Q: Dear APW,
Today marks three years since my boyfriend asked me to make a list of rings I might want, should he propose. Spoiler alert: he hasn’t proposed.
When The List was created, we’d been together for four and a half years, lived together for three years of that, moved, vacationed, loaned each other money, visited family, merged finances, and adopted a dog. I wasn’t expecting him to propose immediately after receiving The List, but within a year of the creation of The List, he landed his dream job and we bought a house. With The List sitting there and so many milestones achieved, I’ve spent the last two years telling myself marriage couldn’t be that far behind… and I’m still waiting.
Here’s the thing: I want him to propose. I want him to want to propose. I want him to make this one symbolic gesture that says, “I choose you.” I want him to put the time, the thought, and the emotional labor into this one task, without me having to hint or pressure or nag or remind. The minute I hint or pressure or nag or remind or straight-up ask what the deal is, I’m always going to wonder if he was choosing me or appeasing me. Never mind the house or the dog or the bank accounts or the baby name list or all the other ways we’ve chosen to intertwine our lives: I have convinced myself that if I let slip the word “ring” in any context (tree rings! piston rings! nipple rings!), it is coercion, not empowerment.
I decided a few months ago that I would propose to him at some point unless he beat me to it. At first, it felt like admitting defeat, like a chore he failed to do that I was doing because it still needed to be done. Now though, I’m excited to do something special for him. I’ve reframed it as, “Ask not what your boyfriend can do for you, but what you can do for your boyfriend.” Still though, I’m afraid it will always hurt that he never made the conscious, unprovoked decision to do the same for me. I’m afraid of pretending to be okay if he says no. I’m afraid he will feel like he failed me.
How do I express hope and hurt to my deeply empathetic boyfriend without manipulating him to take action? How do I start a conversation about why he hasn’t proposed without accusing him or implying he’s failed? How do I overcome the bullshit cultural narrative we’ve both been fed? Can you help me free myself from bad logic and do a detox diet on my thoughts?
A: Dear Anonymous,
You mention a lot about social narratives about proposals. But one of the social narratives we also swallow is that girls shouldn’t be too high-maintenance, shouldn’t be too demanding. We all have to be the “cool girl” who doesn’t expect roses on Valentine’s Day, isn’t bothered by a lack of effort, is very chill. And while we’re at it, we also swallow the notion that real romance is communicated, I don’t know, telepathically. That when you meet the right person, they’ll be able to intuit all of your emotional needs, that good sex just happens naturally, that words are superfluous in the face of REAL love.
That’s the narrative, but you know what? Real-life romance requires actual communication. It’s a very fair and reasonable expectation to want the person in an intimate relationship with you to do something thoughtful. But there are times you’ll need to explicitly tell them what that looks like for you.
Having specific things you want and need isn’t high maintenance. And telling your partner about them isn’t unromantic.
So, take a look at the rest of your relationship. Is he this, um, laid-back about showing you he loves you in other ways? Do you have to nag him about everything else, too? Or (essentially the same thing) do you find that you just tell yourself that it’s fine, it’s really fine! that he couldn’t pull himself together enough to show initiative or commitment or affection for you in other ways? This could be just a miscommunication, and if it is, you can fix that. If instead it’s one more example in a pattern, think about what that means for your future together. If he’s unlikely to plan nice things for you, then, okay, a person (sometimes) can live without romantic just-because flowers. But that could mean he’s also unlikely to show initiative in other ways and he’ll leave you carrying the bulk of the mental load (when he “just didn’t remember” his mom’s birthday, the parent/teacher conference, the electric bill payment).
Assuming this is just a miscommunication, you’ll need to ask him if he wants to get married. You’re not proposing, just getting on the same page. Trust that he’s going to answer you honestly, and not suddenly become some trope of a dude who’s caving to the coercion of his needling girlfriend (because you wouldn’t be dating someone if he were like that, would you?).
If he wants to get married, great! Tell him you were hoping he would propose, and see if he’s up for it. If he’s on board, tell him just what you told me—you would love for this to be something he’s given some thought, something special. But listen, if there’s anything, anything specific you hope he does for this proposal, tell him so! Don’t hope that he intuits it! You hope it’s at a special place, on a special day, involves your favorite book: Tell. Him. If you just want it to be thoughtful and special in a more general, sort of nonspecific way, that’s fine, too. Just make your expectations clear.
And be sure to mention that you’re disappointed he hasn’t asked. Not because he should feel bad about it. But because communicating that stuff helps us understand one another better and do a better job of making each other feel loved. “This thing you did that maybe wasn’t intended to hurt me, well, it hurt me,” is the super illuminating kind of stuff that makes for a great marriage. Because, okay maybe he misunderstood this time. But there’s no excuse next time. You’re communicating what you need, but it’s on him to remember that, and apply it again and again.
He may feel really bad! It might not be a fun conversation! But it’s much, much less fun to continue sitting in this limbo you’re in, or to move forward without ever letting him know how to best love on you. You deserve all of the lovely things you expect! But he deserves to know you expect them.