12 Relationship Tips From a Wedding Reporter


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)

  1. Melody says...

    BRB…casting a spell :)

    No but seriously this post touched on some really important points. Will def take to heart.

  2. I love this! I have just separated from my fiance, well 7 months ago, and we have a one year old baby together. The signs were there long ago, I guess I just ignored them.

    Next time, I just want someone kind, someone nice, someone honest, someone genuine, not the charming facade from before. A lovely article!

  3. Lara Kean says...

    this is wonderful. thank you x

  4. Cristina says...

    I am actually going to break-up with the man I used to call my angel and believe in ever love with him. After 7 years, a house and a civil union. Almost a quarter of my life spent with him. Or rather, he’s breaking up with me after months of what he called depression loss of all purpose in life which seemed more like “was afraid to tell I no longer feel the same as before” which gave him anxiety.

    I am leveled and know it’ll be ok. it just honestly sucks to see I had a fairy tale we used to tell to everyone, everyone seemed with more troubles, and now they’re happily married, or as best they can be, with kids and moving on in their lives.

    Besides the pieces of advice above, I am a person who understands, never had a checklist, who listens, who puts the other in front when they need it more, who waited and gave space, then tried to get closer. In the end, I think that true sincerity and trust and respect I counted on was a quite blind.

    Falling in love has nothing to do with being in love. Love is a word we’ve misused so much associated with feelings or butterflies etc. But it is so much more an action and a choice. There may be 100 people matching a character or with whom we can live a whole life. in the end we choose one and stick with it, at least till something unrepearable breaks.

    I believed in a promise he maybe never made. In the promise of his actions and moving forward. I believed without asking would be my mistake, and one of the advice above I did not have quite well learned: tell what’s wrong, tell what you want, nicely but tell.

    A friend told me: love dies through the number of crappy things the other pulls or shows or says. It’s true, because they deliver a piece of character which is the most intuitive and natural and thus non-coerced.

    I loved the image of a man who did not become that image. And I accepted and worked forward by loving truly .

    Also, for the believers, who know that God is He who loves us all with all our faults and through our worst behaviors and throughts: that is the true full love a human may never grasp or give entirely . We always have our moments of anger and disdain and even levels of love-you-even-when-i-hate-you. Those who are not “kind, kind” and giving as one mentions above, are also non-naturally looking towards the other to include them and consider their feelings and thoughts. Some adapt, or change, or at least are like that more towards the partner than the rest. But love’s basics are kindness, respect, truth, support and all the good in the world applied to a couple and their surrounding close group.

    • This made me tear up so much – it’s my worst fear to have someone (anyone irrespective of a lifelong partner) to wake up and tell me ‘Hey listen, I know I made a lifelong promise to love and cherish you, but I can’t do this anymore, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not you—it’s me’. (and I know this is very judgemental of me, but I think it is a very selfish thing to do). What a gut-wrenching predicament to be in. I’m so sorry you went through this, I can only pray God be your strength and all the love you need. Sounds a lot easier said than done, I know.

      *Internet hugs*

  5. Without hesitation, after 35 wonderful years of marriage, the thing I appreciate most about my husband is how he ALWAYS sees the “glass half full”! Way back when I was single it never occurred to me this would come to be so important. During all the stressful times he’d always say, “…we’ll find a way” – and we did! There’s my addition to your fantastic list!

  6. Getting rid of “good on paper” is great advice. No one can fill the shoes of a fantasy person. It’s unrealistic and limiting. I completely agree it is important to be comfortable with your partner. If you can’t be comfortable you can’t be honest, etc. Terrific piece.

  7. Really strong advice here, thanks for sharing it. There is power in numbers I guess and she obviously has a lot of advisees. I think it’s important to remember though that the qualities you want in a husband or significant other also need to be in yourself, so let’s choose people who are kind and forget about ‘good on paper’ but also apply the same to ourselves. I’m going to be kinder and forget about everything else! Oh, and I am happily married.

  8. Agreed, this post is great! I’m trying to step out of the fairy tale ideas I have and be realistic and it’s hard! But I’ve found someone who is worth it!

    Best Wishes!

  9. Agreed, this post is great! I’m trying to step out of the fairy tale ideas I have and be realistic and it’s hard! But I’ve found someone who is worth it!

