According to what is vaguely known as “the general plan”, the order of things supposedly move along the following milestones: The Meet, The Attraction, The Friendship, The Relationship, The Exclusive Relationship, The Proposal, The Engagement, The Marriage, The Honeymoon, The Years Together. But as many of you can attest this is not the way of things in all or even most cases. What we’ll be looking at today specifically is the milestone of ‘engagement’. It occurred to me today that there are two very opposite cultural definitions given to just what an engagement is. Of course some ensuing confusion has resulted by attempting to find middle-ground betwixt the two.
The first definition is the more orthodox, Hebraic practice of the term. Let’s go back to about 300 b.c. (no, there weren’t dinosaurs back then.) It is the land of Israel and people are still using the abacus since their computers would be of no use without electricity anyway. Camels kick up the dust around Jerusalem and there is no MTV. Got the scene? Okay. It’s a community oriented atmosphere and people generally are known by their reputation. Let’s take a look now at Joe. He’s a strapping, young adult and has had his eye on marrying the girl down the street.. Cecelia. Joe’s family knows Cecelia’s family. So Joe gets permission from his father to begin.. ‘the engagement’.
Joe’s father meets with Cecelia’s father and after a little wine, cheese and dried dates, if all goes well a dowry is set and Joe is given the green light to inform Cecelia that they are now engaged. Cecelia is excited, Joe is excited. So now they set a date for the wedding? No, not exactly. Now Joe goes back to his father’s house and begins to build an addition to the house where he can prepare a home to bring his new wife to after the marriage. He gets his buddies in there working weekends, nailing lumber, saving money for materials, mixing clay, getting furniture.. working and sweating away on this project until it’s ready. This goes on and on, meanwhile Joe’s father looks it over until he feels his son has prepared a suitable home for his future daughter-in-law. If things don’t quite come up to spec, then they must be fixed. Kinda like having a building inspector, only with a bit more at stake.
Meanwhile Cecelia is at home in a constant state of readiness. And I do mean constant. She has her dress ready and waiting to be put on at a moment’s notice. Her bride’s-maids are also at the ready for the wedding procession. When will it be? Nobody really knows. Except Joe’s father, of course. And even that is subject to his approval.
Now during this ‘engagement’ time the couple is considered betrothed to the point of complete commitment, despite the absence of actual consummation of the marriage. For either Joe or Cecelia to back out of the ‘engagement’ at this point would be paramount to requiring full divorce recompense as well as the understanding that a committed couple had broken their vow to marry.
Finally, one evening (or day) Joe feels the tap of his father on his shoulder to be informed that all meets his approval and Joe may now go to claim his bride. Joe dons his wedding clothes, get his buddies together and they make a massive amount of noise as they parade through the streets shouting and announcing the groom is on his way. Meanwhile, even if it is the dead of night, Cecelia hears this loud noise getting closer and closer to her window and puts on her prepared wedding dress to be taken from her parent’s home to now live with her future husband. Joe brings Cecelia home, the wedding is performed and the reception goes on for about, oh.. seven days. These people really knew how to party.
Now let’s jump forward to today. In either contemporary or Western influenced countries the term ‘engagement’ is taken a bit more literally in its definition. To ‘engage’ is to “set in motion”, much like.. well, using your clutch to engage first-gear in your car. Let’s take a look now at Jim and Candy. Jim’s had his eye on Candy ever since he saw her four years ago in their college physics class. Since then they’ve been dating regular, and exclusively. Things seem to be moving along rather well and finally Jim decides to ‘propose’, as in “set forth for evaluation”, the idea that he and Candy become engaged to marry. Jim speaks with and arranges all this directly with Candy, Candy agrees and maybe after a few weeks or so.. they tell their parents.
I won’t dwell too much on the ensuing stages since most of us are already familiar with the many things which can happen between saying, “I will” and “I do”. The one issue I do wish to look at is the contemporary difference which clarifies that, today, just as one can make the decision to become ‘engaged’ one can decide to become ‘disengaged’. To some this might seem like a flippant convenience at first glance, but I believe there is something to observe in this freedom we now exercise in today’s world.
As I’d mentioned before in our first example, for all it’s advantages there are reasons it worked so well. First of all people tended to know one another fairly well for years as hospitality and a sense of intimate community was a very real cultural presence. There was also a greater sense of trust and respect between parents and children in the issue of authority not present in our Western cultures today. So now individuals exercise greater freedom in both beginning and sometimes ending their own engagement intentions.
