The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter's Notebook

The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter's Notebook

by Ellen McCarthy


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345549693
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ellen McCarthy is an award-winning feature writer for The Washington Post. She joined the Post in 2000 and wrote about business, technology, arts, and entertainment before launching the paper’s On Love section in 2009. She has interviewed hundreds of couples and written extensively about weddings and relationships. McCarthy lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and daughter.

Read an Excerpt




I didn’t date much in my early twenties. I could say I was focused on my career and that’s true, but it’s also not relevant. My romantic life was nonexistent because I was scared of dating—­at least as it seemed to work in the adult world.

In college I’d had exactly two boyfriends, both of whom I met the old-­fashioned way . . . at keg parties, under the glow of neon beer signs and the influence of that greatest of all aphrodisiacs, grain alcohol. By evening’s end there was a bit of fuzzy making out and then, somehow, we were together. (One of these blossoming relationships was tragically compromised when the gentleman in question sent my Christmas present, a silky little Victoria’s Secret number, to my parents’ house. I transferred to a different college the next semester, much to my father’s delight.)

Dating in the real world seemed like a different ball game. One with a lot more rules, consequences, and potential for injury. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, or be hurt, or face the awkward question of whether or not there should be a good-­night kiss. So I didn’t. I went to happy hours, occupied myself with a few private crushes, and felt just fine about staying in on a Saturday night.

But four or five years after graduation, I got lonely enough and finally waded into the murky waters of modern dating. I threw up an online profile, and met guys at bars and parties and through friends. By the time I was hired on the weddings beat I’d had a couple of relationships lasting a year or more and was pretty practiced at dating. Not that it stopped being awkward or fraught; I just built up a tolerance for those things.

I realized that going on dates was not so different from interviewing people for work. I once complained to my mother about how much I was dreading having dinner with a man I’d met online. “Oh, come on!” she said. “You get to get dressed up, go out, meet someone new!” Of course she said this from the comfort of her couch, from which she’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming to go make conversation with a stranger.

For some people dating really is fun. For the rest of us it’s a means to an end—­whether that end is sex, companionship, or matrimony. You run the gauntlet of rejection and dejection in the hope of finding whatever finish line you’re after.

When I first started on the weddings beat—­also starting, as I’ve mentioned, a new chapter of single life—­I wasn’t sure how it would affect me to spend my days interviewing deliriously happy couples and watching them walk down the aisle. It could have been like salt in a wound.

But the job had the opposite effect. All of these people—­young, old, rich, poor, plain, beautiful, sophisticated, and simple—­they’d all found someone. I was reminded again and again that love happens every day, in all kinds of ways, to all kinds of people. And when it does, it adds a beauty and richness to life that nothing else can match.

So a couple of months after the breakup, I found my dating legs again. This time I had the lessons of the people I’d written about swirling around in my head. Their experiences pushed me to be more open and optimistic, and to at least try to enjoy it.

Even more important, the collective wisdom of these couples challenged me to rethink what I was looking for. So much of what they taught me about love ran contrary to what we learn in pop culture and society. Don’t look for lightning. Forget about presenting your best self—­it’s your real self that counts. And dreams do come true, but almost never how you dreamed them.

Screw Meeting Cute

This is how I came into being: In the mid-­1970s my mom, a recent college graduate, took a teaching job at a small business institute in rural western New York. Suddenly this city girl was living in the kind of place where three cars in a turning lane constitutes a traffic jam, exciting Friday nights almost certainly involve high school football, and the stealthy scent of manure can strike at any time.

Her bosses at the school, an older married couple with eight kids, repeatedly asked to fix her up with one of their sons. She was flattered, I’m sure, but wanted absolutely no part of it.

Desperate to get out one weekend, she drove five hours across the state for a reunion with college friends in Albany. At their favorite neighborhood bar she held court, regaling them with tales of the backward hick town where she was living and the couple she worked for. Before long a blue-­eyed guy from the next table wandered over, prodding her to keep the outrageous stories coming. He let her go on for almost an hour before flatly informing her that he was her bosses’ son.

“And,” he said, “you’re fired.”


He didn’t fire her, of course. He bought her a Miller Lite and then married her. They had my sister, my brother, and me and have been drinking cheap beer together for forty-­plus years now.

Really sweet, right? Well, you try living under the tyranny of that kind of love story your whole life. What could possibly stack up against that? Perhaps I could marry a man who first plowed me down with a bike and then used mouth-­to-­mouth resuscitation to bring me back from the brink of death. Or a guy who moved into my old apartment and tracked me down across the world to return a precious locket I’d forgotten. I needed to not just meet the right guy, but to meet him in the right way. A Nora Ephron–­worthy encounter that would be indisputably full of charm, humor, and serendipity.

