From Dating to Marriage, He Had a 5-Prong Plan

Elizabeth Cunningham and Michael Harris, both described as having a “wacky sense of humor,” share a joyful moment at their wedding April 14 in Brooklyn.

Before Elizabeth Cunningham was sold on the Harris Five-Prong Approach to Dating, she had some questions for the man trying to sell it to her.

“I was like what, what is this?” said Ms. Cunningham, 40, recalling a late-night phone conversation with Michael Harris in January 2017, in which he preached of the pentad: 1. Notice. 2. Interest. 3. Like. 4. Love. 5. Marriage.

“You mean to tell me that you have this five-prong approach and yet you’re 44, you’ve never been married and you have no children?,” Ms. Cunningham asked. “Does this thing really work?”

Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Harris first met in October 2014, through Barbara Augustin, a mutual friend who arranged for the three of them to have dinner at a Brooklyn restaurant.

“Both Elizabeth and Michael are really gracious, hospitable and friendly people, each with a wacky sense of humor,” Ms. Augustin said. “They are also very much grounded in their Christian faith, which is why I thought they would be perfect for each other. But as it turned out, the timing just wasn’t right for them as both were going through difficult times, so there was absolutely no spark.”

Ms. Cunningham, who grew up in Roosevelt, N.Y., received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from N.Y.U. and a master’s degree in acting at Columbia before heading to Los Angeles in June 2004, in the hope of becoming an actress. Though she found some work, she abandoned her dream in September 2013 when she returned home to be the primary caretaker for her mother, Herma Cunningham, who had cancer.

“I thought Michael was a good-looking guy, but I was so distracted by my mother’s situation that when I got to the restaurant, I’m not even sure I shook his hand,” Ms. Cunningham said. “I don’t think there was a paragraph of sentences spoken between us that night.”

Mr. Harris, who is now 45, grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He went on to receive an M.B.A. from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. During his last semester at North Carolina, he completed a four-month graduate-level study-abroad program at the Stockholm School of Economics. Mr. Harris, who is also a chartered financial analyst, was single and working as a controller at a data center in Manhattan when he met Ms. Cunningham.

That sparkless meeting did nothing to enhance Mr. Harris’s self-confidence, as he was in the middle of a midlife crisis.

“In some respects of my life, I felt I had achieved what I wanted to achieve,” he said. “But I saw that a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids and they all started disappearing on me.

“New York might be filled with eight million people, but for me, it felt more like I had become a part of a certain kind of crowded loneliness, and all of the glass half-empty things about New York really started getting on my nerves.”

They moved on, but kept limited tabs on each other through Facebook and other social media platforms.

In July 2015, Mr. Harris moved to Denver, and took a year off work. He began looking for a job in February 2016, after falling off his snowboard and dislocating a shoulder. In July, he landed a job as an investment banker there.

Five months later, Mr. Harris returned to New York to attend a friend’s annual Christmas party and crossed paths with Ms. Augustin. She told him that Ms. Cunningham’s mother had only weeks to live. Saddened, Mr. Harris reached out to Ms. Cunningham via text message, setting in motion the first of five prongs.

Ms. Cunningham was a bit shocked to hear from Mr. Harris again. “It was really out of the blue,” she said.

They agreed to meet for drinks. Mr. Harris arrived early, but the noise inside the bar seemed like the wrong setting for a sober catch-up conversation that would include a dying mother.

As he waited for her, the client for his first-ever investment banking deal called from Los Angeles. He was still answering questions when Ms. Cunningham arrived, creating an awkward situation where she was now waiting for him to get off the phone.

“It’s too noisy in there,” he mouthed to her as he led her outside to the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 36th Street, where Ms. Cunningham continued to wait patiently, this time in the bitter cold.

Mr. Harris was still talking five minutes later when he looked at Ms. Cunningham, and noting “her patience and grace,” gave her an unexpected peck on the cheek.

Ms. Cunningham, a very conservative Christian, called it “a shocking moment,” but a nice one.

“I had never kissed him before, and now we’re out in the cold and he’s on the phone and just comes up to me and kisses my cheek. I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Mr. Harris finally ended his call and they walked across the street to another restaurant, the Archive. This time around, sparks flew, while getting caught up on the two previous years since they last saw each other.

“I thought he was very smart, very funny and a gifted conversationalist,” Ms. Cunningham said. “I felt like he was really into who I was and interested in me outside of the realm of being a caretaker. By the time we left, I wanted to get to know him more but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. I called Barbara and said ‘O.K., who is this Michael dude, what’s his story. Does he have a girlfriend.’”

A month later, Mr. Harris was back in Denver, where he works as an associate with the investment bank W.G. Nielsen & Company, and talking with Ms. Cunningham most nights via FaceTime. (There were times when he could hear her ailing mother, who was in pain, in the background.)

