Michelle Obama dancing with Barack Obama

Michelle Obama dancing with Barack Obama

We’ve talked about dating, heartbreak and what to ask before you get married. But lately, I’ve been ruminating over one question even Google can’t answer: How do you know when a relationship is right? (Yes, I typed that into multiple search engines, yielding many lists, but not much help.)

So I sought the counsel of committed friends (and some acquaintances, and a few strangers) and asked: HOW DID YOU KNOW? Was it a moment? A feeling? A decision? Some of their answers really surprised me…

We laughed at each other’s jokes.
“We had both recently read the same weird sci-fi book series. My husband always says that’s how he knew. I knew because no one had ever made me laugh as much as he did, and no guy had ever laughed as much at my jokes. We were each other’s ideal audience.” — Gemma

It was a choice.
“Maybe this is just semantics, but I say: Forget about ‘knowing.’ Perhaps some people experience that, but every time I thought I did, it turned out to be an illusion. It didn’t last. The difference with my wife was having that ‘knowing’ feeling, but also a feeling that together we could make a relationship that was the one. That would adapt to and incorporate us both changing. I feel like knowing who’s ‘the one’ is just as much a life choice as a love choice.” — Colby

How Did You Know Your Partner Was the One?

It felt inevitable.
“I met my husband on the Chinatown bus. I am normally SO shy about talking to strangers, so I had my earbuds in and my face turned to the window and my work in my lap — a wall around me. But he sat next to me, and somehow we ended up chatting without a pause from New York City all the way to D.C. I wouldn’t quite call it love at first sight, but rather this strong feeling of ‘but of course,’ or inevitability, but in a good way. I just had this instinct from that very first conversation that this person was going to be important in my life; that he was, well, the one.” — Laura

We became a team.
“I didn’t have one of those singular moments where a lightbulb went off. For us, we just went through the process of being together, until we gradually solidified into a team: Team Us, Team Weirdo, Team Let’s-Just-Stay-in-and-Watch-a-Movie. When we first started dating, we reveled in that blissful early stage — the one where you each see the other as beautiful, brilliant sex-deities and you become pretty sure that, before you met each other, you were just two zombie pod people wandering aimlessly through the world, waiting for soulmates to open their eyes and show them what it means to live? — and all of a sudden we were in love.

“Several months later, we reached that slightly less exciting, but much more comfortable (read: sweatpants) second phase of the relationship, the one where you realize you’re just two human beings trying your best despite numerous faults and shortcomings. We didn’t have a choice. We were a unit, and life has become an amazing, joyful, silly, scary, confusing, bittersweet thing for us to figure out together.” — Liz

He made everything better.
“Being with him felt like being on vacation from real life.” — Thérèse

Everyone else knew.
“There was definitely a powerful feeling right away, and yet we didn’t get engaged for seven years. When my husband finally announced our engagement, his friend famously said, ‘Congratulations on not being the stupidest person on Earth.’ The point is, even if it’s clear to everyone else in your life, sometimes it’s hard for you to just know. Because it’s not so much a knowledge but a continuous process, choosing to share your life with someone, day after day.” — Jessica

How Did You Know Your Partner Was the One?

It was never a question.
“Unlike my previous relationships, I wasn’t haunted by deeper, nagging questions of whether or not I wanted to be with him. Disagreements didn’t threaten to end in a breakup — it was always just assumed that we would keep going. Dating my husband was the only time I never saw the period at the end of the sentence.” — Megan

He made plans.
“My fiancé and I had been dating for a month when he told me, two weeks in advance, that he’d made reservations for Valentine’s Day. I was like, ‘He’s so organized, I love it. I’m definitely marrying this guy.’ ” — Ilene

I couldn’t imagine my life without him.
“In our twenties, after we’d been together for a couple of years, I considered whether we should take a Ross-and-Rachel-style ‘break’ so we could date other people and see who was out there. Or just to be out there. Not because I was getting bored — quite the opposite — but I was a little freaked out by the growing feeling I had that we might be together forever. The more I thought about it, I realized there was this choice: I could see other people, some of whom might be totally decent, and then go back to him, knowing with more certainty that he was the one OR I could see other people and never be able to get him back, because he could have moved on. Forever. The minute I gave those scenarios any thought, I knew I could never risk it. I remember welling up with tears just thinking about it. So that’s how I knew. By realizing I already had what I could never give up.” — Ruby

I still don’t know.
“Describing the moment I realized my relationship was ‘right’ is impossible because there are days when I’m still not entirely sure. We’ve been together for eight years — through four apartments, two career changes and one wedding — and yet expressing authority on this subject isn’t something I do easily. Doubt is a part of life. I’m not sure you ever really know something as big as that.

“That said, I’ve always thought of love as an action, not a feeling. I believe in my relationship because of the small things we do for one another every day. Like yesterday, when my husband sent me a weird cat GIF at the exact moment I needed to laugh. Somehow, he just knew. I’ve never been a particularly romantic person, but that felt pretty special to me.” — Danielle

He was the nicest.
“With my fiancé, it wasn’t the crazy roller coaster I was used to. He was kind. For instance, very early in our relationship, he schlepped an air mattress all the way from the Upper West Side to my downtown apartment when my girlfriends were staying for the weekend. It wasn’t anything hugely significant, but I remember being surprised because all the previous jerks I had dated would never have offered. I just kinda knew this guy was a keeper.” — Danee

It was love at first sight.
“Funny, it’s hard to break down the feeling I had, the certainty, into words, because when I come up with a list of characteristics that ‘made’ me fall in love with her, it sounds like there could be a bunch of people out there who would fit the bill, but really, the first night we met, I just knew that she was the one. It was the energy. There was so much positivity flowing in both directions. I loved what she was saying, and how she was responding to what I was saying. We laughed so easily, we got each other. If I could have married her that first night, I would have.” — Alex

Everything felt okay.
“In a nutshell, soon after I met him, my whole life felt better. I started to see myself the way he saw me — I felt funnier, prettier, smarter. I was those things when I was around him. We brought out the best in each other. The minutiae of my day felt interesting and worth sharing. Nothing felt scary anymore. There was just this overwhelming sense that as long as this person was in my corner, everything would be okay.” — Eliza

How Did You Know Your Partner Was the One?

Unscientific as the business of love may be, I was amazed by the breadth of everyone’s responses. Indeed, talking to actual humans proved to be quite helpful. So I’d love to open up the floor for anyone who’d like to share their story…

Are you currently in a relationship? How did you know your partner was right — or not? Have you ever had doubts?

P.S. How to keep the sparks alive and 12 relationship tips from a wedding reporter.

(Top photo by Angie Royer; Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson at their wedding reception, 1988; couple on the beach via The Pie Shops Collection; stills from When Harry Met Sally)