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Go ahead and ask questions about your sweetheart's hometown, what his or her dad does for a living, what kind of career he or she wants and the ideal family size.

But don't forget what may be the most important question of all for your prospective marriage partner: "Are you a morning or a night person?" According to a new study by two Brigham Young University professors, mismatched circadian rhythms - 24-hour sleep/wake patterns - can wear and tear a marriage.Armed with previous studies showing it is possible to identify "morning" and "evening" people, the BYU professors set out to determine if couples with different rhythms experience more marital conflict.

Yep, they do, the researchers found.

The study by Jeffry H. Larson, an associate clinical professor in the Counseling and Development Center, and D. Russell Crane, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at BYU, appears in the January issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. A third professor, Craig W. Smith of the University of Nebraska, also participated in the study.

The researchers studied 150 couples in Utah, Montana and Alabama, first determining whether each spouse was a morning or evening person.

Morning people tend to rise early, have difficulty staying up late, are most efficient and have more energy early in the day and value physical outdoor activity. Early birds "seem to value beginnings, sunrises and breakfast," according to the study.

Night owls, on the other hand, don't climb out of bed easily in the morning, can stay up all hours of the night with no problem, experience peaks of energy and efficiency late in the day and prefer quiet, night-life activities.

Such rhythms, which are biologically based, are established early in life and can't be changed much, Larson said. There is a continuum of "morningness and nightness," the researchers say, and such preferences are distinguishable from work-related schedules.

"Once we knew that, we gave all couples measures of marital adjustment and satisfaction," Larson said. "Our hypothesis was those who were mismatched would have more problems in their marriage and less marital satisfaction than the couples who were matched."

Mismatched couples - early birds married to night owls - reported more arguments, fewer serious talks, less time spent doing things together and less sex than did matched couples.

"In all cases mismatched couples scored lower," Larson said.

Differences in time patterns may be evident while a couple is dating, but people "kind of ignore it. They don't think about the ramifications of it," Larson said.

In a marriage, being out of sync with a partner is not easy to ignore. Mismatched couples tend to "argue about bedtime, how much sleep each partner needs and preferences for day or nighttime activities."

Mismatched couples complain of being lonely and are more apt to say their spouse is not affectionate enough, is insensitive and is not thoughtful.

The challenge for mismatched couples is to "resolve, negotiate and compromise concerning your activities," Larson said. "You have to accommodate to each other."

"Instead of going out late at night for dinner, it's better to go earlier because the morning person is going to run out of gas late at night."

Other suggestions for dealing with biological clocks that are out of sync: - Discuss your differences openly, realizing they are biologically based - not a matter of laziness or being bored.

- Develop outside support systems. For example, don't demand that your night-owl wife hop out of bed at 7 a.m. to go jogging; instead, find a "morning" neighbor or friend to jog with.

- Use your differences in a complementary manner. Let the night owl stay up with the baby and the early bird take the morning shift.

- Give personal rhythms thought before marriage, realizing differences could be a source of marital conflict. And consider the fact that your time clocks are out of sync and may be just the "tip of the iceberg."


(Additional information)

Morning or night?

To determine whether you are a morning person or a night person, answer the following questions:

- Is getting up in the morning usually easy or difficult for you?

- Is staying up late at night usually easy or difficult for you?

- Are you usually most energetic and efficient early in the day or late in the evening?

- If you had to choose to do one of the following activities, which would you usually prefer: a physical, outdoor activity during the day or an evening activity at home with friends or a quiet evening at home?