By Kelsey Miller
Stephanie and James’s story had a bumpy start. In fact, they almost missed each other entirely. “I was 32,” explains Stephanie. “And I was determined to meet someone no older than 35.” It was the fall of 2017, and her life was already complicated. She was in a stressful job, managing events at a Toronto art gallery, and flying back and forth to her hometown in Montreal, where her mother had just been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. On top of that, she’d recently ended a long-term relationship, and was running out of steam for dating. “I was tired,” she says. “But I wasn’t quite ready to give up.”
“One last shot,” she told herself. She opened Bumble and went to her age settings, raising the limit by one year. She still wanted someone close to her own age, but for the right guy, 36 might be close enough. The first person she matched with was James, a 36-year-old Judo coach who’d recently emigrated from Scotland to work with the regional team. “I’m not sporty,” Stephanie notes. But that wasn’t what stood out most from his profile. What drew her in was his friendly tone, and the care he’d taken to show his authentic self. “There was one photo where he seemed to subtly indicate that he wasn’t the tallest of men,” she recalls. It was a snapshot of 5-foot-7-inch James at a competition, sandwiched between two athletes, looking comically petite. “It made me laugh,” she said. She liked that he seemed confident and comfortable in his own skin. Even more important, he knew what he wanted, and it was exactly what she wanted too: “He’d specifically said in his profile that he was looking for ‘someone who has their shit together.’”
“And she had that, in abundance,” James recalls. It struck him immediately, when they met up for their first date a week later. James, on the other hand, made a slightly less impressive first impression by arriving 30 minutes late. “He wasn’t used to Toronto traffic,” Stephanie explains. She let it go. He was apologetic and nervous, fiddling with his cuffs throughout the date, which somehow made him even more charming.
They fell into easy conversation over dinner, both quickly realizing they shared another crucial value: family was a huge priority. “It was clear we’d come from similar upbringings, despite growing up in different countries,” says Stephanie. She felt so comfortable that she even opened up a bit about her mother’s diagnosis. “It didn’t scare him off,” she says.
Both left the first date knowing they wanted a second, but then came the next hold-up. James left Canada for a series of tournaments in Europe, and Stephanie found herself busier than ever, between work and trips back home, where her mother was hospitalized. A month passed before they were able to book a second date. It had been a difficult month for Stephanie, and she knew there would be even harder times ahead, a fact she didn’t hide from James. In detail, she told him about her mother’s illness and uncertain prognosis. Once again he met her with compassion. “I think that’s a key indicator of someone’s character,” she says. “The way someone responds to your painful situations and handles your emotions speaks volumes.”
That second date was the turning point. James and Stephanie went home for Christmas and told their respective families about the exciting new person they’d met. By January, they decided to make things official, ceremoniously removing Bumble from their phones. A month later, they took their first trip together, to Niagara Falls—a romantic milestone, but like so many in their early relationship, a bittersweet moment. Stephanie was falling in love, while simultaneously coming to grips with the possibility of losing her mother. James recalls thinking to himself, “I hope it doesn’t go down that road, but I’m going to support her, and make sure she has everything she needs.”
In September 2018, a little less than a year after matching, James and Stephanie moved in together. They weren’t engaged or planning a wedding, “but we’d been talking about it,” says Stephanie. Again, she knew what she wanted, and wasn’t shy about it. “I’d always wanted to wear my grandmother’s engagement ring,” she explains. So, while unpacking, she put the ring in his nightstand—“as a joke, but also as a reminder,” she says. “He thought it was hilarious.”
Another year passed, with life progressing and holding still at the same time: James and Stephanie adopted a dog, traveled together, and continued building a shared life, all the while grappling with Stephanie’s mom’s declining health. By autumn 2019, she was moved into palliative care. James knew two things with relative certainty: he wanted to marry Stephanie, and he wanted her mother to know that.
“It was the weekend before she passed,” he recalls. He was with Stephanie and her family, visiting with her mother. At the end of the day, he let everyone else leave the room and sat down to speak with her mother privately. “I told her I planned to propose, and asked if she’d be okay with that. And I tried to give her some peace of mind by letting her know Stephanie was going to be alright, and I was going to be there for her.” Verbal communication was difficult at that point, but Stephanie’s mother was visibly cheered by these words. Days later, shortly before she died, she told Stephanie how happy she was for them.
That December, the couple flew to Scotland to spend Christmas with James’s family. James took Stephanie for a brief getaway to the island of Islay off the country’s west coast, and there, he formally popped the question. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they married privately in the summer of 2020, postponing the celebration until the following year, when James’ family were able to join them. This summer, they celebrated another joyful milestone: the birth of their first child.
So much has happened since Stephanie and James first met that evening in 2017. But the core values they share remain steadfast, and even stronger than before. “These past two years of marriage have underscored what’s really important,” says James. And to both James and Stephanie, what’s important is family and each other. “So much has changed since we met—we fell in love, my mom passed away, we got married, I got pregnant—but at the same time, nothing has,” she says. “Our relationship was strong and secure to begin with. Marriage has just brought us closer, and made us fall even more in love.”