Many women find it hard to say no to the person we love. So it wasn’t surprising that I could barely find women who had turned down wedding proposals.
It was easier finding those who had broken off an engagement, cancelled a BTO flat purchase, and even cheated on their marriage. These were women who clearly had a chance and reason to say no, but didn’t.
For instance, there is 26-year-old Michelle Ho, who accepted her ex-boyfriend’s wedding proposal about two years ago. Like most couples do, she shared the good news online. Within minutes, she received an influx of ‘likes’ and congratulatory comments. I was merely an acquaintance, but her joy was palpable.
A year later, she called off their engagement.
“My ex is an entrepreneur, who worked every weekend. I’d even set aside time to spend at his workplace. After awhile, it felt like I wasn’t a priority. I’m going to sound so selfish, but it’s the classic scenario where I knew who he’d pick if both his business and I were drowning,” she says.
“He would have saved his business over me.”
At the same time, Michelle started attending Catholicism classes from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), because her ex came from a staunch Catholic family. She willingly signed up for them so she could fit in with her future in-laws.
“I was thinking about our future. But he either came late for the classes, or didn’t bother showing up at all. Everyone else who was converting for their partners had their partners with them during every lesson.”
Every time she was in church, she sincerely “prayed for a sign” to let her know “whether [she] should go ahead with marrying him or break up with him”.
The turning point came when her ex missed an important milestone in her Catholicism journey for a last-minute business trip, despite knowing that he would need to be there for her a few weeks in advance. Additionally, it wasn’t a trip that would make or break the business, so she saw no reason why he had to go.
On hindsight, Michelle attributes her wilful blindness to a self-imposed pressure to follow her timeline. This “timeline” is the same one that plagues many other women in their mid-20s. It tells us that we need to be married and have a house and children by 30, as well as informs our arbitrary measure of success and happiness as a woman.
Speaking to her, I understand that this timeline also ultimately causes us to make foolish decisions.
She says, “I said yes because we’d been together for four years already. When people say you are so perfect together, you want that perfection too. It was also very important for me to stick to my timeline for some stupid reason. In the end, I wondered whether I really wanted him or just any guy.”
Today, Michelle admits there was always a nagging feeling throughout her relationship that it wasn’t right. She realises she should’ve seen the biggest red flag: her abject disappointment in the ring her ex chose.
“All along, I’ve never wanted a ring, especially not a diamond one. It’s unnecessarily expensive. If he insists, a simple rose-gold band is the most I’d accept. He ended up getting me a silver diamond ring. Even my friends could tell that wasn’t my style.”
To anyone else, this would seem like an inconsequential hiccup. To Michelle, it hurt to realise that the man she loved simply never bothered to understand her.
Too often, women make excuses for shitty behaviour or become self-sacrificial to a fault, choosing to shrug off indicators of a troubled relationship or proceed with a relationship that’s less than ideal.
As a result, we end up dealing with more collateral damage down the line.
Linda Chan was 23 when she purchased a BTO flat with her then-boyfriend, whom she had been dating for close to five years. Ask anyone who knew them and they’d tell you Linda and her ex were social media’s golden couple. Naturally, it seemed that getting a home was an inevitable next step in their relationship.
“It’s always been my dream to own a home. Applying for a BTO flat also felt very natural at that point in my life. Besides, the house wasn’t even built yet. It wasn’t until years down the road that the idea of living together forever started becoming real.”
So when problems started surfacing in the relationship, such as her ex not loving her enough to make certain changes to his behaviour, Linda took it in her stride. The non-confrontational nature of their relationship only made it easier to ignore the signs. Unfortunately, before their home could be completed, Linda and her ex called it quits.
Even then, she decided to hang on to the flat.
“I kept the BTO for so long due to pride. It’s like, you’ve put in so much time and effort, and yet your long-term relationship can still fail.”
After that relationship ended, she began seeing someone else, whose name she decided to replace her ex’s on the BTO purchase. She did so even when this subsequent relationship started showing signs of trouble as well. Recently, Linda ended the relationship.