    Best Wishes!

  10. What an important interview! I’m so glad that you guys put the work in to gather these comments and then displayed them here for the world to see. I truly hope that hundreds of thousands of people see this post. You have such a platform Joanna (and Caroline) and I’m so happy that you use it for good! xo – Cassie


  12. wow. “choose someone kind” couldn’t be more true for me.

    I dated a series of major douchbags and then changed my focus and started looking for nice guys.

    Within 3 months of finding Mr Nice Guy, we got married and 4 years later we’re just about to have our third bubba.

    He has never yelled at me, spoken down to me, nor criticised my opinions.


    choose someone kind.

    They will never hurt you.

  13. She nailed it! 31 years with my husband and she nailed it.

  14. I put this book on my Amazon wish list yesterday–I can’t wait to get it! Love these insights.

  15. I’m very impressed with all of the author’s experience and also the tips she’s compiled. What a gift to be able to learn from your career like that and share it with others. I’m happily married to a guy who compliments me in ways I didn’t know I even needed or wanted. I’m so glad I kept my ‘hands open’ during the last years of my singleness and let him ‘break the mold’ of who I thought I wanted. To be honest, an equal part of me also found her example couple who practices witchcraft an extreme and affronting example to use. I understand an author’s intention to be inclusive to couples of all backgrounds and beliefs, but witchcraft, really? Do we really have to be so open-minded that we blithely support the dark arts? She lost me there, and I found it totally distracting from the ‘kind’ and ‘comfortable’ comments from earlier.

  16. I like this. It’s sometimes good to be reminded that life isn’t always perfect and that’s ok.

  17. These are great pieces of advice. I have been married for only a year and a half but have been with my husband for over a decade and echo the kindness portion of the advice. He is the kindest person I know. I also think patience is very important (and underrated).

  18. I love this, I’m always surprised when I come across truly good relationship/marriage advice, she is saying things I always wish would be said! I think I’ll have to check out this book!

  19. Loved this! I was married quite young to someone who was very nice…for the longest time, he was nice to everyone…in fact, nicer to everyone than he was to me. After 28 years, he left, without even letting me know. Not very nice – there were issues, but the problem was, he was a coward.

    I have been married to my 2nd husband for 10 years now. He is truly very different than my first…very outgoing, and also nice. But…the difference is, he is nice to me first. It seems to be his purpose in life.

    Now, that’s special!

    • Husband #1 did you a favor. Most unfortunately I have been married to the husband you described for 50 years. He has always put EVERYONE else first. Well said, very succinct. I’ve never put it that way but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I am very ill because I stayed when I should have left, many times. Now it is too late to leave.

  20. What wonderful words of wisdom! It’s so easy to compare our relationships to other ones, but at the end of the day it’s about being comfortable with and supported by the person you’re with. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. i always say that i just knew when i met my husband that he was The One. that stupid elusive vague explanation of just knowing when you’ve met the one.

    but the simple explanation of being comfortable with this person is spot on.

    also. everything i ever doubted about anything with anyone else was never an issue with my husband, from the get go. i was ready to marry him a month in.

  22. Wow, this book sounds amazing. The couch quote is adorable, but you’ll be surprised how little literal couch time there is with little kids in the mix. I appreciate the metaphor, and I really enjoy the story about the lottery.

  23. Love this post! She is right on the money, especially about “Facing tough times together”. My partner of 11.5 years jumped ship when things got tough instead of working through them with me and coming out stronger on the other side. I was certain he was my life partner for so many years that he completely blind-sided me with his desertion. It makes me very skittish when meeting new people and even thinking about being vulnerable with them. I just don’t know if I can let someone in that far again.
    All couple thinking about marriage need to be concerned about the MARRIAGE, and not the wedding. Weddings are fleeting, brief moments in time. Marriage is every day, in and out, minute by minute. Some days are easy, some are the most difficult thing you have ever experienced.

