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From Playing “The Engagement Game” to Finding Real Love: Joi-Marie McKenzie Talks Self-Worth and Authentic Happiness
by Myeisha Essex
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May 15, 2019

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From Playing “The Engagement Game” to Finding Real Love: Joi-Marie McKenzie Talks Self-Worth and Authentic Happiness

Courtesy of Tayo Ola

Joi-Marie McKenzie had the career, the friends, the apartment and the lifestyle she always dreamed of. She was living her dream in New York City, and from the outside, it looked like she had “it all.” The only problem was, her boyfriend of five years wouldn’t propose.

In response, she decided to take matters into her own hands and play the game — the engagement game, that is. She tried everything in her power to get him to pop the big question, including researching how to cook “engagement chicken,” and slowly she became a woman she didn’t recognize. However, in the process, she discovered something so much more valuable — instead of trying to turn him into a husband, she needed to focus on turning herself into a wife and having the courage to authentically be herself.

Joi-Marie shared her journey of finding the real happily ever after in her 2017 book “The Engagement Game: Why I Said ‘I Don’t’ to Marriage and ‘I Do’ to Me.” Now, almost two years later, Joi-Marie works as the Senior Entertainment Editor at Essence Magazine, is engaged to be married, and has a baby boy on the way. What shifted? BlackLove.com caught up with the author and journalist and she dropped a few gems about trusting the timing of your life, pouring into yourself, and shifting your thinking.

Because, in her words, “You are the prize, sis!”

Black Love: You released your first book in 2017 called “The Engagement Game: Why I Said ‘I Don’t’ to Marriage and ‘I Do’ to Me.” Can you tell us about the relationship that encouraged the book and where you were in your life at the time it was released?

Joi-Marie McKenzie: I was in a five-year, loving, committed relationship with a man whom I thought I was going to marry. You couldn’t tell me differently — we had talked about it, planned it, even thought about what our kids would look like. But five years in, when I asked him what his intentions were (read: when are you going to propose?), he replied that he was burnt out, and my entire world came crumbling down.

I had no intention of turning my worst break up into a memoir, but I journal. And I began journaling what was happening to me. I sent 20 pages of my journal to a book editor I had met at church, and she turned around and offered me a book deal with one of the biggest publishing companies in the world.

BL: Now, almost two years later, you are engaged and expecting your first baby. How has your perspective changed?

Courtesy of Kesha Lambert

JMM: It hasn’t really; I’m just more grateful for that relationship ending. I was grateful then that it had ended — and I write in The Engagement Game all the reasons why. Primarily, I was so used to shapeshifting in relationships — afraid to be my most authentic self — for fear that I wouldn’t be loved. So, I was offering to my then-boyfriend a watered-down version of myself. And when I — as I write in the book — finally had the courage to become the authority on myself, my entire world shifted. I got the job I wanted. The man whom God had promised me stepped into my life, and now we’re planning our wedding and a family. But I’m just more and more sure that when you’re faithful to God and more so obedient to him then your life will unfold with so many pleasant surprises–ones that you’re equipped to handle. And I know everyone doesn’t believe in God, but the same idea is true: when you start listening to your gut or your instincts and stop forcing what you want to happen, the universe will flow in your life in magnificent ways.

BL: The book really gives a humorous take on the patriarchal construct of marriage. Why do you think the belief that marriage is better or more valued than being single is so engraved in us?  

JMM: Because Western men built a society that forces women to so desperately want to be tied up with them for the rest of their lives. You could call it narcissism, but it has so much more to do with what Western cultures value, namely capitalism. (I could go on and on, but I encourage you to read up on it instead!)

The reality is that, especially in modern-day America, there are more single people than married people statistically. They’re the majority. So there needs to be a shift on what that means culturally and deeper exploration into why it’s not valued more.

There are so many cultures around the world, particularly Eastern cultures, where communities aren’t built on marriage but instead community. And in the tribes that our ancestors built, the mother was the center of a family — after all, she is the only person who can create a family; who can create life. And so, although I make light of it in the book, it’s almost like I laugh to keep from crying. I hope that my humor illuminates just how this system is set up against us women.

