L. once told me a story about a friend of hers who, when proposed to, burst into tears. Not out of joy but out of panic and frustration and astonishment. And our musician friend J., when he proposed to his musician ladyfriend in a top-secret, unexpected way, was greeted with silence. And shaking. And then a tentative, “I can’t answer this right now. I need some time. To think. What a surprise.”
Both of these couples were (and are) madly, deeply in love. You know, the kind of couples people walk around commenting about: “They’re soulmates.” So why the tears/frustration/panic/astonishment?
I’ve been thinking about these stories–as well as my own engagement story–a lot lately. Just when we thought the endless weekends of weddings were giving way to the constant flurry of babyshowers, friends all around us are getting engaged again. And they’ve all got great stories to share: C. hid a ring in S.’s advent calendar; J. tricked B. into thinking that they were going to pick out a ring in Chicago when, in fact, he’d already had one custom designed and waiting for her; J. proposed during a romantic weekend away in Lake Geneva; F. pulled the special-dinner-with-a-ring-for-dessert move with A.; and J. proposed to C. during a sparkly-eyed, champagne-flavored, New Year’s moment. How romantic, all around.
But then I got thinking (and that’s always a dangerous moment): How many of these ladies had that same glimmer of panic, shock, or frustration in that total-surprise moment? That, “You decided THIS without me?!” reaction? Or, in fact, how many of these engagements–despite the dramatic and faux-surprise circumstances–had actually been planned ahead of time?
You see, there’s something about the traditional engagement storyline that irks me. I know, I know: Every girl wants the drama and romance of the love of her life reading her mind about jewelry and timing, popping the question in extravagant circumstances that declare to the world, “This is the lady for me!” Every girl wants the fairy tale storyline to kick off their marriage and life.
Well, every girl but me.
I get why L’s friend and R., the musician, cried in shock and panic at The Surprise Proposal. Because as much as we love our Chosen Ones, they shouldn’t get to make this decision without us! All the time and energy we’ve put into making our relationships fair and equal partnerships, into models of egalitarian heterosexual love are washed away in that instant when He decides for Us that the time is NOW to get married, that He has chosen Us as his Bride. There’s something so, so…disrespectful…demeaning…old-fashioned about that complete surprise proposal. And at the same time that we have that flurry of bad emotions, we are overwhelmed, overjoyed, flattered, elated, and madly in love. Ah, women…we are such complicated creatures.
Now, I get that most couples these days don’t get engaged in completely surprising moments. In fact, most of our friends who have gotten engaged recently have been talking about it, deciding mutually, for quite some time. The surprisingly romantic moments described above were only surprises in the where and when of the traditional offering-of-the-ring. And I also get that–regardless of my own misgivings–a lot of women really like the old-fashioned proposal. They want to be swept off their feet, taken care of and protected by their Chosen One. They want the storybook engagement. I get that. I think that’s wonderful! And I get that most of us–myself included–still wouldn’t dream of doing the proposing ourselves. I get all that. But I’ve still got my misgivings. Especially because, when/if your own engagement story doesn’t measure up to the Romantic Fairytale Standards, you’re left questioning or explaining the level of commitment and love and dedication in your own relationship. Somehow, this storyline has come to mean: If your dude doesn’t pop the question in some ridiculously romantic and surprising way, well, does he really love you? Does he really want to marry you? Are you sure it’s meant to be?
I know, because I get those twinges in the midst of any proposal-sharing conversation. Each person describes more and more elaborate proposals, and then someone finally says, “Well, how did you and Fresh get engaged?” And I usually say something like, “We were on the porch, eating dinner. I said yes.” And I get that look that says, “What?! That’s it?! Are you sure he loves you?!” accompanied by a, “Oh. That’s nice.” But, the thing is, it is nice.
Fresh and I got engaged on a hot summer day on our porch. I had just made dinner. We were hot and sweaty, in ratty shorts and sweaty t-shirts, just trying to chill, beers in hand. There was no ring, no down-on-one knee proposal. Just a perfect summer eve together after a month apart, cicadas cheering in the background while traffic zoomed by below. And something about the perfectness of that evening–in all its normalcy and day-to-dayness–made that the moment we decided, officially, to get married. Fresh asked–or maybe he declared, “Let’s get married.” I smiled, content, and said yes.
I love that story. For me, it’s perfect. But I know that when people ask, “How did Fresh propose?” that’s definitely NOT what they are expecting. Especially because, although Fresh did the asking (in some ways, I am a traditional girl at heart), this was a decision we’d mutually come to over many months. And it was simply in that moment that we knew we’d both made the right decision. Fresh was just the braver of us and admitted it first.
Once upon a time, many months earlier, there was a potentially more dramatic proposal. On the beach in Belize, sitting under a palm tree after a three-day cruise through the Caribbean and right after body surfing in turquoise waves. A total surprise moment when Fresh asked me to marry him. That’s the story that I think most people would rather hear. But here’s the thing about that proposal: I didn’t see it coming. And I didn’t say yes.
Back story: All spring, Fresh and I had been struggling with what to do for the next year. I had a job I loved in a city I loved, and he was headed to grad school, far far away. Should I stay or should I go? We tortuously debated: Denver v. Chicago v. Madison, long-distance v. no-distance, his career v. my career. These were difficult decisions and discussions. The hardest I’ve ever had in my life. There were many tears involved, many panic attacks and fights. These decisions came crashing down on us the first day of our vacation: I’d been offered a dream job in Denver at the precise moment that Fresh decided he, in fact, was not going to grad school in Denver. In the first 24 hours of our tropical week, I had to stop debating and decide.
I turned down the job in Denver.
And I was a mess. I had no idea if this was the right decision. I’d never made a decision like this before. I’d never moved somewhere for a boy! But we were on vacation, with friends Fresh hadn’t seen in years and in the wake of the death of one of his close friends, and well, we never really talked about it. I just decided. He thanked me. And vacationing we went.
Until the end of the week, when I’d become an emotional wreck–we finally took an afternoon together, just us, to talk through and work through this monumental moment. And it was then, on the beach in Belize, tears streaming down my face as I told Fresh that I didn’t know whether this was the right thing to do or whether M. was right that, “You shouldn’t give up your job and your world for a guy when you’re not even married!” Just as I was saying, “I don’t know. Maybe I made the wrong decision,” he was saying, “Remember how I was late getting to the airport? It was because I was trying to figure out how to ask you to marry me.” And so I cried some more, both overwhelmed with emotion and love…and totally pissed off that this was the first time I was hearing about this! Where was this conversation three months ago? Heck, five days ago! Why hadn’t we talked about this before all this traumatic and tumultuous decision-making? Why? Because, 1) I’m a chicken and never broached the subject (and maybe because a little part of me, that traditional-girl part, thought it was the guy’s job to broach the subject, lest I seem too needy-girlfriendy), and 2) There’s a really strong push to propose in that perfect surprise way. That’s what Fresh had been trying to work out when he was late to the airport. And he wasn’t even going to propose in Belize…after all, he was ringless. But in that moment, it just happened.
We didn’t get engaged that day in Belize. We could have. And we both knew we would eventually–I think we’d both decided months before that we wanted to spend our lives together. But that moment–despite meeting all the romantic proposal criteria–was not the right moment.
Instead, we started talking about it and planning it and deciding it together. As a team. As partners. Just in the way we vowed to approach all our decisions together–as equal partners. And so months later, on a hot summer day, in a regular kind of moment that would be like so many more perfectly regular moments in the years to come, Fresh asked me, and together, we decided to get married.
It’s not a fairy tale, but it’s my perfect engagement story.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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