It took three (broken) engagements in nine years to the same man for Melissa van Maasdyk to feel ready to commit to marriage. Here she explains why…
Why get married? I can think of several very good reasons today, but these eluded me in my early 20s when I received my first proposal, on a beach at sunset with Phil Collins playing on a portable tape deck. Well, OK, I lie.
One good reason was sitting beside me: a gorgeous, funny, intelligent man, a veritable Prince Charming. Glenn and I had been dating for four years, having met when I was just 20 while studying at university in Cape Town. We’d clicked instantly and embarked on a carefree romance that played out in student bars, vineyards and on beaches – with picnics a strong feature, being both romantic and cheap.
Now we were living in Johannesburg and revisiting one of our favourite holiday haunts. It was a perfect moment with what should have been the right man – but it was the wrong time. Although I adored Glenn, I wasn’t ready to harness myself to anyone – even Prince Charming – before I’d discovered who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.
So I said no, explaining that it was more about me than us and that I needed to follow my heart in terms of work opportunities (I’d recently completed a master’s in translation) before settling down. But he said he was prepared to wait and, instead, we committed to living together in unwedded bliss.
We moved from Johannesburg to London when Glenn took up a position as a currency trader in the capital. As a British citizen he didn’t need a visa, while I worked in a couple of dead-end office jobs – posts that my two-year Commonwealth visa allowed. We rented a tiny flat in Baker Street and had fun exploring our new city together, which only brought us closer.
As my visa approached its end, we discussed getting married so that I could stay in the UK with him and apply for more exciting jobs. We hadn’t made any firm plans, however, when I went back to South Africa for my sister’s wedding and discovered that I wasn’t permitted to return to the UK so close to the visa’s expiry date. I had begun job-hunting at home when a huge bunch of teacup-sized red roses arrived with four significant words written on the attached card. Missing him terribly and seduced by the romantic delivery of the message, I said yes immediately.
But a couple of weeks later, I received a proposal of a different kind – an offer to work as a French-English translator and sub-editor for a leading women’s magazine. It was my first chance to apply my degree to a decent role and I knew I had to explore its full potential. But it wouldn’t have made sense for Glenn to move back to South Africa at that formative point in his career and, after much heart-searching, I suggested we break off the engagement while continuing our relationship long-distance. However, seeing each other only a couple of times a year while trying to maintain phone contact across different time zones made it too hard to keep things going – so I decided to break it off completely.
Although I was used to us living apart, I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss picking up the phone and talking to Glenn about anything and everything. Several times I was tempted to call him but I’d heard from London friends that I’d really hurt him so I didn’t think this was fair, especially as I was happy to be single, free and independent for the first time since I was 20. I was enjoying my immersion in ‘magazine-land’, seeing girlfriends, attending arty events and dating.
Then, around eight months later, Glenn called to say he was being transferred back to South Africa. I rather brutally told him I hoped it wasn’t on my account as I wasn’t sure we were right for each other any more.
It was a heartless thing to say and even some of my good friends told Glenn that he deserved better. But I had always worried that we didn’t really want the same things. On a practical level, for example, he didn’t share my interest in the arts and going to foreign movies, while I didn’t see the point of afternoons spent barbecuing and watching rugby on TV.
I was also pretty sure that I didn’t want children and wasn’t convinced he shared my views. We had different attitudes to love and marriage partly because of our different parental models. I saw my mother compromise her interest in culture and travel – and her ambitions to own a coffee shop – and settle for domesticity when she married.
I witnessed her becoming resentful at having to relinquish her financial independence to a man with a more conservative approach to money than her. Glenn, on the other hand, remembers his mother being happy in the role of wife and homemaker and his father being devoted to her for nearly 70 years. It was thus straightforward for him – you fall in love, commit and live happily ever after – but more complicated for me. Somehow, my careless rejection didn’t put him off. Convinced that I was The One for him, on his arrival in Johannesburg Glenn invited me out to dinner – and I realised I still had decidedly un-platonic feelings for him.
We started dating again – gingerly at first, then, one night, after a movie, instead of taking me home, he took me to a favourite hotel where he’d booked the penthouse suite, champagne, the works, and…well, who wouldn’t be persuaded that he was a keeper?
Seriously, I began to realise that our differences were, in fact, complementary. I bring a spirit of adventure and unpredictability, while he is grounded and wise and makes me laugh with his dry sense of humour. We moved in together and, a year later, became engaged for a second time. Glenn presented me with a beautiful diamond that he’d inherited from his grandmother, and this time I knew I wanted to be with him.
Friends and family were thrilled that we were finally going ahead. I wish I could say that the diamond was swiftly transformed into the symbol of commitment for which it was destined – but diverging careers soon caused trouble again. Glenn was offered an excellent opportunity back in London – within days of my accepting an exciting job as the deputy editor of a food and lifestyle magazine. Since neither of us wanted to pass up on these openings, we decided to break off our engagement again until we were ready to set a date. This set tongues wagging: a few people believed that if I truly loved him I would take my chances in London.
