Ellen McCarthy became the Washington Post’s weddings reporter when she was newly single and (of course) on the cusp of turning thirty. Over the next four years, she talked to hundreds of couples about what makes relationships work — and what doesn’t. Her new book, The Real Thing, brings together stories and advice for people who are looking for love, falling in love or trying to make love last. Caroline asked Ellen for the best bits of wisdom she learned, and here’s what she told us…

How to recognize “the one”: When I was interviewing couples, a single word kept coming up again and again. So many people said it that I actually started to worry about the couples who didn’t say it. The word was “comfortable.” Couples would say, “I feel a sense of ease with this person that I have never felt before. I feel like I’m totally myself. I don’t feel worried. It feels natural.” Comfort doesn’t mean there aren’t sparks and butterflies, too; it just means that underlying all of it is this sense that you’ve found a person you can let loose with, the way you are with friends and family. You don’t have to suck in your stomach. You can be your most unkempt, crazy, neurotic, imperfect self.

The best part of the job: When I got the gig, I knew I would be writing about weddings, but what I found along the way is I was accruing amazing insights that weren’t making it into my wedding column. Often they would come out when I had turned off my recorder and people would talk to me candidly, and they would say what made their relationships work. Those were the things I’d find myself annoying my friends with at brunch.

The question to ask before getting married: At the end of the day, marriage is about asking, “Who do you want to sit next to on the couch?” There is so much time on the couch. Who do you want to be next to when you’re sick or feeling down or just want to watch bad reality TV? If you can find that person, then you’ve found something worth hanging on to.

Embracing online dating: I’m pro online dating. People are not going to wander up to you in the produce aisle in the grocery store. But the danger of online dating is that it can turn people into commodities. It’s so easy to just keep swiping. Try to be conscious of it: Really read someone’s profile; don’t just look at their face.

Why we should banish the idea of “good on paper”: Most people have an idea in their heads of what they’re going to find. As a kid, I had this very particular vision of my ideal mate; I wanted someone who rooted for the Buffalo Bills, even though I don’t! But a person who doesn’t meet all of your specifications might wind up being a wonderful match. My husband, Aaron, isn’t who I pictured myself winding up with — he’s younger than me — but we’ll be married three years in the fall.

What to look for in a partner: I once interviewed a psychologist for a column, and I asked him readers’ questions about what to look for in a mate. Without fail, his answer to almost every question was “choose someone kind, choose someone kind.” It was like a broken record, and I was annoyed. But you know what? Being with somebody who is fundamentally kind — to children and waiters and dogs — means that at the end of the day, they will be kind to you.

Knowing when to cut your losses: Studies show that women who feel doubt before their weddings wind up significantly less happy. My plea to anyone feeling doubt would be to think about the future you want, not the past. Some people think, “I’ve invested so much already, how could I turn back?” But if you look at the future with this person and feel a significant kernel of doubt, you have to listen to that.

(Un)realistic expectations of marriage: People think the trick is finding “the one.” And yes, finding someone can be so hard that you want to bang your head against the wall or join a convent! But the game isn’t over when you walk down the aisle. I think it’s crazy that we don’t talk more about what happens AFTER the big day. We spend so much time prepping for weddings, but not prepping for marriage. I forced my husband to take a local marriage education class. It was not romantic; it was in the basement of a house, taught by this really dorky guy. But it broke open a lot of important conversations and helped us understand each other better.

Facing tough times together: A marriage educator I once interviewed told me that many couples have trouble at transitional points in a relationship: when they first get married, when they have babies, when their kids become teenagers, when the kids leave the nest… But instead of saying, “These things have come up, let’s deal with them,” some people say, “I guess I found the wrong person.” But what winds up happening is they go out and find a different person who comes with a different set of issues! Understanding that we all go through ups and downs makes it easier and less lonely. That way, when you hit a bump in your marriage, you don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you or your partner.

Favorite marriage advice: One piece of advice is to proactively articulate your needs. Often, we expect our partner to intuitively know what we need, be it alone time or a back rub. It’s better to verbalize these things and let our partners have a field guide to ourselves.

The most memorable interview: My first year on the job, I talked to an amazing couple on Halloween. Both were dressed as witches and were very into witchcraft. They were struggling financially, living in a tiny apartment and trying to make ends meet. Even though they couldn’t afford it, they wanted a proper wedding. One day, in desperation, the groom went into the bedroom and cast a spell. He put out the intention for someone near him to win the lottery. “It doesn’t have to be me,” he said, “Just let someone we know win the lottery.” The following weekend, he turned on the TV and watched his best friend accept a check for 48 million dollars! With the help of their friend, they ended up having a giant pagan wedding, where everyone wore a costume. To me, that story was an extreme example of the power of intention. But I’ve hard versions of it again and again: Put it out there. Tell the world what you really want. Whether you write a letter to your future husband and stick it under your pillow or light a candle at church every weekend, there’s something powerful about believing the universe is working towards good.

A surprising lesson learned: Our culture tends to treat love like this magical thing that swoops into our lives and has its way with us. But if we’re willing to demystify love and talk about the hard parts along with the good parts, we have a greater chance of success.

Thank you so much, Ellen! Your book is wonderful.

P.S. How to keep the sparks flying and what marriage means.

(Interview by Caroline Donofrio)