I really thought we were going to ace the proposals. We’d saved for rings together, we’d shopped for our rings together, picked them up together, and mutually decided on an approximate timeline. I thought that it might make the actual proposing process easier. At least we both knew that it was coming, and we each knew what the other’s answer was going to be. That seemed pretty major. I worried a bit about the proposals feeling special, and hoped that people would still think our engagement stories were cool. Still, it seemed like it was going to be less stressful, at the very least.
Julie and I each wanted an engagement ring, and we each wanted to be proposed to. Julie suggested that, once we had our rings, we would both know that a proposal was forthcoming and whoever felt moved to propose first, would. I told her that was an amazing plan, and very equitable, and as long as we both understood that I was not ever, ever proposing first, I could see no flaws in its execution.
Since I thought I had managed to avoid the pressure of a perfect proposal by going second, I was unprepared by how stressful waiting to be proposed to was. I wanted to make things as easy as possible for Julie in order to get the perfect romantic memory we would remember for the rest of our lives. In order to honor the wonderful moment she was surely concocting, I felt like I needed to be proposal ready AT ALL TIMES. I could never be cranky, or tired, or uninterested in any casual suggestions from Julie, because this could be the suggestion or the hour or the evening that was going to lead to the pinnacle of our relationship thus far! I couldn’t express displeasure with anything Julie did because I didn’t want to argue or snap at each other and possibly derail her carefully crafted proposal. Or worse, make her rethink the whole idea of proposing to me at all.
Even with all of my careful emotional choreography, I ended up screwing up her first attempt. I was making dinner and we were chatting one random weeknight, and I mentioned casually that in addition to my scheduled Saturday morning shift at the craft store, I had offered to cover someone else’s Sunday afternoon shift as well. Julie reacted to my announcement in a way that I felt was entirely out of proportion to the facts. She freaked out, and raised her voice, and said something to the effect that she had a big problem with how much time my part-time job was taking up. I was really surprised by her vehemence, and I got defensive. Which for me looks like wounded, condescending, and infallible all at the same time. “We made the decision together for me to work part time.” I intoned haughtily. “You had your chance to weigh in. I have responsibilities to them! I have some integrity!”
It was perhaps not our finest moment. Later that evening I learned that Julie was upset because she had reserved an adorable cabin in the mountains for the weekend and had planned to propose after I got off of work on Saturday, then whisk me away to Boulder where we could eat tapas and sunbathe and bask in our recently engaged glow before we came back to share the news with our family and friends. Whoops. We’d worked hard to make proposing this egalitarian process, a mutual decision, to start as we’d mean to go on in our marriage, and yet here we were. Both
feeling pressured and un-empowered.
Julie ended up proposing in the park right by our house where we like to walk with our dog. She packed a picnic with three different kinds of cheese, and bread, and chocolate, and tiny pickles. She had planned an amazingly involved proposal wherein I would take my turn at Yahtzee and roll out my ring along with the dice. In her elaborate picnic packing however, she totally left Yahtzee at the house and ended up wresting my ring out of the pocket of her skinny jeans before she popped the cork out of the split of champagne she had hidden. A year later, I don’t remember what she said to me when she asked me to marry her. I remember her face, and the sunset, and watching the neighborhood teenagers taking prom pictures in the park. I remember drinking champagne out of mason jars until it got too cold to stay outside any longer. Proposals are supposed to be this crazy, romantic, once in a lifetime experience to mark a very important moment. Instead, Julie took an experience we’ve had a dozen times, and made it a special one because she brought together some of our favorite pieces of our normal lives in order to mark a once in a lifetime moment.
We did the best we could planning our dual (dueling?) proposals. But it turned out, proposing and being proposed to wasn’t about the story. It wasn’t even about loving the memory of the event. Some big moments, no matter how you plan for them, are hard. For things that great, joyful,
and huge, you can’t always mitigate the enormity with a good contingency plan. Big decisions come with big emotions, and emotions do not care about your plans. The myth is that the dramatic, surprising, showily romantic, Facebook-ready proposal sets the stage for your gorgeous whirlwind of a show of a wedding. The truth is that proposals are a distinct moment where you and your partner make a life changing decision. And in their uncontrollable hugeness, engagements don’t prepare you for a wedding—they prepare you to be married.