On this past Monday, April 4, 2016, I asked Alissa Carsten to marry me, and, spoiler alert: she said "yes."
Now I must digress. After years spent opening Facebook only to find another relationship status, engagement, marriage, or baby post, and longing so very much to be in that situation myself, I know that my own engagement announcement may come as yet one more stab of loneliness to a reader craving their own relationship and wondering "when will my time come? Will it ever come? Why God why?" And I desperately wish I had any words to make that time of searching and longing easier to bear and less painful. The truth is I don't, and so if you find yourself in that position today, I won't patronize you with trite sayings whose only effect is to make the sayer feel better, rather than the recipient. Waiting sucks. Not knowing when or even if you'll ever meet that forever man or woman, sucks.
With that acknowledgement I hope you can at the same time rejoice with me in my own celebration. As you know I have longed for my Forever Woman for many years, suffered a number of heartbreaks along the way, loved, lost, made mistakes, learned lessons. Today I'm able to joyfully announce my engagement.
Table of Contents
Our story, in brief
Alissa and I met on eHarmony last year, and went on our first date on April 4, 2015 at Hidden Falls. Even though Alissa was "Girl #20" from when I'd started keeping track of first dates, I dressed up in my best "first date" outfit, one recently picked out for me by my friend Hannah: skinny blue khakis, a red & blue button-down plaid shirt, and contacts instead of glasses. Because I was so dapper (and sans glasses), Alissa almost didn't recognize me in real life! (now to be fair, her eHarmony profile pictures were all pretty blurry so I wasn't 100% sure what she looked like either until we met in person)
Our first date was at 2:27 p.m. (because I think picking times on the hour or half hour is too boring, and naming an unconventional time makes me more memorable), and as she drove into the parking lot I was leaning up against a tree, looking "hipster, suave, and debonair" (her words). We walked and walked and walked, working our way through your typical first date get-to-know-you questions, for about an hour and a half. I tease her for this now in retrospect, but at the time Alissa maintained about 3 feet of personal bubble space between us as we walked (I swear I'd showered recently!) - she told me later this was because she thought I was too cool for her. Ha! I can hear my friends Pam and Wendy both laughing from here. Clearly, little did Alissa know me yet if she thought I was too cool! Apparently I made up for this on our second date, when my geekier side came out.
As our first date came to a close, I'd not seen or heard any red flags, so following my own rule of "if there are no red flags I'll always ask for a second date," I asked Alissa if I could take her out again. (Later I learned she was surprised to get asked for a second date, because, again, she thought I was too cool; and yes, I'm going to get as much mileage from that as I can :) She said yes, and on-the-spot we set up a time to get together again. Our second date was at Mall of America: dinner at Tucci Benucch (a favorite in my family), window shopping, and mini-golf at Moose Mountain. Unbeknownst to me until later, our second date almost didn't happen because of some medical emergencies in Alissa's family; she went out with me anyway, and then went straight from our second date to visit her family in the hospital (everyone's okay now, don't worry).
Our third date was to the Walker Art Center's sculpture garden, our fourth date was to see the new Cinderella movie, and then beyond that, well, it's history. Even from our first "monthiversary," we've tried to do something special on the 4th every month. As those months have gone on, we've settled into a very comfortable relationship, with more than a few Old Married Couple™ moments along the way. We've taken a couple trips to Wisconsin Dells to play in the water parks, and got to vacation in DisneyWorld with my parents last October. We've had some disagreements, some "heated discussions," and lots of moments of laughter. Alissa has fit well into my various friend groups, my parents love her (she's a teacher, my mom's a teacher, instant connection), and she enjoys board games and Star Wars. What more could I ask for? :) She's become my best friend, someone who balances me, someone I emotionally love, and also choose to love, because I do believe in the long run, that love is a choice more than an emotion. I first said the words "I love you" in late July, I think, right after I'd come back from one of my trips to Saudi Arabia - we were in the car driving to ValleyFair the day after I'd flown home, and I ruminated how there's never a perfect time to tell someone how you feel, and so I've learned not to wait for that perfect time. She returned the sentiment.
