6 Things No One Tells You About Getting Engaged Abroad

Whether you have waited months or years for this moment, getting engaged to the love of your life is one of the most surprising and exciting times in life. Even if you know the question might come up or are even expecting a proposal from your significant other, there’s nothing quite like the moment when it happens.

A good majority of people – both young and old – move abroad for love but just as many people move abroad for career and volunteering opportunities.

In my case, I moved to Spain to help better and improve my career opportunities for the future, as I aspired to use a spot in an English teaching program to help me achieve my long-time dream of becoming a professional translator.

Of course, like any young, adventurous single woman who was on her way to a new part of a country she was already smitten with, I had hoped to find love.

locks of love near Sacre Coeur

Maybe you’re like me and have wanted to fasten a lock to a bridge or a lampost with your and your love’s initials on it.
(Paris, December 2014)

And, even though I encountered many rejections and setbacks along the way, I believed with all my heart that I would. Even on my darkest and loneliest days abroad, I held on to the hope that God had a special someone in mind for me and my desire to be married would one day be fulfilled.

Now that I’ve been engaged to my fiancé for just under 6 months and we’ve been making tangible wedding plans, I wanted to share some of the emotions and challenges I’ve encountered.

I haven’t seen many blog posts about being engaged abroad but I felt compelled to share my story and struggles with the hopes that someone who’s reading this might be reminded that they are not alone in this season of life.

Some days this experience has felt like a beautiful, whispy dream and other days, I have never been more stressed in my life. There are so many new and little items taking up space on my normal to-do lists now.

But, I’m pushing aside the to-do lists for a short while in order to expound on this season and share what I’ve learned so far.

1. Your family may not be able to be present for the big moment or you may not be able to show them your ring right away

One of our official engagement photos. It was taken 6 days after the fact but it was still an unforgettably wonderful moment in my life.

Living outside of your home country means you signed up for an adventure but getting engaged (and later married) abroad means you’re signing up for the adventure of a lifetime.

It is not for the faint of heart or for those people who are very closely connected to their families but finding love abroad means that you are extremely brave and fiercely adventurous.

And you truly have chosen the road less traveled.

Especially if your adopted country is completely different from home whether that’s underscored through language, customs, culture, religion or time zone.

In my experience, Spain is very different from the United States in many senses of the word. And it’s very far away from my hometown in Ohio, which hangs out on the edge of the Midwest. What’s even more different is comparing the somewhat sleepy, laid-back city of Dayton to the bustling, always raring to go, energetic city of Madrid, which is 10-15 times the population of my hometown.

snowstorm in Dayton in April

And unlike Madrid, it can snow (a lot)…even in April (2014).

The beautiful thing about my relationship, though the two of us come from similar cultures, is that we have a country in common.

And that country is the sometimes-difficult-but-breathtakingly-beautiful country of España.

Neither of us has experience living in each other’s countries (the U.S. for me and the UK for him), but we understand life as a foreigner (guiri) in Spain on a very intimate level. Even down to us having lived in the same regions (Me: Andalucía-Galicia-Madrid. Him: Galicia-Andalucía-Madrid) but in a different order and during distinct years throughout this past decade.

In my case, I truly believe that my life experiences have been preparing me for a permanent life outside of the U.S. but I didn’t fully understand or accept it until I ended up staying away from home for nearly 3 years straight.

By the time I got into this relationship towards the end of 2017, I realized that God might have been preparing me for this type of life all along. It wasn’t the first time I had spent more than 6 months abroad straight but it was the first time some very exciting changes in my life were occurring and that prayers I had been praying for years and years were finally starting to be answered.

I was finally figuring out my path in life and God so graciously placed someone alongside me to show me how I no longer had to face its challenges alone.

Tinto de verano at Punta Umbria

It all started with a weekend visit to a special Andalusian beach…

However, during this season of engagement, I’ve felt a bit lost.

