My husband and I were sharing a milk shake at our favorite veggie burger place in San Francisco when it happened. Right at the table next to us, a woman (let’s call her Jane) and her boyfriend were talking about getting married. She brought up getting engaged; he started lacing up his running shoes.
Then I heard Jane pop her own question: “So when do you think we’re going to get engaged?” Time stood still. These words were so powerful, and yet so intimate. Hearing them caught my undivided and unwanted attention. I was sucked into their life’s saga.
I could tell this wasn’t a first for this discussion topic. No, no . . . this was a tango that these two had danced before. But they were clearly still out of sync. Those of us who have been on that empty stage ourselves recognize the awkward dance. The body language, facial expressions, and nervous voices. They’re dead giveaways that create an intriguing mix of bored been-there-done-that and hopeful maybe-this-time-will-be-different.
Jane sat with a straight back, elbows on the table in a professional stiffness, ready to charge, yet exhausted from twirling and twirling around this topic. Her partner was leaning as far back from the table as his body would allow him without falling out of his seat. This was the last place he wanted to be. It was obvious that they knew the steps, but the tempos were off. She was racing forward. He liked the slower beat.
While reaching for the fries, Jane continued with the familiar litany: “All of our friends are getting engaged. We’ve been together the longest, and each time after we talk about this, I still don’t get what you’re thinking.”
With hesitation and careful thought, her partner muttered, “Do we have to talk about this again? Why do you always have to bring this up?”
I was compelled to stay tuned to this drama–comedy–horror show. It was better than Sex and the City. Actually, this could have been on Sex and the City! I watched their perplexed faces and tried to read their minds. Her thoughts: “Why am I still in this relationship?” His thoughts: “Why does she bring this up every day?”
He looked pathetically back at her and finally said, “I want to get married, and I want to marry you. I just don’t feel ready yet. I want to feel ready.”
She wanted to know when he was going to be ready. How would he know? Would he get a special twinkle in his eyes? Would his turkey popper pop? Would the sky open with angels singing and a beam of sunlight cascading at his feet? Even I, an innocent bystander, wanted to know what “ready” feels like.
I never got to hear the end of their saga. Before I knew it, our check had arrived and we had twenty minutes to spare before our movie time. Not hearing the story’s finale felt like someone had ripped the best mystery novel ever out of my hands, right before I found out the who-done-it (or even the did-he-ever-do-it!).
Dancing the Limbo
I’ve logged in many hours consoling frustrated women (myself included) who have been in Jane’s shoes, a pair of skyscraper five-inch heels that leave us teetering on the edge of confusion and frustration.
A woman who wants to get engaged to a boyfriend who isn’t ready creates the perfect recipe for conflict and intense emotions. And where did I start to notice this conflict the most? Short of being advertised on the back of a bus, it was everywhere. Not only did TV and movies bring us heartwarming stories of perfection (diamond commercials, love stories ending in an “I do,” and all that jazz), they also bombarded us with not-so-perfect times. The times when engagement was a problem, not a promise. It was usually in the form of a comedy’s hearty laugh at the woman’s expense or a drama that ended with a pile of Kleenex on your living room floor.
The phenomenon of the missing ring was even happening when I turned off the TV—like during weekend gossip fests with friends over coffee. I’d barely have blown the foam off my cappuccino when it would begin. With the good (“Did you hear so-and-so got engaged?”) came the bad (“Did you hear so-and-so still isn’t engaged?”). I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m onto something. Does every couple go through this transition?”
I sparked conversations with others about their experiences, and found this waiting time . . . this frustration . . . this argh factor . . . was a relationship passage in itself. It wasn’t a fear of general relationship commitment (the generic commitment phobia) because the couples it plagues have the commitment thing down pat—their relationships have seen several pages of the calendar flipped. No, this was different. I decided to give it a name. Say hello to “pre-engagement limbo.”
When it’s you who’s going through this relationship standstill, you can’t help but feel like you’re the only one. All you can think of is how the engagement party Evites are filling up your inbox. You don’t exactly want to announce to the girls over brunch that your long-term boyfriend doesn’t want to be your long-term husband. Imagine the looks of pity! And the secret thoughts of “What’s wrong with her?” It would only make you feel more vulnerable. So it’s sealed lips and tell-nothing smiles. The truth is, the woman with the latte and scone at the next table might be going through the same thing. The hush-hush leads to another missed opportunity for chick bonding.
Women frustrated with the pace of their relationship say they also feel embarrassed and rejected by their partner’s hesitancy. Surprisingly, hesitancy doesn’t necessarily mean rejection. In most cases, the reason a man might dodge the M-word has little to do with his girlfriend and instead has a lot to do with his own personal struggle and individual pace. Discomfort with change, ideals of perfection, fear of the unknown, and even wondering if Cindy Crawford is looking for him right now can all keep a guy frozen at the knee.
My Own Case of Limbo
I was in a relationship with a man who initially had trouble sorting out his own feelings about getting engaged. I learned a lot from this man. He’s now my husband.
