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By Nicolle

Last Friday night, my best friend and I received a phone call from one of our college roommates. “I’m engaged!” she screamed into the phone. “It’s going to be an October 2011 wedding!”

That phone call came on the heels of a discussion with another friend about the state of her relationship, and how engagement might be in her future as well. Their different relationship stories got me thinking: As much as we’d like to put our relationships in neat little boxes, complete with an instruction manual and timeline, things are rarely that black and white.

Another friend of mine is dating a guy who I’m sure she’ll end up with. They’ve been dating for almost four years – but there’s no engagement in sight.

Another friend is dating a guy she’s been with since last winter. I’m pretty certain they’ll be engaged within a few months.

Yet another friend dated a guy for two years, broke up with him for two years and is now engaged to him.

And those are just my friends.

Clearly there is no formula, which just about anyone will tell you if prompted. The difference is whether or not we actually believe our relationships don’t have to fit into someone else’s idea of perfect timing.

I can’t see myself ever being ready to make a declaration of lifelong commitment after dating someone for less than a year, so my confusion and (sometimes) jealousy of friends who have it figured out sooner often overrides my inward excitement about others’ relationships. Why is it that some people “just know” right away, while others take years to decide – and sometimes they still don’t know?

My conclusion is simple. There is no conclusion. There is no one reason why it seems easier for some people to figure their relationships out than others. Sometimes I’d like to sit in my ivory tower and declare that I’m much smarter, more mature and more realistic than those who, in my eyes, dive into a proposal and wedding planning before they’re actually ready. But the truth is that I can’t see into anyone’s relationship but my own – and most of the time, I don’t even have that figured out.

While I think there are definite red flags that everyone should look for in their relationships and in their friends’ relationships (i.e. a really short dating time, the inability to answer legitimate questions about the relationship without getting defensive, etc.), the most important thing to remember is that we can’t know what’s going on in others’ heads or hearts. At the end of the day, whether I agree with my friends’ relationships or engagements or not, the decision isn’t up to me. And I’m not the one who has to live with the consequences, good or bad.

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By Nicolle

This week, in a conversation about engagements, a regular blog reader commented to me, “You hate that stuff.” By “stuff,” he meant marriages, engagements, bachelorette parties, wedding showers, wedding ceremonies, receptions and diamond rings. I responded defensively and got slightly upset that he’d think such a (in my mind) false thing. “You write a blog about it,” he continued. “About hating that stuff.”

Let me take this opportunity to clarify: While I do wholeheartedly believe in what I write and have written on this blog, I do not “hate” marriage, engagements and/or celebrations involving nuptials. Yes, my tone may tend toward the more realistic, cynical and occasionally sarcastic, but it comes out of a desire to see my generation’s relationships improve upon the hollow and sometimes destructive models we’ve been culturally handed.

And, my own realism is born out of a place of fear. I’ve never seen a healthy marriage model. The marriages closest to me involve infidelity, codependency, unmet expectations, loneliness, depression, emotional abuse and conditional love.

How’s that for something to shoot for?

Because I lack a healthy marriage model, I’m at a total disadvantage if I’m ever in a position to decide to get married. Since the likelihood I’ll marry before I die is extremely high (nine out of 10 Americans marry at some point in their lives), my fear is only compounded. And since I know my learning style and personality need systems and models and directions for even things as messy as relationships, my fear is increased again, this time to an exponential level. So to combat that fear, I spend my free time researching relationships and blogging about those findings while also trying to be self-aware about my faults and how my baggage could mess up my relationships. But no matter how much I learn, I’m still scared.

by Eric Johnson

I know marriage isn’t all sunshine, unicorns and rainbows – I’ve seen it. So, if some of the people I admire most in my life don’t have healthy marriages, how can I expect my (potential) marriage to be any different?

To make things even worse, I’ve recently admitted to myself that I have a desire to be married. Not long ago, I considered myself above the masses of females dying for a ring and a lifelong commitment. But I only put myself in that ivory tower because it’s easier to pretend you don’t desire something than to admit that you’re afraid that desire will never be fulfilled. That no one will pick you. That you’ll end up alone, with three cats, a box of (gluten-free) macaroni and cheese and a bad Katherine Heigl romcom on a weekend, while all your married friends bond with their soulmates on Caribbean cruises.

Yes, that image might be a cliché, but seeing relationships and engagements blossom around me in the last year puts life in perspective for me: Eventually, all my best friends will be hitched and there’s a chance that I’ll be the only single one. Everyone else will have a new, built-in best friend while I’m left searching for any friend at all.

