Before I got engaged earlier this summer, I made all kinds of jokes about it. I joked that it wasn’t very feminist to assume the man ought to ask. I joked that, by the time I got round to it, the custom would be obsolete. I joked that my best friend and I had signed a ‘non-aggression pact’, meaning neither of us could propose without the other one being given several months’ warning. I joked about how and where I might do it: live on Instagram, or maybe during an Arsenal game. ‘What’s the problem,’ I imagined myself saying to my confused girlfriend. ‘We always go to the centre circle at half-time.’
In hindsight, all this insincerity was a defensive manoeuvre, brought on by the prospect of a moment of unmitigated vulnerability. Like one of the poorly designed space stations in Star Wars, there would be a brief window where I was exposed: shields down. You can’t propose ironically. It is a question, perhaps the only question, which is unavoidably sincere.
‘I forgot to take my sunglasses off, so it was a bit like being proposed to by Bono’
Tempting as it is to suppose that this is some uniquely 21st-century dilemma, I don’t think that’s right. Young men have probably been coy about formal declarations of commitment since Ugg went shyly to Ngg in her cave and proffered his grandmother’s flint ring. By the time I finally got down on bended knee near her parents’ house in West Sussex, I was so nervous that I’d begun to wonder whether the tradition had arisen simply because the build-up reduced men’s legs to jelly. I also forgot to take my sunglasses off, so it was a bit like being proposed to by Bono.
Engagements have always been public affairs, as is clear from the notices pages of the broadsheets with their old-fashioned lists of births, deaths and forthcoming weddings, or ‘hatch, match, despatch’, as my grandmother used to say. But, back then, they were only recorded in black newsprint. Today there’s a performative aspect. We’ve all seen the videos on Youtube. The one that sticks in my mind is the chap who asked unsuccessfully in the middle of a basketball game and was consoled by the Houston Rockets mascot Clutch, a 7ft bear with a fixed grin.
Nevertheless, the ‘reveal’ is an Instagram trope, usually involving a picture of a smiling bride-to-be, on a beach or up a mountain, a beam of light emanating from the diamond ring newly slid onto her finger. The caption says ‘HE DID IT’ or ‘#SHESAIDYES’.
‘The emotions involved in asking someone to marry you outweigh the thrill of a social media post’
Determined to prove that I didn’t need that kind of validation, I promised myself I wouldn’t do one of these posts. My girlfriend (now fiancée, I suppose, although the word is too dreadful to use) isn’t on social media, so there was no pressure from her, nor anyone else. I held firm on putting a picture up for a couple of days. Then I cracked. Everyone else got the #numbers, so why shouldn’t I? Pathetic, I know. I watched the little hearts pile up like an addict who has gone back to his drug, my happiness overtaken by shame.
But it didn’t last long. I’m glad to report the emotions involved in asking someone to marry you do still outweigh the thrill of a social media post. Perhaps there is some kind of deeply ingrained human failsafe that provides perspective at key moments.
After so much thinking about the proposal beforehand, I have been surprised by how happy it’s made me. Partly it’s because of the effect on our families. From both sides there has been a kind of ‘welcome to the firm’ moment I had not expected.
I have also been startled by how making that small leap into a formal part of adulthood feels so deeply satisfactory, in a way that’s hard to explain. For Aristotle, the concept of happiness was unrelated to short-term pleasure, and was instead a state of being. (I don’t think Aristotle would have cared much about the likes.) Perhaps what I’ve felt is the faintest twinge of that. If that sounds smug, it might be because it’s impossible not to. I’ve found someone I love and who loves me, and we’ve agreed to stick together until one of us falls off the twig. And that’s no joke.