If You Get Engaged At Burning Man, Does It Count?

What my spontaneous engagement taught me about commitment

Jackie Rae Aubel
Aug 2, 2018 · 7 min read

Let’s get one thing clear, when my ex fiancée asked me to marry him at Black Rock City on Saturday, September 4th, I wasn’t exactly sober.

It was ‘Burn Night’ at Burning Man, an annual music and arts festival that takes place in the Black Rock Desert. A good friend of mine once described Burning Man as ‘Halloween on Mars,’ I like to call it ‘one of the best (or worst) things you’ll ever do.’

If you’re reading this in hopes of learning what Burning Man is like, I suggest you go somewhere else. Hundreds of people before me have written about Burning Man, what it is, who goes, whether or not you should go, and what type of yurt you should bring.

All you have to know about Burning Man is this:

Burning Man never is and never will be real life. What happens there — whether you define it as an ethereal, otherworldly experience or just a week-long rave — isn’t meant to be taken back to the real world. No matter how hard you try to recreate the magic back home, it never quite works.

Perhaps it was the concoction of substances coursing through my body and neural pathways, but when I agreed to marry my partner of only one year on Burn Night, I thought I could make it work. High on life, both figuratively and literally, I shared the good news with somewhere between 30 and 1300 people. The search for my person was over, the single chapter of my life was closed.

At the time, I embraced it. In hindsight, this was probably just a side effect of not sleeping for three days straight.

The Next Morning

We woke up at the same time. Sleeping in our dusty clothes from the night before, we held eye contact for a few seconds before either of us spoke. With a clear head — albeit one in desperate need of some Gatorade and ibuprofen — I managed to croak out a sentence.

“Hey so…that thing we said we were going to do last night, you still want to do that, right?”

He hesitated for several seconds, blinking rapidly as his brain processed the events of the night before.

“Y-yeah.” He stuttered. “Do you?”

I hesitated. I probably stuttered as well. “Yeah!” I responded with a little too much enthusiasm. “Yeah, I do.”

Rising from the RV sleeper sofa we shared for the last five days, I began to process the implications of what I agreed to do.

My future, a once hazy and uncertain path that oscillated with every new job, apartment, or city, was now replaced with a long-established roadmap of heterosexual milestones that I knew well. Get married, have kids, grow old. I didn’t know this roadmap would present itself to me at 26 and with a person who I had only known for a year, but I loved him, and he loved me.

And when someone who loves you asks you to marry them, you say yes, right?

As we packed up our camp to begin our bleary-eyed, dehydrated trip back to Los Angeles, people offered us morning congratulations. I experienced a disturbing twinge of shame upon the realization that a gang of shirt-cockers on acid knew about my engagement before my parents did. As I packed up our glow sticks, playa cups, and camelbacks, I made a request.

“Will you call my Dad and ask for his permission?”

I surprised myself with this antiquated request, but I stood my ground as I awaited his reply.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, his head down as he loaded our suitcases packed with technicolor leggings and faux fur into the car. I couldn’t see his eyes.

At the time, I felt compelled to involve my father, and by proxy my mother, in my engagement because of guilt. Just nine months prior, I put 3,000 miles between us in an attempt to pursue my dream of writing comedy. Now, I had agreed to marry a boy they hardly knew without even asking their opinion.

I thought I wanted my parents’ involvement in this major decision. I thought I wanted their support.

As I write this today, I realize I wanted them to say, “No.”

I think secretly, he was hoping they would say no too.

Back To The Default World

Despite the brevity of our relationship, my parents gave their blessing, and our festival engagement became a little more legitimate. When we got home, I ordered a rock crystal engagement ring online and shared our good news on social media.

As we collected our Facebook and Instagram likes and congratulations, I managed to craft some elaborate, hippie story that made my Burning Man engagement sound like a hipster fairy tale instead of the spontaneous proposal it actually was.

“No, he didn’t have a ring, but now I get to pick out my own!”

“No, we don’t have a date or location, but we’ll have one soon!”

“Sure we drank warm Tang and Jameson instead of champagne, but that’s just the kind of couple we are!”

I hung onto our identity as a free-spirited, contrarian couple as tightly as I could, buffeting any questions about dates, location, or timeline, convincing myself more than informing others that while we were young and in love, we were still young. Over the next few weeks I decided that before we could plan a wedding, we needed a home of our own, one without roommates and animals that weren’t ours. So we signed a lease and moved into a cavernous apartment in Valley Village that would charge us $4,000 if we prematurely broke the lease.

Within several weeks of living in our new home, our relationship started to crumble. Stripped from the distraction a group living situation provides when you’re a young couple, we were now faced with the questions we never asked ourselves, let alone one another.

Did we want kids? Sure, probably. Someday. Not now though.

Did we want to stay in Los Angeles? Yes. Maybe. For now, at least.

Did we want to start sharing a bank account? No. Definitely, not.

I found myself distracted from the goal that inspired my move to Los Angeles in the first place. I moved to LA to write and perform comedy, not to get married at 26. And my fiancee, he moved to LA because I invited him.

The magic of our spontaneous playa proposal deteriorated with every lease, bill, or joined financial commitment we made. The more serious our union became, the more we unveiled the worst parts of ourselves.

My once loving and attentive boyfriend turned into a cold and moody fiancee who constantly worried about money. Girlfriend Jackie was strong, independent, and driven while fiancee Jackie was needy, anxious, and depressed. I was terrified. Terrified that I had made the wrong decision about both my relationship and my career, terrified that he would leave me, terrified that he wouldn’t leave me, and admittedly terrified of what everyone would think. “Of course their engagement didn’t work out,” People would say, “He proposed at Burning Man.”

The End

Before we knew it, it was once again time for Burning Man. We weren’t going. I started a new job, and he was trapped in a dead-end one. We had been engaged for a year, and the walls of our dimly-lit apartment were still bare. Our apartment still echoed, our footsteps louder than the words neither of us could bring ourselves to say out loud, “What are we doing?” In the year that we had been engaged, we grew further and further apart with all of the things neither of us cared to or had the courage to say. We lost ourselves, and we lost one another.

The phrase “we’re engaged” became exhausting. As we meandered through this pre-marriage limbo, wedding planning became more and more taboo. Whenever I brought it up, he was disinterested. Whenever he brought it up, I changed the topic. So we stopped bringing it up. At some point, I stopped introducing him as my ‘fiancee’ and reverted back to ‘boyfriend.’

He noticed.

We broke up a few days after New Year’s 2018. Less than a year after we signed our lease. A year and a half after we got engaged at Burning Man. Two years after we moved to Los Angeles. Two and a half years after the night we met.

On the night we met, I wrote my number on a napkin and told a busboy to give it to the cute chef who I was flirting with all night. Would I have written my number down if I knew that in just two and a half years, I’d be crying uncontrollably on the floor of an empty apartment I once shared with that same cute chef? I’m not sure, that part really fucking sucked.

Up until this year, I always thought that the point of dating someone was to figure out if you wanted to marry them or not. It never occurred to me that a relationship could be “good for now” and, well, that’s it.

My ex accompanied me from New York to Los Angeles. He supported me while I searched for a job and established myself in a new city far from home. And although our Burning Man engagement didn’t lead to marriage, it did count. It showed me that before I can commit to another person, I need to commit to myself.

Jackie Rae Aubel

Written by

Writer. Comedian. Podcaster. Marketer.

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