The Most Unromantic Proposal

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I was watching The Newsroom season finale this week and …

Spoiler Alert!: Only a small one but if you plan to watch the finale, skip to the (*) asterisk down the page.

There’s a moment when one of the characters, Don, invites his on-again, off-again girlfriend Maggie into his apartment. The lights are off, the living room is glowing with candles and Don pulls out a box. At this point, any girl watching this scene with the sound off would have immediately thought, “Oh, he’s going to propose!”

Which he did. Except instead of a diamond ring as a symbol of his love and devotion, Don offers Maggie a key to his apartment. A key she already has. He’s not asking her to marry him, he’s asking her to move in. And though she came there to break up, she says yes.

That’s when I yelled at the screen, “What?! Nooooo!” sending my poor dog running for the other room.

Since when did asking someone to move in with you become the epitome of love and commitment?

Is that what little girls grow up dreaming about, that someday a man is going to stage a romantic experience so he can ask her to move in with him?

Whatever the reason — perhaps it’s because so many of us have been affected by divorce in our families, because we really do want to get married but don’t want to seem archaic by admitting that, or because it is now part of the standard script of relationships that moving in happens before marriage — we do our best to ignore what that moment really is: the most unromantic proposal.

By moving in with someone you’re saying, “I love you,” with an asterisk.

You like them, you might even love them. This could be,“The One.” So you’re both taking this huge step of committing to each other. Without fully committing. You like them enough to move in together, split the bills, and play house, but not so much that you’re willing to take a stand and publicly pledge your lives, your fortunes and your futures to each other, no matter what. With one foot in the relationship and one foot out, you each get to keep an exit option available.

The hard truth is that neither of you are completely sold on the other.

Oh, that’s not what you actually say as you’re moving boxes and picking out curtains. But subconsciously that is what is implied. If in 6 months or even 5 years you wake up and decide they’re not the one for you, that you’ve had enough, that perhaps you didn’t really love them, that your love has run its course or that you’ve found someone who suits you better, you can leave.

You’re acknowledging that there are things you could find out about them in your time together that would justify ending the relationship. But what is that? Too many dirty dishes? Looking less than stellar in the morning? Finding out that she says things the same way as her mom, or that like his dad, he yells at the newspaper while he reads it? If you’ve made it this far, those are unlikely to be grounds for breaking up.

Perhaps it’s more serious, like one of you not wanting kids, careers, or differences of faith and how that impacts your life. Those big questions should already be discussed before the relationship even gets to this point. If you find yourself avoiding those conversations, it may be that you’re afraid of what the answers will be and already know that this isn’t the best long-term fit for you.

Placing an asterisk on your commitment undermines the trust you have in that other person and makes it difficult to fully invest. Subconsciously you may hold yourself back, doing your best to avoid being too emotional, too demanding, too needy, too little, too much, too you. Both people are stifled in their growth, with conflicts and frustrations brushed aside for fear of upsetting the balance. Unfortunately, any relationship will eventually implode under those conditions, whether it’s before or after the wedding.

We’re a generation afraid of commitment and wounded by our parent’s failures.

We hope that by moving in together, we’ll be able to avoid the divorces that have ripped apart so many of our families and left us hurt and cynical.

Yet it is a divorce when a couple who has been living together breaks up: a divorce of hearts, dreams, and lives that have become intertwined as they’ve shared a bed, friends, pets, and experiences. The difference is that they’re expected to bounce back more quickly than those who were married, to grieve less and be grateful they dodged a bullet. It’s all valuable life experience for the next relationship.

Citing a nationwide survey done by the National Marriage Project, Meg Jay points out in an article for the NY Times that while about two-thirds of 20-something said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce, “…that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not.”

Why? Because you cannot practice permanent.

I’ve been telling that to students and young adults for years, although I’m far from the first to say it. It’s not meant to be pithy. It’s reality. Nearly two years of marriage has taught me that 1) No matter how much you think you know this person, they will continue to surprise you (hopefully for the rest of your life) and 2) You cannot predict the curve balls that life will throw at you. You may experience wealth, poverty, death, rebellious children, no children, children with terminal illnesses, mental breakdowns, job losses, cancer, car crashes, breathtaking adventures and huge disappointments. You can do your best to plan, but ultimately, you’re not in complete control.

You cannot practice permanent because you cannot predict what will be. Your control lies only in your decision whether or not to commit fully to that relationship, to be in with both feet regardless of what may happen. You get up and fight for that relationship, even if that sometimes means fighting each other. You do the work to keep it interesting, spontaneous and fun. You make sacrifices, do the hard work of being honest about hurts and insecurities and daily choose to put your marriage about career, friends, even children. Every day.

This post is not meant as an indictment on people currently living together or thinking of moving in. Consider it a challenge against the prescribed social script that is undermining so many of our relationships. We do not have to settle for partial commitment on our way to a real committment. Don’t be afraid to expect more out of your relationship, and to be willing to wait for the one where you can hear and say, “I Love You,” without an asterisk.

Do you think moving in is an unromantic proposal? Or is it a necessary step towards marriage?

Photo Credit: Ambrose Luk via flickr