to answer that question yet.” Rule three is “Don’t do anything as serious as getting engaged, married, or moving in until you’ve gone a full year” because “people can change with the seasons.” “And anyway,” Donna adds, “one year is not a long time to wait if you think that this is someone you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with.” I ask Donna if she follows the relationship rules she gives to her clients. She bursts out laughing. “Hell no! Don’t ask me if I’ve not had sex in the first three months!”
All of these rules are measures of precaution to ensure that the relationship progresses slowly, carefully, and based on mutual understanding between the two people. Donna goes to great lengths to avoid the problem articulated in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”: people rarely delve into their complexities before committing to a long-term relationship, leading to some unpleasant surprises later on. A similar sentiment is articulated by this meme:
Donna blames internet dating services for exacerbating the problem of not knowing your partner, and the resulting high divorce rate. According to her, these websites are “time consuming, ineffective, and people aren’t honest. They lie about everything.” Donna considers her service a much-needed alternative to online dating; instead of advertising yourself to lure other people to you, you present your most honest self to Donna and she picks someone out for you based on that knowledge. Donna takes pride in her old-fashioned attitude towards her business; she never uses a computer, except for printing out the profile test. She calculates her scores manually, and keeps all her records from the past 27 years on paper. She even keeps her phone and answering machine in the other room of her office, separate from where she works and meets clients, so that she can answer and return calls at her leisure.
Her goal is to make her clients as prepared and informed as possible before they agree to meet with each other. Her position as middleman makes for honest, clear communication. “What they’re trying to do is help me help them,” she explains, “so they know that the more they share with me and the more honest they are with me, the better I can match them.”
This three-way communication continues after the match, when Donna’s job becomes more about counseling and coaching. Donna prescribes a strict procedure for the newly matched pair: she exchanges names and phone numbers, and the man calls the woman—a rule made to ensure that there’s no misunderstanding about who calls first. The only purpose of the phone conversation is to set up the in-person meeting, which also should not be long. (“No lunch or dinner, just a cup of coffee, one hour.”)
The feedback continues after each date. “It takes all the pressure off the situation, doesn’t put anyone on the spot, and it allows the process to become more focused and fine-tuned.” She facilitates feedback after each of the next few dates, and, depending on the client, after a relationship is established. Until a pair of clients become intimate, they are encouraged to meet other matches.
Unlike most matchmaking services, Donna charges based on matches rather than time. Her clients typically purchase 10 matches—although they sometimes find success before they end up meeting the other matches—for $1,800. When Donna can’t make 10 matches, she charges less. The unlimited relationship counseling is free of charge. She even provides coaching for people who have met significant others outside of her service.
I ask Donna what she does for queer clients. She says that, occasionally but increasingly frequently, she’ll get a call from someone asking to be matched with someone of the same gender. She tells whoever is calling that she doesn’t have matches for them in the system yet, but that they can be the first if they’d like. Since it’s obviously discouraging to have no potential matches, no one has been willing. So far, she’s been unsuccessful at starting a client base for queer matchmaking, though she hopes that this will change in the future.
Donna became a matchmaker, ironically, after going through a divorce. She met her ex-husband just after she graduated from high school. Her father, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, got her a job as a secretary in Scotland, where he was stationed. There she started going out with Herb, a boy in the Air Force. She moved back to the U.S., and they dated long-distance for a few months while she was in school at Memphis State University. Herb went home to Connecticut for a short period before he was to be relocated to Pakistan for 15 months. Donna decided to take a break from her studies and spend time with him and his family.
Next thing she knew, she was pregnant. “Back when I got pregnant there was no [access to] birth control, no abortion. You had a baby,” she says. So they decided they would get married just 10 days before Herb left for Pakistan. By the time he came home, their first daughter was seven months old.