The easy answer is that I’ve never planned a wedding before in my life but the deeper one is this: part of my getting engaged story meant that my family or even my oldest friends weren’t there to witness it.

In fact, because I haven’t been home since last July, no one in my family has been able to congratulate me or look at my ring in person.

I wouldn’t change my proposal story for the world because it was so tailor-made and incredibly sweet but I didn’t expect to encounter these more melancholic emotions.

Well, wait maybe I would change one thing: we didn’t get any pictures the night it happened but we did return to the same spot a few days later for an official photo shoot.

I’ll explain why in a later section.

***Personal advice: But first, I will warn you: if you would prefer to have your family present when your significant other will propose to you – remember you can only plan so much -, communicate that to him whenever you guys start talking about marriage and the future. If he’s already met or can get in contact with your family, he will certainly at least try to convince a couple of your family members to come over and become a part of the big event.

Ever since I became an adult, I’ve spent a long time not living near home so I think this helped me gradually accept the plans God had for my life.

However, I’m still human and the thing I’ve struggled with the most is my mind accepting that this is official. You can announce it all over your social networks, share your engagement story, show friends and even random strangers your ring but…I think for me, it’s not truly official until your family sees, hugs and congratulates you on this milestone. It adds an extra dimension of joy when you can share your happiness with those who have known you the longest.

2. You’ll most likely experience differences between your adopted culture’s customs and your home country’s culture

Anyone who’s ever attended a wedding in another country or from a different culture knows that this exciting event can be celebrated in so many different ways, shapes, forms, and colors.

It’s amazing to see photos of weddings and engagements around the world and how unique the bride and groom’s celebration is.

While I’ve been invited to a wedding that took place in another country, I’ve never been able to attend one but would love to someday. All of my experiences are at American weddings either as the guest or bridesmaid.

Never the bride…until now.

However, another contributing factor to me not feeling “officially” engaged is that where currently I live women wear the engagement ring (sortija) on their right hand (Spain, Portugal and many other European countries do this). In the U.S and the UK, an engaged woman wears it on her left hand.

I’ve been traveling to or visiting Spain for the past nine years and I’ve seen all types of ways to wear an engagement or wedding ring. I even had a professor in the South wear no rings but talked about his wife and newborn child all the time. Some women wear the engagement ring on one hand and then wear their wedding band on the other.

But what about people who never wear rings and then suddenly receive this gorgeous ring they must (and are proud to) wear?

Because I love studying other cultures, I did an experiment just a couple of weeks after I got engaged and swapped the ring from my left hand to the right for one afternoon.

holding hands during the engagement shoot

Whichever hand you wear it on, an engagement ring is classy and will always catch someone eye.

Well, first of all, since I never liked wearing rings, I had to adjust to wearing a ring period. (Once we were able to pick it up in the jewelry store back on December 1st, nearly a month post-proposal.) It felt awkward but I couldn’t stop admiring it or showing it to the people in my life here. Because I was so proud and pleased to wear it, it started to feel more natural to me.

However, I did always picture getting this big reaction from guys in public or just feeling like I suddenly had the power to block all unwanted attention from flirty (or sleazy) guys all around me.

That didn’t happen.

And to my disappointment, swapping hands and wearing the ring on the “wrong hand” for me, didn’t change the way society viewed me here. In fact, it just made me feel more awkward because I wasn’t used to wearing the ring on my right hand.

I have since decided that I may not have that “official” being engaged feeling until I head up to the UK a couple of weeks prior to our wedding and go out into public there with my fiancé, Andrew.

I may update this section once I do so watch this space. 😛

3. Planning an international wedding means that you’re probably going to have to do a lot of the planning long-distance

Engaged? Get to planning!

Planning a wedding is one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever taken upon my shoulders. I have help and thanks to improvements in technology more apps than I could ever imagine to ease my mind during this busy time…but I’m mostly handling this thing on my own.

Over 4,000 miles away from most of my family and long-time friends.