While we were dating, I was talking with a therapist once a week for a couple of months. I needed to figure it all out. Was I in a dead-end relationship? Should I end it and move on or stick it out for the light at the end of the tunnel (maybe the sparkle of a diamond)? Each week I found myself asking her for a translation of my boyfriend’s process, as if she could read the mind of someone she had never met. I wanted a crystal ball, a prediction about how everything would turn out. Were we going to end up together? Was he just going through “stuff”? Was it a simple case of his cold feet or something more?
I vented my frustration to a few of my closest friends, and initially swore them to secrecy—an adult pinky swear that my “shame” wouldn’t get out. I couldn’t bear the thought of people wondering if I was part of a couple in the midst of a standoff. Would they think something was wrong with me or with my relationship?
When people asked me the question I didn’t want to be asked, “When are you two going to get married?” I would hold my chin up high, stand up straight, and try to fool them all by responding, “What’s the rush?” What I really wanted to scream was, “It’s none of your business!” It always amazes me that such a personal question is asked so casually and so often. How was your day? When are you getting married? What’s for dinner?
I wanted to understand. I needed more insight into what was actually happening with my relationship. At the time, my boyfriend couldn’t give me answers to my questions because he had his own conflicting feelings. So I began my quest for information about the “whys” of the “why nots” of proposing. During my search, I found studies and statistics about how much more difficult it is for men to commit to marriage than it is for women. Miss Misery might love company, but the numbers and case studies didn’t seem to help me. I still felt alone.
After leaving the self-help section of the bookstore empty-handed again, I decided it was time to cross the line. The only way to do that—talk to the boys. So I called my closest friends’ husbands for a man’s perspective. I wanted their thoughts on my situation and to find out whether they were afraid to pop their own question to their brides. When did Boys Chase the Girls turn into No Girls Allowed? What makes men tick? Or shall I say, what makes their clocks stop?
Most responded by exclaiming, “Are you kidding? Of course I was afraid to get engaged!” They seemed eager to delve into the past and give me the tell-alls about their experiences. Finally, I was getting honest answers to my questions! These chats helped me begin to understand my own partner. The stories I heard eventually enabled me to talk to my boyfriend about his feelings without taking his comments too personally or defensively. We were able to talk together, transforming what was once so frustrating into one of the richest growing experiences of our relationship.
Considering how helpful it was to hear from other couples also stuck in pre-engagement limbo, I knew this was a topic that needed to get out in the open. The paper I wrote in the spring of 2003 during grad school, “Let’s Hear It from the Men: The Word on Getting Married,” also seemed to spark a bit of interest on the matter. I became inspired to press on.
I continued my research, probing with questions no one had dared to ask:
“What influences you the most to get engaged?”
“How does it feel when friends ask what’s taking so long?”
“Why is it so difficult to talk about the M-word?”
I conducted interviews. I distributed surveys. Realizing just how differently women and men approach this step in their lives, I wanted women to see that the door to the chapel doesn’t always open easily and getting to the altar isn’t always a breeze. I was eager to share what I learned and to guide others through their own pre-engagement stage. To much fanfare, I launched the Web site HisColdFeet.com in February 2005, and started on this journey that led to the book you now hold in your hand.
I remember when a friend read an early draft of my book proposal. After reading a section about how pre-engagement limbo affects women emotionally, she gave me a little feedback that began with the question, “Are you sure women are going to want to read about themselves in this light? You describe how women become consumed with wanting to get engaged.” She thought I should leave that part out.
But that’s exactly what’s been happening. “That part” has been left out of the culture on engagement. The part about how women feel rejected, frustrated, devalued. Leaving it out only makes women feel more confused and alone. She was wrong about another aspect. These women I speak of aren’t needy or weak. On the contrary, they’re strong, and they know what they want. They’re from all walks of life: They run finance departments of major corporations; they’re doctors, artists, teachers. It can happen to anyone—regardless of age, station, or career choice.
Within the pages of His Cold Feet, you’ll read stories from amazing women and men who share their experiences with the determination to let others know they aren’t alone. You’ll find tips and exercises to help you manage your own pre-engagement limbo and effectively communicate with your partner about that walk down the aisle. Featured are survey results, interview excerpts, and frequently asked questions I’ve run into along the way.
While I was working on this book, I interviewed my former graduate school professor Judye Hess, Ph.D., for her take on the matter. A psychologist in the Bay Area, Dr. Hess taught my favorite graduate course on couples therapy. Throughout His Cold Feet, she offers helpful hints and valuable insight in her “Notes from the Professor” sections.
If you acknowledge pre-engagement limbo as a normal relationship stage that most couples encounter, you won’t be surprised when it shows up on your doorstep. You’ll be able to grasp it and get through it, rather than let it move in and take over.
Most importantly, when it comes to talking about the M-word, getting engaged, and planning the wedding, it’s helpful to know that women and men are programmed differently. Understanding each other’s perspective about that walk down the aisle is the essential ingredient needed to get you through the pre-engagement passage. I hope His Cold Feet helps you manage pre-engagement limbo together as a couple, guiding you toward the same goal of a happily-ever-after.
Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Passman Candell. All rights reserved.