As a professional wedding photographer, Autumn Lee of Autumn Lee Studios is frequently asked, “Can you tell which couples will last?” Here's what she has to say:
I wish I had a simple answer to share with you, some omniscient wand swipe that would foretell the predictability of happily ever after. I don’t have magic, but I do have a smidge of insight after a decade of witnessing couples wed.
Whether you and your suitor met on Grinder, at a bar, or via an immensely awkward friend set-up, love is chemistry, work, and choice, in that order. Moreover, modern love is rarely pure happily ever after and love is not easy. . . ever.
Here is what I know about modern love: it’s complicated and murky most of the time. Cellphones have destroyed the plot line to every 90s sitcom, and consequently ruined the happenstance of love, romantic misunderstandings, sliding door moments of chance encounters, and wrong place, wrong time relationship debacles.
Late night texts can’t clarify and simplify true love as well as a passionate, middle of the night, sleepy face-to-face declaration of love on a doorstep. Snapchat reveals a lover’s location, but it doesn’t make it easier to track them down. FaceTime and Skype may close the gap of long-distance longing, but they don’t bring love near.
How do you know when to invest in a connection or keep swiping left? When should you say “yes" to a hopefully forever commitment?
I recently stumbled across a teen magazine article asking the same question. Though I appreciated the authentic simplicity of the magazine’s recommendations on identifying true love, I was saddened at their surface-y litmus test of what love is.
The article suggested that if your love knows what you like in a Chipotle burrito bowl, that is a sure sign that you are on track to love. And if your love can list the characters on your favorite TV show, then surely, that too is a sign of love.
And if he/she pauses the movie without being asked when you get up to grab a snack, and they store your name on their cell phone with heart emojis after it, and most of the selfies on your phone include the two of you together, then obviously it’s love.
But is it? ￼
Here is what I know: love starts with chemistry. The flitters, flutters, queasy palpitations and irrational excitement is what shifts the human connection between you and another, and you start to mingle your lives. When the tension-building dating-merge-dance and up-all-night text campaign begins—that’s when you plant the seeds to your future.
It’s like that one time my kid thought that if he licked the TV remote, he could claim it as his own forever. Same-same. Swapping dippy looks, spit, and hand-holding sweat is the way you formally proclaim to the universe, “I am investigating the option of claiming this one as mine.”
You both are in your own world of inhaling each other and your potential together. It’s cute, and in this life moment you are both totally annoying and all your friends and all your family collectively roll their eyes and send you good vibes as you sort through this phase of deciding if togetherness is worth nurturing, if this connection has the potential to grow roots and become something bigger and stronger and lasting, and if you will bloom together.
Next comes work.
The love work happens when “hormone-ville” has settled down to a manageable simmer and you start to remember to eat and sleep and go more than five hours without texting each other. The seeds of love have been blissfully and joyfully planted. And now they need to be nurtured in order to grow.
The work phase is the longest and lamest portion of the phases because it’s when everyone’s baggage gets unpacked and real choices have to be made. The flutters have gone, everyday life is rearing its ugly head, and there is literal and metaphorical dirty laundry everywhere.
All the things that got put on hold for the month-long tour of hot-and-heavy-lala-land are now demanding investment and attention. The thing about next-level love is that it is work, and you have to tend to it because the chemistry phase is fleeting and was only designed to make you want to suck face, not to do any real bonding.
Now you sort out all the business of life together: money, religion, the other person’s horrendous family, childhood issues, politics, and if and how you wanna handle kiddos. Those tend to be the big questions, and if you survive those heavy, emotionally draining crap-shows, you think “Whelp, after all that, I think I still like you. Let’s get married.” ￼Then comes choice (insert drum roll here).
The work part and the choice part of love overlap in one of those overplayed Venn diagrams your teachers forced you to draw in high school. Work and choice flip flop over each other in some messy version of leapfrog as they take turns being in front.
Love work is constant—working to communicate, to be an equal participant, to grow together, to stay invested, to support and nurture. . . all the wedding vow stuff. . . blah, blah, blah.
Occasionally, choice jumps in front to remind you that you always have the choice to leave a marriage. The reasons people leave a relationship are as diverse as the individuals and the relationships themselves.
So here is the rub to the whole happily ever after thang-y. It is never totally happily ever after. Every relationship has bumps, hiccups, snafus and catastrophes. All of ‘em! Every last one of them, amen! The Rosetta Stone of marriage is when both people are willing and mentally able to do the work and make the choice to stay.
And here is the real crappy part: you can’t control the other person. Ugh. Dumb. All you can do is make the best possible choice you can about a partner, and then hope for the best. Do the best you can in your marriage and hopefully your partner will too. That’s it. No guarantees. Choose well.
Now we’re getting to the real advice of this article. There are three foundations of love: chemistry, work, and choice. These three completely solid things will predict if you’ll have the luxury of getting a chance to move through the love cycle without the wheels falling off the bus during the journey.
If you cannot honestly say “yes” to each one, then, as the 90s rapper Ice Cube said, “Chickity-check yo self before you wreck yo self.” (Gawd I love the 90s.)
￼And now, three final questions.
1. Are you a better person with them than without them?
Here is what I mean by that. Are you the best version of yourself in the relationship? Do you smile, laugh, strive, try, glow more with this person as a partner? Do even the boring lamest tasks seem more inviting with them around? Do you feel happier, more expressive, more seen, more heard with them in your life? Do you want to do better and be better with and for them? Do you emotionally elevate each other equally?
2. Do they bring you closer to your tribe? Do your friends and family like them?
Don’t devalue this. Your people may be a mess themselves, but they know you. Like, know you know you. They know your crap and your baggage. They know your history, your kryptonite and your superpowers. Trust their judgment. No matter how crazy they are, they won’t steer you wrong. Plus, your partner should encourage you to see, support, celebrate, and lean on your elders and your friends. They should elevate that tribal connection as a place of support not only for you as an individual, but for you both as a couple. Be very wary if your family and friends do not overtly bless your relationship.
3. Do they bring you closer to your source?
When and how you feel connected to God, humanity, love, or whatever you call that which fills you up and makes you whole. For some people, it is nature, or church, or volunteering, or books, or AA meetings, or yoga, or, or, or, or... Does your partner exalt this higher need that is essential to your mental and spiritual health? Do they value the essential need that a prolonged absence from this would cause you to shift into something that is not fully you?
Love can be agony and ecstasy. Making a choice to love takes strength beyond compare, and being vulnerable enough to be loved takes endless courage. Knowing when to jump in and when to climb out is daunting.
Modern love is rarely pure happily ever after and love is not easy . . . ever. I have photographed hundreds of weddings and I promise you this: if you are brave, thoughtful about love, if you listen to those who love you and continue to make the best next right choice, you will find your way to your best version of happily ever after.
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photography // Autumn Lee Studios