The added fun to this equation is that I’ve had to add a whole new list of vocabulary words to my brain. Then, remember what those words mean in English and relay them to the friends and family who are helping me plan.

It may seem just like any other time I’ve learned words in Spanish but trust me, the names for the different types of fabrics for wedding and bridesmaids’ dresses can get confusing.

And all those words start to sound the same after a while.

(Note: Andrew is helping me the best he can with certain decisions so it’s reassuring to know he’s being proactive during the planning. After all, it is his wedding, too.)

And then there are the social expectations for weddings and brides-to-be that I’m trying my best to not get to me. Yet most days, I’m failing at this and finding myself overwhelmed by the sheer social pressure of being an engaged woman in 2019.

Between sending out save the dates (and later invitations) to coordinating travel planning and juggling multiple conversations with family and friends, there is a lot to do. And as soon as I started sending out the save the dates during this past month, I realized I needed to have a wedding website up and running in order to help our guests RSVP more easily.

*Hides in her room and refuses to come out.*

Bicos de Xeado en Plaza Mayor

Ice cream has helped, too.

Honestly, these days I find reprieve and rest by taking a walk around Madrid or relaxing in the park just minutes from my apartment, Parque de Berlín.

Since I work from home most of the day, it’s never been more apparent to me how important it is for me to enjoy nature and take regular breaks outside (and hello, Spanish sun! I’ll need to get tan for the wedding, haha)

If I knew back in my single days that I would get married abroad, I would’ve pinned the heck of out my board with ideas and images to Pinterest. In the past 7 years since I’ve had my account, I think I only had less than 10 pins on my wedding board, for fear of getting caught up in planning my (not our) wedding especially when my future groom was nowhere in sight!

An international wedding consists of so many things: choosing a compatible date for each party’s side, deciding on whether or not to get married in one of each other’s countries or choose a neutral country, start and file the marriage license paperwork, say yes to the dress, deciding on how big of a wedding to have, setting a budget, organizing and planning all of the traditional wedding activities yet ALSO planning out your and your guests’ travel to/from the wedding.

The only thing I feel skilled at when it comes to all of this wedding planning is the travel tips and tricks we’re helping to provide my family and friends with, many of which have never been to Northern Ireland (the wedding location), so this is a crucial part.

And also trying not to cry over or get stressed over silly things. Let’s just say I’ve had my moments these past few months…

4. Other people might not understand your values or reasons for doing things

A huge conflict I’ve personally run into with Spanish culture is how the lifestyle of “anything goes” is strong here.

The majority of fellow Christians whom I’ve met in different parts of the country have recounted their culture shock stories to me and how there are so many temptations at every turn here.

It’s true. And the temptations are intense.

Drugs, prostitution, sex, gambling, excessive (and sometimes extreme) partying and drinking are easy traps to fall into here, if you’re susceptible to any one of these vices.

And due to the fact that many young Spanish people live with their parents much longer than their American counterparts, you can find couples expressing their affection in public A LOT (especially in parks on a nice sunny day or on not-so-hidden steps or a dark corner).

All of it can be quite a shock to someone who grew up in a more conservative environment like me and graduated from a Christian high school.

(That’s a completely different topic.)

I realized that when I got into my first (and last) long-term relationship with another devoted Christian that my singleness had naturally come to an end. It wasn’t that I was finished with my life’s purpose or had done everything that I possibly could as a single woman. I definitely could’ve done more acts of service, solo trips and had more girls’ nights out.

As our relationship gradually and naturally shifted from friendship to romantic love, God saw that both of us would be more useful for His kingdom as a couple rather than as single people. He had set us apart from the rest of the world as singles but our time as a single man and a single woman needed to come to an end.

There was a new purpose He had for us as a couple.

Slowly but surely I’ve learned what that purpose was exactly. I believe that God ended my and Andrew’s singleness so that we as a couple could be used to show the Spanish culture what a healthy, loving (and Christ-centered) relationship really looks like.

Has this been an easy and fun experience in the past year and a half?