It is this decision to end an engagement that brings up the confusion that has arisen from the two varying cultures. Sometimes, only after making the initial step into engagement does a couple really begin to tackle and envision the idea of a true future together. This can cause even a further strengthening of the bond between them, beneficial to their long-term success as a couple. But sometimes this ‘reality check’ of engagement brings out the unresolved issues that cause one or both to pause and reconsider the ‘engagement’.
What I propose here (pardon the pun) is the practical reality which states; “Getting engaged does not necessarily mean you -will- get married.” Conversely, I also put forth the statement that one should not propose engagement/marriage unless done with forethought and with all one’s intent of heart. The reason I say these things is two-fold.
First, if after engagement.. no matter how many preparations have been made, no matter how much money has been spent, marriage is not something one throws themselves into half-heartedly based on the hope that, “Maybe I’ll be more into it as the years go by.” This is the reason for the other statement made above. Getting engaged should not be entered into lightly, but rather when one says, “I will”, it is because they mean both of those words with all their heart and soul and have no reservations in committing to them. But, because we as humans don’t always know even our own selves right away.. we should have the fortitude to ‘disengage’ if the case later necessitates, rather than make vows we have little or no desire to fulfill. This is the kindest, hardest, most truthful moment one could probably ever face.
I have, for better worse (I know, the puns keep coming), been in each of these situations of ‘disengagement’ and speak from experience. In the first case I was engaged to a woman who had proposed to me three times. One time was even in the presence of a Pastor, fully convinced I was the man she wanted to marry for the rest of her life. This was after I had proposed to her two months before and she was at the time undecided. Therefore she’d taken time to think it through and her proposals were the ensuing result. And so we became engaged. We informed our parents, she shopped for a gown with her friends, I began with preparations for a ceremony and reception and the both of us entered pre-marital counseling.
Six weeks before the wedding she abruptly turned to me and simply stated the engagement was off. We hadn’t been fighting. Things were going well, outwardly. But inside her there was a reluctance she felt unable to articulate and I went without a reason for the cancellation for over seven months. Finally she was able to say she didn’t love me, but rather only loved how well I treated her. Bittersweet news to hear, but I still thank God she had the resolve to ‘disengage’ when the necessity arose rather than marry me without a committed love in herself for me.
Several years later I found myself caught up in probably, without debate, the fastest whirlwind relationship yet on record. I should have known better, but I guess some things we only learn the hard way. Within three months I found myself proposing publicly to her in front of over 900 people at a business meeting I had brought to an uproar with my proposal. Previously I had proposed to her in private, and she had accepted, but we’d decided to keep in secret until I could formally propose at a time unknown to her with a ring, witnesses, etc.
So there we were, the talk of the town as everyone witnessed our engagement to be married. Of course soon afterwards the reality of a life together set in and we began to make plans for both the wedding and our future. It was during this time that certain things became obvious that I’d have realized had I taken more time in the relationship. Without going into great detail suffice it to say there was a definite communication problem. I cannot survive without it and apparently she could. Great attempts were made to see if somehow the situation could be resolved, but three months later we were at a stalemate. It was then that I knew, much as I loved this woman, much as I’d be willing to work through this or any other problem with her.. if she had no desire to work it through we were better off going our separate ways.
Yet the decision to ‘disengage’ was not an easy one. The public announcement, the following inquiries, my parents.. everything I was willing to accept, but the hardest thing about disengaging was realizing hopes and dreams were to be unrealized with this woman I cared so much for. But with great reluctance and clear articulacy I made one final attempt to discuss the matter and, when it went unanswered, I knew it was time to bring it all to an end. It was the only, final loving thing I could ever do for this woman. For to have pressed on and followed the compelling pressure to feel that our ‘engagement’ must lead to ‘marriage’ would have been the least loving thing I could do knowing we’d make each other so miserable over the years.
And so it that I impress with great conviction that engagement should not be taken so lightly that one enters into it feeling they can just ‘disengage’ at a moment’s notice.. nor should one take an ‘engagement’ in progress so weightily that they mindlessly plunge into known disaster coupled with empty vows. I have the greatest respect for a woman who does not tell me she loves me until she actually loves me. Meanwhile, silent love from a distance knows no recompense. And so it is that if we are to make decisions that affect those we love in a kind, loving, merciful manner it behooves us to say what we mean, and mean what we say.
Henry Velez is a writer, traveler and vlogger currently living in the Philippines. He has written extensively on social issues, relationships and travel.