When I read Amanda Lauren’s essay at xoJane about her engagement, complete with requisite ring flashing I was happy for her, but troubled by the broader cultural implication of engagement and marriage being an end goal for women. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be so much advice out there on “how to get him to propose.”
Lauren crowed, “I’m engaged, bitches! And I didn’t have to settle for anything less than what I wanted. That’s right, I win!” That’s great for her, but why does getting engaged have to mean “winning,” and winning at what? Do men talk or think like this? Why is an engagement seen as some sort of trophy rather than the start of a long process none of us can predict? This point of view has an impact not just on engagement, but how we see marriage. If getting engaged is the equivalent of a relationship gold medal, what happens next?
When Angelina Jolie told The Australian Women’s Weekly, “Maintaining a marriage and raising kids is hard work. You have to really make sure that your work doesn’t get in the way. That you don’t do something that is going to put too much strain on your family,” it seemed like all the headlines picked up was “hard work,” as if simply being married to Brad Pitt should make every second of her life smooth sailing. I admire her for actually saying this rather than just gushing about how awesome her life is.
Momastery blogger Glennon Doyle Melton says we’re sold a bill of goods about what marriage will be like: “You’re done! Congrats, Cinderella! All that’s left now is: Happily Ever After!!!” Instead, she says marriage is the starting line, not the finish line, and, like Jolie, echoes that it’s not easy or simple just because you’ve put a ring on it. Melton writes (the all caps are all hers, FYI), “REAL LOVE IS A DAILY DECISION TO GET TO WORK. LOVE IS WORK DONE BY TIRED, HOPEFUL, ORDINARY FOLKS.”
It’s not just marriage that I find so loaded, but all the baggage that seems to go with it for most people. Take this woman who asked MetaFilter what to do about the lackluster proposal she received and the response she got from friends: “People keep asking me how he proposed, what he did said and all that. I wasn’t expecting that question to come up so often. I don’t have anything to say, and try to hide my own disappointment in the lack of romance in the whole thing.” I’m not saying she shouldn’t be disappointed, but it sounds like she is more upset that she doesn’t have a good story, rather than upset with a dearth of romance in her actual everyday life.
The engagement process can make people do crazy things, and I’m not even talking about the extreme end of it, like the woman who fell to her death after a cliffside proposal in Ibiza. Case in point: here’s advice from Stephanie Smith, of 300 Sandwiches fame (in case you missed it, her boyfriend asked her to make him 300 sandwiches before he’d get engaged to her, but relented a little early at 257 and she’s got a book coming out in May): “Stop rummaging through his stuff. Stop checking his e-mails. Just. Stop. The proposal is supposed to be a surprise. As in, planned by your man, unbeknownst to you, when he’s ready. Not when you’re ready. And you want it to be a surprise. Don’t be lame and blow the surprise. You’ll only wish you wouldn’t have blown up his spot when he actually proposes.” I didn’t even know people did these things!
Here’s what Courtney Kelsch wrote about not loving her engagement story (note, again this is about the story of the engagement, not the act of being engaged): “The problem was that my expectations were unrealistic… When the original plan didn’t work out, why didn’t he wait until a more romantic moment to ask? Didn’t he know that I would want that? And what did it mean about us — about our impending marriage — that he didn’t?” She concludes that “Real-life moments are rarely perfectly timed and orchestrated, and real-life emotions are often raw and unexpected. It doesn’t always make for a great story; or sometimes, it does make for a good story — just not the story you wanted.” This is TheKnot.com’s plug for their engagement channel: “Get tips on where to ask and what to say to pop the question with style.” I can’t help but think that if so much of the focus of a relationship is on the specific moments of the proposal, so much so that there are articles like “50 Pose Ideas for Amazing Engagement Photos” and the wedding, those are often being done at the detriment of the ongoing day-to-day aspects of a relationship.
Yet this is the natural outcome when the proposal is seen as the be-all and end-all. Its value becomes so big we can’t see the person for the process. Even though I don’t plan to get married myself, I still think we can critique the traditions and institutions around marriage, not just for political reasons, but because they will put less stress and pressure on the people involved in the long-term. I like what Rebecca Vipond Brink had to say at The Frisky about her own decision not to have an engagement ring: “I actually hate the whole conventional proposal process because rather than feeling like it’s exciting, I feel like it ends up being unfair for everyone: the woman just keeps wondering when it’s going to happen (‘it’ being a life-changing commitment, the timing of which she has no control); the man feels like he’s under pressure to do something ‘big,’ especially with all of the rather grandiose public proposals publicized in viral videos in the last few years.”
This essay may seem like it’s against marriage; it’s not. It’s against the glamorization of engagement and marriage to the point that the emotional commitment becomes obscured. I’ll probably never fully understand the desire to be married so badly I’d issue an ultimatum, but I can appreciate why people, including most of the ones I care about most, are or have been married. I just think marriage deserves more than a cult of hype around one small part of it, rather than the whole shebang.