Looking for 'The Real Thing'? Find Someone Comfortable

05/29/2015 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016
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Ask him for a date, or let him pursue you? Respond to the text immediately, or let her wait? Tell him you love him, or stay mum until he says it first?

The early days of a relationship are thrilling, but also stressful. That heavenly new-love high can feel pretty precarious, as if one false move could unravel the whole thing.

So, you plot and plan and strategize -- discussing every move with a panel of your 12 closest friends. In some ways, that's part of the fun, but a new book by Washington Post reporter Ellen McCarthy says it's probably a waste of time.

McCarthy was the Post's wedding reporter for four years -- a gig she landed on the very day she and a former boyfriend broke up. McCarthy thought that covering weddings while heartbroken would be torture, but she discovered that it actually inspired her.

"All of these people -- young, rich, poor, plain, beautiful, sophisticated, and simple -- they'd all found someone. I was reminded again and again that love happens every day, in all kind of ways, to all kinds of people," she writes in her terrific new book, The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter's Notebook.

By investigating real relationships rather than the ones in rom-coms or dating guides, she discovered that a lot of conventional wisdom about romance didn't jibe with her fieldwork.

For example, we all love a good origin story, those tales of lovers whom fate brought together through snowstorms or missed trains. But McCarthy says that people who meet in less goosebump-inspiring ways, like online dating, are just as likely to have high-quality relationships.

"All of the couples who got together with a little help from technology feel the same sense of fate as couples who met while serving in the Peace Corps mission or while sharing a wall as next-door neighbors," writes McCarthy, who estimates that 35 to 40 percent of the couples who apply to be featured in her column met online.

McCarthy also discovered that the happiest relationships didn't require obedience to antiquated dating maxims:

One of the things I've heard over and over again from couples describing what was different when they met 'the One' was that for the first time, they didn't feel like they were in the middle of a romantic chess match. There was no guessing whether or not the other person was interested. They didn't worry about 'the rules' on how long to wait before calling or setting up the next date. The whole thing felt relaxed and transparent, not fraught with the typical 'Does he or she like me?' anxiety.

In fact, McCarthy often stumped college classes when she asked them to guess the most common word she heard when couples described their relationships. It wasn't "love," "laughter" or "chemistry" -- it was "comfortable," a word 70 to 80 percent of her couples used.

The students thought this sounded like a drag, but I think it's great news. "Comfortable" doesn't mean you aren't also counting down the seconds until you can see your beloved again. It just means that when you find the right fit, you probably won't have to stress about the precise wording of your latest text -- or spend much time decoding his or hers. If he says he's going to be late because he got stuck in a meeting at work, that means he's going to be late because he got stuck in a meeting at work.

In other words, winning someone's heart doesn't require employing a lot of complicated schemes. You're more likely to find lifelong love by listening to your instincts and sticking with what works. That might be bad news for those who earn their living peddling strategies and tricks, but it's great news for everyone else.

Sara Eckel is the author of It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at You can also find her onTwitter and Facebook.

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