Last month, Jillian Harris packed up her bags and moved house from Vancouver to Chicago to live with her fiancé, Ed Swiderski, whom she’d known all of nine weeks before giddily agreeing to marry him; they plan to wed within the year. The couple’s warp-speed romance, one of several Harris was juggling on the last season of The Bachelorette, was served up like spray cheese on crackers to a fixated audience of millions. The 29-year-old gushed about her instant connection with the 30-year-old Swiderski on Live with Regis and Kelly in July: “We had that one date when everything came together,” she said. “I knew I could not let him go ever.”
As psychotic as that statement sounds, it’s the linga franca of the whirlwind courtship, a phenomenon far more fascinating in reality than any on faux “reality” programming. Lately there’s been a crop of them. Earlier this year, the 70-year-old writer Joyce Carol Oates married Charles Gross, a professor of psychology at Princeton less than a year after her husband of 47 years, with whom she’d had a happy marriage, died. In January, the National Post columnist Diane Francis wed John Beck, the CEO of the construction conglomerate Aecon Group, knowing him less than four months. The couple, both in their 60s, met at a dinner thrown by the conservative think tank the Fraser Institute, which, when you think about it, is the perfect forum for finding Mr. or Ms. Right: Beck, who arrived late, ended up in the only available empty chair, next to Francis. The opinionated pundit declines to comment on her personal life, but in an email response to a question from the Globe and Mail about the relationship’s rapid progression, she wrote: “When it’s right you just know it.”
The French coined the term coup de foudre to describe the love-at-first-sight thunderbolt—fitting, given the impetuous history of its current first couple, 53-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy and 41-year-old Carla Bruni, the supermodel turned songstress. “I was in love at first sight,” Bruni told Vanity Fair about meeting France’s president at a dinner party in 2007. “I was really surprised by him, by his youth, his energy, his physical charm—which you could not actually see so much on television—his charisma.” The pair wed in February 2008, less than three months after that fateful night. It was the first marriage for Bruni, who’s famed for her sexual conquests, the third for Sarkozy, also known for making amorous leaps.
The certainty, that “I just knew” that underlines the whirlwind marriage, inspires wonder—and cynicism given the wreckage it can leave in its wake. Hollywood provides the most celebrated examples, the most madcap being Pamela Anderson’s and Mötley Crüe member Tommy Lee’s three-year nuptial spectacle that kicked off in a pheromone haze on a Mexican beach in 1995: Anderson, in a bridal bikini, married the drummer some 96 hours after they were introduced. Then there is the actress Kate Walsh, who crowed about becoming engaged to 20th Century Fox executive Alex Young in May 2007 after knowing him weeks. “I know—I’m literally living the dream,” she told People magazine. “But you know when you know.” The couple wed in September 2007; 15 months later, the marriage was kaput and Walsh is now living the nightmare of a messy public divorce.
Emily Yoffe, the Washington-based writer who’s the “Prudence” of Slate’s popular advice column “Dear Prudence,” believes the love-at-first-sight model can create pressure, and unrealistic expectations. “There are so many paths to falling in love,” she says. She gets letters from people who say they’re with a wonderful person and are the happiest they’ve ever been but don’t feel the big romantic “This is it!” so common in chick flicks and reality shows: “And I can never be sure if it’s ‘You’re in this genuine boredom’ or ‘You have this stupid Hollywood thing in your head about what it should be and you’re going to miss what real life is.’ ”
Marriage counsellors too are critical of “instant” relationships, observing they’re often animated by delusion and projection. “I see so much of the damage caused by people blindly connecting, rushing through the stages of commitment, and not creating the solid basis a true relationship needs,” says Tina Tessina, a marriage therapist and author in Long Beach, Calif.
Programs like The Bachelorette foster the myth that love is an instantaneous emotion, says Mary-Lou Galician, who teaches media analysis and criticism at Arizona State University. “We all have had that feeling and then found out what a dreadful mistake it was,” she says. “Real love takes time.”
Still, enough inspiring examples exist that suggest a quick impulse to marry can be prescient, even shrewd. Exhibit A is lawyer, political operative and University of Toronto chancellor David Peterson and his wife, Shelley, an actress and author: the couple knew one another only 2½ months before they married in London, Ont., in January 1974. He was 29, she was 21. She didn’t know what his religious background was, whether his grandparents were alive or whether or not he wanted children, Shelley Peterson admits: “There were a lot of things we hadn’t figured out.” Thirty-five years, three children and one grandchild later, the former Ontario premier calls the flight to the altar “the smartest thing I ever did.” His wife is equally effusive: “I’m more in love with him now than I was then,” she says. “I find that astonishing.”
Peterson says he was smitten the first time he saw his future wife on stage. He finagled her phone number and called repeatedly. She had no interest in meeting him, she says: “I didn’t need more men in my life.” Finally she agreed to lunch. “I thought ‘I’ll just get this over with. One hour, that’s it.’ ”
By the time the soup course came, David Peterson was “head over heels in love,” he says: “She was perfect, gorgeous, funny.” She too was taken: “I thought he was lovely and intriguing. I thought, ‘This is somebody I need to get to know.’ ” Shelley Peterson speaks of their marriage as inevitable. “There wasn’t a moment I wanted to marry him,” she says. “It was more that there just wasn’t any other thing to do except to marry him.”
Waiting wasn’t an option, he says: “How could you wait? It’s like a cat catching a mouse: you just jump on it. Everyone knew she was perfect. The only question was whether I was good enough for her.”
Her friends and family were less enthusiastic. “But I was quite sure,” she says. “And on the other hand I felt that if it didn’t turn out to be a good idea I could get out of it.”
