Another fine letter from enthusiastic reader Tom S:
Does the most sage dating Guru of gurus have advice for how my friend might propose marriage? What should he say and do? How will he know when it’s time to propose? What should he wear? It’s only the 10th century BCE here in Arabia and religion hasn’t been invented yet, and there are no scrolls from Gilgamesh addressing this topic. We will be most grateful, even willing to sacrifice a camel or two in your honor.
Y’know, it’s been a while since I last had a proper camel sacrifice. It’s a lost art, really. A little messy, granted, but there’s really nothing quite like broiled Bactrian hump. And it makes the orphans at the caravansarai so happy.
What’s this now? Proposing marriage, eh. Sounds mighty serious.
And you know what? It is serious. The biggest decision you’ve ever made in your life. Even bigger than deciding between steak and seafood, corduroys and jeans, Coachella and Bonaroo, Audi and BMW.
Basically, you’re pledging to tie yourself to another person forever. And forever is a pretty freakin’ long time.
Generally speaking, I do my best not to dispense advice too far beyond the courtship phase. I’m just here to help give you the problem — err, I mean relationship. Once you have it, you’re better off listening to scientists like John Gottman who really know what happens on that planet. The Tao of Dating books are 12 chapters about courtship and one about relationship. Moreover, I’ve never proposed to anyone, so far be it from me to instruct in that domain.
That said, my job here is to help you make better decisions. So when it comes to big-ticket decisions like this, you had better make sure you have all the safeguards in place so you don’t do something stupid — like marrying the girl who’s going to make you miserable.
So here are some guidelines:
1) Do not propose if you’re deeply in love.
Is it a good idea to buy a car if you’re drunk? Then it’s also not a good idea to propose if you’re in love with someone.
What?!? Isn’t that the reason to get married?
No, no, no and hell no, brother. That’s some weird bill of sale that the romance books have sold you. Up to very recent times in human history, that’s not why people got married. And, judging from the 50%+ divorce rates in this country, it’s not a very good reason to do so.
Why? Because the most reliable aspect of falling in love is that you will fall out of it. Guaranteed. After 18 months, on average.
Generally, you should not make big-ticket decisions in a state of acute intoxication. And being in love is very much a state of acute intoxication.
Brain imaging studies of people in love show that their mind functions as if they’re kinda nuts. Whole parts of executive judgment just plain fall out of your cranium. Heck, you’ve seen parts of the brains of your googly-eyed buddies splatted on the sidewalk as they mumble ‘yes dear’ while carrying Macy’s shopping bags, and it ain’t pretty.
What should you do instead?
Being in love is drunkenness and impaired judgment. It tends to peak early, then decline — regression to the mean. Real love tends to build over time, not decline. If the crazy love has worn off but you just really like having her around, and imagine a life with her is a hell of a lot better than a life without her, and you can tell she’s going to make a fine mother for your children, then go for it.
Marriage is a vast edifice deserving of a strong foundation. Don’t build it on the flimsy leaves of infatuation.
2) Get a prenuptial agreement — especially if you’re rich.
Yeah, I know you’re different. And I know you really, really love each other.
But you know what? Nobody goes to the altar not really, really loving each other at that moment. Hate to break it to ya, but it ain’t all that special.
So take a deep breath, recognize your humanity (read: fallibility) and concede that, in this country, you’ve got a 50-50 shot that this is going to work.
Dude — you have no idea who you’re marrying until you marry her. It’s like trying to practice swimming on dry land: no amount of preparation does you any good until you take the plunge.
So be smart about it, and if you truly love her and love yourself, line things up beforehand to avoid a rancorous split should things go sour. Divorce is a terrible, awful, miserable thing — especially if there are worldly goods and children involved.
And if you have been industrious and lucky enough to have accumulated some assets, protect your life’s work. Some may say this is not very romantic. If you truly loved her, then what’s yours is hers and vice versa, right?
Well, the flip side of that argument is that if she truly loved you, it wouldn’t matter if you were a prince or pauper, right? If she’s not marrying you for your money, then you keeping most of your toys shouldn’t be an issue, right? So draw something up that divides things up fairly before trouble arises.
