“No one ever tells you how hard it is to be a twenty-something. I wish someone would have told me, girl your life will unravel.” — Joi-Marie McKenzie
Joi-Marie McKenzie’s debut book, The Engagement Game: Why I Said 'I Don't' to Marriage and 'I Do' to Me, is in part about being a twenty-something and all that that entails: transitioning to life after college, embracing a new city, working towards a successful career, navigating romantic relationships, having fun, and ultimately figuring out more about who you are as a person.
She is open and honest in discussing that it was true heartbreak that started her writing, and more importantly started her on a journey of self-discovery.
“It was just a regular Friday night, I’m watching another episode of Say Yes to the Dress and I get up from the couch and I’m frustrated because I’m in this five-year relationship that is not going anywhere. And I just start writing in my diary. And then I look up and it’s twenty pages later," says McKenzie.
McKenzie would spend plenty of time at her favorite coffee shop in her Harlem neighborhood writing more and more. At the center of her story in many ways is that five-year relationship she had hoped would lead to marriage, but instead led to a breakup. A breakup that left her devastated and depressed, but an experience she was determined to learn from.
“I knew that I wanted to talk about my five-year relationship and I knew how that played out,” she said. “The latter half of the book it was actually happening in real time. So, I had to live, take some breaks, something had to happen in my life for me to write about.”
McKenzie, who by day spends her time writing about lifestyle, entertainment, and the world of celebrity for a national news outlet, was not always sold on the idea of telling her own story. It took some getting used to for sure.
“I don’t ever talk about my relationships on social media, so now I’m telling you my whole entire story. So, it’s difficult to open up," she says. "But I just kept saying if it helps one person then it would have been worth it for me.”
She wanted to give other women frustrated about their “pre-engaged state” hope and to let them know that they were not alone.
To pick up the pieces she said she had a summer where she dated just for fun: no expectations, and no sex. “I was very clear, I was very intentional about my goal. My goal was not to be in a long-term relationship when I was dating. I just wanted to date to have a good time.”
She went on a lot of good dates.
“I think it’s important for you to date multiple people. When you apply to a job you don’t just apply to one job at a time,” she added.
Healed and more in tune with her mind and her heart, McKenzie could look back and assess what she did wrong in her relationship and “take responsibility.”
“I learned that I had a lot to do with my breakup, that I wasn’t ready for what I thought I deserved. Also, I wasn’t being honest with myself nor was I being honest with my partner. So how could he want to start a marriage with me, when I couldn’t even tell him, 'I really want to marry you',” she said.
McKenzie says other women aren’t being honest with themselves either.
“Women, when it comes to engagement specifically, we are taught to lie. We are taught to pretend like we don’t want it. Because if we say that we do want it, then we’re desperate or we’re nagging our partners. I want women to have those conversations and say yes, I do want a relationship, which leads to marriage. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody should feel ashamed about that.”
Her book however just isn’t for women, it’s for men too.
“My friends, men who have read early versions of this book they’ve told me that they’ve come out of it feeling more compassionate towards their partners or women in general," she says. "The reality is that we are pressured to get married and the reality is you are not. Let’s all recognize this, and then let’s come to a compassionate understanding about how we’re going to move forward through that.”
McKenzie also says women would be surprised to know that there are plenty of men out there for who engagement is not a game, but a goal.
“What I’ve learned is that men want to get married just as much as we do. They just don’t scream it, aloud,” she said. “I’ve talked to so many men who want to get married, and are so loving and expressive and say oh, ‘I can’t wait to marry my girlfriend.” And I go, ‘Wow’ it’s just comforting to hear that because that’s not the narrative.”
At the end of the day McKenzie says she had three main takeaways.
- Listen to your head and your heart. Don’t ignore your feelings.
- Talk to your elders: men and women who have had successful relationships, don’t just rely on your peers who are like you also figuring it out.
- Whenever your dating determine what your intention is: are you dating to have a good time, are you dating to find a partner, are you dating to find a husband or a wife? Be very clear about that.