Pets, personality, and the faces we deserve.


Last week we took our dog to church.

The Episcopal church follows the lectionary, and the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost belongs to St. Francis of Assisi. Though best known for his solidarity with the poor, legend has it that Francis could also talk to animals. In honor of St. Francis, everyone got to bring their dogs and cats, bunnies and hamsters, turtles and guinea pigs to church last week.

We’d been to this particular service, held annually, once before. Oddly, it was the first service we attended at what was to become our church: we showed up on a Sunday morning to find the service was in the gym, and everyone had their pets with them. It was unexpected and a little nuts and a very fun and unthreatening way to ease in to a new community.

Now that we knew what to expect from this special service, we were looking forward to it. What I didn’t expect, now that we know people a little better, was how interesting it would be to see everyone with their pets.

Do you remember that scene in 101 Dalmations when Pongo stares out the window and watches the dog-walkers go by, all of whom bear an eery resemblance to their owners?

That’s exactly what it felt like at church. The Great Dane owners looked like they belonged with their noble, elegant Great Danes. The collie owners looked like they belonged with their fluffy, loyal collies. The Scotty dog owners looked like they had the Scotty dog personality, even if I hadn’t recognized it before I’d seen them with their dogs.

We have a chocolate lab named Harriet. she’s placid, companionable, and loves retrieving tennis balls more than life itself. Now, of course, I’m now wondering what our choice of Harriet says about our family. Did we choose a pet that reflects our own selves back to us?

George Orwell said that by age 50, everyone has the face he deserves. Our faces are the windows to our souls, and with every day we live, we choose—with every thought we think, every decision we make—what they reveal about our innermost selves.

(For years, I inadvertently attributed this quote to Oscar Wilde—it seems like the sort of thing he would say, doesn’t it?—and pegged the year as 40. I thought about this quote a lot as I edged closer to the imagined milestone. Now I’m relieved to discover I’m not so close after all.)

In a decade and a half or so, I’ll have the face I deserve, and my personality will ostensibly be on display for all to see. In the meantime, my chocolate lab is doing the job for me.

Does your pet reflect your personality? Have you noticed that other people’s pets accurately reflect THEIR personalities?

P.S. Musings on personality, from the archives.

‘A Diamond is Forever’ and other fairy tales

"A Diamond is Forever" and other fairy tales | Modern Mrs Darcy

The more a couple spends on their wedding and engagement ring, the less likely they are to stay together, according to a new study out of Emory University aptly entitled ” ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: the Relationship Between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration.”

De Beers famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” was coined in the late 1930s, when only 10% of engagement rings (in the Western world) held a diamond. The campaign linking the dazzling, durable gemstones to the promise of marital stability became the most successful advertising slogan of the century: by 1999, over 80% of engagement rings contained a diamond.

The diamond engagement ring is just one example of the flurry of spending that surrounds marriage. We’re all familiar with the industry that sprang up to capture those dollars. These researchers examined the relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration.

It’s no surprise that an expensive fairy-tale wedding does not contribute to a marriage’s long-term success, but I was surprised that relatively high wedding expenses negatively correlated with marital duration. Relatively high spending on an engagement ring likewise is inversely related to the length of the marriage.

In hard numbers, they found that spending $2,000 or more on the engagement ring, or $20,000 or more on the wedding, is significantly associated with a higher rate of divorce. (Among the female survey respondents, the rate of divorce was 3.5 times higher for women who spent $20,000 on their wedding vs. couples who spent $5,000-$10,000.)

(For comparison’s sake, The Knot says the average couple now spends $28,858.)

Spending less than $1000 on the wedding significantly decreased the divorce rate, although inexpensive isn’t always better: spending less than $500 on the engagement ring was associated with an increase in women’s divorce rates.

"A Diamond is Forever" and other fairy tales | Modern Mrs Darcy

Of course, a study like this quantifies correlation, not causation, and we can only speculate about the “why.”

According to the recent MMD reader survey, a whopping 85% of you are married. You’ve already made these choices. (I’d love to hear what they were, incidentally.)

But I think it’s still worth speculating about causation, for the singles and the married among you.