In fact, the now 27-year-old only fully cancelled her BTO purchase this month.
“I couldn’t accept that I had to be selfish. I had to come to terms with the fact that even the two people who were once willing to spend their life with me didn’t love me enough. To me, the BTO represented two people who really wanted to make things work.”
Most people may find Linda genuinely giving, but she knows now that not putting oneself first can prove more detrimental in the long run.
She tells me that she wouldn’t be surprised if HDB decided to blacklist her.
You feel like if you don’t get married and have kids, you’ve failed in some way as a woman.
Still, she understands the overwhelming pressure women face to blatantly ignore one’s intuition in order to keep up with societal standards.
“I think women have a deep-seated fear of being left on the shelf. I was scared to start over again. You feel like if you don’t get married and have kids, you’ve failed in some way as a woman,” she says, echoing Michelle’s earlier sentiments on the invisible timeline that women struggle with.
Fiona recalls a speech by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who mentions that women’s accomplishments are usually undermined by society’s pervasive message that we are not ‘successful’ or ‘fulfilled’ unless we have a man. No doubt, this pressure further fuelled Fiona’s expectations to settle down.
Yet when the proposal came, she was blindsided and even angry. She felt like she’d been ambushed, because there were still “many issues” in their relationship that hadn’t been dealt with, including his excessive insistence on getting married and their difference in religion.
“I deliberately ignored a lot of things. I cared about him and didn’t want to be confrontational. I also felt like I could change my mind, or he would come around to accepting that I wouldn’t convert.”
Nonetheless, the unexpected shock of the proposal slapped her with a brutal reality check. She had gotten the clarity she needed to leave her relationship.
“I’ve always believed in marriage from young, so it should have been a red flag that I didn’t want to commit to marriage with him. When a person asks you to marry them, your instinctive reaction will tell you about the relationship,” she says.
“Back then, instead of feeling great joy, everything felt so wrong. I asked him straightaway, ‘What are you doing? What’s going on?’ If I said no, I felt that all my fears about the relationship ending would be realised in that moment. So I asked him to let me think about it.”
Despite stalling for time, Fiona inherently knew what she had to do. Still, it took six months for her to fully accept that she wanted out of a relationship with “a nice guy who treated [her] well”.
Her experience is familiar to any woman who has wanted to leave a seemingly perfect relationship. As women, we are constantly taught not to ask for too much, that it’s more important to find someone who loves us than to seek an ideal relationship, and to hold on to anything good. We’ve also been ingrained with a crippling fear of disappointing our romantic partners.
And so, many of us set a low bar for the people we choose to date, and even marry.
“I’ve come to realise there are more important things, such as intellectual chemistry, interests, values, and connection. All these fundamental things were missing in my previous relationship. There was no freaking way to bridge it. So what if he treats me nicely?” she says.
Now in her early 30s, Fiona enjoys the benefit of hindsight. The proposal serves as a sobering reminder of how she almost sacrificed her happiness in exchange for meeting her partner’s, society’s, and her own unrealistic expectations.
She also no longer wastes her time on men who are an obvious mismatch from the get-go.
It’s so common that a short fiction story in the New Yorker recently went viral for this reason. The story described the relatable experience of women who have sex with men even when we’re not ‘feeling it’.
In a follow-up interview with the author, she says, “Many women, especially young women, move through the world not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.”
And as I’ve learnt from Michelle, Linda, and Fiona’s experiences, this reluctance to face conflict head on can cause a relationship to break down. Occasionally, the pressure to act a certain way also makes us feel as though we’re not worthy when expectations are unmet.
So perhaps we should stop telling women that they can’t be happy on their own. We need to stop living by inane standards and forcing people to settle down, especially when they don’t want or are not ready to. And we need to internalise that there shouldn’t have to be a groundbreaking reason to listen to our gut feelings, end a relationship, or merely say no.
Sometimes, we simply want to leave. It’s time we found the courage to let that be enough.