Getting Engaged Brought Out My Unexpected Defensive Side

Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
By Jocelyn Smith
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I’m getting married. To my high school sweetheart. Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth a little bit. It’s like a bloody Disney movie. A 1950s schoolgirl’s dream/nightmare/inevitability.
So, he was one of three guys I dated in high school, if you count being driven by our parents to the movies and/or mall in the sprawling suburbia in which we grew up as “dating.” And, I don’t think I’ve ever called him “sweetheart” unless maybe I was being really condescending, but still — we were together a large chunk of our high school careers and now, in our mid-20s, we’re getting married. That’s the story, right? High school sweethearts. Then one day he realizes that he wants it to be more than that, so with a romantic flourish and a sparkly diamond, we become engaged and begin planning for the most important day of our life.
Case closed. Wait — what?
It didn’t happen that way. And, it definitely didn’t feel that way. But, that’s the thing, isn’t it? No one’s life, no one’s proposal or engagement or wedding or marriage feels like it’s following some script, some oft-repeated storyline of boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love-with-girl, boy-proposes-to-girl-and-they-get-married-and-live-happily-ever-after, mostly because real life involves laundry and diapers and money and all that not-so-happily-ever-after shit (including literal shit). And, everyone deviates from the script.
However, what makes me feel icky is not that people are dupes of the system, that they’re following some script while believing they’re not, or that I’m blindly following some script while at the same time vomiting in my mouth at the very thought. I think that would be totally unfair to many, many people. Weddings are drama and romance and excitement; they’re this space carved out of our fast-paced, cynical world for ceremony and tradition and sincerity, and it’s nice. (I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing. For us very private, non-sentimental types whose default mode is sarcasm, the idea of someone getting down on one knee and professing their love makes us want to simultaneously giggle uncontrollably and hide under a rock. But, I digress.)
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Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
What does make me feel icky is the way some of the basic elements of that script are still assumed, performed, or projected onto us. The ring and the proposal, for instance. We haven’t gotten much further in the wedding planning process than a) deciding approximately when and where, b) planning our matching tattoos, and c) having my mother (and his mother) tell everyone we’ve ever met and then some people we haven’t. So, really, the only thing people can ask about (because no one wants to broach the subject of couples’ tattoos) is: “How did it happen?” Nine times out of ten, they want to know how he asked. (What they don’t want to know are the details of the financial circumstances that allowed us to make this decision. Apparently, practicality is “not romantic.”) And, that’s the biggest problem with this script.
It’s supposedly the most important day of a woman’s life, gaining a husband, but typically, he gets to decide when he wants it to happen, and he “pops the question”; it’s boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, and all of these things just happen to her. If she tries to make them happen herself, she’s a manipulative or nagging bitch. I may be allowed to (nay, forced to) have strong opinions about flowers and invitations, but god forbid I have any say over when “the most important day of my life” is going to occur. I may not have an engagement ring, but the constant barrage of advertisements ensures that I know exactly what an engagement ring is supposed to make me feel like, and what it’s supposed to tell the rest of the world about me.
According to the very annoying man who does the radio ads for Spence Diamonds (fellow Canadians, you know what I’m talking about), an engagement ring tells the world that someone loves me and I matter! And, it “whispers” to other men that they shouldn’t waste their time with me, because I’ve already got someone. Well. And, here I thought I mattered regardless, that many people loved me or could love me, romantically or otherwise, and that I was still going to be allowed to speak to other men even after I was married. So silly of me. I forgot I was just a sex slot for men and that once one of them claimed me, I was a useless waste of time to the rest.
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But, but, but, you say, it’s not about that anymore! Sure, the majority of couples still do traditional proposals, but often they’ve talked about marriage and are already living together, so it’s not like she’s just sitting there waiting, twiddling her thumbs! And, rings are pretty! Everyone knows she’s not owned, you silly overreacting feminist!
Sure. You’re right. You really are. But, the thing is, a huge percentage of women are still proposed to, and — and this is the important part — it’s seen as insulting and emasculating when a woman proposes to a man.
Remember when Lorelai proposes to Luke in Gilmore Girls? (If you don’t, I hear it’s on Netflix now, so go educate yourselves!) He’s cool with it, but then he’s all put out because he has to celebrate the engagement with “chick beer” and then Miss Patty and Babette and Kirk all look down on him for not “being the man” and scold him into getting her a ring. It’s portrayed as funny, and the audience is supposed to support Lorelai’s decision to take control, but her taking control is still seen as abnormal and potentially insulting to Luke.
In many instances, the intention is not to keep the woman passive by proposing to her, or to demonstrate his ownership over her by putting a ring on it. But, the fact remains that these practices keep the woman in the subordinate or passive position in the relationship — and if you don’t view that position as “subordinate,” try reversing the roles and see how men react when placed in that position. Does he finally feel like he matters?
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Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
I feel like I’m constantly on the defensive. I’m defensive of my own relationship, my own story, and how even though — to some — it may look traditional and like I’m following some “high school sweetheart” storyline, that I am an equal partner in this relationship and have an equal say in the decision-making process. I am not some doll who waited around until “my man” was ready to commit and decorate me with a sparkly ring. I’m also defensive toward others who see the fact that it was actually my idea to have the wedding as evidence that I’ve somehow manipulated the commitment-phobe man (because they’re all afraid of commitment, even those ones who have been with you for almost a decade and have been nothing but committed and available and caring) into marriage, because that’s what the bitchy, controlling women do. And, apparently the idea that I nagged him into it is supposed to be funny? (See, told you I was defensive.)
But, I also feel the need to defend my frustration and cynicism to my friends, my family, my fellow brides. Falling in love with my partner is one of the — if not the — best things that has ever happened to me. Daydreaming about spending the rest of our lives together makes little hearts appear around my head like they do in Archie comics. We have so much fun together; he’s my best friend, my partner in crime. And, I love the idea of having a big party with our friends and families, because they’re wonderful people who have been, and will continue to be, a big part of our lives, separately and together. Plus, when else do you get to wear a fancy white dress and take lots of pictures and, yes, maybe even get a sparkly ring?
I am so, so unbelievably happy that so many people are enthusiastic about sharing this with me, and I am so, so unbelievably happy for everyone else in my life who has found love and happiness, whether it came in the form of a long walk on the beach and a proposal down on one knee, or a happily committed relationship, or a happily not-committed relationship, or a job or a friendship or a pet or even an iPhone 6. You do you, homegirl.
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But, I’m angry, too. And, scared. Scared that we’re too comfortable in our subordinate position, placated by sparkly jewelry, white dresses, and dramatic professions of love. (I’m not sure how we’re comfortable, since crinolines itch and we’ve all sunk into horrifying amounts of debt paying for all of this …)
But, I’m getting married. To my best friend. Excuse me while we continue to mutually support and respect one another through the process of planning not the most important day of either of our lives, but a celebration of one of the best parts of our lives.