If you’ve ever dated someone seriously enough to consider a future together beyond the next week, then you’ve probably been asked a barrage of questions about them by everyone from close friends to family to co-workers — including whether or not they’re “the one.” The short answer to that one is probably no, but not because a breakup is looming — rather, because we’ve moved past the ideal of a fairytale ending with prince charming. Instead, we’re no longer tied to traditional weddings or conventional partnerships. Marriage? Kids? Homeownership? All bets are off!
And even when we do meet the person that is, without a doubt, our person (or, at the very least, someone we see ourselves being with indefinitely), we’re often rewriting the rules to reflect a new, modern reality. So what does a realization of love look like in a world of dating where anything goes? Like most difficult questions in life, it depends on who you ask. We got to the heart of the matter with three couples to find out how, exactly, they knew the love was real, who said it out loud, and why they sealed the deal with an engagement that encompassed traditions both old and new.
When You Know, You Know
“I’m going to marry this man.”
It’s not often that a casual dinner, set up in a group text by a friend turned matchmaker, leaves one thinking about marriage. But for Kerisa, meeting Ebun was an epiphany of sorts. It wasn’t love at first sight, per se, but the clarity she had about her future partner was real.
“The text was an intro, like, ‘Kerisa meet Ebun, Ebun meet Kerisa,’ and then my friend sent, ‘Black Love Black Love Black Love!’ She just went in, but I was like, I don’t even know this guy! And he was thinking the same thing,” Kerisa remembers. “So we didn’t even reply for a whole day.”
After those initial dinner plans in January of 2017 — during which Kerisa thought, right off the bat, that an engagement could be in the cards — the pair embarked on a slow and steady discovery of each other that spanned many months. And when asked who said “I love you” first, they both burst into laughter before responding. Eventually, Ebun takes one for the team: “That was me! I’ll admit that.”
“You know, I knew he was going to say it. We went out to dinner, he was acting SO weird! And then he started in by asking, ‘Do you love me?’ I was like, Okay? I just didn’t answer him. And then eventually it came out.”
When Kerisa took Ebun home to meet her family in Jamaica, he fit right in. It was then that she had the sudden insight about their future together: “I realized I didn’t see my life without Ebun. All my future planning had him right at the center.”
Tradition influences Kerisa and Ebun’s partnership, but it’s also characterized by a mix of modern influences and experiences — a mosaic of both old and new.
“I come from a Nigerian background. We are more traditional; men can be more domineering,” Ebun says. “I grew up in that environment, but I’ve also been Westernized through my upbringing. My dad wasn’t really that type of dude. I saw the dynamic between my parents, how my mom would take charge, and it’s similar to what we have going on right now. And everyone in my family is crazy about [Kerisa]. It’s just her personality; she’s easy to love.”
Kerisa’s theory is simple: “Partnership, for me, is just that: two people coming together, complementing each other, and supporting each other. Just balancing each other out. He makes me appreciate the simple things in life.”
When You Cut Your “Year Of No Dating” Short
It takes a lot for a self-proclaimed serial dater to take an entire year off of dating — and when Emily made a promise to spend a year getting to know herself, it was a much-needed commitment to self-care. But less than six months in, she found the person who would force her to reconsider.
“I remember seeing [Shaumbé] and being like, Oh man, he’s kind of cute. Oof. Oh no! When we first met, I knew that something was going to happen there — either we would be really close friends or a relationship was going to evolve. But I didn’t want that [at that time].”
When the pair hit it off, an instant friendship quickly blossomed into a romantic connection, and from there, both made it clear they were interested in pursuing a relationship. (“We didn’t play games,” Emily says.) Still, when Shaumbé said “I love you” after just one week, it was too soon for Emily, who was still adjusting to her change of heart and new relationship status.
“I said ‘I love you’ after, like, one week. It was a total risk. It was definitely foolish. She was so mad,” Shaumbé says. “And then I said it again after six months, and she was still mad! She didn’t say it back for a full year.”
Finally, after a year of being together, the last remnants of Emily’s dating hesitations disappeared, and she returned the sentiment: “It clicked. I was obsessed! It was almost like a whole new relationship after that — I had kept him at arm’s length for so long, and then I was ready to say, ‘This is what I want.’”
And the decision to get engaged? That came from another singular moment of clarity on Emily’s part: “I remember walking around together sometime before we got engaged and just thinking, Wow, I can’t wait for this to be the rest of my life, so I think that’s when I knew I was ready.”
For Emily and Shaumbé, pursuing an equal partnership means an intentional departure from the outdated marriage dynamic, in which men and women play specific roles governed by their gender.
“I’ve been thinking about [what partnership means] because we’re getting married but also because a lot of my friends are getting married, too, and they’re really conservative,” he says. “And I think naturally Emily and I do complement each other in ways that could appear traditional. I’m really aggressive; she’s really gentle. I’m way less inclined to process externally that she is. But I really abhor the idea of a hierarchy in a marriage; I’m very stark in my belief that we’re in an egalitarian partnership. I really want us both to believe in the decisions that we make together.”
She adds: “I’m really proud of the fact that neither of us have had to compromise who we are to be together. A good relationship is paying attention to each other and not feeling like, This person needs to change for me. You have to accept your person for who they are, not who you want them to be.”
When Your Hot Girl Summer Gets Interrupted
After Emani and Tangina were set up on a blind date by Emani’s cousin, they decided to meet up at a lesbian party that weekend. However, Emani forgot to mention that the theme was to dress in all-white — so Tangina immediately, awkwardly stood out in the room in her black outfit.
Luckily (and not surprisingly), Emani spotted her instantly. A simple “hello” rescued Tangina from her panic and became the start of a seven-year-long relationship: “Once we met, it was over for us. I fell in love with Emani right away.”
Admitting that love was easier said than done — later on in the relationship, when Tangina couldn’t quite get the words out, she put them into song lyrics instead. “It was called ‘Reasons,’ for all the reasons I loved her, ’cause I couldn’t just come out and say it,” Tangina says. “And then in the middle of the night, Emani thought I was sleeping and whispered, ‘I love you too.’ So she got the message!”
For both Emani and Tangina, boundaries and accountability are especially important — with each person taking responsibility for their individual feelings and actions.
“It’s that saying — ‘common sense isn’t so common,’” Emani says. “You can’t expect that what you were taught or what you were raised with is the same thing as the other person. That work that you put in to learn what [your partner’s] boundaries are is so important. It’s your job to be responsible and figure out how you can grow. We don’t want to remain how we were; we want to become better versions of ourselves every day.”
By the time Tangina asked Emani to be her girlfriend, she also knew that she wanted to be life partners. Seven years later, they’re engaged, but they aren’t interested in a traditional wedding. Instead, they’re planning a commitment ceremony that is more representative of the fact that their ideas about marriage and partnership have evolved.
“We choose each other every day. We aren’t just obligated. Commitment is a promise to always honor ourselves and each other, together.”
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