Engaging Expectations

The myth of the stress-free engagement

We women, if I may speak for more than just myself, are told that the days and weeks surrounding your engagement are blissful and perfect, full of congratulations, champagne toasts, and giddy engagement announcements to family and friends, including the all-important Facebook status change. And furthermore, that you then spend romantic moments staring into each others eyes, cuddling by firelight, and running toward each other in a field of flowers.

I don’t know if I was ever explicitly told this story, or if I just absorbed it somewhere, but I cannot be the only woman who imagined the beginning of her engagement being special, rose tinted and almost magical. I am not even going to blame the WIC for this, although it’s probably partly at fault, I think this is just some knee-jerk pre-feminist fairytale that we don’t even know we believe until it happens to us. Or doesn’t happen to us, in my case.

This is not how my engagement has played out. At all.

My fiancé, C, and I got engaged in the midst of major family upheaval on all sides. Three months prior, my stepmother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized into a lump on her spine. And although we weren’t given a specific timeline (at their request), the phrases “stage four” and “metastasized” didn’t sound good. One month prior, C’s father and uncle were in a car crash, killing his uncle and leaving his father in critical condition. C is a Ph.D. student and put the rest of his semester on hold so that we could race a thousand miles home to take care of his teenage sister, distraught cousins, and his ill stepmother. It was a mess, to say the least.

So saying that we got engaged during an emotional, turbulent, and rather difficult time is an understatement. We got engaged in the middle of some serious adult shit, things that tested us as a couple, as individuals, and as members of our larger families. And perhaps we could have chosen better timing, but it was right before Christmas, and we both liked the idea of being able to tell most of our family in person. And we decided that life goes on and that we wanted to bring a little bit of joy into what was otherwise a pretty lousy holiday season for much of our family.

And our families were both thrilled for us, but other issues distracted some of them. Which was to be expected, of course, but at the same time it sucked for us. I spent some time trying to figure out if I was just being selfish, or whether I was actually being slighted and my engagement was not getting the reception I had hoped for.

While I was chewing on this, at some point I realized that this is real life. A particularly difficult and sad stretch of real life, but still real life. This is what C and I have promised to support each other through. And that there is no magical engagement fantasy period, there’s just life and how you approach it with your partner. How you solve problems and express grief and cry, and give your partner the space to do the same. And that even with the turbulence of life, and the confusion and pain of family tragedies, it is still occasionally possible to create a small place where we can be happy together and celebrate the next chapter of our lives. That this is what the vows mean, even though we haven’t taken them yet. Or written them yet, or even nailed down a definite date for the wedding, or any of the thousand other wedding things we haven’t done yet.

It hasn’t gotten any easier. We are now almost four months post-engagement, and C’s father continues to struggle as his broken body heals itself, and my stepmother has succumbed to the cancer, leaving my father devastated and adrift. We are starting to feel as if we are losing wedding guests through attrition. The story isn’t over yet, and frankly I’m not sure how things will turn out in the end. But I am fairly certain that if we can survive this stretch, we can get through almost anything.

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  • Lauren

    I’m over here cheering you on and wishing you all the best in a difficult time. Props to the two of you for getting engaged at such a difficult moment. May the rest of your engagement be much more peaceful.

  • macrain

    Expectations are so tricky aren’t they? We can barely even have them before we’re slapping ourselves on the wrist for expecting too much. And then we feel both let down AND ashamed for having expectations to begin with. We are allowed to feel feelings, you know?
    I definitely struggle with this. Beautiful post.

    • Jules

      This is so accurate. My mother has ALWAYS told me that I have “ideas in my head about how things are supposed to be!” before I get there. Example: when I turned 7, I gave back all my Barbies because I was “too old”. I always had expectations for birthday parties or prom or what it would be like to be in a certain grade. My mom was the one slapping me on the wrist for having them, and I always felt embarrassed about it.

      I think to a certain degree they’re impossible NOT to have. They’re just educated guesses and hopes about what things will be like. It’s just important to manage them so they don’t control you entirely. Easier said than done.

  • Jennie

    Some pretty difficult and earth shaking stuff happened in my family, shortly after we got engaged. The year of our engagement was the hardest year of my life. We already had a date set, when things got crazy with my family, so we plugged along and were so thankful for the joy of being surrounded by those we loved on the weekend of our wedding. I had some similar feelings about the time around my engagement but in the end it was a transition period in our relationship and I’m glad my husband was with me through it all.

    I wish you the best during this difficult time & hope you are able to find some joy mixed in with the hard stuff.

  • Keri Muller

    I am so sorry for all that you are dealing with in life right now, and that it is surrounding what we otherwise think should be this fuzzy and happy time. But, I understand in my own way. By no means have I had the level or type of hardship around my engagement that you have, but we have had our own personal struggles. I have had a fast decline (not fatal) in my health this fall that ultimately lead to my fiance and I deciding I needing to resign from my new job until I could get well. This would mean he’d be supporting me until I was well. Two days afterwards, because he was planning it to happen that day, he proposed. Our engagement has been surrounded by my health issues still ongoinig today…but he’s still here and we are still getting married this October. Your post is beautiful and so true. We are promising to be here for each other for these hardships and for the good happy times. We don’t have to put the engagement period on this pedestal of ‘this is what it should be like’ because life happens…and will continue to happen when we are married.

  • What a story! I think going through stressful and complicated times like these are very testing on a relationship, which is both good and bad. Hopefully you can make room for the fun and exciting parts of the engagement and planning process. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about celebrating the good!

  • Clementine

    Thanks for sharing this. I also became engaged around last Christmas, and experienced a lot of similarities-
    my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, FI lost his grandmother and is recovering from a near fatal car accident, and my closest friends, still single, all but refused to acknowledge our being engaged.

    I too was surprised by expectations I didn’t even know I harbored. My guy is a bit older and his friends are mostly married, but in my case I’m one of the first, so while I didn’t even know engagement shoots or engagement parties were a thing, it would have been nice to feel support from my friends.

    That being said, I feel like a lot of expectations didn’t pop up for me until I began to digest the Pinterest and WIC-skewed world of wedding planning. Sites like TK initially made me feel like we couldn’t afford to have a wedding at all, not with our budget, in our city! Not with medical bills from his accident (we work together and will be paying for the wedding ourselves). I fell into a bit of a panic over expectations I didn’t know I was suppose to have. I went into my engagement not even knowing that the engagement ring and wedding ring were two different rings!

    Blogs like this one remind me that sure, engagement shoots are great for those that love a photo shoot, but not necessary for camera shy girls like me. And hey, I love my ring, and think I may prefer to wear it alone, as both, the way my mother does. WIC traditions do not have to be OUR traditions. I just hope that our wedding is a gathering of people we truly love and a reflection of who we are as a couple. Thanks for this piece on expectations, I hope that things get better for the writer and her family soon!

  • I so relate to this. But I swear to you, the anxiety of life will fade, and you will be having a blast in no time.

    When we got engaged, I got a new job, my mother had had a stroke, and my grandmother passed away. It took maybe 4 or 5 months into our engagement for me to get giddy, and that took some therapy, some xanax, and a lot of yoga. You will get through this and start having fun with this.


  • Runner Lady

    Thank you for this post. My boyfriend and I are beginning to talk about getting engaged, but a lot of hard stuff has happened in my family in the past few months. All the conflict eventually led to the estrangement of my older sister from the rest of the family. I always took for granted that she would be my maid of honor, and now I am having a hard time letting go of that expectation. While I’m sorry that you’re going through hard stuff, too, it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone and that’s it’s okay to try to create something joyful in the midst of family heartache.