It took me about thirty years—­and six months on the job as a professional relationships reporter—­to realize that how people meet doesn’t have much bearing on how happy they are together.

Of course, I was always looking for great how-­we-­met stories to write for the column. I’ll never forget hearing a wounded Iraq veteran talk about falling in love with the pretty hospital volunteer who gave him the courage to learn to walk on his new prosthetic legs. I swooned over the couple who met on a train—­it was her birthday and she was on the phone complaining about another guy who’d been sending mixed signals—­when he slipped her a note asking, “Will you go out with me? Circle one. Yes. No. Maybe.” And I instantly loved the two women who fell for each other after sparring as contestants on Jeopardy! (Their wedding program aptly thanked Alex Trebek for his matchmaking skills.)

But eventually I became just as interested in the pairs who’d been close friends for years before their feelings shifted. And the classmates who never noticed each other until they were assigned to the same project. The couples who met a million times before it clicked. Because in each instance something happened. Something that changed their lives indelibly. And there is as much mystery and wonder in the quieter stories as those with some dramatic twist of fate.

Moreover—­and I realize this is probably much more obvious to you than it was to me—­the way we meet is almost entirely irrelevant. Of course the stories we tell about ourselves matter, mostly in the way they shape our thinking about our own lives. A couple who feels that the whole universe conspired to bring them together might be more likely to fight for their union than a pair who hooked up at 3 a.m. in a bar because there didn’t seem to be anyone better around. But even the grandest sense of fate will not do the dishes or stop a roving eye or hold your hair back when you’re sick with the flu.

For a Valentine’s Day edition one year, the Post put out a call for six-­word love stories. There was one that always stuck with me: “Arranged marriage. Two kids. Happy family.”

You meet once. For an instant, an hour or an evening. It’s the ever-­after that goes on, hopefully, for a lifetime. And those years are made up of many moments—­magical and mundane—that mean so much more than the first.

Incidentally, I met Aaron at a party in the middle of a blizzard. We cracked jokes for most of the night and shared a cab home. He tried to kiss me but didn’t ask for my number. The next morning I woke up hungover but smiling, and racked my wine-­soaked brain to figure out why. Once I remembered, I sent him a friend request on Facebook. And the rest is—­well, you know.

After we’d been dating for about a year, a woman at a holiday party asked to hear the story of our first meeting. Once we had relayed our tale her face fell and she dryly suggested we either improve the delivery or come up with a lie. We’re working on both.

But in truth, I don’t really care if she didn’t like our story. It’s ours. I still feel a rush of warmth whenever I think about that night. And it doesn’t even begin to compare with what I feel about all the nights that followed.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii


Screw Meeting Cute 7

"The One" 11

Good on Paper (But Not Good Enough for You) 15

It Won't Come in the Package You're Expecting 18

Never Say Never 22

Do: Go Online Already 26

Don't: Treat Like Amazon 30

Online Dates to Avoid 33

Let's Get Chemical 36

Get Out 38

Don't Panic 39

The Truth: It Doesn't Happen for Everyone 43

If It Feels Like a Chess Match, It's Probably Only a Game 49

Just Do It 51

Make a Wish 54

Put It Out There 55

Give Nice a Chance 59

Just Be Yourself 64

The Most Important Word 68

Same Difference 73

Don't Look for Lightning 77


Who's Ready? 87

The Long and Winding Road 91

Express Yourself 95

Love Is Not All You Need 99

Don't Move In Just to Save on Rent 102

Clash of Civilizations 106

Fight the Good Fight 109

Just Like Your Mama 114

It Takes a Village 118

How Will I Know? 123


When to Walk 133

Top Ten Reasons to Call It Off 136

Beware the Sunk Cost 139

The Aftermath 142

Breakups Hurt. Literally. 145

Moving On 148


We Did It Our Way 157

Planning Hell 161

How to Get Married Without Losing Friends or Alienating People 166

Pre-Party 169

Toasts 172

Ban the Chicken Dance 173

The Good Stuff 176

Making It Last

Ever After 185

Check Your Expectations 188

Past Romance 193

Sometimes You're Miserable? Good. That's Normal. 197

Bearing Witness 200

Acceptance 206

Winning Isn't Everything 210

But Don't Turn Away from the Dark Side 213

A Little Tenderness 218

Be Nice 222

Keep It Confidential 225

Please, Thank You, and Excuse Me 228

Love Means Having to Say You're Sorry. A Lot. 231

For the Kids 235

Don't Worry About the Joneses 236

Let's Talk About Sex 240

What Makes It Last 242

A Test of Endurance 246

Better to Have Loved and Lost 250

Afterword 255

Acknowledgments 259

Bibliography 261

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