Ask An Adult: Can Your Relationship Survive If You Turn Down Your Partner’s Marriage Proposal?
The Debrief: There are numerous reasons why people would reject a proposal, from being worried about paying for the massive cost of a wedding to it not feeling right or them not being together long enough..but can your relationship survive if you turn it down?
Illustration by Studio Pop
If you’re anything like me, your Facebook news feed will seem like a constant merry-go-round of photos of people being proposed to, accepting it, being on a hen do then of the wedding itself, or you’ll be spending great swathes of your summer watching your pals getting married. Whether you personally believe in marriage or not, it’s clear that many people see it as an important part of moving their relationship forward and showing commitment to one another.
However, I can’t help but wonder about the other side of the coin, the people who get proposed to but don’t post a picture of themselves flashing their rock on social media – because they’ve turned their partner down. It’s more common than you would think. According to a 2015 study a quarter of women have said no to their partner’s proposal, with the main reason being ‘I wasn’t certain they were the one’. Surely saying no would cause irreparable harm to your relationship going forward, and there’s no way it could bounce back?
Not necessarily, believes relationship expert Olga Levancuka. ‘It can bounce back, but it depends on the person who is proposing and what their reason for it is,’ she says. ‘If marriage is a deal breaker for them then obviously it is going to be harder to get back to how things were before this incident. However, marriage is a strong word, some people associate it with divorce, so if you want to stay together you need to explain that even if you don’t want to get married it’s not that you’re saying no to that relationship and that you don’t love the person. In this case, for example, even though there will be hurt then it can heal.’
There are numerous reasons why people would reject a proposal, from being worried about paying for the massive cost of a wedding to it not feeling right or them not being together long enough. ‘Also, it can be common for people to propose when they don’t see the relationship going anywhere and feel it might be the last chance to try and help things,’ Levancuka says. ‘Obviously in this case, if they are rejected by their partner, it is unlikely that they will see the future happening and you wouldn’t expect the relationship to be saved.’
The instantaneous nature of proposals also means that it’s very difficult to be able to prepare for the moment, especially if you feel like your partner popping the question has come out of the blue. ‘You might not necessarily be able to say ‘no, I’m not ready but I love you, and we need to talk’ like you might want to,’ Levancuka explains. ‘It’s important that you need to discuss your feelings as soon as you can, say a day or two days later. The topic has to be addressed and both parties need to voice their opinion.’
She advises that if you are proposed to and love your partner, and do still want to be with them, but aren’t ready for, or don’t believe in, marriage then you have to be upfront about it, and tell them that you rejecting the proposal doesn’t mean that you want to end the relationship. ‘There is an incorrect belief sometimes from the person proposing where they think that if their partner says yes then it’s them voicing the fact they love you, whereas if they say no it means they don’t,’ Levancuka adds. ‘Sometimes if they haven’t discussed this with their partner the proposal can come out of the blue to them and it’s a pure fight or flight reaction – you may really like your partner and eventually want to marry them, but you’re put on the spot and under huge pressure.’
This is something Emma, 23, can relate to. Last summer she was on a two-week holiday to Cuba with her boyfriend of four years when he proposed to her on the beach on the penultimate night of their trip. ‘We’d never really properly discussed it before, just as a very far off in the future kind of thing,’ she explains. ‘We’d been going out for a while, but I still felt very young. I thought we were on the same page – we were still living at home, had just finished university and were trying to get jobs before moving in together, and I believed that was our shared plan.’ In fact, he’d had the ring for six months, so had been planning to propose for a while, and he’d spoken to her parents in advance. ‘My mum had actually expressed concern that I was still quite young and might not be ready,’ Emma adds.
When the proposal happened, she initially said yes ‘out of shock’. ‘I didn’t know what else to say really. You feel like you have to give such a direct yes or no answer. Thinking about it afterwards I felt like I knew I loved him but I was so not ready. I also was a bit embarrassed and didn’t want to put anything up on social media. I felt I needed to speak to him properly about it when we got home,’ she tells me.
Though she was honest and told her boyfriend that she still loved him and wanted to marry him one day but didn’t want to be engaged just yet, he remained hurt. ‘He was really upset and angry. We had a row and said we’d work to get over it, but the argument never went away,’ she says.
It can feel like there’s a bit of pressure on couples that have been together for a few years to take their relationship forward by getting engaged. As somebody who was with my boyfriend for six years before he asked me, from about two – three years in I had people starting to question why we’d not done this yet, even though I was only about 23 at the time. This is something Emma agrees with. ‘I think sometimes people get engaged because they don't know what to do next. I think it can look like it's not going anywhere if you've been together a while and you've not moved on, even though that isn’t right. I think his proposal could have been down to that – him wondering where we were going next with our relationship.’
Although Emma seemed to be reasonable in the way she responded to the situation by openly talking to her boyfriend about her feelings, it’s clear that it still caused a massive rift. I ask Olga Levancuka if she suggests anything else you can do to save the relationship. ‘If there is a moment of clarity in your head and can think about what to say before jumping in and saying no during the actual proposal, one thing you can say is 'I'd love to, but can we stay engaged for a longer time' to judge how you feel about marriage,’ she says. ‘I actually had this situation myself when I was proposed to. I almost said no, because I felt I didn't want to marry him, but I also didn't want to hurt his feelings, so I accepted and asked if he would be OK with being engaged for two years. He was hurt at first but agreed and we did continue our relationship.’
Also, although she wouldn’t normally suggest this, Levancuka says talking to friends can help. ‘I’m usually against people talking to their friends about relationship matters, but your mutual friends will be interested in you to being together. You can explain to them that you’ve not turned your partner down because you want to end the relationship, but that there are other reasons and you still want to be together, and they can offer helpful advice.’
However, they need to be on the same page. ‘I rang our mutual friend who’d known me and my boyfriend for a long time, but she really wanted to get engaged and told me that what had happened to me was great. It felt a bit like it wasn’t what I wanted to hear,’ Emma says. ‘Also, quite a few of my other mates, especially my ones from primary school, were really keen to get engaged and they couldn't really understand why I said no at first. It just felt that even though we were the same age they were at different life stages – they’d got jobs at 16 and had been in careers longer, but I wasn’t there yet.’
In the end, for Emma and her boyfriend, the damage was done, and they split up in February this year. ‘Every time we had a bit of a disagreement it always came back to the proposal thing, it just spiralled from there really,’ she says. ‘It was too awkward and it felt it was never going to go away.’ Even when they both were offered jobs in the same city, Emma says the argument came up again. ‘We’d been talking about moving in but it just felt we’d taken a few steps back in our relationship. It felt like he didn’t want to do that because I didn’t want to marry him so that never happened. Our split was over a few other things too, but I think it mainly happened because we couldn’t repair things after I said no to his proposal,’ she adds.
The 2015 study says 23% of people who declined a proposal regretted it later on. I wonder if Emma believes she made the right decision now her relationship has ended. ‘I definitely do,’ she tells me. ‘Life changed anyway – I got a full-time job, met new people and formed different friendship groups. If we’d been engaged we would have had our old same arguments, but there would have been more pressure on it. It might be right for other people, but at this point in my life it wouldn’t have been right for me.’
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