While the odds are in my favor that I’ll eventually get married, the fear of being alone isn’t halted. Plus, the fear of screwing up a marriage if I ever have one hangs in the air like an angry storm cloud. It’s a catch-22; neither option seems like the better option.

So, I‘ll continue with my realism, my blog and my fear. Maybe embracing what scares me and acknowledging that there’s space to mess up will eventually lead me to a healthy, happy marriage. And if it doesn’t, at least I know I was honest with myself – and that Katherine Heigl will always have an audience of one.

By Nicolle

“When you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

That’s what my best friend says to me every time I cynically rant about friends and acquaintances who get engaged and/or married after only dating for a short time (i.e. less than a year).

She repeats it to me because I don’t get it. My experiential evidence disagrees: The one time I could honestly see myself marrying the guy I was dating, I knew the potential nuptials were years away. Now, many people would say my lack of an unquenchable desire to pick out a ring, set a date and choose bridesmaid-dress colors with said guy obviously means that he wasn’t actually THE ONE. And while, that argument holds a little more water since the relationship unfortunately didn’t work out, I still don’t agree with it.

Just like most things in life, the amount of time you sustain a relationship before it evolves into marriage is a balance: Wait too long, and it might be a clue that you’re afraid of commitment. Wait not long enough, and you could still be blinded by the honeymoon phase of the relationship – or you’re more excited about the wedding than the marriage.

I recently had coffee with a friend who’s in a great relationship and happier than I’ve ever seen him. In reference to his current girlfriend, he declared that he could see himself marrying her… but not for four or five years. When I asked why he felt he needed to wait so long, his thoughtful response included the fact that they both had more they individually wanted to accomplish before tying the knot.

I’d be one of the first to tell most, if not all, couples taking the plunge to wait an additional six months (or longer) before walking down the aisle, but something about this particular friend’s comment made me think. If you know you want to eventually marry the person you’re with, you’ve been friends for years prior to dating and you live in the same city, why would you put such a lengthy time constraint on the pre-marriage relationship?

Deciding that you need to accomplish your own individual goals before you get hitched can be as dangerous as completely changing your personality and personal goals to accommodate your potential spouse. If you’re not willing to tackle those career advancements together, or you want to stay separate for the time being because one of you likes camping and the other one likes fancy hotels, it could be indicative of a lack of understanding about marriage.

Yes, marriage means self-sacrifice. If you travel together, you might have to compromise on where you lay your head at night, or you might have to wait to get your Ph.D. because you need two incomes. But just because marriage constitutes giving up some of the freedoms of individuality doesn’t mean you can’t have your own individual interests and goals – and thinking so makes marriage seem like a cage.

On the flip side, an acquaintance recently got married less than a year after she met her now-husband. She’s the kind of person the opening quote refers to – she wanted her life to start now. But it’s hard to say that she wasn’t more excited about the prospect of being married than about the person she married.

The point is this: Relationships can’t be put in a box. What works for one couple may not work for another. But just because relationships can’t be squarely defined with a list of dos and don’ts, rights and wrongs, blacks and whites, doesn’t mean there aren’t guidelines, details and pieces to balance. Be careful when polarizing relationships in a way that leaves no room for exceptions – but also realize that without a balance between waiting too long and not waiting long enough, starting the rest of your life with someone right now might prove to make the rest of your life seem a lot longer than you thought.

By Nicolle

The first of my college roommates is getting married this fall (which is weird). I went to her bachelorette party this weekend where we played goofy games and did silly activities like decorating pairs of granny panties (see my group’s “Be fruitful and multiply” pair to the right). But after we’d downed our wine, reminisced about our days living in one apartment with 10 girls and watched her open our presents of lingerie and massage oil, we were each asked to share some advice, congratulations or memories for the bride-to-be.

I had a small, internal panic attack when I heard this. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s probably clear that I err on the side of realism when it comes to relationships, engagements and marriage – fluffy congratulatory comments aren’t my thing. I feel compelled to throw in a cautionary tale or two, and remind people that most relationships aren’t full of carriage rides, glass slippers and fairytale endings.

But reciting a list of statistics about divorce rates would have been akin to asking if I could try out the body frosting she received as a present: a little inappropriate, and a guarantee that I wouldn’t be invited to any more bachelorette parties in the near future.

So as I pondered what I’d say to my former roommate (whose marriage I completely and fully support, by the way), I struggled with where the balance was. How do I make it clear that I love her and her fiancé and I’m really happy for them, while combating the unrealistic expectations that I think we’re all subject to?

