It was a sacred moment our culture had conditioned me to dream about: a handsome and good man was down on one knee, holding a beautiful diamond ring up to my face, asking me to marry him.
My reaction, though, wasn’t in line with what our culture had prepared me for: The panic was immediate, ice cold, and overwhelming. The space in my body usually reserved for mid-proposal butterflies was queasy instead.
As my boyfriend asked me the question, I quickly sifted through my panic and confusion, telling myself, "When a man gets down on one knee and asks you to marry him, you say yes," and so I did.
My problem, looking back, was two-fold: First, I loved my boyfriend, but I didn’t want to marry him; second, and worst of all, I didn’t trust myself enough to listen to my inner voice and responding accordingly.
My fiancé was successful, trustworthy, and patient, and I knew he loved me. Yet something in our relationship didn’t feel right, and something about it, about us, didn’t fit me.
At the time, these feelings alone weren’t enough -- or so I thought. Not being able to name or identify a problem and the source of my unease, I ignored it. I explained it away.
The thought of hurting my boyfriend by turning down his proposal was too devastating for us both, so instead I took the ironically easy way out and kept my discomfort to myself.
"You should just be grateful he loves you," I would think.
Reluctantly at first, and then rapidly, I became absorbed in the billion-dollar wedding industry, where the cultural myth of happily-ever-after abounds.
Wedding planning in our culture doesn’t actually include reflecting on your relationship with your future spouse, so this was an easy place to hide.
But I have learned that when you bury feelings, you bury them alive, and the disharmony I felt regarding my picturesque future with a good guy made me feel insane. I convinced myself that the problem was me, and that I could ultimately be happy if I changed.
The unfortunate truth is this wasn't an isolated incident. I had spent my life thinking it was my job to protect people from my truth, particularly if it didn’t harmonize with the people around me, or if it made someone else uncomfortable.
This hiding wasn’t completely altruistic; there's a strong sense of shame when you buck cultural or family or work norms. I didn't believe I had a right to my own truth, especially if that truth hurt people. So I kept it on lock, until it became emotional poison that lived in my bones.
Once we finally began mapping out a plan to join lives, relocate, and change jobs, my fiancé grew more and more angry, and I more and more terrified of my future. But my wedding planning soldiered on -- diamonds, pinwheels, and dessert tables were the perfect antidote to the frightening state of our relationship and my disconnection within myself.
In between calligraphy class and Etsy-paper-goods stalking, I dragged my fiancé to counseling, but he told me the counselor was “getting in between us” and so we never went back.
I bought self-help books instead, including How to Improve Your Relationship Without Talking about It (the title alone can clue you into how well it worked.) We continued to fight, brutally, every day, while I continued to lose myself in bridal magazines at Borders.
Then finally, after one particularly long night of screaming and begging and crying, my emotional and physical exhaustion left me unable to wage battle with my inner self. With no energy left, I had to surrender to the truth.
“We can’t marry each other,” I told the unbearable silence in my car first, testing the words out loud before I turned his life and my life upside down.
The pain of ending our relationship three months before our wedding was to take place was barely tolerable for a long time, but worse was the hurricane of devastation I had inflicted on his life. The cost of me abandoning myself was huge, but my biggest regret is that I wasn’t the only person who had to pay.
Later, manifestations of his improperly treated mental health issues would explain the underlying feeling that something wasn’t right between us, and I would finally be able to name why our connection was so impaired despite everything appearing wonderful on the surface. Unfortunately, my instincts were validated by a few labels found in the DSM.
It took that outside validation of my inner-self, of my gut instinct, to finally begin believing I could trust myself, though it has been a long process.
I realize now that it’s enough to feel something in my heart -- I don’t need confirmation from someone or something outside myself to validate my needs or emotions.
In fact, looking to the world -- which tells me that as a woman I need to be nice but not a doormat, sexy but not slutty, smart but not aggressively so -- for who I should be led me down a road of insanity.
Freedom, sanity, and authenticity is who I am, but sometimes who I get buried by the world’s expectations of me. To get to the other side, it’s a continual process of getting quiet and being willing to endure, sometimes, heartbreak as you break rules.
But those things never endure. No matter what our culture tells us, no matter what our Facebook friends are doing, or what our families expect of us, it is our duty to live honestly and authentically, even if other people don’t approve.
One simple example to keep in mind is this: When a man gets down on one knee and asks you to marry him, you don’t have to say yes.