The study also found that spending correlated with an 82 to 93% decrease in the odds of being “stressed-out about wedding related debt” compared to couples who spent $5,000-10,000. It’s been well-documented that financial stress is a significant factor in divorce rates, and stress resulting from heavy wedding spending is certainly one reason for the negative correlation.

But there’s more, and it’s not about the money.

The study also found two significant factors correlated with decreased rates of divorce: couples who had a relatively high number of guests at their weddings and couples who went on a honeymoon (though it didn’t matter how much or little it cost) were much more likely to stay together.

We’re in a stage of life where we go to a lot of weddings. We’ve been to lavish affairs, the sort that skew The Knot’s average upward: country club events with hundreds of guests, open bars, and sit-down dinners.

We’ve also been to potluck celebrations that were done on a budget, but still must have come in over the study’s $1,000 limit for significant divorce prevention, despite the fact that at several of these events we personally—as friends of the bride and groom—made Costco runs for cheese tray goodies, bound up farmers’ market flowers into bouquets, and baked wedding day brownies for the reception on various couples’ wedding mornings.

Based on the data and our (possibly misleading) personal experience, I’m going to speculate about three key factors: financial stress, priorities, and community.

Financial stress is bad for relationships, period. There are amazing stories of couples who struggled through financial crisis only to emerge stronger on the other side: they are amazing because they are rare. If debt often causes stress, and expensive weddings are often financed, then there’s a Latin phrase that says it’s not going to end well.

In relationships as in the rest of life: priorities matter. I’m fascinated by the study’s finding that there’s a sweet spot for engagement ring spending: an expensive ring predicts a short marriage, but so does a gumball-machine quality one (or no ring at all). The marriage isn’t about the ring, but human nature is to spend our money on the things we care about. The purchase of a ring speaks to our good intentions; the purchase of an affordable one speaks to wisdom.

Likewise, marriages that last begin with honeymoons, because the couples prioritize taking the time for themselves and their new relationship—whether it’s for a month or more or just for a night. It’s not the trip itself that’s important. I know couples who have been married decades who honeymooned in Europe; I know couples who have been married for just as long who honeymooned at the local state park, and just for a night or two.

Finally, the people who join us on the journey matter. The study found that successful marriages have relatively large numbers of wedding guests. I would like to think its because couples who have a solid future ahead of them deliberately chose to make their family (and they would have family, be they biological, borrowed, or otherwise appropriated) and their friends (and they would have friends) a part of their special day.

They would believe the day was special enough to include the people they loved, and they would have people they loved to include in their special day. Marriages are private affairs, but they’re not conducted in isolation. People require friendship and support and community in all their relationships; marriage is no exception.

Will and I have been married for fourteen years. According to the study, we’re not in the sweet spot, and we can’t do anything about that. But what we can do is focus, every day, on the things we have control over: our finances. Our priorities. And our support network.

Money is just a tool; these are the things that lie beneath the surface.

I’d love to hear your thoughtful commentary about weddings and engagement rings, lavish affairs and potluck gatherings, and the finances/priorities/community trio in comments.

Recommended reading: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan weaves together stories of four unique marriages, plus the true story of the single woman who created the De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever” campaign. Laura Vanderkam’s All the Money in the World examines how we can thoughtfully use money as a tool to serve our greater purposes. My favorite chapter is the first, entitled “What Else Could That Ring Buy?”, and I thought of it as I read through each and every page of the Emory University study cited above.

The resumé virtues vs. the eulogy virtues.

The resumé virtues vs the eulogy virtues | Modern Mrs Darcy

work-in-progress oil painting of our first house, by my mama

It was my birthday. I was at work. Unbeknownst to me, my mom was across town, chatting it up with an old business-acquaintance-turned-family-friend.

Will and I were recently engaged, a bit of news my mom shared with her friend.

Will and I were hoping we’d find the right place to live when the time came, and my mom knew it. Maybe she mentioned it to her friend because she works in real estate; maybe she mentioned it simply because she was a mother, and her friend was one, too, and they were sharing their hopes and dreams for their kids.

