Over the weekend, the New York Times published “A Reluctant Bride Conquers Her Fears” in its Weddings section. The story focused on a black couple who said “I do” on Dec. 14. It was a celebratory tale with a happy ending, but some women found themselves in tears before they finished.
“I’m crying over this Demetria,” one woman wrote on my Facebook wall after I shared the story on Sunday.
At 39, Rachel Skiffer married Marvin Coote nearly 20 years—and a few breakups—after they met. Surely Coote isn’t perfect—no one is—but the holdup here was on the bride, who owned up to a mistake that many black women can relate to.
Skiffer was “known for her independence.” Her family schooled her to “avoid the attention of boys” and “warned her: career first, family second.” Her mother told her, “[Don’t] marry [your] first boyfriend or rely on a man for anything.”
Sound familiar? It did to another reader, too. She wrote, “Reading this reminded me of everything my mom has told me: ‘Don’t rely on a man’ and my dad telling me to put my career first … and that advice has held me back with my relationships. I am struggling to break free from it.”
A dutiful daughter, Skiffer listened, too. In college she met Coote, who would become her first boyfriend. They moved in together. During her senior year, he bought her a “promise ring.” And then one day in 1996, she took her mother’s advice and broke up with him.
“Marvin took care of me and I equated that with being vulnerable,” Skiffer told the Times, as if vulnerability were a bad thing and not a necessary component of a healthy relationship.
Over the years, the couple gave the relationship two more tries. On their third attempt, Coote offered to move across the country to be with Skiffer, who was working as a lawyer. She recalled fatherly advice about how moving would disrupt their careers and broke up with him—again.
They didn’t speak for six years.
In the meantime, she set a goal of making partner at her law firm, a blessing and a curse that she equated to “winning a pie-eating contest but the prize was more pie.” By 2011 she had bought a condo, had a flourishing (and lucrative) career and had been a good girl who took her parents’ advice, which, at its core, was, “You don’t need a man.” She was successful, self-sufficient and also unfulfilled.
“I didn’t feel as complete as I had been told I would,” she said in the Times. “My approach to love had been stupid and selfish.”
I knew this story had a “happy ending” because of the section it was published in and the big picture at the top of the page that showed a black bride and groom. And still, my heart went thump-thump in fear, because I’ve heard this story too often—and even lived it—and it rarely ends well.
I was one of those daughters like Skiffer, told by my father to “get your lesson,” his Mississippi way of telling me that I needed two degrees and six figures to be successful. For better or worse, there was no mention of marriage.
My mother, who married at 22, told me to “see some world” and live it up in New York as a single woman. She’d come to visit, we’d frequent quaint cafés (and bars) and she’d smile wistfully at the scene and say, “I wish I had a chance to do this.” By “this,” she meant live as an adult for just a while without the responsibility of a husband and child.
At 25, I took a guy home for Thanksgiving. We’d discussed marriage. My family thought he was “too old” (and admittedly, I hadn’t gotten all my partying out of my system). We broke up. For the next few years I returned for the holidays unaccompanied, and it was my father who expressed concern that I was “running out of time” to find a mate.
Hold up. Was I supposed to be working on that? Because I was grinding out 70-hour workweeks with a day job and two side hustles, trying to get to six figures and put those degrees to good use. I was focused. I didn’t even know I was supposed to balance.
There was actually someone I’d been madly in love with, but he’d moved to the Midwest. I would have given up everything to follow him if only he’d asked. He didn’t. He said I should stay in New York and focus on my career. Years later, I realized I’d given him the impression that was all that mattered to me. When he left, it was.
I threw myself into my jobs so much because I liked them—or, rather, the feeling of accomplishment—and because I was nursing a broken heart. I also figured I had more control over success at work than I did success in a relationship and I enjoyed the freedom of dating: no responsibilities but also no heartbreaks. My grass stayed green where it was watered.
I figured I’d work things out with that guy I was so crazy about someday when everything had taken off professionally for me and I had downtime to focus on “us.” Like the New York Times couple, my guy and I went in and out of each other’s life for years.
At one point I’d been thinking about him a lot but hadn’t talked to him in almost a year. We’d argued about something important at the time but irrelevant by then. He called a few days later. I took it as a sign that we were still in sync and maybe God was trying to tell me something.
That wasn’t the case. That guy was calling to say he had a new girlfriend. She was pregnant. I hung up the phone and went to tape my first TV appearance that night. He called me from the hospital to tell me when his daughter was born six weeks later. I’d landed a book deal the previous day.
It was too late.
When Skiffer came to her senses, she wrote Coote a letter of apology and added, “If you’ll have me, I’m ready.”
I held my breath as I read, waiting for his response, despite knowing that it all worked out—just because I know it doesn’t for so many women.
In June, Skiffer quit her job and moved to Massachusetts to be with Coote. On Dec. 14 they wed in San Francisco. On Dec. 29 I teared up as much for their happy ending as for the many women who don’t get one.
So many women waste so much time finding love. We take the advice of well-meaning parents, but their good intentions aren’t always good for us. Maybe it’s time some women rethought their approach to dating.
“This story made so much sense,” one commenter wrote on my page. “And gave me a wakeup call. Not all women are as fortunate. Missed opportunities are often just that, missed!”
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of the upcoming book Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love.