It’s Valentine’s Day, so couples everywhere will be artificially forced to evaluate their relationship status based on an arbitrary holiday that has no real bearing on the strength of their love. Or you could skip that and read the new co-written memoir The Marriage Test, which tells the story of a plucky couple on the rocks who charged through 40 forced dates to test their ultimate-forever bae compatibility.
Let’s get this out of the way: When I first heard about this book (full title: The Marriage Test: Our 40 Dates Before “I Do”), I thought the concept sounded about as illuminating as a daily horoscope. A couple embarks on 40 dates to test whether they are marriage material. So I dove in reluctantly, and it turns out the groan-worthiest aspect of the book is, in fact, the conceit: Forced dates designed to test their compatibility, one of which includes hauling around a 12-pound watermelon and calling it Mel to test their compatibility as parents. They also swap credit cards for a weekend to teach them about sharing expenses. They switch phones to teach them about privacy. They interview in-laws; they survey friends. They work on their sex lives.
This is the sort of stuff that happens on the Bachelor or an after-school special that purports to give couples real insight into their potential for lasting romance, right? In a review at the Washington Post, Yvonne Zipp admonished, “although you are no doubt an adorable couple, you may be slightly less fascinating than you think.”
I admit, part of me just wanted to read the book just to see how irritating the couple and their lives and dates would be. I was also confident no such experiment could reveal any of the fault lines of embarking on a life with someone they way the real deal does. Real life is getting through mundane shit together, like the slog of downtime at the DMV or navigating IKEA. Years of newborn-induced sleeplessness and its effect on your general charm levels can’t be replicated by a weekend trial run.
But while I enjoyed watching this cool, chill adventurous couple grapple with how boring real life is when you actually deal with it, I realized I was wrong about a lot of those presumptions. The book is co-written by a couple in their thirties: Jill Andres, a business consultant, and her boyfriend Brook Silva-Braga, a journalist, who split up after dating for what they both consider an easy going, happy-go-lucky four years of travel, good times, and not much talking. The reason? He cheated on her in a random one-night stand.
They split up for a year and date around, but when Jill attends a party at Brook’s place, he says he misses her. They get back together, and realize that if they have any kind of shot of lasting, they’re going to have to really confront their issues. To do that, they come up with the dating decathlon to ostensibly make them grapple with their poor communication and conflict avoidance, but to also delve into the sort of stuff everyone tells you to really consider before you get married: finances, compatibility, trust, kids, shared values, visions for life.
And surprisingly, the book is a really charming, engaging read. In part it’s because of the format, which takes each date and explains the setup, then gives readers both Jill’s and Brook’s perspectives. While most people are likely to go in liking Jill more and Brook less—he cheated, karmic justice alone says he deserves no sympathy, right? —your sense of these people as real, flawed, well-intentioned, but ultimately, just people trying to sort out their lives, like anyone else, overrides that impulse.
Even though the dates are forced and can feel surface—and they chose them based on a mix of their own ideas and crowd-sourced wisdom from others—they undid nearly every reservation I had about the experiment. For starters, the dates are more revealing than you’d expect, and the couple is much more brutally honest about their shortcomings than I expected. There’s an incredible amount of self-awareness on display here, particularly from a couple who admits they dodged heavy issues for most of their relationship. Jill is a cool girl who prides herself on making no demands, who never gets jealous, who lets everything slide. As Zipp notes at the Washington Post, “that girl doesn’t actually exist.”
She doesn’t. But Jill doesn’t know that yet, and watching her unpack that is pretty real. You meet her family and understand where her tendency to joke through the more difficult truths comes from. And you watch her struggle to ask Brook to rise to the occasion of a grown-up relationship: She actually admits jealousy when they embark on a speed dating night and have to watch each other talking with attractive strangers. She stands up for herself.
And Brook admits something that I don’t think most men would be willing to: That his flirtations with women and subsequent disappearing acts are a way to avoid intimacy, to numb himself from dealing with real issues. That cheating was a way to avoid asking himself hard questions about commitment when the relationship got difficult.
Aspects of the dates can be really tedious—who wants to watch, let alone read, any couple arguing over who washes more dishes? But some are actually really illuminating—they admit their sexual chemistry is laughable and make a real effort to spice things up, and it’s not as predictable as you’d think.
In short, this is the stuff of most relationships. It’s not terribly exciting, but neither is your life, and in a way, that’s the point. Sometimes the book can feel overthought, but it struck me that this is exactly what we do in relationships—pore over the details, compatibilities, what ifs, particularly on the precipice of the choice to wed.
And that occurred to me over and over again as I read through the book. Couples tend have a lot of the same squabbles over money, domestic labor division, sex, free time, for a reason. But this book is not really a test of this couple; it’s a test of marriage itself. In a way, it’s an indictment of an institution that will take even the most easy going, low-key, adventuresome couple and leave them standing in the kitchen arguing over who does more dishes and when was the last time they had sex.
That tedium offers up a pretty brutal truth: You can know someone day in, day out, love them completely and never really understand them. And still hate the way they fold a t-shirt. And still choose to stay.
It’s clear as the dates wind down that there is no shortcut to a verdict of forever. But somehow, the dates lay bare their every issue, the way their issues are their issues no matter what they do. When they cart that fake watermelon kid around, Jill surprises herself by being instantly pretty condescending toward Brook right away. When they survey their friends to find out what they think of the relationship, they learn some of them don’t even think they should be together. When they look at couples who’ve been together for decades, they see people resigned to stay together in spite of numerous upsets that any reasonable person would be forgiven for ditching on.
Which is all to say that they learn what everyone learns at some point or another about what makes any two people go, while any other two people don’t, but that’s often so hard to see when you’re in the thick of it. Do you need forced dates to prove you’re a good match? No. Can you calculate happily ever after with a spreadsheet ? Obviously not. But if there’s a takeaway here, it’s that a huge part of the equation of a lasting relationship—whatever lasting means to you—is simply a willingness to ask hard questions, to sift through harder answers, to have long conversations, to not always know the answers, but to be sure of what you’re doing for reasons that likely only make sense to you. And also to go on what will inevitably be some very tedious dates.
Image via screengrab/Universal Pictures.