Waiting many years before getting engaged is perfectly normal for modern couples, writes Emma Barnett
“Thank god for that. You must be soooo relieved!” an old friend purred down the phone. It was not quite the reaction I’d been expecting.
It would have been fine if I was ringing to tell her I’d been given the all-clear from the optometrist (I was worried at the time that I might be losing my sight) or that I’d finally got rid of my ingrowing toenail. But I was calling to tell her I’d become engaged.
Thankfully, she was quite near the end of the long list of people I excitedly rang – and I knew who I could rely upon to scream with joy rather than relief, so I called them first. But still, it was strange and a little bit depressing to get not congratulations or happy clucking, but patronising pity.
You see, my boyfriend and I had been dating for seven years. And it’s because of that – and the memory of the creeping pressure on my husband and me to get married – that my fullest sympathies, as well as congratulations, go out to Kim Sears.
This newspaper’s headline, for example, read: “Victory to love as Murray finally proposes”, announcing the news that Andy Murray had asked Miss Sears to become his wife, after nine years of dating. It was a nice play on words – but why the “finally”?
I understand that from the sidelines – and to Murray’s many supporters – it may appear like a long time to wait. But to lovely, beautifully coiffed Kim, it was probably the perfect timing. Because when your love proposes, it’s the best feeling in the world – whether it’s been nine weeks or nine years. So why is there still this widespread assumption that 26-year-old Kim has been waiting like a faithful dog to be proposed to all this time? She may paint them for a living (being an animal portraitist), but just because we see her dutifully supporting her man at his tournaments doesn’t mean she does nothing between his matches except pine for a wedding to plan.
When my own husband – and how I relish that word – proposed, on the exact spot where we had first met, I felt a kind of happiness that I didn’t think was possible. I was bowled over by how exultant I felt. I thought the cynicism of life had beaten that kind of elation out of me. But it turns out that a proposal wipes the slate clean, and takes you right back to the kind of pure, innocent pleasure you feel when you go on a bouncy castle for the first time.
Yet there was my friend, doling out the relief and sympathy, because “you’d taken a while and people were starting to get worried something was wrong”. Lovely.
Like Kim, I met my future husband young. They were 18 and 17 respectively; I was 20, going into my third year of university. We knew barely anything about ourselves, or what we wanted to do with our lives. Yet we both knew we’d met “the one” stupidly early.
As a result, there was no rush for anything. We continued living with other people in messy places filled with the stench of hangovers and pizza (and, in one case, a rotting mouse). Then, four years later, we took the plunge and moved in together. But it was a further three years before he proposed, at the age of 27.
This is what my generation do – especially the ones who met at university or just afterwards. We dawdle along together; get our first jobs together; rent together; grow up together. And then, when we feel we know each other inside out, we get married. It may seem like an age to our parents and friends, but really, there’s no rush. Even our future monarch took his own sweet time to wed his university love. As the cheesy, but wise, Finnish proverb goes: “Love is a flower which turns into fruit at marriage.”
It’s only sensible. A sobering study earlier this week showed how the effects of divorce can be absolutely devastating on all parties – not least on any children involved. So why not be absolutely sure before you take the plunge?
Both Kim and I are fortunate to be among the first generations of Western women who don’t need to marry for social acceptability or economic security. Marriage used to be a gamble when you weren’t allowed to share a home or sleep together beforehand. But now all the societal norms are in place for both parties to suss each other out.
Was I the only one bewildered by Cheryl Cole’s decision to marry her new French boyfriend, Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini, after just three months earlier this year? Of course certainty about matters of the heart happens quicker as you age. But three months is the stuff of lightning bolts.
Nor should these multi-year courtships be taken as a sign of people being scared of commitment. If anything, pragmatism often trumps the romance of a wedding, as many of these couples use their shared funds to try to get a measly step on the property ladder, rather than splashing out on rings. In many ways, buying a property together is far more of a commitment.
Of course, there is always a time limit, which will differ from couple to couple. For all of the freedoms afforded to my generation, most of us still want to leave the proposing to the men. And most of them who are worth their salt know when enough is enough – or at least have someone else in their life to give them a kick up the backside.
No man, when they pop the question, wants the reply to be: “Finally! You took your time.” They want a rip-roaring, tear-fuelled and very surprised: “YES!”
Which is how I am sure it played out for the future Mr and Mrs Murray. I’m not “relieved” for Kim – I’m over the flipping moon. She should enjoy the moment for as long as possible. Because next comes all the tiresome wedding planning, and after that there’ll be a whole new kind of pressure. But don’t get me started on that one…
This article first appeared in The Telegraph on November 28 2014