Not exactly.

Ever since we got engaged, I quickly realized that a lot of Spanish young people don’t really think about getting married. In fact, some may never get married. But if they do ever reach that point, they tend to get married at 30 or (most likely) older.

This was more apparent when you compared the words people use to refer to their significant other: novio (boyfriend) vs. prometido (fiancé).

In the days and weeks following my engagement, I quickly learned that not a lot of people in regular society get engaged and married.

Fewer people used the word prometido and it actually sounded old-fashioned when I first started saying it. In American and British culture, going from having a boyfriend to a fiancé is a BIG deal.

As the Spanish say, “me da igual.” (I don’t care)

Or at least this is the impression I’ve gotten.

The important thing is that Andrew and I share the same values and we’re in agreement with many things Spain views as “out-of-date.”

Living together, getting into a domestic partnership or spending the night at each other’s places are the norm in the world’s eyes but these are things we believe aren’t right for us.

And because you’re going against the grain, the society you live in will naturally question your lifestyle and why you adhere to it.

Ever since I became a freelancer in Spain and got into a relationship around the same time, people have asked me all sorts of questions.

Will you get the domestic partnership with your boyfriend since he’s an EU citizen? Do you guys plan on moving in with each other?

To hear “bizarre” (read: old-fashioned) answers to these questions was puzzling to some people. And now that I’m engaged to be married, the questions still come in all shapes and sizes.

All that matters is that you and your fiancé are on the same page with everything. Everyone else can mind their own business (and you’re under no obligation to answer any probing or too personal questions).

In a way, it feels like my every move is being watched and it’s like people in my social circles are waiting to see if we’ll mess up.

I’m by no means perfect but I’m so close (just under 5 months to go!) to entering into a long-term commitment and life that I’ve always dreamed about that I don’t want to compromise my values at all.

Even if it feels right at the moment, it’s not worth it to me to abandon the standards I’ve upheld for most of my life just because the waiting has gotten a bit more difficult.

5. You’ll experience a slightly intense version of homesickness while engaged

This goes without saying, if you’re living abroad and getting married in another country, you won’t be able to plan the majority of your wedding with your mom or female family members around.

I suppose in a way it’s good that while I dreamed about my future wedding off and on, I never had any fixed plans or a location in mind so that I could endure this particular challenge during the planning.

Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved to have gone dress shopping with my mom or my best friend back home. Or invite my cousins and grandparents over to go through bridal magazines and dream and plan.

But, I’ve never lived closed to my extended family. And the more time I spent living away from my immediate family and friends, I guess in a way a part of me slowly began to accept that I may not be physically able to plan a wedding with my family around me.

This is something anyone who establishes a life abroad must accept. You can’t always be with everyone you love at the same time. In the pursuit of my career and personal dreams, I’ve missed a number of birthdays, anniversaries, national holidays and even my own birthday that I used to always celebrate back home.

However, while my head accepts that I can’t be present for every special moment anymore, my heart wrestles with this fact more often than I’d like.

The month of March this year was a particularly rough month for me regarding this very same difficulty. It was also the month I looked back on the 10 year anniversary of a friend’s tragic car accident, remembered what would’ve been her 30th birthday, had some difficult life conversations, dealt with a couple of health scares in my family and purchased my wedding dress.

By the time the month was over, I was emotionally spent.

But despite all of the hardships I endured in just one month, I felt motivated to reach out to two of my newlywed friends who might have been able to advise me on the engagement season.

And advise me they did.

Each woman had a unique and beautiful love story but it came with some challenging circumstances and trials during their engagements. While they didn’t plan a wedding in another country like I am, distance, time, location and budgets were all a factor in their planning, too. I went from feeling lost on this journey and unable to find someone who could encourage or advise me in person but technology helped bridge the gap.

I’m extremely grateful for the technological advancements I can rely on today compared to women 20-30 years ago who were going through the same type of wedding planning I’m going through. And I reached the conclusion that I can handle this, in hindsight, very short season of planning, with God’s help to cross the finish line to marriage.

