Today’s guest post comes from author, psychologist, and blogger Lisa. She writes:
I’d always wondered how someone is caught unawares by a marriage proposal in this day and age. If you’re in a committed relationship that’s working well, surely you’d have some idea if one party in that equation were planning on popping the question, right? I mean, how dumb are people?
So, yeah, apparently I’m dumb.
This was the first conclusion I reached one evening in Malibu when the man that I’d been getting to know long distance via email and Skype for several months got down on one knee on the twentieth day we had spent in the same country and asked me to marry him. I looked at this man, kneeling on our picnic blanket in front of white wine, strawberries, and macadamia nuts, and for one long moment I had no idea what to say.
So let me back up and set the scene here, because scene setting is a valuable skill that should be exercised during the shaping of all stories and, as I learned that evening in Malibu, quite possibly in advance of all major life-altering decisions, as well.
Mike and I met in a globally roundabout sort of way. After my first novel was published, a press release landed on the desk of a magazine editor in Atlanta named Erin. Erin was less intrigued by my book than by the description of my day job as “Director of Training for a non-profit organization that provides psychological support to humanitarian workers worldwide.” Erin thought of her good friend, Mike, an American humanitarian worker in Papua New Guinea who could perhaps benefit from some information on stress and resilience. She went to my website. Once she’d read a couple of my essays, she emailed Mike informing him that she’d found his woman for him—an Australian living in Los Angeles—and that he could thank her later.
Mike rolled his eyes upon receiving this email and then wrote back, reminding Erin that he lived in a remote town serviced only by unreliable dial up internet, and that he wasn’t about to go browsing the website of some stranger living on the other side of the world.
Undeterred, Erin revisited my website, cut and pasted all of my essays into a word document, and emailed it to him.
Entertainment being in short supply in Papua New Guinea, Mike actually read these essays and then found himself intrigued. He did visit my website, and as the photo on the front page slowly scrolled open, he realized he had seen my face once that week already – on the Facebook page of one of his friends in Australia. He decided to drop me a line, mentioning this mutual Facebook friend, and asking to be added to my mailing list. Three days later, he dropped me more than a line. He sent me a three page letter confessing that my essays about the familiar struggles and joys connected to humanitarian work had captivated him. He knew that long distance relationships were challenging, he wrote, but he also wanted to get to know me better. What did I think?
I thought many things, not the least of which was: Who is this stranger who is writing to me of long distance relationships? And how on earth did he manage to pull it off without being creepy? And why am I even interested?
For I was interested. Mike’s letter was frank and funny and talked of living and working in Tajikistan, Uganda, and Sri Lanka before landing in PNG. I figured that anyone who could survive those postings in short order was either seriously interesting or seriously crazy. Perhaps both. At 31 he was exactly my age. And he was cute. He’d sent along one of his own essays and a link to some photos he’d taken during his travels. In one of those photos he was kneeling, grinning broadly and blowing bubbles, surrounded by excited children in Rwanda.
I was no long distance relationship novice myself, and none of mine had ended well. With one man – emboldened by the safety of distance and titillated by the mystery distance enforced – I had careened far too fast down the path of intimacy. With another man, the raw, lyrical honesty of his writing had shivered through me as if he’d struck a large bronze bell in my soul. I’d even flown to another country to meet this guy, only to have all that e-chemistry evaporate in the flesh. During the last five years I’d learned my lessons well with regards to long distance relationships. These lessons are remarkably similar to the rules that lifeguards drill into us at public pools on steamy summer days:
Danger! Walk, don’t run, because the ground here is slippery. And no diving headfirst, even if the water looks like it’s deep enough.
So what did I think? “Let’s email,” I answered this charming stranger the next day. “As friends. Or as people who think they may want to become friends. With no expectations of anything more until we at least cross paths in person, if we ever get there.”
And email we did. During the next three months the two of us completed work assignments in six countries and managed to exchange more than ninety thousand words—the length of a standard novel.
“What are you writing about in all those letters?” my sister wanted to know when I stopped over at her place in Washington DC one weekend.
“Our childhoods,” I said. “Our families, our work, finding purpose and passion and exhaustion and frustration all mixed up in that work, what our day has been like, or whatever it is that we’re thinking about at the time. I don’t know. We never seem to run out of things to write about.”
Our letters were almost entirely devoid of e-flirtaton. But almost six weeks into our dialogue, when Mike wrote asking whether he could plan to meet up with me in Australia during my upcoming holiday in January, it seemed perfectly natural to say yes. And, in Australia, after ten days spent largely on the deck of my parents’ house talking through all manner of issues, we decided to give this long distance relationship a serious go. Two weeks after we’d met for the first time we parted ways in Melbourne airport with a kiss, planning on meeting next in Los Angeles in three more months.