It wasn't all unicorns and puppies and rainbows, though. In September, after returning from my third trip to Saudi, we had an argument that, I learned later, nearly cost our relationship (the argument was about how soon I'd be ready to get engaged - I did not respond in the most loving way). This created a rough patch for the next several weeks until we got to DisneyWorld - Alissa worried we might end up breaking up while in DisneyWorld, but the trip ended up helping heal our relationship. That's not to say there were no rough patches afterward, but for me - an introvert - learning that I could be around someone pretty much 24/7 for over a week straight, and not get sick of her, was a huge green flag in the relationship. (side note: for anyone who's met me in the last 5 years, it might be hard to believe I'm an introvert, because I can be very outgoing and, well, loud; but, it's true: I'm an introvert at heart, and need regular healthy doses of alone-time to recharge).
This past December I was counseling a friend over a breakup, and he asked me, "if you and Alissa broke up what would you do to get over that?" First of all I realized that I would actually take my own advice that I was giving my friend - I think that's always a good feeling to realize you'd follow your own advice. But secondly I realized I would be quite heartbroken if Alissa disappeared from my life, and I didn't want to even try imagining life without her. I realized that, for more than just a romantic sense, I choose to love her, because she is a good influence on me: she prevents me from making irresponsible financial decisions, she shows me how to love people that I might rather not love, she encourages me (words of encouragement is definitely one of her love languages), she accepts me for who I am, accepts that I love my stuffed animals, and she doesn't try to convert me to vegetarianism; we work well together, handle conflict respectfully and are able to communicate effectively, even when emotions are high. I'm sure that there will be days of more intense disagreement ahead, but seeing how we handle the little stuff, and the medium stuff, gives me confidence in how we will be able to handle the really big stuff.
Anyway, I realized all that during this phone call with my friend, and that put me on the path toward eventually being ready to get engaged. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster with a lot of "am I sure?" moments along the way, but I'll spare you all those details, because they really don't matter now. Though I will throw out there: huge thank you to my friend John, who coached me through the ups, downs, and in-betweens. (Alissa adds her thank yous, for talking me down from the break-up cliff more than once)
Pre-proposal: my family
Throughout the relationship, my parents did a phenomenal job of not prying, even though I'm sure they were super curious how things were going between me and Alissa.
A couple months ago, I had dinner with my parents to let them know I was working my way toward being ready to talk with Alissa about engagement, and ask did they have any concerns. They did not. They expressed their approval of Alissa, their happiness that things were going well, and that was that. Again two weeks ago, I took them out for lunch, this time to let them know I'd made my decision, I was going to engage in this conversation (pardon the pun :) with Alissa, and if they had any concerns or red flags, now would be the time to voice those. Otherwise, I asked for their blessing, which they gave heartily and joyfully.
The next day I had dinner with my Uncle Mark and Aunt Lisa, who have helped mentor me in the past through difficult decisions; it was a great dinner, because I probably learned more about their marriage and lives in that couple hour conversation than in the past 20 years of knowing them! In the end they had no red flags, they really liked Alissa and specifically appreciated how she interacted with their daughter (my cousin) at family dinners, and gave me their blessing.
With my family blessings in hand, a few days later (at what Alissa tells me was possibly the worst timing ever) I texted her to say, I'm ready to start going through The List.
Early on Alissa made clear to me that she did not want engagement to be something that happened to her, but rather that she wanted to be actively involved in the process. Specifically this took the form of what I will hereinafter refer to as, "The List." The List was a two and a half page list of questions (double-spaced at least, whew!) that Alissa had prepared for us earlier in our relationship, to ask me once I decided I was ready to be engaged. None of the questions were necessarily intended to scare either of us away from getting engaged, but rather to make sure we were both truly ready and knew what we were getting ourselves into. Much as I teased her about The List earlier on (because she didn't share it with me until quite recently!), once the questions were finally revealed, I've come now to the opinion that every couple should work through these kinds of questions before committing to getting engaged. (we also did one session of pre-engagement counseling with my pastor, which I also recommend as useful)
A sampling of questions from The List:
- Why do you like/love me?
