I knew my friend's marriage was a mistake

It is late October and I am holding a bottle of white shoe polish in the parking lot outside the reception hall. It is time to decorate the newlyweds' SUV.

But I am taking too long. The sun is going down and, soon, the happy couple will drive off together for the first time as husband and wife.

I cycle through the wedding cliches, but "Happily Ever After" just does not feel right.

The cheekiest thing I can think of was "Go Steelers?" to reflect their mutual love of the American football team from Pittsburg.

It is not so romantic, but what do you say when you know a couple are not going to make it?

I was in my late 20s when the "most marriageable" of my family and friends began pairing off forever more.

I was rooting against my friend and his future with this woman. I told myself it was because they did not belong together, but part of me wondered if I was wishing them apart just so I could say I was right.

This wedding was the fourth in a five-wedding year for me.

And though I was single, I believed my experience as frequent weddinggoer meant that I could trust my judgment in matters of other people's hearts, if not my own.

Everyone I knew seemed to have chosen his partner wisely.

There was the friend who met a woman at a conference overseas and, after just one night together, spent hours on a transcontinental phone call with her every day until they ended the madness and tied the knot.

Then there was the friend who finally visited her boyfriend's studio apartment after dating for over a year. Takeout boxes towered over the countertop and strange odours wafted from all directions under a single dome light.

"It's a prison," she told me, crying, before agreeing to marry him a few months later.

Now she teases him when he does the dishes in his uniquely cursory way and he pretends to be so aggrieved about it.

Are these vignettes superficial?


But one person's red flag (long distance/slovenliness) is just embroidery on another's banner of endearment (passion/repartee).

And while I could not have known that these friends' marriages were going to last, I had no reason to believe so on their wedding days.

All visible signs pointed to success. But it was not so with the couple whose SUV I tagged that day.

I remember when they crossed the one-year mark. That is the boundary where I force myself to actually pay attention to my friends' not-so-new girlfriends' back stories.

It is also when I start wondering about my friends' true intentions.

Bachelor tip: If you ask your friend how he feels about his significant other and he melts into a quasi-verbal level of incoherence, his romance has potential.

But this is what my friend said about his then girlfriend: We are both Christian and sporty.

We like the same football team; we are very independent.

Now it is true that I, as a secular type, perhaps underrate "values" as a basis for love.

But when I ask if you are going to delete all your online dating profiles, I do not expect a recounting of your girlfriend's talents.

It sounded like he was trying to convince someone - perhaps himself - that things were going well when maybe they were not.

But it was only in the following months, when I had several chances to observe their relationship in person, that my concerns for their future hardened.

They almost never touched each other and when they did - as when she put her hand on my friend's shoulder - it appeared more to keep him at arm's length.

When they talked, she hardly ever looked at him. And while my friend was mirthful, optimistic and generous, his girlfriend was dour, critical and sarcastic.

Not once did I hear her laugh.

This was not a case of two opposites balancing each other out.

And still they sent out wedding invitations. And still I went.

How can you pass up your good friend's wedding even if you know he is making a mistake?

I did my best to share in everyone's cheer at the ceremony, but the entire time, I hoped to hear that romcom trope: Won't someone (ahem, minister) ask the congregation to speak now or forever hold his peace? At least, ironically, for us Gen X-ers?

But nobody popped that particular question and I did not have the nerve to say anything.

What if I were wrong? Who has the gall to stop a wedding anyway?

At the reception, though, I made a point of avoiding the bride's loved ones. I did not want to invest in people I did not expect to see again.

And that included the bride. After too many bourbons and Coke and a crazed dance sequence, I saw her chatting with a friend.

Something clicked in my brain: Now I was rooting against my friend and his future with this woman.

I told myself it was because they did not belong together, but part of me wondered if I was wishing them apart just so I could say I was right.

Some months later, the groom asked me to meet.

His wife had walked out and gone incommunicado for nearly a week, save for a single phone call to her mother.

"What should I do?" he asked me.

I pretended to listen, but I had made up my mind long ago.

"You should get a divorce," I said.

The suggestion seemed to surprise him. Was I not supposed to encourage him and offer him strength?

His eyes welled with pain, but I stood by my counsel.

A few days later, my friend e-mailed to say that he and his wife had reconciled. It was a short note.

In the coming years, they would have two children together before finally breaking up.

He never asked for my advice again.


• Derek Hills is a storyteller, playwright and essayist who lives in Washington, DC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'I knew my friend's marriage was a mistake'. Print Edition | Subscribe