  24. Thanks for this great interview! I read her excerpt from the book in the Washington Post Magazine this past weekend, and cried (again) at the story of two young people with cognitive disabilities who fell in love. His description of love for his wife was so beautiful it chokes me up just thinking of it! Read it here:

  25. As a single gal, loved this post! Great stuff to look for in a partner – especially “who do you want to sit next to you on the couch?” :)

  26. What a fantastic article, and such interesting insights. I didn’t even realize being a wedding reporter was a thing!

    My boyfriend has a very tough exterior but in the early stages of our relationship, we were on the subway and he immediately got up to offer his seat to an older woman who had just gotten on the train. He didn’t realize it but it told me so much about him.

  27. Great tips! There is so much you have to think about before taking the dive. What a cool job you have!

  28. I LOVE this so much. Especially the advice on finding someone you are comfortable with (yes, totally felt that with my husband from the first moment… it was a sigh of relief) and finding someone kind. Not nice sometimes and to some people, but truly kind. Will definitely check out the book and pass it along to friends :)

  29. I love what she says about demystifying love and making it something that we actively integrate into our lives instead of waiting for it to happen to us. And I love the part about choosing someone kind. It’s so, so important. Great tips!

  30. Such lovely and honest advice. Thank you so much for sharing this interview.

  31. I love all of these tips! I’m super lucky that my parents taught me at a young age that marriage isn’t a magical fix that will make you be in love forever. My mom always told me (especially right before I got engaged, and even before I got married) that being in love is not a good enough reason to get married. I loved that. It’s so true, and I’ve definitely learned how true it is in our (nearly) three years of marriage. My husband was definitely not who I pictured myself marrying five years ago, but once we started dating, I realized how happy he would make me. We still haven’t been through many tough times, but I know that with him by my side, we can make it through anything together.


  32. Love this, just sent it to my partner! Was nodding the whole way through :)

  33. “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.”

    BOOM. Favorite part for sure.

  34. Thank you for this so useful tips and I think that this is so sweet to have someone that he will never hurt or disappoint you or the most important thing: he will always love you and even TheDatingTop and confirmed it

  35. I just got engaged, even though we had already talked about getting married before he proposed, I feel so giddy now. And I am also relieved that reading this, everything lines up. I was almost worried that I haven’t had second thoughts or doubt, he is nothing like I imagined my ideal guy would be, but how can I when I feel so happy just to sit by him or get random selfies of him and our cat. I feel so strongly that this is what we want, to stick it out together, and I’m so excited to grow old together.

  36. My dad always told me to look for someone kind, too.
    My husband drives me nuts sometimes, but I’m always happy to hang on the couch.
    I also think they should be someone you have big belly laughs with!
    I just love all this advice.


  37. What a wonderful post! I truly want all those things and will not settle. It took me until now (my mid 30s ) to realize this!!:)

  38. One of the moments I knew that my husband was someone I should never let go was in the middle of the night just a few months into our relationship. He’s a very sound sleeper, but he rolled over and bumped into me pretty hard. Even half asleep, he was so concerned and made sure I was okay (I was totally fine). I just had this overwhelming peace that he really was the most loving, gentle, and kind person I had ever known.
    Almost 4 years of marriage, two cross country moves, multiple job changes, and very scary medical things later… He’s even better than I thought that night.

  39. Love this!

    I feel very comfortable around my long-term boyfriend, and I think that’s key.

    When we’re debating what to do, we often joke “Let’s go to the DMV!” or “Let’s go to the dentist!” :) It’s our way of saying we’re comfortable, even in the boring couch-sitting parts of life.

  40. i love this post! because i was just talking to a friend the other day about how i know my boyfriend is the one and i said that i’ve never felt more comfortable or myself than when i’m around him. <3

    xo, allie

  41. These are great! I always think of the line from the movie Baby Boom where Diane Keaton is asked by Sam Sheppard ” do all men make you nervous?” And she says ” all men make me nervous, but you.”.

  42. These are a great set of advice! Not the kind of things you’d hear every day but still intrinsic to truths!

  43. I’m curious about how sex & intimacy define and inform our relationships! Especially growing up here in the states!

    That’s one reason I’ve loved the Sex, Death, & Money podcast: people talk about sex and how that crafts our expectations in relationships.

    I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t addressed in this article, but one. I love all of the other advice, so two. I guess I’ll have to read the book!