During those three months, as we continued to write and found ways to talk for hours on skype dates whenever we could, our relationship continued to flourish at a natural and steady pace despite the distance.
That distance made things more difficult in many ways. It rendered our quirks as adorable abstractions and robbed us of opportunities to identify differences. It took effort to rearrange schedules to talk and a great deal of patience on days when the internet wasn’t working. Intermittent week-long stretches of total silence when Mike was out working in remote villages sometimes assaulted my sense of surety in the concept of “us” and prompted unexpected mood swings.
But having nothing to build our relationship with but words also forced us to cover a lot of ground. Doing this at great distance–unable to exchange text messages and only able to talk every couple of days–also removed some of the pressure and pitfalls that attend 24-hour accessibility and expectations of instantaneous response. It slowed us down, granted us extra time and space to think, and encouraged us to be deliberate and thorough in our communication.
I used that extra thinking time to good effect. In fact, I had it all worked out in my head. Mike would stay in Papua New Guinea until December, when his contract ended. We would soldier through this year of long distance, spending a month together in the US in May and two weeks in September in Cambodia. We’d meet again in Australia for Christmas, and then Mike would move to LA the following January. All continuing to go well, we’d date for four to six months while living in the same city and then… and here was a topic I wasn’t letting myself think too much about… we would probably get engaged.
After having weathered several tumultuous and unhealthy long distance relationships in the past, I was feeling pretty proud of this plan. It was such a good plan. Such a sensible plan. I just assumed that it was also Mike’s plan. Which is partly why, when Mike dropped to his knees at sunset in front of the Pacific Ocean just seven days after he’d arrived in LA in May and proposed, I was caught completely by surprise.
In that instant my train of thought flowed pretty much as follows: WHAT???? Lisa, focus! You’ve just been asked a yes or no question. The answer is absolutely not a no. So, uh, it must be… yes?
So that is what I said. Or, probably more accurately, that is what I squeaked.
It wasn’t until late that night that I regained my wits enough to tell Mike that he’d blindsided me, that I wasn’t ready to tell anyone yet, and that I needed some time to think things over. I didn’t know whether that meant I needed two days, two months, or two years, but I did know that I didn’t want to start spreading the news and risk repeated conversations along the lines of:
Me: “Mike and I are engaged.”
Good friend #23 (looking totally stunned): “Isn’t that a bit fast?”
Me: “Uh, yeah, I didn’t think we’d be addressing this question quite yet.”
Good friend #23 (hesitantly): “Are you sure you know what you doing?”
Me (edging towards hysteria): “I think so. My instincts say yes. But then I came home from work this afternoon and he was cleaning my kitchen and playing Shakira and I realized that I didn’t know that he liked Shakira, and I don’t know what music is on his iPod, and is it safe to agree to marry someone when you don’t even know what music is on their iPod? Is it? Huh?? HUH???”
Good friend #23: “Um…”
How much information did I need to commit to marriage, I wondered? How well can you really get to know someone during six months of letters, three months of conversations, and twenty days of sharing the same city? Why wasn’t I absolutely sure about this one way or another? How sure was sure enough?
After three days of pondering I knew at least two things. I was never going to be 100% sure about this one way or another because I just don’t do 100% sure about anything in life. And, after all the time we’d spent reading, writing, talking, and laughing about our lives across the miles, I was more certain of this than of any other major decision I’d ever made. So three days later, when Mike judged that I had shaken off enough shock and got down on one knee to repeat his proposal, I said yes. Again.
That was years ago. Since then we’ve gotten married and moved from Los Angeles to Laos. We’ve had two little boys and weathered more than our fair share of medical emergencies here in this land of many adventures and few doctors. Mike’s job as a humanitarian worker means frequent travel out to villages. As I write this he is down in the Southern provinces—an area where children here are still stunted, and where a shocking 1 in 40 women still die during childbirth or from related complications. So we are back to where we started – exchanging words across unreliable telephone networks instead of the dinner table. Fortunately words, those initial building blocks of our love, still go a long way towards bridging that distance. Doing some of our relationship long distance has helped strengthen us as a couple in so many ways.
And that “yes”?
Well, that remains the best decision I’ve ever made.
Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the author of 201 Great Discussion Questions For Couples In Long Distance Relationships, the award-winning memoir, Love At The Speed Of Email, and several other LDR books. She is the managing editor of Modern Love Long Distance–a site that shares resources and stories for LDR couples. She lives in Laos with her husband and two young sons.