For four years I spent almost all of my Saturday nights at other people’s weddings. Each weekend I put on my little black dress, took a seat among the teary-eyed guests and watched two people say “I do.” And by the end of my tenure as The Washington Post‘s wedding reporter I’d witnessed the exchange of more than 400 rings, interviewing more than 200 couples who pledged to love one another forever.
Of each pair asked the same question: “How did you know?” “How did you know that this was the person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with?”
I asked because it was my job and I knew that question would illuminate the story I was there to write. But I also asked because I needed to know—for my own sake. What was missing in my previous relationships? Was I looking for something unattainable? And if not, how would I know when I found it?
You see, the same day I was hired to cover weddings, my longtime boyfriend and I broke up. I was 30, heartbroken and suddenly obligated to spend all my time calling wedding planners and sitting down with googly-eyed couples at the height of their bliss. My life, it seemed, was a walking chick flick cliché.
But as I grieved and dated and moved on, I found that the couples and experts I was meeting on the job were becoming my personal relationship gurus. Each of them offered a particular insight that shaped my own approach to this mysterious thing called love. The wisdom they shared became the basis for my new book, The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook.
And nothing I learned on the weddings beat was more crucial than how to recognize the Real Thing in my own life when he finally did come along. Here’s how you’ll know:
I couldn’t believe how often the couples I interviewed used one word to describe how they felt with the person they were choosing to marry. The word wasn’t “passion” or “chemistry” or even “trust.” It was comfortable. “I just felt so comfortable around him.” “She always made me feel really comfortable.” Sometimes they’d backtrack, saying that “sounds too much like settling,” but they meant comfortable in the highest sense of the word. From the start they were at ease, like there was something natural and familiar in the dynamic between them. Sparks and lightning strikes might work for the movies, but in real life it’s comfort that counts.
It’s good in real life, not just on paper
When a Jewish woman named Leigh—who always assumed she’d marry a Jewish guy—fell for an Indian man, I asked if that gave her pause. She said that it didn’t because a friend had once warned her that the right one “will never come in the package you’re expecting.” Another woman always said she had a single requirement for her future husband— “That he be able to reach the high things on the shelf.” And then she wound up meeting and marrying a shorter person, who barely comes up to her shoulders. “That’s how I know I really love him,” she told me. “Because I don’t care.” Again and again, people described their lists of superficial expectations flying out the window when they finally found the person they wanted to be with forever.
You’re not always playing games
Are you wondering when they will call? Or why they haven’t texted back? Or what in God’s name they’re thinking over there? Then take that as a sign. Couples on their way to the altar routinely talked about how this relationship—unlike others—never felt like a chess match or guessing game. It was clear from the start that the interest between them was mutual and sincere. “He always showed up when he said he was going to show up,” one woman said. And everything followed from there.
You can be your whole self
Rebecca had spent most of her twenties tweaking parts of her personality to fit that of the people she dated. And each time the relationship imploded. So she finally decided to give up on dating and treated herself to a week of ski school in Utah, where she told dirty jokes and let it all hang loose. And at the end of the week, her Argentinian skiing instructor pulled her in for a kiss. Of course they wound up falling in love and getting married. It was the first time Rebecca let her whole self be known from the start—and the only time she ever felt completely at home in a relationship.
You know how to fight
Every once in a while I encountered a couple on the verge of marriage who insisted they’d never had a fight. My reaction: Uh-oh. As one marriage educator told me, healthy conflict in a relationship is the sound of a train running, of two people working things out. It’s when the sound stops that you need to worry—either because someone’s given up trying, or they’re swallowing a lot of negative emotions that will inevitably come out in different ways. When a relationship is in a good place, you both know it’s worth fighting for.
You feel it in your body
One of the best pieces of wisdom I ever picked up came when I overheard a conversation between a yoga instructor and her student, who was deciding between two career paths. “Your body knows what’s right,” she said. “You can lie to yourself mentally, but not physically.” Are you sucking in your gut when they’re around? Do you breathe a little easier when they’re not in the room? Do you routinely feel like you’re walking on eggshells? Not good. But if your body is relaxed when you’re together—without the assistance of a few cocktails—take that as a very good sign.
They get you
When Dan bought Dana a bat box—like a birdhouse, but for bats—she realized he was the one. Who else on earth would understand her like that? And even though she’d pushed him away, afraid of being hurt after an earlier divorce, she knew when she opened that gift that he’d already found a way into her heart. He saw her—really saw her—in a way no one else ever had. It’s all any of us really want: to feel understood and accepted, just as we are.
“Home,” suddenly doesn’t feel like a physical structure or a geographical location. It’s simply the presence of this person who, in good times and bad, makes you feel like you’re right where you belong.
Ellen McCarthy is the author of The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook
[image via iStock]