During his speech at my parents’ golden anniversary party last year, my father relayed the story of how, after five weeks of dating, my mother cornered him into proposing.
“What are your intentions?” she said, an expression that’s been cast in stone and bronzed in our family’s annals.
“Don’t rush me,” he said.
A week later, he proposed.
On the ride home from the party, my son expressed surprise that my parents would have done something so impetuous.
“Well,” I said slowly, “your father and I got engaged after three weeks.”
It took a while for his top and bottom teeth to come together again.
“You’re all nuts.”
In a way, he’s right. How could we know after such a short time that we would want to spend the rest of our lives together? That’s what everyone was saying at my office; I could practically hear the gossip mill churning every time I walked by—It’ll never work.
I’m a careful shopper, and I knew what I was looking for. He met my criteria, so I made a quick purchase decision. What was wrong with that?
Now that we’re divorced, you might say, “A lot.” To a degree that’s true, but we did stay together for 11 years and produce three children. We must have gotten something right.
I confess it’s possible that the briefness of the courtship may have been a factor in the eventual breakup. Perhaps if we’d spent more time together before I locked myself in, the characteristics of the relationship that became problematic would have been more apparent. Maybe, after dating for a while, I would have known not to marry him.
But I don’t really believe that.
I saw so much in him I did want and decided I could accept anything that ran counter to my desires. I think, too, that he was on his best behavior, as was I, showing far too much willingness to put aside my ways to accommodate his. At 28, I wanted to get married, wanted to have kids. I hadn’t had a real boyfriend since college; I was not going to let this one go.
The more salient point, though, is that there is no equation that has “length of courtship” on one side, “successful marriage” on the other, and an equals sign in the middle. Three weeks might have been enough for us if things were just a little different. It took me just three weeks to fall in love with Gary (“the one who broke my heart”), and I’ve no doubt we would have been happy together long-term had he been ready for that relationship. You can know a lot in a short time, and you can know little after a long time; it depends on the players.
Or sometimes it takes a long time to see the obvious. Bret and Carolyn had known each other since junior high school and were best friends, never lovers. But when I met them—we were in our 20s—Carolyn was in love with Bret. Whenever she visited from their hometown down South where she still lived, she watched from the sidelines as he entertained a carousel of nice but disposable women.
After Christmas one year, she wrote him a letter—one I would have paid to read—revealing her true feelings. She couldn’t feel that way and be friends with him, she said. It hurt too much.
Bret flew home, ring in hand, and proposed, and she accepted. They had never even kissed before. No courtship at all.
Bret got the same criticism from the Greek chorus at the office as I did. And they’ve been married for 18 years.
I would wager that the majority of the failed marriages follow a multi-year relationship, not the short courtship. Living together is surely no guarantee for success. One person I know married the woman he had been living with for six years only to get divorced two years later. (She probably shouldn’t have taken “Let’s get married or break up” as a proposal.) When a couple has been together for so long, it’s somehow less ridiculous and more tangible to get divorced than to move out.
In the end, there’s no telling whether a relationship will work. You decide to marry someone because you think you’ll be happy together. You could be right, you could be wrong. So you take your best shot, hold your nose, and hope for the best.
“Don’t rush me,” my father had said. But, really: he knew on the first date.
My parents were lucky. He was right.