Last month, Jillian Harris packed up her bags and moved house from Vancouver to Chicago to live with her fiancé, Ed Swiderski, whom she’d known all of nine weeks before giddily agreeing to marry him; they plan to wed within the year. The couple’s warp-speed romance, one of several Harris was juggling on the last season of The Bachelorette, was served up like spray cheese on crackers to a fixated audience of millions. The 29-year-old gushed about her instant connection with the 30-year-old Swiderski on Live with Regis and Kelly in July: “We had that one date when everything came together,” she said. “I knew I could not let him go ever.”
As psychotic as that statement sounds, it’s the linga franca of the whirlwind courtship, a phenomenon far more fascinating in reality than any on faux “reality” programming. Lately there’s been a crop of them. Earlier this year, the 70-year-old writer Joyce Carol Oates married Charles Gross, a professor of psychology at Princeton less than a year after her husband of 47 years, with whom she’d had a happy marriage, died. In January, the National Post columnist Diane Francis wed John Beck, the CEO of the construction conglomerate Aecon Group, knowing him less than four months. The couple, both in their 60s, met at a dinner thrown by the conservative think tank the Fraser Institute, which, when you think about it, is the perfect forum for finding Mr. or Ms. Right: Beck, who arrived late, ended up in the only available empty chair, next to Francis. The opinionated pundit declines to comment on her personal life, but in an email response to a question from the Globe and Mail about the relationship’s rapid progression, she wrote: “When it’s right you just know it.”
The French coined the term coup de foudre to describe the love-at-first-sight thunderbolt—fitting, given the impetuous history of its current first couple, 53-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy and 41-year-old Carla Bruni, the supermodel turned songstress. “I was in love at first sight,” Bruni told Vanity Fair about meeting France’s president at a dinner party in 2007. “I was really surprised by him, by his youth, his energy, his physical charm—which you could not actually see so much on television—his charisma.” The pair wed in February 2008, less than three months after that fateful night. It was the first marriage for Bruni, who’s famed for her sexual conquests, the third for Sarkozy, also known for making amorous leaps.
The certainty, that “I just knew” that underlines the whirlwind marriage, inspires wonder—and cynicism given the wreckage it can leave in its wake. Hollywood provides the most celebrated examples, the most madcap being Pamela Anderson’s and Mötley Crüe member Tommy Lee’s three-year nuptial spectacle that kicked off in a pheromone haze on a Mexican beach in 1995: Anderson, in a bridal bikini, married the drummer some 96 hours after they were introduced. Then there is the actress Kate Walsh, who crowed about becoming engaged to 20th Century Fox executive Alex Young in May 2007 after knowing him weeks. “I know—I’m literally living the dream,” she told People magazine. “But you know when you know.” The couple wed in September 2007; 15 months later, the marriage was kaput and Walsh is now living the nightmare of a messy public divorce.
Emily Yoffe, the Washington-based writer who’s the “Prudence” of Slate’s popular advice column “Dear Prudence,” believes the love-at-first-sight model can create pressure, and unrealistic expectations. “There are so many paths to falling in love,” she says. She gets letters from people who say they’re with a wonderful person and are the happiest they’ve ever been but don’t feel the big romantic “This is it!” so common in chick flicks and reality shows: “And I can never be sure if it’s ‘You’re in this genuine boredom’ or ‘You have this stupid Hollywood thing in your head about what it should be and you’re going to miss what real life is.’ ”
Marriage counsellors too are critical of “instant” relationships, observing they’re often animated by delusion and projection. “I see so much of the damage caused by people blindly connecting, rushing through the stages of commitment, and not creating the solid basis a true relationship needs,” says Tina Tessina, a marriage therapist and author in Long Beach, Calif.
Programs like The Bachelorette foster the myth that love is an instantaneous emotion, says Mary-Lou Galician, who teaches media analysis and criticism at Arizona State University. “We all have had that feeling and then found out what a dreadful mistake it was,” she says. “Real love takes time.”
Still, enough inspiring examples exist that suggest a quick impulse to marry can be prescient, even shrewd. Exhibit A is lawyer, political operative and University of Toronto chancellor David Peterson and his wife, Shelley, an actress and author: the couple knew one another only 2½ months before they married in London, Ont., in January 1974. He was 29, she was 21. She didn’t know what his religious background was, whether his grandparents were alive or whether or not he wanted children, Shelley Peterson admits: “There were a lot of things we hadn’t figured out.” Thirty-five years, three children and one grandchild later, the former Ontario premier calls the flight to the altar “the smartest thing I ever did.” His wife is equally effusive: “I’m more in love with him now than I was then,” she says. “I find that astonishing.”
Peterson says he was smitten the first time he saw his future wife on stage. He finagled her phone number and called repeatedly. She had no interest in meeting him, she says: “I didn’t need more men in my life.” Finally she agreed to lunch. “I thought ‘I’ll just get this over with. One hour, that’s it.’ ”