- Why will it work? (meaning: I'd mentioned to her before that I'd previously been invited to a couple weddings where I [accurately] predicted the marriage wouldn't last 5 years; why would our marriage, if Alissa and I got married, be successful?)
- Why is it me? Do you want to marry me specifically, as opposed to simply getting married in general?
- Are you truly ready?
- What will our marriage look like? (church, faith-life, time together/apart, eventually kids)
- Are you willing to handle my flaws?
- Am I enough? Don't settle.
- Do you prefer/want to be single?
- Are you able to give up all others?
- Will the timing work?
- Family issues?
- How will we handle conflict?
- Do you see me as a problem that needs to be fixed?
- Are you truly over past relationships and almost-relationships? Or at least, over them enough?
- Are you proud of me?
- Is there anything else from your past that I need to know about?
There were a few more but that gives you a general overview.
When I texted Alissa to let her know I was ready to start tackling The List, it was the night before Easter, a couple days after her great aunt had passed away, and about an hour after Alissa had brought herself to a place of acceptance that engagement for her would be a year or two more away. Turns out the hints I thought I'd been dropping over the last month... were more subtle than I'd intended. So in her words, about the worst timing I could have picked, because now she had to emotionally 180 from "I'm not getting engaged any time soon" to "I'm about to get engaged." This is because, as she'd warned me previously: once we worked through The List of questions, I would only have about 2-3 weeks to pop the official question afterward, or else, in her words, "it will not go well for you." Lesson: best not to toy with someone's emotions.
On Easter night, as I drove home from my evening church, I called Alissa and we started going through the questions. We got through the introductory remarks (setting ground rules like, "I can take a temporary pass on a question if I need to think about my answer for a few hours or a day before responding," and, "the purpose of the questions is to make sure we're both ready, but not because either of us are looking for deal-breakers," and, "if any deal-breakers do unexpectedly come up, we will spend additional time talking through those before making any long-lasting decisions in either direction") and the first two questions on The List above. While Alissa's intention was only to ask the questions, I made her answer them in return, too, after I'd given my schpiels.
The List then went on hold for a week because of schedules and other conversations that needed to pre-empt it. We resumed this past Saturday at my house, and in 9 hours successfully worked our way through Alissa's list, my [much shorter] list of considerations suggested by my parents, and even worked in there a Skype call with one of Alissa's best friends whom I'd yet to meet. We both expected The List to generate significantly more pain and tears than it ended up creating, which was a huge relief to both of us. Mind, there were a few difficult questions in there. One of my best qualities, and also most hurtful qualities, is that I'm always honest; Alissa knows that when she asks me a question, I will always give her a straight and honest answer. Even though that can be painful, she's told me she appreciates this aspect of my personality.
Not all answers were painful, though. As part of my answer to Alissa's question, "why me?", I read to her a journal I'd written for myself back in December 2012, years before we met:
I want someone to pray with, to worship with, to serve with. Maybe even join a bible study with. Someone I can invest in deeper than any other. Someone with whom I can share my everything, holding nothing back. Someone who will challenge me to be a better me. Someone I can [learn how to] cook for. Someone who will hold my hand at the doctor's office when I'm scared. Someone who'll encourage me to chase my craziest dreams. Someone who'll roll her eyes but still giggle when years from now I keep saying "Welcome to the Adventure." Someone to decorate the Christmas tree with, and who's Santa Bears will hang out with mine. Someone to kiss under the mistletoe. Someone to dance with 50 years from now in a cruise ship lobby (seen it before). Someone who can deal with my idealism and hopeless romanticism.
While there are many reasons that I love Alissa, many more solid and less "fluffy" than these, I realized when I rediscovered this old journal a few weeks ago that Alissa fit every single one of these "fluffier" attributes I was looking for, and that was a very powerful moment for me, and one worth sharing with her in the midst of the other, more difficult questions.
Pre-proposal: her family
Having made it through The List and mutually deciding we wanted to get engaged, Alissa went home that night and told her parents that I'd be coming over the next afternoon to talk with them, and gave them the heads up what the conversation topic would be.