While I can’t single-handedly change the culture or our expectations, I don’t want to contribute to them either. So I wished the couple well, and also reminded them that, if marriage is hard and things aren’t going as “planned,” it’s not because they’ve done something wrong or they chose the wrong person. It’s because that’s life. Things are hard, and marriage isn’t easy, and that’s OK. They can work through it together.

And that piece of advice is a lot more useful than any piece of lingerie, granny panties or not.

By Nicolle

As a 7-year-old, I was in love with Barbies. I kept them pristine, all placed carefully on shelves, organized by my favorites and my least favorites, their accessories protected in labeled Ziploc baggies. I played with them only occasionally, so as not to mess up their hair, which I combed religiously.

One of my favorite scenes to play out with Barbie, her little sisters Stacie and Kelly and her boyfriend Ken, was the wedding of perfectly proportioned Barbie and chiseled-abs Ken. I had a pink, horse-drawn carriage that Barbie would ride up in, as Ken waited patiently at the small, cardboard-box altar. Stacie and Kelly would stroll down the aisle first, as bridesmaids, while the audience of more Barbies and Kens watched with bated breath.

At my young age, my knowledge of weddings was limited to what I’d seen on Disney movies or TV, and all I could remember were a few key lines. So when the time for the actual ceremony came, I began with “We are all gathered here today to see Barbie and Ken get married,” filled the middle in with “blah blah blah” and ended with “You may kiss the bride!”

Now, having graduated from the weddings of plastic dolls to the celebrations of some of my friends, that iconic part of a wedding ceremony has become one of my least favorite parts. Because of the high national divorce rate and the flowery language, traditional vows seem like mere words, repeated hollowly after the presiding minister because they’re the avenue for “I now pronounce you man and wife – you may kiss the bride!”

But, the vows should be the truest, most sincere part of the ceremony. Forget the Bible verses, the bride walking down the aisle, the exchanging of the rings. The vows should hold in them all the actual, covenantal promises a couple is making to one another. When the excitement of kissing the bride and presenting the couple as one overtakes the commitment present in the words of the vows, we’ve lost part of the reason for the celebration in the first place.

At the wedding of a friend of mine, the bride and groom wrote their own vows. Instead of borrowing even a few words from the traditional vows, they recited things to each other like, “I promise to vacuum and dust” or “I promise to cook dinner twice a week.” While mundane and simple-sounding, especially given the verbose, formal language used in traditional vows, their words took on practical meaning because they acknowledged that their life together will be lived in the nitty-gritty details of bills, cleaning, cooking and decision-making. They proclaimed in front of their friends and families that they weren’t just vaguely committing “til’ death do us part” or “in sickness and in health” – they were committing to being present and bonded in the average, mundane things of life.

Many times we don’t think about what the traditional vows even mean. Sure, they sound beautiful enough, and are broad enough to seem to encompass all aspects of life, but that broadness is exactly what makes them easy to break. What does “for richer or poorer” really mean when we break it down? We say it like we know, but we don’t usually acknowledge the depth of what it really means – and it could mean different things to different people. Does it mean we won’t worry about money? Does it imply that we won’t break up because of money? Does it mean we’ll be happy no matter what the financial situation?

Issues having to do with finances are one of the most common causes for strife, arguments and break-ups. As a couple, it’s hard to talk about money; it’s hard to agree on a financial plan. But if we’ve committed to each other with a for-richer-or-poorer mindset, how then do we justify the end of a relationship because of money issues?

It makes more sense if we think about how we might not understand the monetary mindset we’ve committed to when we recite that “for richer or poorer” mantra. But has it lost its meaning as we’ve heard it repeated thousands of times? Can we redefine or re-explain it so our cliché can regain its meaning? A friend recently proposed rewording the traditional money-centered vow to this: “We will not let money divide us, no matter if we have a lot or just a little.” Now that’s a serious commitment.

Instead of vowing to remain “for better or worse,” maybe we can vow to take the time to decipher what we really will remain in. Will we stay together, even through bankruptcy? Will we stick it out, even if a car accident completely paralyzes one of us? Will we confront each other (and be willing to listen when we’re confronted) about working too much? Will we turn towards each other when we don’t feel as happy or satisfied with our lives as we thought we would?

The practicality of life will sneak up on us whether or not we acknowledge it in our wedding vows. The question is whether or not we’ll be willing to admit that it’s more than “for better or worse.” And if we’re not, we can’t expect a marriage that’s any less plastic than my Barbie and Ken’s.