Catherine Burton, a marriage and family therapist in Dallas, has said that couples who move quickly because they’ve found someone with stellar spouse qualities—being even-tempered, respectful and thoughtful—tend to have stronger marriages. The Petersons’ example supports this theory; they both speak of enduring qualities in the other. “I recognized a sincerity, a belief in humanity, an optimism—a lot of things that never change in a person,” she says. He praises her character: “She’s the most empathetic person, deeply moral, she has a deep knowledge of the world and what’s important.” Love flourishes only with mutual respect, they agree. They’ve told their own children never to settle for a relationship that isn’t joyful and passionate. “We tell them it’s far better to be alone than in an even slightly unhappy relationship,” Shelley Peterson says.
But she knows luck played a part. “How would I know that David was all of the things I hoped he was?” she says. “I couldn’t know that. I believe I was extraordinarily lucky that the wilful passion I felt as a 21-year-old didn’t end in terrible disaster.” Her husband agrees: “But there’s also brains in it and you have to work on it.”
Research on courtship, surprisingly, contradicts the conventional wisdom that the longer the courtship, the more stable the union. The expert in the field is Ted Huston, a professor of human ecology at the University of Texas who set up a project in 1978 that, for decades, followed 168 couples from their newlywed days. He concludes marital happiness is less a result of a courtship’s length than its quality: harmonious courtships tend to presage happy marriages; turbulent ones foreshadow problems. He found that the closer a couple’s courtship is to the average length of two years, four months, the more successful their marriage will be. Couples very quick or very slow to wed are more likely to divorce, though those who married in a whirlwind tended to remain married longer, which he attributes to the fact that they start off on such an emotional high they’re reluctant to give it up. Those with more drawn-out courtships often hope marriage will improve their relationship; when it doesn’t, they quickly conclude it isn’t going to work.
Tessina says she has seen successful marriages after quick courtships: “It can work, if both people are really committed to build ing a life together, and not just to ‘being happy’ or getting their own individual needs met,” she says. Still, she tells couples to slow down and discuss the serious issues: “They can find out pretty quickly if they have enough shared values.”
That’s the advice Emily Yoffe gives as “Prudence.” “My reaction is: ‘What’s the rush?’ ” she says. “Wait at least a year—you’ll go through the seasons, you’ll have had the holiday issues. Also, you’ll want to have your first fight. Sometimes it takes quite a while for masks to drop.”
Yet she made the marital leap almost as quickly as Bruni and Sarkozy did; she married Washington Post writer John Mintz in 1994 within four months of meeting him. She was 38, had never married, and was living in Los Angeles. Mintz was a 41-year-old widower, living in Washington. Their circles overlapped: Yoffe had lived in Washington and they had mutual friends. Yoffe had dated one of Mintz’s friends in L.A. When he told her about Mintz’s devotion to his wife during her long illness she was impressed. She didn’t know at the time that the friend was turning to Mintz for advice when the relationship began to falter. Mintz, who’d been widowed and single for five years, found himself becoming intrigued by Yoffe. “After a while, John was thinking to himself, ‘I have a conflict of interest here: she sounds perfect for me,’ ” Yoffe says with a laugh. When Yoffe and the friend stopped seeing one another, Mintz called her. After several conversations, he concocted a reason to visit L.A. for business. Yoffe recalls telling her mother that she wasn’t sure she wanted to move back to Washington. “My mother said, ‘What are you talking about? You haven’t even gone out with him yet!’ But she didn’t understand what this was about, that the stakes were high,” she says.
Their maturity was a benefit, Yoffe believes: “We just knew. But we knew in a way that had I been 24 I wouldn’t have known.” They also knew the attraction was more than lust: “We couldn’t stop talking: it’s one thing if you can’t stop the other ‘i-n-g’; that’s great but it burns out fast.”
Yoffe speaks of the easy comfort and calm many quick-to-marry couples experience, what some refer to as “being home,” absent the common “Will he call me?” dating angst. “We were able to read one another and realize we’re not on first-date best behaviour. We got each other’s jokes. I felt he got me, I got him.” Six weeks later, standing in the dairy section of a Washington supermarket, they decided to marry. “For us there was a rush,” she says. “We wanted to try to have kids. The clock was ticking.” Today, the couple are the happily married parents of a 13-year-old daughter.
Older couples often know what they need from a partner, says Tessina, which can help them figure out more quickly if their relationship will succeed, though not always: “Some just repeat the same old mistakes.” What counts more, she says, is “emotional maturity.”
Yet having the clock ticking literally can spur couples on, as was the case with 61-year- old Shirley Griff, a real estate agent in Thorold, Ont., who married Bill Coates, also 61, in November 2007, six months to the day after they met through an online dating site. Griff’s 30-year marriage ended in 2002. Coates, a professional stamp collector, was divorced after a 24-year marriage. They met for lunch at one o’clock. Griff recalls tearing herself away at 4:15 for a 4:30 appointment. “We just spent so much time together and have so much in common,” she says. “We’re two days apart in age. We’re both Pisces.” His devotion to his mother impressed her: “To me that’s a sign he’s going to be appreciative of you as well.” He also clicked with her two adult children, who teased her about the suddenness of the wedding, she says, which in part was spurred by their desire that Coates’s 92-year-old mother be there: “My daughter asked me: ‘Are you pregnant, Mom?’ ”
Waiting didn’t make sense, Griff says. “It didn’t seem it would prove anything to us, like it would be any different.”
Such is the logic from inside the whirlwind courtship. Outside it’s another matter. Asked what he’d say to his children if they announced they were marrying someone they had known for a matter of weeks, the happily married David Peterson is adamant: “I’d tell them they were crazy.”