Even though I knew Alissa's parents liked me, my stomach was still in knots Sunday morning. On the other hand I'd been sick for a week or more at this point, so whether it was illness or worry, I'm frankly not sure. I digress. When I arrived Sunday afternoon, Alissa had sequestered herself upstairs, giving her parents and me the basement to ourselves. I explained that Alissa and I were interested in getting engaged, and I/we would like their blessing. Her parents (Mike and Tammy) and I talked for an hour and a half, them asking me questions like, "tell me about my daughter - what do you like about her, what are some of her strengths, areas for growth?", and the same questions about me. We talked about some of the growth I've seen in Alissa as we've dated, some of the rough edges I still need to work on in my own character, what marriage would look like (like how many grandkids they can expect :), and the importance of cheerleading - up until now, Mike has been Alissa's champion, fighting for her and taking her side; now he would be passing that torch to me. In the end, they offered their blessing, and we closed in prayer.
Afterward, Alissa and I went for a short walk. She was anxious to hear how the conversation had gone, and how I was feeling. I told her I was feeling mostly good, but also knew I would need to grieve the loss of bachelorhood. To this she responded, "what's there to grieve, giving up all the rejections?" Oooh, touché, my dear, touché. I laughed heartily, and then agreed.
Alissa and I went through The List on Saturday, I talked with her parents on Sunday, and then Monday, April 4, was our one-year anniversary of our first date. Her parents asked when I was thinking about proposing, so they knew in advance, but Alissa didn't know for certain other than "soon."
Monday after work, Alissa and I met at the Loaves and Fishes where I serve on the first Monday of the month, and we helped serve dinner to 100+ guests. Because part of my answer to The List question "what will our marriage look like" was "service," it was meaningful and important to me that our one-year anniversary (and as I'd known it would be, engagement anniversary) reflect that.
After helping clean up from serving, we headed off to Hidden Falls. This was an unintended adventure in and of itself. As we drove east on Franklin Avenue, I saw a lot of brake lights up ahead, so I pulled off onto some side streets. Alissa, driving separately (because we'd each come directly from work earlier), got stuck in the traffic. At this point I made a choice: I wanted to get to Hidden Falls a couple minutes ahead of her, in order to strike my pose up against the tree where we'd first met, and so I didn't call her to suggest an alternate route. I hadn't realized that in the 20 minutes it took me to arrive at Hidden Falls, she would have only traveled 5 or 10 blocks. During this particular hour, there had been a fatal crash on I94, closing the eastbound lanes in exactly the same stretch of town where we were, and much of that traffic must have been redirected onto Franklin. So, as I pulled into the Hidden Falls parking lot, I get a call from Alissa telling me she's barely moved.
I told her we still had plenty of time before sunset, and I would help navigate her through the unfamiliar-to-her side streets of Minneapolis to get her here. I was grateful for my car's Bluetooth connection to my phone, so I could keep Alissa on the car speakers while I zoomed in my phone's map to give her turn-by-turn directions. (And now thinking about it more in retrospect, I'm also grateful for Alissa's ability to follow my directions, because when one of the women I'd gone out with from eHarmony two years ago got lost, she completely ignored my guidance help!) Less than 20 minutes later Alissa was turning into the parking lot and I was dashing from my car to lean up against that tree, wearing my same red & blue plaid shirt from our first date (except this time carrying a coat, because it was cold outside!). I though I saw Alissa smiling as she pulled into the parking lot and saw me posed there, all suave and debonair :)
When she joined me by the tree, we started walking. I put on my coat, and awkwardly shifted sides walking by Alissa so that the ring box bulging in my coat pocket would be on the opposite side of my body from her. Amazingly, she never noticed the bulge, and thought I was just shifting sides to indicate she wasn't walking quickly enough. Whew!
As we began to walk, I asked her, "tell me about our first date." It kind of made me think of The Notebook, asking for a story out of our own history. We reminisced for a while, maybe 10 minutes, about our first couple dates, what we were thinking about each other, and how after our first date as I drove away I was dictating all sorts of notes about her into my voice recorder so I wouldn't forget details like how many siblings she had and that her favorite color was purple, etc.