There will always be work to be done on my relationship with Andrew and bettering myself as an individual but if he and I do the hard work of planting the seeds for the future harvest in our relationship, marriage will be easier – and a lot more enjoyable.

So, while this planning season is rough and emotionally exhausting at times, I take heart that it’s temporary and will soon come to an end. And the light at the end of the tunnel is uniting as many of our loved ones together to celebrate our love and lasting commitment to one another.

6. Finding joy in the little moments during your engagement is more difficult but totally worth celebrating

As I talked about in the last point, this is a difficult season of life. And one of the pieces of advice I received from one of my married friends was this:

The engagement season is the hardest because you are SO ready to be married but there are so many details that stand in the way.

It’s so true!

There are a million little decisions to make, decisions like what color and style will the bridesmaids’ dresses be to will we fold the napkins on the reception tables like origami (and remembering how to spell that word) or in a regular, formal style.

And not to mention, requesting a couple of documents from our home countries, looking at paperwork forms I’ve never seen before -and refreshingly in English!-and maintaining my own service business abroad.

Plus, remembering to enjoy going out together as a couple, casually hang out at each other’s places, and have conversations that DON’T involve wedding planning at all. (I strongly believe this last one is very important for a couple’s own relationship and in order to maintain your own sanity.)

For now, the little moments were I felt so much joy and excitement to be engaged to my media naranja (soulmate/half orange in Spanish) are ones I cherish greatly when life gets busy.

Like when I called my best friend to cheerfully announce the news (not knowing she was driving in the middle of the afternoon and had to pull over to the side of the road once I told her what had happened cause was ecstatic.) I had never felt happier to have amazing, life-changing news to share with someone-even though we knew it was going to happen soon.

Or when Andrew went out of his way to see me the next day just before work and before we said goodbye, he said that it’s a thousand times better to be my fiancé than my boyfriend. And he picked me up and swung me around right in the inside lobby of the metro station we had been to dozens of times before.

And then there was the special spa visit he planned for us that was so refreshing and wonderful to experience with him, not as my boyfriend but as my beloved. We needed a couple of hours of relaxation and closeness that that visit provided us with.

I can’t forget the hundreds of times I’ve glanced down at the delicate and sparkly symbol of the commitment and love that is to come, my engagement ring.

At times when I have felt like I’m on my own as a woman and a struggling business owner in a foreign country, the ring reminds me that I am dearly loved and cherished. I have an immense value that can’t be diminished over time or by any hardship I encounter.

If you are currently engaged abroad or will be in the future, take heart. This season is very important for the future of your relationship but it’s also temporary.

It has an expiration date.

You will get through it and so will I.

Have you ever planned an international wedding? Did you live somewhere different from the country where it would take place? Is there anything I missed but you would like to share? Share your stories and advice in the comments! 🙂

2 thoughts on “6 Things No One Tells You About Getting Engaged Abroad

  1. Arielle Grandouiller says:

    Thanks for writing this!! I can totally relate, as I’m in full planning mode for my wedding and have faced many of these same things, though I don’t have to do it while living abroad, which makes it very different too! Praying for you!! Excited to see how your wedding comes together! Ultimately, the little details won’t matter and what will matter is enjoying the day with the ones you love! I’m trying to keep reminding myself of that when all the little detailed decisions have to be made! 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for commenting, Arielle. I went back over my post and realized a lot of what I described could relate to just planning a wedding in general. The being abroad part of it might just make it a little more intense, I guess? I don’t know about you but as a single girl I had no idea the engagement season was the most stressful one!
      Thank you for reminding me to not sweat the small stuff. I’ll keep you in my prayers as well and I’m looking forward to see how your wedding turns out too! I’m sure it will just be wonderful and I pray God gives you both a lot of peace and direction as you get closer to the big day. Besos desde Madrid, guapa!

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