“Michael became a gift of comfort,” Ms. Cunningham said. “I had friends who prayed for me and asked God to send me some comfort during this rough time in my life, and until I met Michael, I didn’t know that comfort would come in the form of a man. He was keeping my spirits up in the midnight hour, and I felt truly blessed.”

It was during those late-night conversations that Mr. Harris came to see that he too had been blessed, and that he too had found comfort, his in a woman.

“I truly valued her love and dedication to her mother and I admired how calm she was during such a tragic time in her life,” he said.

In February 2017, Ms. Cunningham’s mother died, and Mr. Harris went to New York for the funeral. “During the burial, he took my hand and my entire family was like, ‘What, who is this person?’” Ms. Cunningham said. “Much like that first time he surprised me with a kiss, he had shocked me again, but deep inside, I wanted him next to me.”

Mr. Harris, whose mother, Bertha Harris, died in 1998, said, “I grabbed Elizabeth’s hand because I had walked this same painful road before, and I know how difficult it is to cope with, so I wanted to share that pain with her.”

A month after the funeral, Ms. Cunningham joined Mr. Harris and his friends on a ski trip in Keystone, Colo. They visited Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs, but the peak was closed because of snow and ice, and they could only ascend to about 12,000 feet. While up in the clouds, Mr. Harris surprised Ms. Cunningham with what he called a “proposal,” asking her to be his girlfriend.

When she said yes, he presented her with a diamond-encrusted heart-shaped silver necklace as a way of symbolizing that she now owned a part of his heart.

“At that point in my life, I was in need of a certain level of softness, and Michael provided it,” Ms. Cunningham said. “I came to realize that he is a loving guy with an amazing level of detail and thoughtfulness.”

They soon embarked on a long-distance relationship.

In November of that year, Ms. Cunningham suffered another emotional setback with the unexpected death of her father, Donovan Cunningham.

“Losing both of my parents in the space of nine months was really devastating,” she said. “In many ways I’m a strong and independent woman, but sometimes you just need to cry and have someone hold and comfort you, so I thank God that I had Michael to lean on at that point in my life.”

By then, Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Harris had already began discussing their future together. Though she assumed that they would not get engaged until 2018, Mr. Harris, who by now owned a condo in Denver, had other ideas.

He went to great lengths to surprise her with a proposal on the one-year anniversary of their meeting. On Dec. 20, 2017, Mr. Harris got down on one knee and gave Ms. Cunningham a canary-yellow heart-shaped engagement ring. They were back in front of the Archive, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 36th Street, the same corner he had shocked her with a first kiss.

Friends and family had waited patiently inside the Archive and then surprised the bride with loud cheers and applause when the couple stepped inside.

“It was the best surprise of my life,” Ms. Cunningham said. “Having seen many of those same people at the funerals of my parents, it was quite a stark difference, a completely exciting moment created by Michael that I will never forget.”

The couple were married April 14 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, and exchanged vows before Pastor Patrick Boatwright and Ms. Augustin, who served as co-officiant.

The groom made seven vows to the bride, and it was his fourth that wowed the 175 guests, some from Canada, Kenya, Norway, Spain and South Africa.

“There have been so many upgrades to my life, relative to my midlife crisis,” he said. “Now, you are my life’s ultimate upgrade. So in return, I vow to seek to upgrade your life. Be it a five-carat purple five-year anniversary ring, be it the last piece of bread in the house if on hard times, be it a kind supportive word that’s meaningful.”

Pastor Boatwright couldn’t resist on the five-carat promise. “Five years from now,” he announced, “I will remind Elizabeth about that ring.”

Laughter filled the old church on 46th street in Sunset Park, and moments later there was more, when told to kiss his new bride, he covered his lips several times over with a lip balm, and then did so.

Later that evening, a van carrying the 18-person wedding party pulled up to the curb at nearby Warehouse Studios, where the reception was held. They made their way up an iron staircase where the guests — including Mr. Harris’s 75-year-old father, Herman Harris — were enjoying music while feasting on chicken and empanadas, black-eyed peas, plantains and macaroni and cheese.

Kaddu Luyombya, one of the groom’s two best men, noted that “Michael was doing pretty well when he was single. He had a great job, a new condo and a new car. But he didn’t start living the life he dreamed of living until Elizabeth came into his life.”

Asked if the groom’s five-prong approach had ultimately worked, the bride said: “I never really looked at it as a test or a quiz, but more of an emotional roadmap. It was basically five levels of honesty in terms of where we were at as a couple, and at the end of the day that’s a good thing because every woman wants to know where they stand in a relationship.”

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