When we reached a bend in the path, I suggested we stop for a little bit. It was a nice view of the river, and across the river were some Fort Snelling buildings (Alissa loves history, so this seemed fitting). We stood there and I told her, "I have a story I'd like to tell you, that I haven't told you before." And I will recount that story for you now, dear Reader:
Six months before I met Alissa, I was out for a walk, heartbroken by yet another rejection from a woman I'd had strong feelings for, and I was praying with God, wondering when is it finally going to be my turn? When do I get to meet my Forever Woman? As I listened, I felt JC reassuring me "Jeremy, just wait, I've got someone *amazing* in mind for you. You're gonna love her. Just wait." Along with this, I felt God reassuring me that I was finally ready to be in a lasting relationship, that my work at improving myself emotionally and spiritually had been successful, that I was becoming not only the man I wanted to be, but also the man my future wife needed me to be.
This was followed by a declaration I've shared with very few people up until now: a revelation that the next real relationship I would be in (not just a one-off date, but the next actual relationship), that she would be my one. I questioned back, "Are you serious? Am I hearing you right?" and resolved that for the time being, I couldn't know for sure whether that was God's voice, or my own inner voice telling me what I wanted to hear. Time would vet out the truth.
I went on a few first dates after this, a couple that made it to second dates, but nothing lasting. Until April, when Alissa and I met. A month down the line, when Alissa asked me, "so, are we officially dating?" I took a moment to pause and consider the implications. If I believed the earlier promise was truly from God, and not just my own head-voice making things up, then me agreeing we were dating carried much more weight than just "dating." Unable to conjure any red flags about Alissa, though, I confirmed what she had suggested. And though I gave myself permission to invalidate my previous conversations with God as manifestations of my own design, always in the back of my mind was the thought, "that promise might be true, which means this might well be the woman I marry."
Back to the present, at Hidden Falls, as I finished recounting these stories to Alissa, I followed by saying "and now I have a question for you. I know we said we weren't getting each other presents today, but, I got you something anyway..." It took me a moment to finagle the ring box out of my coat pocket, then I got down on my right knee in front of her, opened the box and presented her the ring, and asked her to marry me.
She said yes.
The ring didn't fit, adding to my list of imperfections of the day (traffic, cold weather, me being sick).
Long before this, back in September while I was in Saudi Arabia, Alissa and I had exchanged emails about rings. I knew she felt strongly about picking her own ring, because she's picky about jewelry, and even though I wasn't anywhere near ready to be engaged at that time, I wanted to have a ring in my metaphorical back pocket, ready to go when the time eventually did come. In retrospect, I've learned this was not my wisest choice. Despite that I thought I'd explained my rationale, it still set up some expectations on Alissa's end that I wasn't ready to fulfill for many months to come. This caused some conflict. (my friend Ingrid confirmed for me: bad idea to talk about rings until you're actually ready to buy one. Lesson learned).
But in any case, we emailed about rings, and based on her descriptions of what she liked/didn't like, I eventually sent her a link to this one. She replied "I really, really like this one!!!!" and that I need not look any further. She measured her ring size based on their website guidance, but... somehow that didn't quite work, so now we'll need to resize or replace the ring. Not a big deal. My point is simply to say: "not my fault!"
Now, a funny story about that ring. Back in January, Zales emailed me that they were having a 20% off sale site wide, so I could get the $100 ring for only $80. "A sale!" I exclaimed. "I'd better save that money while I can!" Then I thought, "you know, if I buy Alissa some earrings for Valentine's Day, too (while they're on sale, of course), I could save on shipping." So I found a nice pair of amethyst earrings (purple is her favorite color) and got all the way through to the last step of checking out when I remembered, "oh yeah, she's picky about jewelry..." I stopped, emailed her the link to the earrings to ask whether she'd like them (even though it ruined the surprise), and she said she would. She then spent the next month teasing me "are you sure you don't want to order another piece of jewelry [meaning: an engagement ring] with those earrings to save on shipping?" Little did she suspect :)
Telling family and close friends
We walked back to our cars as the sun set, and Alissa presented me with a present (so much for either of us sticking to the "we're not getting each other presents" idea) - a Winnie-the-Pooh music box / jewelry case. It's adorable. A little pink, but it's Winnie-the-Pooh, so I love it. Inside was a handwritten letter - I love Alissa's letters.