  44. Great points made! I agree with each and one of them. So true!! Comfort, kindness and understanding there are ups and downs in life to go through is key. There are stages of life that are difficult, but it is possible to go through them, the thing is that we need to know that it is going to be difficult, and that it’ll pass. 19 years of marriage speaking, ha!, still learning though…

  45. I just love this so much. Choose someone kind, someone with whom you can be yourself, someone who lets you say what you need and works with you when things need work. That’s really the whole package.

  46. I love what she says about figuring out how to deal with something instead of thinking you must be with the wrong person.

  47. Feeling all out comfortable with that person, and choosing someone kind. I have a lump in my throat right now because of how much those those two points apply to my husband.

  48. I love this! It’s also very reassuring – I’m walking down the aisle in 3 months! I echo Julie’s statement – sometimes saying “nice” and “comfortable” sound so…lame. But I’ve dated “good on paper” and that’s exactly what it is. I’ve had to learn to let go of not only what I had pictured for myself, but also what my family (mother) had pictured.

    Side note: I had “good on paper” guy tell me once during a fight that I expected to be treated like a princess. I broke up with him the next day (slept on it, you know). I mean, if not a princess, does that mean I should be treated like a wench? Buh bye. Now I’m marrying someone who does respect me and treat me well, and because of that, we hardly ever fight. Not to say we always agree, but knowing the other person respects you no matter what is huge.

  49. I love this advice! Based on my experiences of being married for seven years, I’d say she hits it right on the money. It’s so nice to see some REAL stuff out there about marriage: one of the things I love about your blog.

  50. I feel so strongly about preparing for the marriage! Knowing each other’s expectations and talking through them when they’re different is huge! Plus, the more you talk through differences, the better you get at it, and everyone can stand to be better at that!

  51. All great points that I’m discovering with my fairly new boyfriend. He is incredibly nice, sweet and caring and totally not the person I pictured I’d be with. Though, I feel comfortable any time I’m with him and he calms me. I totally agree with Leigh’s statement. It’s the best!

  52. what a wonderful post! nice work, caroline.

  53. It’s so true, when my friends ask me what my current, and somewhat new boyfriend is like, I always find myself saying, “He’s so nice.” I think we have an immediate negative reaction to this, for some reason, but it’s the best.

  54. When I was dating my now-husband, people kept asking me what I love the most about him, and I kept repeating “he’s just so … nice.” But really it’s the best compliment. He’s the nicest person I’ve ever met. He’s kind and gentle and patient with everyone all the time!

  55. What great advice! I think, in addition to finding a spouse, this wisdom could also be applied to finding friends. We also spend inordinate amounts of time with our friends, and, at the end of the day, we should also be comfortable being our true selves around them, sitting on a couch. Ellen’s thoughts about couples going through milestone events, like kids, empty nests, etc. and turning away from each other vs. towards each other in those times also resonated with me as something that can be applied to friendships: instead of trying to make new friends when we feel ourselves drifting apart, why not try to identify what causes each other to turn away instead of investing more time into the friendship? Just some thoughts that popped into my head after reading. Thanks for the interview, Caroline! :)

  56. What a wonderful post. My husband and I have had many struggles so far in our marriage but I couldn’t have chosen a better person to be married to.

  57. These are fantastic and oh-so-true. I remember when I was single and dating, I kept having an idea of the ideal guy–in high school, I wanted a cowboy (face palm). I got one, and realized that came with machismo, etc. Then I wanted a romantic poet type, with an accent…my college boyfriend from Boston wrote me poems every day and soon he was more like a puppy dog than a boyfriend. Then I wanted an intellectual, and so on. By my mid-twenties, I gave up the game and decided I wanted two things: a man with strong character, so he wouldn’t leave when things got hard, and a man I could have fun with–even in the mundane. I’m so glad I chose my husband based on those things. Over 3 years later, I’m very happy with my choice! (oh, and I definitely do not believe in the “the one”!)

  58. So true, to have that comfort! To feel that with someone where I can sit with him on the couch in my sweats, hair up and no makeup and he still makes me feel beautiful. I have a good man. <3

  59. Excellent points, Ellen, and from a fellow Allegany girl, at that. (ACS, Class of ’91).

  60. I love this. My husband is the kindest person I’ve ever met and I feel lucky every day! Great post.

  61. Sounds lovely! I’m turning 30 in about a week and have never been in love – just the painful, arduous crushing. I’ll have to read asap!