I’m fairly certain that this will provoke somebody’s ire, but I’m going to put it out there anyway, and let slip the ring-bearing dogs of war.
While we were visiting the fam, Sister Dude asked her brother if he would stand up for her at her wedding, which she intimated would be next summer. Sister’s Mister is a really good guy, and Dude was happy to say yes. It was very sweet. Yay all around.
But here’s the weird part. Even though Sister and Mister live together and have been discussing their nuptial intentions and plans for who knows how long, her information and request of the Dude was all labelled ”hypothetical,” as they are not yet officially engaged, because they’ve agreed that Mister should plan and execute some sort of big production and do a stunning reveal of the One Ring and all that.
Now, let’s not get into ”Marriage, Yea or Nay?”, ’cause that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about this other ritual, The Popping of The Question, the one that doesn’t grant any legal rights, or even, in this case, provide any new information. It’s their decision, of course, and I’m glad that they’re in accord. But I’m puzzled. They already know they’re going to marry (as do most their respective families). They’ve discussed when, thought about where, decided who will be in the wedding party, how much they’ll spend and on what. That all seems very sensible. But the idea that their commitment is not yet, well, real, because Mister hasn’t gone down on one knee or rented ad space on the Goodyear Blimp or whatever the kids are doing these days, is weird. It is decidedly not sensible. And it makes me uncomfortable. (Also, I shouldn’t say “kids,” Sister and Mister are over 30.)
Of course, it isn’t their job to make me comfortable, and regardless, my discomfort isn’t about Sister and Mister or their relationship.
I’m uncomfortable with this idea of ”officially engaged” for the same reasons that I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “virginity.” Today, in the US at least, sex and relationships usually happen on a continuum. Most people don’t go from no sexual experience to every sexual experience in a day, nor do they want to. The idea of the on-off switch–virgin/not-virgin–belies that there is a world of sexual experiences (a minority of which revolve around wangular penetration). And yet we still culturally define (and freak out about) “sex” as PIV.
Likewise, most people don’t do the old-school courtship thing where sisters, lolling on twin beds in their parents’ homes, breathlessly await for misters to announce their intentions. The couples that I know who live together or were married came to those decisions mutually, over time, through conversations. Just as most people sexually go from holding hands and kissing to touching and so forth, couples go from meeting, to casually dating or hooking up or whatever, to dating exclusively, often living together, etc. (not always in that order, but you get the idea). All of these things have their “firsts,” and all of them should be broached mutually. Besides which, now sex is mostly delinked with marriage, and a huge percentage of young couples who marry in the West today do so after cohabiting (PDF, beware of handwringing). So the simplistic engaged/not-engaged, AKA legitimate/illegitmate relationship label thing bothers me, because it belies how modern relationships actually work.
But there’s another troublng similarity, in the power dynamic. Weddings (and to some extent, marriage) are mostly focused around the bride, because it is her status that changes. Upon engagement, she is marked with a symbol of her promised commitment, he rarely is. She usually changes her name, he rarely does. This stuff is changing, just as the stuff around sex (which lowers the woman’s status but raises the man’s) is changing, but that work is not complete.
In the meantime, there’s this weird lag between how straight romantic relationships are changing for the better, so that Sister and Mister can be friends and partners and allies and come to their decision to wed together over time, and the familiar-and-thus-comfortable cultural traditions that surround and serve to legitimate those relationships, which still demonstrate how engagement and marriage are about status and ownership.
There are related issues here I’m still chewing on, the most salient being the recent focus on the dude’s job to make his proposal some sort of grand, often public performance of devotion, a kind of ritual self-abasement before his beloved that promises an uxorious future that he may or may not deliver, but I’m not sure where that fits in yet. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with compensating for the fact that the dude gets to decide when–and if–he will propose. The power lies with him to open that door. (Although the woman can shut it, of course, but why would she, since marriage is what all women desperately crave? Amirite, fellas?)
Anyway, it’s clear I still haven’t sorted all these various sub-issues out in my head–as I noted, this is what confused me on my summer vacation–but I wanted to start a conversation with our readers, who I’m sure will qualify and challenge and tease out the thoughts I’ve been entertaining for the last few days.
Lastly, before you weigh in, please note that I’m speaking in generalities about the West, and specifically North America, here. I know there are women who have proposed to men. I know there are men who wear engagement rings. I know women who don’t change their names, or change them for other reasons. I know there are variations based on religious beliefs. I know there’s an exception for every rule. I’m also not speaking about your relationship. I am not attacking your choice on whether and how to engage or marry. I am thinking out loud about how engagement is currently figured in our society at large. That said, I welcome your thoughts and comments.