I belong to a class of people who might charitably be called overthinkers — who, when confronted with (gasp) making a decision, will kill any semblance of clarity by bludgeoning it with what ifs.
In matters of the heart, and especially when (hyperventilate) talk turns to commitment, we overthinkers just about lose our minds. What if the love fades? What if there's someone else who's a better fit? What if his/her quirks become intolerable? What if I think this is the person I want, but I'm wrong?
At the core of those unanswerable questions lies the most impossible question of all:
How do I know that I have found The One?
Ideally, those of us paralyzed by romantic indecision would like the heavens to send an unmistakable sign, or for researchers to devise a mathematical formula predicting long-term bliss.
Instead, the popular response to such hand wringing is the infuriating: "When you know, you know."
Robert Rigsby, a judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court, recalls in detail the evening he stumbled into a party and met his future wife.
"I walk in the door and immediately see a woman in a black-and-white skirt and a black top, and she was eating a turkey sandwich," Rigsby, 48, recalls. "And she had mayonnaise on her face."
He offered her a napkin, asked her to dance, and for the next three hours they danced and talked as though they'd known each other all their lives. It was Sept. 21, 1991, and by 9 p.m., Rigsby said, "I knew beyond a doubt that this was the woman I would marry."
On Thanksgiving, their families met.
On Christmas Eve, Rigsby proposed.
"I feel like I loved him almost as soon as we met," recalls Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, 48, a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and Rigsby's wife of 18 years. "I liked his optimism, I liked his honesty, I liked his courage, his crazy, wild sense of humor, his sense that the glass is always half full."
In previous relationships, Rigsby said, "I could always find a reason why not. In Anna's case, it was easy. I could only think of why."
Being emotionally ready to commit is essential, they said. So is knowing what you want.
Blackburne-Rigsby said she vividly remembers feeling anxious that she would never find the right man, and her grandmother counseled: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."
Blackburne-Rigsby, about 30 at the time, then wrote in her journal what was important to her in a husband: honesty, optimism, family, grounded faith, joy for life.
"I never would have thought in a million years the sort of package my dream would come in," she said. "Had it been another time in my life, I might have missed it."
Not all great couples fall head over heels immediately.
Xochitl Pena was not immediately attracted to Shad Powers, her co-worker at a Michigan newspaper, in part because of their freakish height difference: She's 5 feet 1 inch; he's 6 feet 7. They were friends for two years before Pena, with the help of a bit of alcohol, allowed things to get romantic and started seeing him in a new light. (Powers always was smitten.)
Now married for seven years and living in Bermuda Dunes, Calif., Pena and Powers, both 37, said their relationship is refreshingly natural and easy. He's a worrier, she's laid-back and they balance each other out.
"What's most important is that we get along so great, we're best friends and we make each other laugh," Pena said. "And I know that he really, really loves me and would do anything for me."
For both of these couples, the lack of any doubt, the absence of what-iffing, was an indicator that they'd found the real thing. But sometimes it takes a leap of faith.
Aspen Mays and Amy Davidman, who met at a YMCA triathlon training group in San Francisco, had been dating just three months when Mays left for a Rotary scholarship in South Africa.
For a year, having agreed upon an open relationship, Mays and Davidman wrote each other love letters and talked once or twice a week, but both fretted in their respective corners of the globe: What if it doesn't work out? What if it's not worth it?
Mays considered staying in South Africa for good, but then, she said, "I remember having a really clear feeling that I would always regret not seeing it out with her."
When they decided to invest fully in the relationship, the anxiety subsided.
"Once you decide you're going to be with someone, you know the larger picture is going to work out, so theoretically, the little things become less important," said Davidman, a band booking agent.
Last fall, they were married in a symbolic ceremony in California (though they got engaged before the approval of Proposition 8, which removed the right of gays and lesbians to marry in the state, their wedding came after). Now Davidman, 32, and Mays, 29, are living together in Santiago, Chile, where Mays is on a Fulbright Scholarship.
"The relationship feels like it has all sorts of room inside it," said Mays, an artist. "There's room to grow, and room to grow together."
Hooray for the triumph of love, but, but, but … how can you be sure that it'll work forever?
Unfortunately, you can't, said divorce attorney Marie Fahnert. She said she has divorced plenty of once-great couples who grew apart, lost communication or lost trust.
But the good news: The qualities that "make for a good marriage are actually the same things that make for a good divorce," she said.
The other day, I read a momentarily comforting motto on the back of a beer can: "Clarity is overrated," it said.
Clarity seems like nirvana to me. But I expect some of us will never "know when we know." We'll just decide when we decide (panic attack), and hope that we're right.
firstname.lastname@example.orgAnd now a word
from the experts
Two relationship coaches offer insights on choosing a partner.
Seth Meyers, Los Angeles psychologist and relationship coach:
•Opposites may attract but rarely work out in the long haul. Look for similarities, someone who sees the world as you do, wants the same kind of relationship as you, wants the same kind of social life as you do, has the same values and goals.
•Choose a partner with whom you can easily pass the time and who says things that you are interested in hearing. Who comes to mind when you ask yourself: Whom would I call when I'm upset? Whom would I call my soul mate? Who knows me and accepts me?
•Don't dwell on external characteristics, such as physical attributes, class, race, job or type of lifestyle. Instead, ask yourself: What does this person find funny? How does he/she respond when you confide a problem? What are his/her friendships like?
•Be wary of unbridled passion, which is usually fueled by an underlying fear that this person will ultimately be unavailable to you. Passion is good, but it should feel trusting, hopeful and excited, and not be driven by insecurity, game playing or control issues.
Anne-Renee Testa, New York psychologist and relationship coach
•Choose someone caring, empathetic, reliable, flexible and open-minded, who carries his or her weight in the relationship and, importantly, makes you feel as though you're first. Look at how you communicate: It should be honest, clear, kind and respectful.
• Understand you're buying a commodity. Look at the things he or she doesn't have, and think about how much you value the things that are missing. Don't expect to change anyone.
•Beware that you're not marrying the unfinished business of your childhood. For example, when you're with a guy who is emotionally unavailable, and you think of Dad, avoid the impulse to fix him.
•Listen to your gut. "If it doesn't feel good in your gut, don't walk away," Testa said. "Run away."