But, having seen how unfulfilled expectations can erode love, I didn’t want to have any reason to blame Glenn if things didn’t work out for us in the UK, and he understood. I’m sure someone else would have given up on me by this point but one of the things I love about Glenn is that he’s self-assured enough not to care about what other people think.
So the diamond was relegated to my sock drawer while I threw myself into the new role. This time round we spoke on the phone almost daily and tried to see each other more often until, a year later, I concluded that a job was a cold bedfellow compared to the warm and wonderful man waiting for me in London. Aware that he was unlikely to propose to me again I decided to take things into my own hands. I had the diamond set in an engagement ring which I attached to a pair of boxer shorts embroidered with ‘Will you marry me?’, booked a flight to Heathrow and presented it to him over bellinis beside the Thames.
Nine years after that first proposal I was ready to commit heart and soul to the relationship and I was elated when his answer was yes. Back in South Africa, I set about planning a wedding, looking forward to all the things brides traditionally want: the dress, the flowers…
Just over two months before W-day, however, preparations came to a screeching halt while I was on a travel assignment in Thailand. I was lying in a bath on a deck overlooking a gleaming moonlit bay and phoned Glenn to say that I wished he was with me, upon which he announced that he couldn’t go through with the wedding. He said that he’d been thinking about us as the day drew closer and a few past hurts kept resurfacing, as well as my serial indecision. He wanted to go into marriage believing it would be for ever and he didn’t think I loved him enough. I assured him I did, with every fibre of my being – which now felt like it had been plunged into a bath of ice cubes – and asked if we could put it on hold for a week or two while he thought about it.
When I got back home, puffy-eyed, I stopped the invitations going out and withdrew from a feature on unusual marriage proposals for which I’d agreed to be interviewed by another magazine, knowing I couldn’t bear to see the article in print if my worst fears materialised. The week that followed was both the most excruciating and the most valuable of my life because it made me realise I had taken Glenn’s love for granted and I didn’t want to lose him. We’d agreed not to speak during that time but I waited for the phone to ring and felt ill with anxiety.
I resorted to a tarot reading which yielded The Fool, a card that represents an end to something and a new beginning – did this signify an end to our relationship or a new beginning as a married couple?
The final hours before his call at the designated hour on that Saturday night were like waiting for a jury to declare whether I’d live or die and when he said that he couldn’t imagine life without me I cried with relief and happiness.
Two months later, at the age of 33 – and 13 years after meeting him – I almost sprinted down the aisle to marry him. We’ve now been happily married for 16 years but I still don’t regret breaking off the first couple of engagements as I’m sure we’d be divorced today if we’d wed earlier.
I remain convinced that one of the keys to a successful marriage is to feel fulfilled when you tie the knot rather than expecting it to ‘complete you’ or be some sort of panacea. This might entail discovering one’s vocation, travel, sexual experimentation…ultimately knowing what makes you tick so that you can give and take in the relationship while remaining true to yourself.
Glenn agrees now that we were both too young to settle down when he first proposed and he’s glad that he gave me those extra years to fulfil my career dreams. He loves that I’m my own person and we’re best friends as well as partners. As we’re both strong individuals, we retain our own interests and some contrasting beliefs but have also adapted because we want what’s best for each other. I believe that some of our differences have enriched our lives too.
On an emotional level, his mellow character balances my more neurotic temperament. And on a superficial level, he believes he was missing a cultural side (although he still draws the line at opera), while I’ve become sportier and more outdoorsy (if remaining immune to the appeal of rugby). I don’t know if there’s an ideal marriageable age but my three sisters all walked down the aisle in their 20s and into the divorce courts in their 30s. My youngest sister had a very good relationship with her husband until, battling to re-establish her career after having their first child, she found herself financially dependent on him and this affected the balance of their partnership. Now self-reliant, she says that she can’t imagine ever getting married again.
Since Glenn and I decided not to have children, we haven’t experienced the challenges parenthood presents but there have been compromises, such as the fact that my career has been stop-start as we’ve moved around the world with his job. Yet because I focused on my work so singlemindedly earlier on, I’ve been happy to sit back and enjoy the journey with him, as well as the opportunity to explore new cultures and write my debut novel.
The story, not surprisingly, revolves around a commitment-phobic protagonist who loves her boyfriend but has no intention of letting love and marriage scupper her career. Believing career success will protect her from the romantic disappointments that her mother experienced, she risks her relationship to keep her job, setting herself on a rocky but transformative emotional course.
In fictional love stories, marriage often represents a happy ending. For me, it marked the happy beginning of our real love story because it was finally about us rather than me.
By Melissa Van Maasdyk
-Melissa’s debut novel Love Apples is published by Lulu, from £4.42,available from amazon.co.uk