Real Talk: I Love My Marriage, But Hated My Engagement

I realized that my anxiety was not the result of a bad relationship. Mostly, it was there because I have been neurotic and change-averse my entire life, and -- surprise! -- nothing about my brain chemistry changed after my boyfriend proposed to me.
Publish date:
January 3, 2013
marriage, engagement

Engagement season” has just ended. If you're in your late twenties like me, your Facebook feed is likely now festooned with ring pics and red heart icons. Celebrities have joined the party, too, getting engaged (and in some cases married) this holiday season: Kelly Clarkson! Hugh Hefner! Kat von D and Jesse James, only this time to other people!

Mazel tov, suckers. God, am I glad I'm not you.

I was recently engaged for 14 months. During that time, I learned a secret they never tell you on StyleMePretty: engagements fucking suck. They’re also joyful and fun, but there’s a lot more suck involved than you’d expect.

Frankly, now that I’m married, I’d rather zest my nipples with the citrus zester I got off my bridal registry than go through it all again. If you're just embarking on the experience now, you have my sympathies.

If you're with the right person, planning a wedding is a profound and wonderful thing to do. But then again, so is appearing on A&E’s “Hoarders,” if you’re a hoarder. You might feel a rush when you first commit -- your life is about to CHANGE! For the BETTER! -- and you might be thrilled with the end result. But in between, you're in for a whoooole lotta screaming, clinging to your pile of desiccated rat corpses as Dr. Zasio half-heartedly pats you on the back.

Engagement is a time of monumental transition. You’re redefining your relationship not just with your fiancé, but also with your family, your friends, yourself, your personal space, your dreams and ambitions -- everything. Whoever can face such profound change without at least a twinge of anxiety and grief, please tell me what drug you’re on, because I want some.

In my case, engagement involved a lot of happy moments, but also:

  1. Trolling message boards such as the now-defunct, consuming broken-engagement stories like pornography.
  2. Getting into a screaming, sobbing fight with my mother -- about cake filling! -- at a Father’s Day brunch, while my father looked on in horror.
  3. Getting into another screaming, sobbing fight with my best friend from college as we drove through downtown Washington -- a fight so engrossing that I drove straight into a parked car.
  4. In general, a lot of screaming and sobbing, although remarkably not with my fiancé.
  5. Miserable compromises.
  6. Carbohydrates.

On the whole, I spent 20% of my engagement feeling elated, 20% feeling prostrate with anxiety and grief, and 60% feeling normal. This unnerved me, because it seemed like about the same ratio Pam from “The Office” felt when she was engaged to the guy who wasn’t Jim. When you’re marrying the right person, you’re happy all the time -- right? Because the One makes you happy! Panic is your gut telling you to get out! Right?

Not necessarily. After months of misery, with the help of Allison Moir-Smith’s excellent book Emotionally Engaged, I realized that my anxiety was not the result of a bad relationship. Mostly, it was there because I have been neurotic and change-averse my entire life, and -- surprise! -- nothing about my brain chemistry changed after my boyfriend proposed to me.

However, my anxiety also materialized because I was blindsided by the real work of engagement. After I coped with the shock, I did that work -- much of it in a therapist’s office, yay -- and as a result of that and two kickass wedding planners, my wedding day was every happy cliche come true. My marriage has also been fabulous so far.

Nevertheless, my engagement can go fuck itself.

These days, when I talk to a newly engaged woman, I like to ask her if there’s something she’s already sick of hearing from well-wishers. Even the most easygoing bride usually has something -- some question or comment that irritates her because she feels she can’t reply to it honestly, or else she’ll fail to live up to her culturally-cast role as the happy bride-to-be.

Mine was this: “Are you excited? Are you so excited??” I heard it at least once a day. Often, my true answer was “meh” or an emphatic “no,” but I’d lie and say “yes” to fulfill the expectations of the questioner. Then I’d feel like a gigantic fraud.

Kendra, a newly married woman who works on my floor, hated, “Can I see the ring?”, as the asker’s face would usually shift in surprise or disappointment when they saw her unusual stone.

She also mentioned how annoying it was to hear, “What are your colors?” all the time, as did two other women I talked to. When someone asks that question, what is the asker hoping to hear in reply? Do they really care? Who has “colors” anymore, anyway, is what I want to know -- but will I offend someone by saying that?

The word “bridezilla” drives most newly engaged women up the wall, as does any expressed disdain for the amount of emotion they might or might not have invested in things such as the cake, the invitations, and the flowers. These things can represent much more than meets the eye. They are the talismans of engagement, which, as I've said, is not so much a fun party-planning time as a painful metamorphosis ritual. Respect them accordingly.

M., a book club friend, is getting married on April 20 in Colorado. (Her description of the “Rocky Mountain High” jokes she’s been receiving featured seven sarcastic exclamation points.)

In addition to the usual about colors and aesthetics, one of M.’s pet peeves is when people ask her, in reference to her fiance’s proposal, “Were you surprised?”

“That’s sort of a bitch to answer either way,” she wrote to me. “The truth is that I have a crazy brain that knows how to feel multiple things at the same time. And all of them are true. (Sort of like everyone’s brains, yeah? Yes? Are we all on the same page here?). So, yeah. I was shocked. I screamed. I cried. I yawped my YES! and then made out with him on some rocks while gasping for breath -- again -- out of shock. Also, no, I was not surprised.”

M. is referring to something that every married woman I know experienced during engagement: cognitive dissonance. The instant you get engaged, you start experiencing yourself as an individual and a wife, a present and a future self, a person who is happy and sad and surprised and angry and excited. You’re in a cuckoo purgatory -- mentally, emotionally, physically, culturally. The experience is so disorienting, it literally gave me the spins a couple of times. But nothing I read or saw on TV told me this was normal, save Moir-Smith’s book. If I wasn’t happy, I thought, that must mean I was a bridezilla. Or a cautionary tale-to-be.

God. Yuck. I think I’m getting a rash just thinking back on it now. NEVER AGAIN.