And we don’t have to buy into it to get married either. I’m proud to say I’m engaged to a feminist. He believes in a marriage built on partnership, not submission. And we plan to teach equity in relationships to our son as well.

BL: What was the moment when this all clicked for you? What caused your switch in thinking?

JMM: When I was sick of crying at night; when I was sick of drinking wine for dinner; when I was sick of being depressed; when I was sick of pressing the red button when friends called to check on me, I only had hope left. So, I leaned on my faith: I prayed and prayed and prayed.

And my life didn’t shift immediately, it took some time. It took faith that God wouldn’t leave me like that, and it took faith in myself. We give ourselves so little credit when it comes to changing our lives. I had to do the hard work of sitting with myself, instead of running away from my feelings by traveling and drinking and whatnot, and really say who am I and more so who do I want to be? And when I asked myself that question — and I write about this too — I wasn’t happy with the woman I was.

I had begun cursing a lot because that’s how my frustration with life was coming out. I wasn’t being kind to people. I really had to check myself. I even wrote a list of all the negative qualities I embodied at that moment and vowed to improve upon them. And when I began working down that list one-by-one, I started noticing a shift in my attitude and in the atmosphere.

BL: Now that you’ve found your forever person, what advice would you give your younger, single self about dating?

Courtesy of Kesha Lambert

JMM: OK, so admission: I hate the term forever person. (And I talk about this on The Engagement Game Podcast, on Episode 3 called “The Myth of Happily Ever After”) Because the reality is nothing lasts forever; like prophet J. Cole said, “Don’t shit last.” It’s true; not even our best relationships because (not to be morbid) but even if we’re together to our dying days it’s still not forever. And so, in my effort to live authentically (and to not set myself up for future disappointment), I try to refrain from using that term. And because I know this won’t last forever, every day I cherish my relationship as if it’s our last day together.

But I said all that to say: the advice I’d give to my younger self is to realize that not every person you date is marriage material. And figure out quickly who is and who isn’t. And I’m not saying don’t date Mr. Right Now because sometimes Mr. Right Now will teach you things about yourself or simply allow you to have a good time! But don’t pretend Mr. RN is Mr. Marriage because they’re never the same, and one can never be the other. Be intentional and honest about your dating. After my break up, I knew I wasn’t ready for another relationship, so I dated a lot. And I had a ball! But I was honest with each man. I’d tell them, “I’m not looking for anything serious. I just want to have fun.” And oddly enough, so many of them wanted to turn me into their girlfriend. And I had to remind them of the precedent already set. The same goes conversely. If you’re dating with the intention for marriage, share that information within the first three months of dating. And if your partner at the time is telling you that’s not his goal, believe him, and don’t try to convince him otherwise.

BL: Tell us about the self-work you did before you met your soon-to-be husband. What did you learn about yourself during that time period after your last relationship? Did you have to start over and rediscover who you were and what you really wanted?

JMM: I spoke about this a bit earlier: I made a list of qualities where I wanted to improve in myself. And that idea came after I realized there was nothing I could do to convince my then-boyfriend to propose to me. And I was too worried about how to turn him into a husband and not focused enough on how to turn myself into a wife. And so, I began focusing my energy on becoming the best woman, and future wife, I could be. That tiny shift allowed me to pour into myself and become intentional about partnership.

BL: What advice do you give other women who were once like you, trying everything in your power to get your man to propose?

JMM: This is easier said than done, but never try to convince a man to marry you. He knows whether he does or if he doesn’t want to marry you. And do you really want to be with a man that you had to trick and coerce into matrimony? Instead, shift your thinking. After all, you are the prize, sis. Not him. He should be trying to convince you. So, live without abandon. Live with the knowledge that it’s all in you. And that although some men need a small push, which is fine, others need to be dragged. Don’t marry the latter.

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