It’s easy to judge a decision right or wrong, good or bad after we know the result. On the surface, the story of our 20-year marriage seems no different. My husband, Marcus, and I have been together almost half our lives. We have three healthy and happy children, and our life together looks relatively seamless. But looking back I can’t help but wonder: Was it simply luck? Or could it have been thin-slicing at work all those years ago when we met?
Thin-slicing is our ability to make very quick decisions with minimal information. The concept was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about how we think without thinking. In the first few seconds of meeting someone, it seems that all we have is surface level information. Yet, it’s undeniable that we’re making many judgements and decisions under the surface within those short seconds – in other words, we’re thin-slicing. As Gladwell examines in Blink, some of those decisions prove to be remarkably prescient.
I think back to my first chance encounter with Marcus in the spring of 1997. In those first few moments of meeting, I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort that could not be explained in any obvious or logical manner. Even if you had asked me, I could not have named it, but in fact I made a split decision that this was a person I could trust, and that changed my future in ways that I had never imagined for myself.
A Chance Encounter
I was a fresh-faced transplant from Seattle, living in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood and working at Nordstrom San Francisco Centre as a PR specialist during the Bay Area dot-com era. It was a heady time to be a young person living in one of the most incredible, iconic American cities. I was young and happily unattached. Growing up without positive relationship models, I saw no appeal in tying my life to another’s. Cliché as it may sound, my possibilities felt truly endless.
It was one of those golden, late spring San Francisco evenings. I was meeting friends for happy hour at a trendy bar in San Francisco’s theater district but got lost on the way. Frustrated, I was on the verge of giving up and going home when my friends found me – walking in the opposite direction. It was at that happy hour that I met Marcus – who only decided to join his friends at the last minute.
It seems almost old-fashioned in this era of online dating where everyone’s background is pre-screened, to say you met someone, not with a swipe or via text, but rather in-person, at a bar, over cocktails.
A Natural Evolution
From the very beginning, my first instinct about Marcus proved to be correct. He is a person to be trusted, especially in all the ways you can experience vulnerability in a relationship. At some point, Marcus wanted to let me know that if our future included marriage (as we were both thinking at the time), he knew that it was not his decision alone to “ask” me. In fact, either of us could ask the other. One night he said to me, “I know you don’t have to wait for me to ask you to marry me. But if you don’t mind letting me own this …” I liked that he acknowledged that I did not need to be asked, nor was I waiting.
A year into our relationship, we went to Germany to meet his family. His dad still lived on Sylt, a tiny resort island in the North Sea where Marcus grew up. Our first morning there we wandered, hand in hand, visiting places that were meaningful to him – his family home with the in-law building where his Polish grandmother lived and often cooked traditional dishes such as cow liver (not one of his childhood favorites). We visited the school he attended and the Strenk family plot where his grandparents were buried, marked by a giant marble headstone from Marcus’s father, Anton’s, masonry business.
I was feeling my jet lag as walked to an old vine-covered church near his boyhood home and it started to rain. But just as I began to get cranky, Marcus dropped to one knee near his Oma and Opa’s headstone. “When I was a boy,” he said solemnly, “I would walk by this church every day and think, someday I will get married here. The next best thing is to be here with you and ask you to marry me.”
As most of our friends know, our wedding happened in the days following 9/11 on the tropical island of Kauai in Hanalei Bay. We had taken our very first couple’s vacation to this magical, somewhat hidden garden isle beach destination. It was during one of our return visits, we agreed that if we still felt the same way about each other in one year, as we did in that moment, we should get married. Given the unprecedented realities in the days following 9/11, we did not enjoy the destination wedding that had been a year in the making as we’d hoped. In the end, we understood that it was never about the ceremony, the party, or even our friends and family. It was just the two of us making a pledge to be together, no matter what.
What I’ve Learned
Listen to each other. Marcus and I genuinely like each other – not every moment, but every day. Do we fight? Of course, we do! Thanks to years of fantastic therapy (mine) and Marcus’ genuinely optimistic perspective and naturally high EQ (emotional intelligence), we have become excellent communicators. It’s not that we don’t have issues and conflicts, but it has been our ability to continually learn about each other and to acknowledge that we can see each other without having to always agree that has held us together. We listen, we resolve, and we move forward.
Be in the moment. This is something I have learned to do because I was lucky to be with a person that seemingly was born knowing that life’s greatest moments are the ones you are experiencing as they happen. Before Marcus, I was always striving, with my check list of to-dos continuously top of mind. I was too busy looking ahead to really stop to enjoy what was right in front of me – the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, a perfect meal, and the sun rising over the ocean. After twenty plus years together, I have ceded to my partner’s ability to relish and to appreciate life’s beauty as it unfolds.
Better together. We often joke that if we could combine the two of us, we would be near-perfect, blending Marcus’ intuitive intelligence and great communication skills with my disciplined focus and execution. Since stitching two brains together is not yet possible, what we have done instead is we have learned to leverage each other’s strengths to the point that it’s a nearly seamless process. When we’re aligned, the end results are always our very best ones. Life is hard and full of challenges large and small, no matter how pretty the picture. But we have never both been down, or both been wrong at the same time. One of us has always been there to lift the other when needed.
Team Strenk. When we made the decision to have kids, we agreed that we would share equally in the parenting and running of the household. We’ve made many course corrections along the way, but we own the duties and savor the joys, together. We can do this because we started with one simple belief: Neither of us would live for our careers. Our careers would be the fuel to allow us to live. Don’t misunderstand, we are ambitious and motivated but in an ultimate tradeoff between career and family, family would always come first.
Our first real test came when we had an “oops” pregnancy when our two kids were just three and one years old. At the time, Marcus was very much on the track at Microsoft as a senior sales manager and I was at this point a PR executive, managing a team at Williams-Sonoma. But our unplanned third child forced us to abruptly change plans. Given the lack of space, both mental and physical and the accelerating economic constraints raising kids in an incredibly expensive city, we quickly made the decision to make a drastic move to a family-friendly community with strong public education and attainable housing. During my second trimester, we moved across the country to access the wide-open spaces and family-friendly community that we wanted, in Austin, TX.
Now that our kids are all teenagers on the cusp of leaving home for college and the real world, I can say that one key to our success as a couple is our mindset of shared + equal versus any traditional gender roles dictating marriage and parenting.
It’s nice to be married to your best friend. I did not know how compatible we would become all those years ago when we first met. Luckily for us, thin-slicing skills told me that I could trust this person and that decision opened the possibility that has made these twenty years married feel like a satisfying romantic comedy, featuring two main characters that despite their flaws and missteps, you root for them, you love them together, and you can’t imagine either of them ending up with anyone else.
Happy 20th, Schatz.