What I Gained From An Awkward Failed Marriage Proposal

by Sarah Gundle, Psy.D.
Originally Published: 
A woman wearing a blue shirt taking off her engagement ring

I wondered why he had chosen such a fancy place to catch up, but I was happy to have a reason to wear a dress for the first time in a year. It had been six long Covid months since I had seen him for a brief coffee, and a year and a half since our breakup.

We had remained friendly after breaking up, occasionally texting or calling with the easy intimacy of people who had once been close. Sometimes it crossed the line into flirtation, but mostly he called me to ask my opinion about the new women in his life.

“No, Matt, that was a really bad call,” I admonished when he called to ask if his current flame was right to be upset when he made a joke about orgasms the first time he met her friends. His gravelly laugh always made me smile.

I broke up with him because the chasm between us felt too wide. He lived upstate, I lived in the city. He was winding down his career, his kids were adults; mine were still in school. But, more than that, I never really felt that we had gotten to know each other.

Our whole relationship had felt to me like an impressionist painting: dreamlike, hazy, and fleetingly beautiful. Our first date he took me to the Philharmonic. I almost didn’t respond to his online profile email, because he was much older than me. I admired the pluck of someone asking for a first date at Lincoln Center, though. He intrigued me. We spent weekends at his beautiful house facing the Shawangunk mountains. He made me perfect lemon pancakes from scratch, which we ate outside looking at the wildflower meadow that bordered his yard. His house was such a contrast to my messy apartment covered in children’s paintings: lovely and serene.

The stolen weekends felt like taking a deep breath that I didn’t realize I had needed. I wasn’t a parent, I wasn’t a disappointing daughter, I didn’t have any responsibilities. I felt filled up by our time together. He wooed me with architecture, driving me around to buildings he had designed and talking about the poetry between earth and glass and why he used stone and land to define spaces. We kissed in the rain outside a visitor center set into a mountain which he had designed. He made me laugh. The weekends were magical but also felt like falling into the looking glass in Alice in Wonderland: not real life.

Throughout our time together, I held back and he didn’t prod. I didn’t particularly want him to. I was enjoying being in a fantasy. He didn’t notice the huge chunk that was missing in our communication. The toddler tantrums that left me in tears, my teenager’s mood swings, my decision to cease contact with my father during the time we were dating: I didn’t mention any of this and he didn’t ask.

It came to a head when he wanted to go to Mexico on an architecture tour led by MOMA.

“Come on, it’ll be amazing,” he called me one day.

I remember answering the phone while sitting in my living room with my 4-year-old, surrounded by LEGOs and Polly Pockets, a half-eaten waffle on a plate leaking syrup. I hadn’t showered; we were still in pajamas. I thought about him in his beautiful house: the huge windows and expanse of space, and all that he didn’t understand about my life or about me. That person, the person who could jet off to Mexico to look at art on short notice — that was decidedly not me. I understood that our brief but lovely interlude had run its course. A cheerful and inveterate optimist, he tried to convince me it could work. But I knew we had reached the other side of the looking glass.

So when he got down on one knee to propose, all this time later, I couldn’t quite understand what was happening.

“Sarah, I know this is sudden, I realize it’s crazy, but I’ve been thinking about it and I think you’re the one. Will you marry me?”

I was so disoriented I almost said, “The one, what?”

Was he drunk? Was this a sudden impulse? But then I saw the hovering waiter with two glasses of champagne on a tray standing to the side. Matt’s eyes were shining. He looked at me pleadingly, earnestly. I put my hand in his cheek as several excruciatingly long moments passed. He began to frown, eventually getting up and sitting down heavily on the chair. The waiter shifted and began to look uncomfortable.

“Matt, what is going on? I’ve seen you once in the last year. What is this about?” I was trying to find my way out of my fog of confusion. I was also aware of the restaurant guests around us staring. I tried to ignore them.

He looked at me pensively, clearly.

“All this time I’ve had alone, all the isolation of this year, of Covid, what I realized is that I just don’t want to be alone. And I just keep returning over and over to you. You’re the most beautiful soul I know, and I think we can make a life together. I know we can. All those issues, all those barriers, between us, we can figure it out. They aren’t insurmountable.”

I searched for the right thing to say and came up short. Was he really expecting I would say yes? Was this brazen overconfidence or a sweet romantic gesture? I reached for his hands.

I told him what I hadn’t when we were actually dating.

“You really don’t know me. You think you do, but I’m not really the person you think I am.”

“What? No, I do know you.” He looked dejected. I felt myself stiffen as I continued.

“Honestly, Matt, I’m not sure this is about me at all.” I said this softly, carefully, still gripping his hands. I had his attention.

“I think … you’re looking for a way out of this bad year. It’s been hell. But, Matt, I am not your salvation. It’s not that easy.”

“Do you really think that’s true, that I don’t know you?”

“I think you have no idea who I really am. You knew my funny, charming stories about my children. You knew my renovation travails. But you never knew the other side of those things, the parts I struggled with-because I never told you. I left so much out. And you never asked.”

He looked pensive.

“Wow,” he said, looking down. “This is not how I saw this night going.”

We were still holding hands. The people around us averted their gazes, and the waiter eventually backed away. I turned his hand over and traced his palm nervously.

“I don’t really know you, either Matt. But you know what? I want to. Do you want to try to do that?”

“You sure you don’t just want to marry me?” he smiled wanly.

Deflated, he drove me home and we hugged in the car for a long time. Some precarious edge felt like it had been traversed. It remained to be seen what was on the other side.

There is an exquisite comfort in disappointment, in having the worst thing happen and be left standing. It changed us. When we were dating he regaled me with shiny anecdotes about his daughter living in Paris and his trips to see her. I imagined her as a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, the two of them people-watching while sitting in sidewalk cafes. But now I began to learn about her anger toward him, the messiness of his divorce and its impact on her. Also, that she was living hand to mouth and had moved in with a man twice her age. One day, after I had just had the door slammed in my face by my oldest daughter, I answered his call in tears. The conversation drifted to my father and, instead of glossing over my problems, I told him how devastating it felt to have separated from him for good. After he recounted a call with his ex-wife, I told him he was arrogant and self-centered. He hung up on me, then called back five minutes later. “You might have a point,” he admitted. Eventually we returned to the proposal.

“Matt, when you’re anxious you’ve told me you just take on a new project and throw yourself into it,” I said to him one day.

“That’s true.” He nodded.

“I don’t think you can solve existential anxiety with architecture this time. I think I was your new project that you could throw yourself into. But you didn’t even notice I wasn’t even remotely on the same page. That didn’t feel good.”

He came into the city to return the ring and we met for a drink. Afterward he turned to me, grinning. “You want to come with me?”

The question felt almost as improbable as the proposal. But this one I enthusiastically agreed to.

The salesperson winced as he arranged the refund. “Didn’t go as planned, huh?” he remarked. Matt looked at me and smiled. “No, not exactly. But I got something else.” I linked my arm in his as we walked out of the store.

Once, he had been an escape from my everyday life; now, the spell broken, he was much more: a friend.

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