Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Surprise!: My boyfriend of six months staged a large, public proposal when we were on vacation together. I panicked and was put on the spot, so I said yes. It completely blindsided me, and I was afraid of his reaction if I turned him down. He had paid for the hotel and plane tickets. I didn’t want to be stuck in another country alone.
When we got back, I immediately rushed home and felt safe. My boyfriend put the news on every social media platform that day, so I got a ton of calls—most people were confused or upset with me for “leaving them in the dark.” I felt sick and exposed. I broke up with my boyfriend over text and mailed the ring back to him. He came to my work and made a scene. My manager had to escort him off the property.
Since then, I have gotten a lot of pushback from people I thought were friends. They are calling me manipulative and uncaring. I feel like I have to give a deposition every time someone demands to know what happened, why I didn’t leave earlier, or why I was so scared. My boyfriend never hit me, but we hadn’t even talked about moving in together, let alone marriage. I also hate being the center of attention in a crowd. I don’t like waiters singing “Happy Birthday” to me at a restaurant.
I go to work, but otherwise I hide out in my home because I don’t want to run into him accidentally. I keep going over every inch of our relationship in my head. Am I crazy? Heartless? Is there something I can do to mitigate this?
A: I am so, so sorry. Your ex’s behavior was absolutely reprehensible. If he knew you at all, he was likely aware of your distaste for crowds, public attention, and being put on the spot. I suspect that’s exactly why he went out of his way to ask you to marry him in public with absolutely no prior discussion. He knew you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying “no” and destroying the narrative. There is a great deal of pressure to respond “correctly” during a public proposal. That you didn’t want to watch everyone’s faces go from happy and excited to shocked and scandalized doesn’t mean that you were heartless or manipulative. It meant you felt pressured and put on the spot. I’m so sorry that your friends have added to that pressure.
You don’t have to furnish any details to anyone just because they demand an explanation. The fact that your engagement was so public might make others feel like they have a right to know more than they actually do. But if you’re looking for a script to deliver to your close friends (who should know better!), try this: “I didn’t break up with him sooner because I had no idea that he would pull a stunt like this. We had never talked about getting married or moving in together. You know I don’t like being the center of attention, and I was embarrassed and petrified when he proposed in public. As soon as I was out of the public eye I flew home and ended things, and he responded by making a scene at my office. I wasn’t trying to jerk him around: He did something he knew I would intensely dislike in order to pressure me to give him the answer he wanted. I found the whole experience humiliating and painful, and right now I’d really appreciate your support.”