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A group of friends gets together for lunch each Valentine's Day to regale each other with tales of the past year's romantic absurdities.

This year, one friend couldn't quite capture the cynical spirit of the affair. She thought she might be in love.She had met a man who appeared to have it all. As brilliant as my own bright friend could hope for, with the kind of looks and charm she had long given up hoping for, this guy might be the one, she told me.

One phone call changed all that.

This man was pushing for marriage. My friend wavered. They hadn't known each other long, she admitted, but who said love had to be leisurely?

His was a heady offer. He had a mind and career to match her own and reflected her dreams so deftly that she thought he shared them.

But two unexplained divorces, choices that didn't jibe with what he said he believed and one burst of public rage left my friend appalled and suspicious.

So she did a little research. She called one of the man's ex-wives.

"I had never done that before. But one day I felt compelled to do it," she said. "Man, was I glad I did."

The two women talked for three hours. The ex-wife said the man had beat her, publicly berated and belittled her and flagrantly cheated on her.

He had wooed this woman, as he had my friend, with charm and urgency, the former wife said. But remnants of the wedding feast hadn't gone stale before the nightmare began.

"What she told me exceeded the scope of my imagination. It was like drawing back the curtain of charity for a peep at hell," my friend said.

"He is a sociopath. I had been trying not to judge this fellow the whole time. I was able to dispense with that concern in a brief, stunning epiphany. I ended the relationship. No curtain calls. No calls at all."

Except for the ones she's been getting lately in the middle of the night. The calls come any time from midnight to 4 a.m. The caller says silly, taunting things in high falsetto voice.

"Does he think I can't recognize his voice?" my friend asked, incredulous.

Another of our Valentine's Day group has since gotten engaged to a man with three failed marriages. He proposed after a one-month courtship.

But this friend doesn't consider her fiance's ex-wives necessary research.

"Last night he told me that he had a bad temper at times. I said, `I have a hard time believing that.' He said, `If you don't believe me, call my ex-wife.' "

Because the man gave her permission to call, my friend found the research unnecessary.

Besides, "if you start a relationship on the premise that this one will be different and this one will work, it's sort of like beating a dead horse," she said.

Marriage and family therapist Marybeth Raynes advocates a little research into a loved one's pastbefore marriage, particularly if there are red flags in a relationship.

If a person won't talk about past marriages or says he can't remember details, be concerned, she said. If a person's moods and commitments go up and down, resulting in frequent arguments and break-ups, do some research, she said.

People who have broken ties with family members or do not have any lifetime friends they are still close to should also be researched, she said.

Therapist Ken Hennefer prefers to let a thoughtful courtship reveal the couple's characters to each other. But if a man or a woman sees warning signs, by all means do some checking.

"If you get someone who is angry and upset because you have inquired about them, then you may want to make even more inquiries," he said.

Besides talking to ex-wives, Raynes recommended talking to friends, family members and ex-girlfriends.

Give the person you are researching a chance to respond to the research, Hennefer said.

Don't believe everything you hear, they both cautioned. Someone who has nothing good to say about the person probably isn't credible.

"There are all manner of horrible things my ex-husband could say about me," my engaged friend said. Her fiance's ex-wives probably feel the same way, and my friend isn't sure that hearing those things would provide much insight.

Raynes recommends a sure test: Ask the man to explain his divorce from his ex-wife's point of view, or a family break from the family's point of view. If the man can fully express what the other person probably feels, that's healthy, she said.

If he can't or refuses to try, start to worry, she said.- The Deseret News welcomes comments from readers on this topic or others pertinent to the Single-minded column. Please address letters to Single-minded, c/o Marianne Funk, Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110; or contact her at 237-2100.