We drove our cars to my house, and on the way I called my parents to tell them the news. They knew it was coming, I'd told them the day before, but now that I had an official "yes" I thought they might like to know. I don't recall their exact reactions, other than they sure sounded more surprised than I thought was appropriate! On the other hand, maybe it is surprising that I found someone willing to put up with me! Like I said to Alissa later, "it's not easy dating someone who's perfect, but you've handled it pretty well." She promptly disagreed with my premise :)
When we arrived at my house, we started texting family and close friends. (Even though I made a list over the weekend of all the people I needed to tell before posting the news online, I'm worried I still forgot people, so if that's you, I'm sorry! - it's been a whirlwind week). For many of my texts, I used some verbiage Alissa suggested as a belated semi-April Fool's joke: "Thought you might like to hear some news before it's on Facebook: Alissa is no longer my girlfriend... because now she's my fiancé!" Sounds like I got a couple people really good because of how the message previewed on their phones' lock screens!
And then when texting my friend Peter, I had to re-use the same riddle he'd played on me when he got engaged: "What does Picard say when he wants the Enterprise to go?"
While I was still texting my people, Alissa started to type a text to someone using the exact words and phrasing I had suggested weeks earlier, that had caused a rather tumultuous and heated disagreement between us. I pointed this out, and she uttered the words, "you were right, Jeremy. Jeremy, you were right." Now that I think is a good start to our engagement! Although as a coworker pointed out, that may well be the last time I hear those words from her (just kidding, Honey! :)
The day following our official engagement, I went over to Alissa's family's to hang out for the evening, and I brought with me a gift I'd picked up in the Saudi Arabian airport last time on my way home. As I explained to Alissa's parents, in Middle Eastern culture when a couple gets engaged, it's customary for the groom to pay the bride's father for her in camels. I told them not to read too much into this, as I presented them with some small plush camels and a small metal camel sculpture. Apparently Alissa is worth 5 camels.
Whenever a couple gets engaged, people start asking lots of questions. Here are some answers!
When is the wedding / Have you picked a date?
We haven't picked a specific date, other than agreeing "sometime before August 31, 2017."
What's special about August 31, 2017? Well, Alissa's a teacher, so that limits our wedding availabilities to summertime (and she doesn't want to give me any longer than a year because she's afraid I'll get cold feet!). Our other option would be to get married during the school year, but when Alissa asked "would you want to get married on Saturday and then I go back to work on Monday?", I responded, "absolutely not!"
We also need to decide what size of wedding we will have. I want a super huge wedding, she wants a very small one. Or we might elope and save all the money of a big wedding. We will be discussing these options in the weeks to come.
Will I be invited?
Maybe! It depends what we determine about wedding size. Right now, we're not promising invitations to anyone, simply because we just don't know enough details to make those promises yet.
Where will you live?
Alissa will be moving into my house (soon to be our house) once we're married. I asked whether she'd prefer that we both move into a different place that would be "ours" from the start, instead of my home where I have lived for 10 years, but she said she's comfortable moving in with me and making it ours. The bigger hurdle will be for me, mentally shifting from "mine" to "ours," and getting used to someone else's stuff all over the place. As Alissa told me, she wants our stuff to be intermingled, and not have it where all her things are segregated into one corner.
Will Alissa be changing her last name?
Probably not. Our [eventual] kids will take my last name, but Alissa plans to keep her own last name. I support her in this decision.
Kids?! When and how many?!
Whoa there, Buckaroo! Not quite yet. We'd like a couple years of marriage together before kids come along. (our definitions of "a couple years" differ between us, Alissa's being "1-3" and mine being "5-10") We are both interested in having 2, or possibly more, children (adopted and/or biological). Alissa is the eldest of 6 siblings, whereas I am an only child. I say "2 is a good number," to which she responds, "2! That would be so lonely! The house would be so quiet!", to which I reply, "yes, quiet, exactly!" Time will tell.