Ellen McCarthy wrote the On Love column for The Washington Post for four years, exploring the mysterious nature of love and spending many of her Saturday nights at someone’s wedding. Despite this long disruption to that most favored night for dating, McCarthy, newly single when she started the column, found love and marriage herself and now has a baby girl. She also birthed a book about all she learned writing On Love. “The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook” comes out this month from Ballantine. An excerpt:
It’s always seemed to me that being in a relationship is, in large part, about bearing witness. You take a front-row seat to your partner’s daily trials and triumphs and they do the same for you. And then at the end of your life at least one person knows what you went through — how often you struggled, how hard you tried and how much goodness you created.
I once wrote a story about two young people with severe mental disabilities who fell in love. It was a purer love than almost any I’ve encountered. Bill and Shelley met at a club for teens with special needs. He had Down syndrome. Shelley, born with excessive fluid in her brain, had repeatedly surprised the doctors who’d told her parents she wouldn’t live past infancy.
Bill was 12 when they first laid eyes on each other at a social club for teens with special needs. “I didn’t know what love was until I met her,” he told me. Friendship blossomed to romance and eventually he took her to his proms. Bill even told Shelley’s parents he’d convert to Judaism to be with her. But after high school they lost touch.
About a decade later, however, they both signed up for a program that takes people with developmental disabilities on cruises. And when Shelley got seasick, it was Bill who volunteered to take care of her.
“I want to be Shelley’s hero,” he told me later. “I want to be her avenger.”
Soon they were meeting regularly for dinners and outings. After a few months, Bill asked Shelley to marry him, presenting her with a ruby ring bought with savings from his job at a grocery store.
At first, Bill’s and Shelley’s parents had reservations about what marriage would look like for the two. Before marrying, the couple moved into an assisted-living apartment together and started attending weekly sessions with a counselor. They worked on communication skills and learned to be responsive to each other’s needs and boundaries. They played board games, made up puns, traveled with each other’s families, and developed a calendar packed with social events and activities.
And they loved each other completely. “When I see her she’s like a bright penny,” Bill told me. “She’s like the color orange, like a real joyful, lively spirit. Her love is like pink. There is so much good in her that I really fell in love with.”
After the couple lived together for two years, their families finally consented to a wedding.
When I sat down with Shelley’s parents, the big day was quickly approaching. Her mother said they’d fought hard to give Shelley the best life possible, but hadn’t been able to fill a fundamental gap. For years, until she reunited with Bill, Shelley had been lonely. Her father was almost silent until the end of our interview, when I asked what it was like to see their daughter getting married. Then he started to cry.
“You want your children to be happy,” he said. “Having a mate — someone who really cares if you come home at night, someone who cares whether you’re well or sick — that makes life worthwhile.”
Zen teacher John Tarrant once said, “Attention is the most basic form of love.” Why do babies cry and dogs scratch at our legs? They want attention. They want love. (Unless it’s breakfast and you’re having bacon. Then they just want bacon.)
For one story I interviewed a woman whose life had fallen apart before it improved. For years Kalena led a whirling existence in New York City — she ate at great restaurants, did a little modeling and started her own online media company, which quickly put her on national lists of “ones to watch.” She married, made lots of money and traveled extensively.
But the marriage began to crack. Her father died; then her mother became gravely ill, compelling Kalena to take in her two younger brothers, then just in middle school.
It was all she could do to stay afloat as she started a new life in Washington. But she never let anyone see behind her beautiful, stoic veneer. An assistant principal at one of the boys’ schools could, however. It was obvious to Ben that Kalena’s brother — and the whole family — was in pain. He coached Kalena on how to help him cope. As they met to talk about her brother, a mutual attraction grew, though Kalena dismissed it. She was determined not to be hurt again.
But Ben kept coming around. He kept listening. He was there when her mother died. When Kalena stood to give a eulogy, he was front and center. And afterward, he told her that her speech had been lovely, but lacking. She’d never mentioned her own feelings. “I’m definitely good at smiling through things,” Kalena told me. “Nobody wants to know all these horrible things in your life. So the fact that he saw that — I felt like he saw me.” After that conversation she told him she loved him. Ten months later they were married.
Paying attention takes time and focus — two things we’re short on these days. Sitting next to each other while surfing the Web on separate laptops doesn’t cut it. Neither does dinner if your eyes are on your cellphone as much as they’re on your partner. A neglected spouse might not clamor for your attention as aggressively as a pet, but they need the dose of love just as much.
Terri Orbuch, a sociology professor at Oakland University in Michigan, has conducted one of the nation’s most extensive studies of couples — 373 pairs over 20 years. She learned which behaviors lead to happy unions and which ones often spell divorce.
One of the practices Orbuch promotes most fervently is what she calls the “10-minute rule”: For 10 minutes each day, couples should “talk about something other than work, family, who does what around the house or your relationship.” The goal is “to always really understand your partner.” To not lose sight of their goals and dreams and passions — the things that probably drew you to them in the first place. As you share breakfast in the morning or wind down before bed, the rule offers a chance to talk about your partner’s wish list of vacation destinations or about a book they’re reading. Anything that allows you to stop and connect and not just feel like business partners trying to make your way through a packed agenda.
Ten minutes of conversation. That’s nothing. And it’s not hard. It just requires us to briefly pause and see — really see — the person with whom we’re sharing a life.
Once I wrote about the time when God got married ... to God. At least, that’s how the two very human-looking people at the altar explained it. The couple, both mind-body healers and metaphysical authors who meditated for several hours a day, had reached enlightenment, they said.
Most of us are apparently consigned to mortals. Our partners are always late. Or they’re always 20 minutes early and insist that you be, too. They never wash their own dishes. Unless they’re constantly after you to clean up your crap. They pick their nose in the kitchen, forget to fill up the gas tank, and have the nerve to complain when you buy the wrong brand of toothpaste.
The worst part is that you can’t change them. A study by two psychologists in New Zealand, Shreena Hira and Nickola Overall, found that when people tried to improve their relationships by changing their spouse, the romances actually got worse. (Read: Nagging doesn’t work.)
But, interestingly, Hira and Overall also found that there wasn’t much more relationship satisfaction when people focused on self-improvement, either.
That usually leaves only one possibility: Accept As Is. (Unless “As Is” includes abuse or addiction.)
I invited psychologist Christine Meinecke to do an online chat after reading her book, “Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.” Meinecke’s premise is that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by believing there’s such a thing as the right person. She says the only road to marital bliss passes through the land of acceptance. When one reader asked her when to voice complaints and when to keep the peace, Meinecke responded, “The key is to understand that partners are not renovation projects. Think always in terms of looking at your own expectations, negative emotional responses, dark moods and insecurities and deal with them first.”
John Gottman refers to the problem as the “if onlies”: “If only she was a little better with money ... ”; “If only he didn’t spend so much time watching sports ... .” The truth is, you’re arguing against reality. And you will lose. He watches a lot of sports. She is how she is with money. The more you rail against these things, the more frustrated you’ll both become.
One of my wisest editors at The Post, a woman who lost her husband to cancer when her twin sons were still in grade school, told me that the lyrics of the Don Henley song “For My Wedding” reflect her hope for every young person getting married:
To want what I have
To take what I’m given with grace.
It’s hard to be happy with what you have when you’re busy wishing for something different. But no one knows how much time they’ll get with their perfectly imperfect partner. So focus on loving them, just as they are.
Excerpted from “ The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook ,” available from Ballantine Books on April 21. © 2015 by Ellen McCarthy. McCarthy will speak at 7 p.m. April 22 at Sixth & I Synagogue , 600 I St. NW.
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