3) Consult your buddies before making the final decision.
Even though I said that you shouldn’t get married when you’re in love, you’re still going to do that. Hey, it’s fine; you’ve been hit by the stupid stick and there’s not a whole lot I can do.
But please, please consult your best friends before you make the final decision. If a unanimous chorus of your buddies says we don’t really like her, you should listen. Really, really, listen. One guy? Okay, maybe he’s jealous. Two — perhaps a statistical anomaly. But all of them — including your female friends, and your parents and your sister?
The wise men of the east say that the knife can’t cut itself, and the tongue can’t taste itself. And you are too close to yourself to be able to see clearly what you’re getting yourself into. Consult reliable outside opinion before taking the plunge.
4) Make only promises you can keep regarding monogamy.
Do you believe in Santa Claus? No? Oh, you’re no fun. But he’s in the mall! With kids sitting on his lap! Is that not proof enough?
No, because you know better. Santa Claus is a figment of the imagination, a fanciful mental construct with no basis in reality. You don’t believe in that stuff nor rely on it.
You know what else is a fanciful mental construct that has no basis in reality? Monogamy. As far as anyone can tell, it does not exist anywhere in nature. Anywhere. No, not even in ‘swans that mate for life’ — geneticists have definitive evidence that even they do their fair share of flitting about.
Okay, so there is this one species of slug. And when the male and the female mate, they actually fuse and become one slug. If that’s your idea of a healthy relationship, be my guest. But other than that, every other species has excursions, technically called extra-pair couplings.
Some have ’em more often than others. Chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, tend to go bananas with their voracious sexual appetites. Gorillas, not so much (although each alpha male keeps a nice harem, which isn’t strictly monogamy in my book). Prairie voles are primarily monogamous, and montane voles are primarily horndogs.
Keep in mind that only 3% of all mammalian species form any kind of monogamous relationship at all. We are part of that 3%, and fall somewhere between the chimp and gorilla in our appetites. As the scientists would call it, we are primarily monogamous with excursions.
Long story short: there will be excursions. Count on it. For both you and her, with the man slightly more likely to do it than the woman.
Forever is a really, really long time to be doing the sacred bone dance with one and only one woman, buddy. Think about that before saying yeah, I can do this.
So make sure you cover this before you get married. It is possible to have sex outside of your primary relationship and still love one another and still have a great family life. And it need not be guilty, surreptitious or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, going whole hog swinger mode. Just make sure you only make promises you can keep. Cheating is more about betrayal of trust and breaking of a promise than some bodily act. Keep your promises — it’s what makes you a man.
Other cultures don’t get so bent out of shape when it comes to extra-pair couplings. Russian, Japanese, French, Swedish, Brazilian people — heck, most of the rest of the world — have such matters already baked into their mores. Go figure out what works for them, and then figure out what works for you. The Tao is all about seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it would be. Know what you’re capable of.
5) Buy her something other than a diamond.
This is more of a personal peeve, so I’m going to make this optional rather than mandatory. But please consider that the whole ‘tradition’ of buying her a rock that costs twice your monthly salary is one of the biggest scams ever foisted upon mankind. And you, my good man, are too smart to fall for it.
Before the 1930s, the diamond engagement ring tradition simply did not exist. And it wasn’t until DeBeers ran its infamous ‘A Diamond is Forever’ ad campaign in 1948 that diamond engagement rings became common.
Boys — this is a complete and total marketing scam. There is nothing enshrined in scripture or etched in tablet that says you need to buy a her transparent pebble to prove your love. Screw that.
Especially when you consider that Cecil B. Rhodes, the founder of DeBeers, was one of the nastiest, most ruthless, racist jerks who ever walked the face of the earth. And that the DeBeers monopoly engages in unbelievably predatory practices, artificially inflating the price of diamonds to 10-100x of what they should be. And that the diamond you buy her may come at the cost of the blood of innocent folks in, say, Sierra Leone.
If you must, get her a sapphire — they’re prettier anyway. Or better, spend the money on an awesome trip to the Galapagos Islands.
All the best