Donna describes the beginning of marriage and motherhood as a challenging time. Suddenly she was a 19-year-old mother living away from her family, on the third floor of a house where she didn’t know the people downstairs. And the marriage was not a match Donna herself would have set up. “My ex-husband’s a great guy,” she assures me. “He was always good to me, he was always good to the girls. I just knew that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in that marriage.” She stuck with it for 20 years until finally, at 40 years old and after two years of marriage counseling, she decided to go through with a divorce.
During her marriage, Donna had held mostly part-time jobs. After the divorce she found herself newly single and in need of a career. “And never in a million years did I think it would be matchmaking,” she says, despite the fact that at her 25th high school reunion, after she had been a matchmaker for a few years, she got a reward for “most obvious career path.” She was known in high school and throughout her marriage for bringing couples together. “I probably had half a dozen weddings under my belt before I even thought about being a matchmaker,” she laughs. “It’s something that I feel like I have the talent for.”
Before Donna became her own boss, she worked for two dating services in Denver: Successful Singles International and Matchmaker International. The first service went out of business, and the second one put pressure on her to match clients quickly. Discouraged by the hard sell technique, she decided she wanted to start her own company. She opened “Perfectly Matched” on October 6, 1991. It was the first dating service with an office in Colorado Springs.
Skeptical that an emerging dating service would have easy, immediate success, I ask Donna whether it was hard to build a client base at first. In response, she pulls out a large yellow pad. “This is my computer,” she says proudly. “I don’t share this with a lot of people: this is every sale from every client every day for 27 years.” The prices she started with were as low as $100-250, compared to the approximately $1,800 that she charges today. “And I was honest,” she adds. “I couldn’t come in and say I’d been doing this forever when nobody knew what a dating service was back then. So I told [my first clients], ‘You’re number one in the system, you’re number two.’”
It strikes me as funny that Donna considers matchmaking an up-and-coming service, when, to me, it feels like an antiquated alternative to apps like Tinder. It’s nearly impossible to calculate the success rate of any dating service, because of the difficulty of defining what a successful match is. Do you include casual relationships? Relationships that have broken up? Divorces?). But Donna’s thorough screening process and careful facilitation strikes me as more likely to be “successful” than Tinder’s mindless swiping. The other key difference between Tinder and Donna is that Donna is as much of a relationship “coach and counselor” as she is a matchmaker. “My job really starts when somebody gets into a relationship,” she says. “I do more counseling and coaching than I do matchmaking.”
This aspect of her work requires strong therapeutic skills and the ability to be a friend as well as a service. I ask Donna if she has to deal with a lot of heartbreak during her coaching sessions. She points to the corner of the desk. “Why do you think those Kleenex are sitting right there?”
Because of her role as a relationship counselor, Donna’s own involvement in her clients’ lives often extends into friendship. One couple she matched even came by her office on the way home from the hospital the day after their son was born. Donna is often invited her clients’ weddings. She always makes sure to ask if the other attendees know the couple met through her after an embarrassing wedding incident in which the groom told everyone that they’d met through Donna but the bride said they’d met through a friend. “I’m standing there at the wedding and one of [the groom’s] friends is saying, ‘He told me how they met through your service, that’s so great!’ And the bride’s sister looks at [the groom] and says, ‘You met her through a dating service? She told me you met her on the ski slope!’”
Donna’s approach to love is hard for me to relate to as a young person who isn’t looking for long-lasting romance. In a phone conversation after the interview, Donna and I speculate briefly about how her test and matching system might work for “millennials.” Regardless of the aspects of her process that aren’t relevant to my age group, the strategy of mediating a relationship so that each party is honest and knows about each other’s lifestyle and goals from the beginning seems to be universally valuable. “What I do is the opposite from what people do on their own,” Donna tells me. “I start with the things that matter.” Donna and I still have somewhat different ideas about what “matters” in a relationship. I still can’t imagine judging a potential significant other by their thoughts on designer clothing or the theory of evolution. But, thinking back to my Tinder experience, maybe I’ll have a bit more success if I make my goals and opinions clear from the beginning—and, of course, guess at my date’s temperament and affection scores (which I’ve already started doing).