To be frank, I don't believe anyone can really know this kind of information for sure—and I speak not just from my college relationship, or from all my years as a dating coach, but from reflecting back on my own 1992 wedding.
My jitters were epic, the kind that had my friends speculating on how long my marriage would last and the caterer reminding my mother that the deposit was strictly non-refundable.
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An hour before my ceremony, I nearly collapsed. As the photographer snapped pictures, my smile was strained; I was terrified. My fiancé, Brad, and I had dated for two years and been engaged for one. We knew each other well. But did we know what the future would hold for us? Of course not.
"So let me get this straight," my brain was saying. "I'm supposed to decide today to be with one person for the rest of my life because, up until now, things have been great? Because, so far, I still love him?" This made no sense. I was tormented by what everyone had told me for years about marriage in general, and my fiancé in particular—the old "you'll just know" or "trust your gut."
Well, this time, I didn't know, and my gut had a bad stomachache.
So naturally, I took the path of any good drama queen: I dropped my bouquet, slumped into a nearby chair, and burst into tears.
Brad rushed over and shooed away the photographer. While he was aware that I'd had many doubts during the past year, he had none. My own hesitations, on the other hand, were quite serious; I'd even harbored a crush on another man during my engagement year. I'd confessed everything to Brad—I did love him, after all, and wanted our relationship to be honest.
But we were so different—opposites in too many ways. (More than one friend had observed that we were a lot like that Green Acres couple from the '70s: I was "Gimme Park Avenue" and he was "Farm Livin' Is the Life for Me.") How could it work, I wondered, when reality would inevitably come knocking? We loved each other—a lot, as it turned out. But what sane person could believe that love alone would pass the test of time, particularly when 50 percent of today's marriages end in divorce?
So there I was: big white dress, mascara running. "How can I say 'forever'?" I sobbed. "It's too long to commit to!" Brad took my hand. "How about this," he said gently, not even remotely offended. "Can you commit to being with me for one year?"
"Of course," I said, sniffling. "That's easy, but—" He interrupted me.
"Then let's take it one year at a time. Publicly, we'll say our vows, 'until death do us part.' But privately, we'll have our own little arrangement. Each year on our anniversary, I'll ask you if you want to renew. We'll do this a year at a time. Can you do that?" Overwhelmed by the generosity of his answer, I said that I could. And I did.
These days, my job is to help single men and women find the right mate—and it's never simple. No one is perfect. Everyone has baggage. And when they're in that last stage of dating, trying to decide whether or not to make it permanent, my clients usually ask for my opinion. Do I think they should marry this one? Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no. But the truth is, I have no idea.
Making that decision is like skydiving: It's a crazy thing to do if you think about it logically, but you pray that the ride down will be exhilarating and that you'll land on your feet. And in my experience, people take that leap of faith with naïve confidence.
Of course, some factors do seem to improve the odds—especially age. I see fewer unhappy couples among those who get married later in life, specifically after 35. This is largely because they're making the decision to marry with more life experience under their belts.
They're also committing to a fully formed person. Next comes personality. I've observed that opposites who complement each other often do very well. If you marry someone who's too similar—especially emotionally—you may wind up bored or in conflict.
Finally, try not to be judgmental right out of the gate. I often find that my clients have checklists founded on external, and not internal, traits. Why eliminate a potentially terrific guy because he's a few inches shorter than you'd ideally prefer? As a general rule, rigidity never pays.
But—and wouldn't love be easier if this weren't the case?—it's different for everyone. Back at that singles' table, I was immersed, as usual, in conversation about dating and marriage.
Everyone wanted to be a Knower. I lost track of the times I heard the words "The One," "Soul Mate," and "Mr. Right." I realized that the vocabulary these women used assumed that there was one right answer, and that the answer would be obvious when it arrived. I wanted to tell them—but didn't—that it's OK if they don't "just know," or if "Mr. Right" is "Mr. Probably."
Sometimes a marriage can be stronger if you have reservations. If your bond seems a little fragile, you take better care to preserve it.
The irony is not lost on me that my greatest fear—committing to someone forever—became the focus of my profession.
But I like to think I was meant to spread the word that it's OK to have doubts—even profound doubts—before saying "I do." And, as my own 14th wedding anniversary approaches, I know Brad's question will come once again.
Which brings me to the lovely part of this story: So far, things have worked out beautifully. Don't ask me how. He's really flexible; I'm really not.
I'm perceptive. Him? Not so much. But in a few weeks, when he asks me if I want to renew my vows for another year, I just know what my answer will be.
Rachel Greenwald lives in Denver, Colo. with her husband and children.
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