Regardless of why my mom brought it up, she did. Her friend’s unexpected response was, “They are? I have a house they might be interested in.”

Six weeks later, she sold us our first house. It was a wonderful house, in an excellent location. She could have sold it to someone else who could have closed more quickly (because let me tell you, getting that first mortgage was no joke). She could have asked a higher price, and she would have gotten it. Easily.

But she didn’t. Out of the goodness of her heart, she sold it to us.

I thought of this old friend recently when I was listening to this TED talk by David Brooks.

It’s a short talk—only 5 minutes. In it, David Brooks talks about the difference between the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.

The resumé virtues are the external ones: the skills you bring to the marketplace, the ones you put on your resumé. The eulogy virtues go deeper, describing who you are in your depths, and what characterizes your relationships. They’re the traits that would be highlighted in your eulogy.

The eulogy virtues are more important, but they’re not the ones we think about the most or prioritize. Not most of us, anyway.

Our friend died recently. I wasn’t at her funeral, but I can imagine what her friends and family said in her eulogy. She had plenty of resumé virtues, all right, but she didn’t prioritize them, and they’re not what she’ll be remembered for, not by Will, nor I, nor anyone else.

We’ll remember her as someone who gave a young couple their start because she could, and she believed it was worth doing. As someone who could have been shrewd, but chose to be kind. As someone who could have eked more profit out of her deals, but chose to be generous.

P.S. 5 favorite TED talks.

There are four possible levels of relationship.


I went to see my counselor recently for a check-in—no big agenda, just a friendly chat to catch up.

The talk quickly turned, as I imagine it does in counselors’ offices everywhere, to relationships.

I was explaining a befuddling situation to my counselor, when she interrupted me with a question: How close are you to this person? 

I didn’t know what to say, because the answer was frustratingly ambiguous. Sometimes, this person treats me as an intimate friend, and sometimes like she barely knows me.

I explained this to my counselor, who frowned, and pressed: Yes, but how close do YOU think you are? It’s important to know. 

I fumbled a bit, trying to explain. My counselor saved me by grabbing her legal pad and drawing up this little chart:

four levels of relationship

There are four levels of relationship, she explained. They range from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimates). I’d never had anyone break this down for me before, but of course her little chart correlated with the unarticulated ideas about relationships I’ve been carrying around in my head for a few decades.

Those four levels can be further subdivided: we can be the barest of acquaintances, or pretty good ones. We can be borderline-close with someone, or borderline-intimate. Even intimacy has its gradations.

My counselor’s little chart was so simple, but it made so much snap into place for me.

Every relationship we have, she went on to explain, can be plotted on this little chart. This status is, in and of itself, emotionally neutral. We run into trouble at the point where our behavior and our relationship status diverge.

This happens most often with familial relationships. When someone is our blood-relative, or longtime friend, our natural inclination is to treat them as an intimate—because we expect them to be, or we want them to be—when really, we’re only at the “acquaintance” level with them. So we bare our souls and spill our secrets, and then feel like crap when we get acquaintance-level behavior dished back to us.

It happens all the time; we don’t even realize we’re doing it, or why it makes us feel so uncomfortable.

Or viewed from another perspective: do you know that horribly awkward feeling that washes over you when someone overshares? It happens when someone treats a casual acquaintance as a confidant: the behavior doesn’t match the relationship status.

Just wanting to be intimate with someone—even if it’s someone we feel we should be close to—doesn’t make it so. Nor does history forge communion. It seems so obvious when we think about it—but we don’t.

The bar’s pretty high for true intimacy, which has 7 necessary characteristics:

• emotional safety
• consistency
• love
• compassion
• understanding
• mutual respect
• freedom to be yourself

(Even when we are intimate with someone, we’re not perfectly so. We’re always disappointing one another somehow.)

I’m sure when other people—with different personality types, and different backgrounds—go to counseling, they get different advice. I’m an INFP and a 9, and my counselor tells me to try not to give people my heart and the hammer to smash it with all at the same time. I’m sure when others go to counseling, their counselors give them completely different advice that’s exactly what they need to hear.

This is what I needed to hear, and I hope some of you find it helpful.