I cycle through the wedding cliches, but “Happily Ever After” just doesn’t feel right. The cheekiest thing I can think of is “Go Steelers?” to reflect their mutual and then-dubious fandom. It’s not so romantic, but what do you say when you know a couple isn’t going to make it?
I was in my late 20s when the “most marriageable” of my family and friends began pairing off forevermore. This wedding was the fourth in a five-wedding year for me. And although I was perpetually single, I believed my experience as frequent wedding-goer meant that I could trust my judgment in matters of other people’s hearts, if not my own. Everyone I knew seemed to have chosen their partners wisely.
Which is not to say with care. There was the friend who met a woman at a conference overseas and — after just one night together! — spent hours on a transcontinental phone call with her every day until they ended the madness and tied the knot. Now they take turns playing Rachel Maddow over dinner. Then there was the friend who finally visited her boyfriend’s studio apartment after dating for over a year; takeout boxes towered over the countertop and strange odors wafted from all directions under a single dome light. “It’s a prison,” she told me, crying, before agreeing to marry him a few months later. Now she teases him when he does the dishes in his uniquely cursory way and he pretends to be so aggrieved about it.
Are these vignettes superficial? Absolutely! But one person’s red flag (long distance/slovenliness) is just embroidery on another’s banner of endearment (passion/repartee). And while I couldn’t have known that these friends’ marriages were going to last, I had no reason to believe so on their wedding days. All visible signs pointed to success. But it wasn’t so with the couple whose SUV I tagged that day.
I remember when they crossed the one-year mark. That’s the boundary where I force myself to actually pay attention to my friends’ not-so-new girlfriends’ backstories. It’s also when I start wondering about my friends’ true intentions. Bachelor tip: If you ask your friend how he feels about his significant other, and he melts into an quasi-verbal, Sean Spicer-at-a-press-briefing level of incoherence, his romance has potential. But this is what my friend said about his then-girlfriend: We’re both Christian and sporty. We like the same football team; we’re very independent.
Now it’s true that I, as a secular type, perhaps underrate “values” as a basis for love. But when I ask if you’re going to delete all of your online dating profiles, I don’t expect a recounting of your girlfriend’s talents. It sounded like he was trying to convince someone — perhaps himself — that things were going well when maybe they weren’t.
But it was only in the following months, when I had several chances to observe their relationship in person, that my concerns for their future hardened. They almost never touched each other, and when they did — as when she put her hand on my friend’s shoulder — it appeared more to keep him at arm’s length than to draw him in. When they talked, she hardly ever looked at him. And while my friend was mirthful, optimistic and generous, his girlfriend was dour, critical and sarcastic. Not once did I hear her laugh. This wasn’t a case of two opposites balancing each other out.
And still they sent out wedding invitations. And still I went. How can you pass up your good friend’s wedding even if you know he’s making a mistake? I did my best to share in everyone’s cheer at the ceremony, but the entire time I hoped to hear that rom-com trope: Won’t someone (ahem, minister) ask the congregation to speak now or forever hold his peace? At least ironically, for us Gen X-ers?
But nobody popped that particular question and I didn’t have the nerve to say anything. What if I were wrong? Who has the gall to stop a wedding anyway? At the reception, though, I made a point of avoiding the bride’s loved ones. I didn’t want to invest in people I didn’t expect to see again. And that included the bride.
After too many bourbons and Coke and a crazed, House of Pain-fueled dance sequence, I saw the bride chatting with a friend. Something clicked in my brain: Now I was rooting against my friend and his future with this woman. I told myself it was because they didn’t belong together, but part of me wondered if I was wishing them apart just so I could say I was right.
Some months later, the groom asked me to meet up. His wife had walked out and gone incommunicado for nearly a week, save for a single phone call to her mother. “What should I do?” he asked me. I pretended to listen, but I’d made up my mind long ago. “You should get a divorce,” I said. The suggestion seemed to surprise him. Wasn’t I supposed to encourage him and offer him strength? His eyes welled with pain, but I stood by my counsel.
A few days later, my friend emailed to say that he and his wife had reconciled. It was a short note. In the coming years they would have two children together before finally breaking up. He never asked for my advice again.