Love & Wisdom

A Marital Pump Fake

An excruciating week teaches a valuable lesson

By Danny O’Neil May 9, 2024


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

The proposal went as planned.

My girlfriend thought we were headed to Place Pigalle for dinner, and we were, but only after we’d stopped by The Inn at the Market. I told her I’d heard there was a view from the roof, a ruse so I could lead her to the hotel room she didn’t know I’d reserved.

A bottle of champagne was on ice in the room, and a cheese plate laid out on the table. After she’d stepped inside and taken a look around, I got down on one knee, pulled a jewelry box out of my pocket, and then she brought her hands up to her cheeks, her eyes wide, as I smiled and said I hoped she’d be willing to marry me.

“I can’t really picture my future without you being part of it,” she said. I don’t remember if she actually said, “Yes,” which would become significant only later.

She was fairly quiet during dinner, which she attributed to being surprised. The next morning, we ate breakfast at Cafe Campagne, and then I had to go to work because it was a Sunday, and I covered the Seahawks as a reporter at The Seattle Times and they were playing Arizona. Seattle routed the Cardinals that day, and when I got home that night, my girlfriend was in the kitchen, her glasses slightly fogged from the heat of the stove. She said she needed to go back to the question I’d asked the night before.

“I’m going to need a little bit of time to think about it,” she said.

I’ve found that this is the point in the story where the audience tends to become uncomfortable. They feel bad for me, unsure whether to offer consolation or condolences, which is too bad for a couple of reasons. First, the idea of being subjected to a marital pump fake is objectively hilarious. Second, and way more important, I’m not at all embarrassed or chastened by what happened. I think my proposal and the drama that followed might be the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done, and the fact it didn’t follow the fairy-tale expectations I had for the moment is actually a big reason that I’m actually kind of proud about how the whole thing played out.

My Mom loved to tell me how much I second-guessed myself as a child. We’d be at the store, she’d say, and I’d be told that I could select one toy. I would agonize over this decision, weighing my options, and maybe even pleading with her to buy two items I was considering. Eventually, she’d say I was out of time, and I needed to decide, and I’d pick a toy and wind up being exceptionally happy. For about 30 minutes. Then, my Mom said, I would decide it was the other toy — the one I hadn’t chosen — that I really wanted, at which point I would begin to wail.

My Mom said she would then point out that if I had actually chosen the other toy, I would have played with that one for 30 minutes before deciding I’d made the wrong choice. This was very logical on her part, but I’m told that I found her argument unpersuasive. Now, I have no memory of any of this, but it absolutely sounds like me, and even now — at the age of 49 — I tend to worry that I can’t trust myself to know what I want. This makes it difficult for me to reach a definitive conclusion, a tendency I consciously avoided when considering marriage. I wanted to be direct and unequivocal.

I did not tiptoe around the subject, asking my girlfriend what she thought about marriage either as a general subject or as it related to me specifically. I employed no hypotheticals, floated no trial balloons, and while I asked her parents for permission to propose, this was done out of courtesy and respect as opposed to any sort of fact-finding or reconnaissance.

I thought it might cheapen the moment if I teased out her potential response. I thought a proposal would be less meaningful if I shaved some risk out of the equation. I wanted the proposal to reflect the fact I was so sure of my desire to be married to her that I was willing to ask her to marry me without anything other than the hope that she’d accept, which is probably part of the reason it took me so long to reach this point.

You see, we’d began dating six years before I proposed to her. We had been living together the previous four years. I thought she might be getting tired of waiting, and it wasn’t until she said she needed more time that I understood the depth of uncertainty she still felt. This was, as you might imagine, fairly jarring.

For much of my adult life I have been told I should be more direct in asking for what I wanted. Therapists, my Mom, even bosses. They’ve all told me that my inability to spell out what exactly I am hoping for makes it harder for me to be happy because even the people close to me sometimes don’t know what it is I’m looking for.

That was not the problem here. I’d been clear about what I hoped would happen, but asking for what you want is no guarantee that you will get the answer that you’re hoping for. You may run into a situation where your girlfriend of six years — who also owns the house you’re living in, by the way — says she needs some time to think about whether she actually wants you as a husband.

Viewed objectively, this was an incredibly reasonable request. After all, I’d had years to weigh whether and when I was ready to propose, and then spent weeks setting up this moment where I asked her a question that she felt compelled to answer after a matter of seconds. Of course, she should have every minute she needed to feel as comfortable in her answer as I did in my question.

However, I found it tough to view the situation objectively. Her parents knew I’d proposed. I’d told my Mom that my girlfriend had accepted, and I found it hard to confide in some of my closest friends because I worried that my girlfriend’s uncertainty after six years made me look like a weak and unconvincing partner.

You may run into a situation where your girlfriend of six years says she needs some time to think about whether she actually wants you as a husband.

I laid low for the next few days, checking into a hotel for one night and then staying in the guest bedroom of one of my college roommates. I wanted to provide my girlfriend with some space, but I also didn’t want the pressure of feeling that anything I did — or failed to do — would tip the balance of her decision. Mostly, I worried about whether her uncertainty told me everything I needed to know about our long-term viability.

And then something altogether unexpected happened: I was able to peek past my pride and ego for a few minutes and catch a glimpse of the fuller picture of what had happened. I had wanted my girlfriend to be surprised, shocked even, but in an entirely good way, and when that wasn’t how she felt, I was so hung up on what that might say about me that I failed to recognize that she’d done the exact same thing I had, which was to communicate her feelings in an honest and direct manner despite the fact that this had to be uncomfortable, especially after she’d initially accepted my proposal.

She could have just gone along with the engagement to see if the shock wore off or if she got increasingly excited, but this would have left open the possibility of an even more painful reconsideration down the road. Instead, she did the hard thing. She told me how she was actually feeling, and when I thought about it that way, I became grateful that my girlfriend was taking the time to fully consider her own feelings.

I realize that this is not how we usually talk about these sorts of situations, which is one of the reasons my story about the marital pump fake tends to make people nervous. People tend to describe love and the partnerships we build upon it as things that are felt viscerally as opposed to choices that should be weighed and considered, but over the course of that week of uncertainty I found myself thinking about something my first therapist had said to me years earlier. He told me that research repeatedly showed that the nature of the initial bond between a couple didn’t have all that much to do with how long they stayed together.

The way they managed conflict and resolved disputes was actually much more important than whether it was love at first sight, or two people who’d been friends for years before becoming romantically involved. In other words, what brought people together wasn’t necessarily what kept them together, and it stands to reason that the same thing would hold true with a proposal: It’s not the immediate reaction or the timing of the acceptance that’s important, but how well a couple communicates as they move toward a resolution. When I thought about it like this, I stopped wondering if my girlfriend’s indecision was a warning sign.

The Friday after I proposed to my girlfriend, I had an overnight flight scheduled to the East Coast. The Seahawks were playing the Panthers in North Carolina. My girlfriend called earlier that day to ask that I stop by the house on my way to the airport. There was no champagne chilled, there was no plate of cheese prepared. I don’t even remember if we ate dinner together, but six days after I first proposed, she agreed to marry me. This August, we’ll celebrate our 16th anniversary, and while I may be prone to second-guessing decisions, I can say for sure that this was a choice that I am so lucky to have gotten the chance to wait for.

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