Re-envisioning Engagement (Part 1)

I will eventually get better at blogging again–I promise!

I’ve never been good at being normal, so it’s probably not a surprise that I’m not a typical bride. What feminist could be? What you may not have realized is that I’m so atypical, I actually hate being engaged. And I appear to be the first woman ever to feel this way. A few Google searches have found very few results with “engagement” and “frustrating,” “hate,” or “sucks” in the same sentence, save a few complaints about military engagement in various locales.

As a teenager I frequently picked out my own birthday presents, which I don’t think is a rarity in and of itself; however, I also frequently talked my mom into letting me receive certain gifts early for one reason or another. Given my history, I openly admit, part of my disdain for engagement is a simple lack of patience. However, I also, over the past several months, have been reflecting on the significance of marriage and how it “ought to be done,” and I think some genuine criticisms can be made of how engagement/marriage work in our society, especially when viewed from a Christian perspective.

First, I would like to point out that engagement is a fairly invisible state outside of the marketplace. While temporary, everyone that is married was once engaged, yet you’d hardly even know it. Engagement seems to be nothing but a special subset of dating, tacked on at the end of the courtship process, and certainly distinct from marriage itself. Perhaps this distinction is less sharp outside of religious circles that ban cohabitation, but within evangelical Christianity, there is a clear divide. For example, churches often feature various activities for married couples, but only a few churches make certain their language is inclusive toward other committed couples. While I could write an additional post or two about the consequences this has on our evangelistic efforts (if a non-Christian couple that lives together isn’t welcome in a couple’s small group, too, what does that say about your church’s hospitality?), I want to focus here on the fact that this excludes Christians who are seriously dating or engaged who may very well be “closer” to marriage than not. And would it be such a bad thing for these couples to also be included in couples’ activities? Biblically, older men and women are instructed to mentor the younger, and many churches still emphasize the value of relationships between older and younger married couples, specifically. I argue that it would be valuable to let those relationships begin developing between couples that are married (be it for a year or for forty) and those that are still on their way, rather than waiting until vows are officially said.

In fact, it seems that Christians that heavily emphasize waiting until marriage to have sex have a tendency to heavily dichotomize engagement and marriage. The online magazine Boundless, written for college students and singles in their 20s puts it as such: “OK, congratulations, you’re engaged. What do you do now? There is really only one concept to keep in mind when it comes to engagement, and it’s quite easy. It’s simple and it should guide you in every decision, thought and act until you are standing before God, the people and the pastor on the big day. Ready? You are not married yet. Now, depending on logistical or other circumstances, cultural backgrounds, length of relationship, things other Christians might have told you, there’s another way to put this: Ready? You are not married yet. Remember that if you get nothing else out of this column.”

I acknowledge this is true, and I’m not arguing to charge Christian sexual ethics. But I do think that this demonstrates the oddity of how we talk about engagement and marriage. We insist that marriage is a good thing and bad-mouth those who are unwilling to formally commit themselves; however, when two people are ready for that commitment, we expect a long waiting period, during which–rather than helping them make mental, emotional, and practical transitions towards marriage–we will emphasize, verbally and non-verbally, that they are not at all married, no matter how married they feel or how married they want to be. To me, rather than putting a not in italics it would be much more useful for us to consider engagement a time of being increasingly almost married.

In this way, I believe, engagement becomes a legitimate state between dating and marriage, rather than simply the end of dating. Engagement is seen as a true between state that begins on the dating end of the spectrum, but quickly moves closer to marriage. Besides these questionable ways of talking about engagement, I think it’s notable that there seem to be many more books about dating or deciding to become engaged or marriage itself than there are books about the engagement process. While relatively short, it is engagement is quite common, making it odd that there is such a silence. To me it sometimes feels the only people in-tune with the existence of engaged people are wedding vendors–and this seems unfortunate. Shouldn’t we as a society, and especially we who are Christians, “see” engaged people and address them at that many diverse places they are at?

… to be continued…

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Re-envisioning Engagement (Part 1)

  1. rachel

    hey ashleigh,

    while i can’t relate immediately to your post [not being engaged and all :)], i think you’ve got some really great thoughts about how the church fails to transition us well from being single to being married. one question–have you and jeremiah pursued premarital counseling at all? i imagine you have, because you tend to be thorough, but i thought i’d ask. my dad does a fair amount of premarital counseling and i know he focuses a lot on that emotional/mental/physical transition to marriage.

    that’s all. hope you’re well! love, rachel

  2. Brenda Bittner

    I LOVED what you wrote. Engagement is incredibly frustrating, and I am with you when I say that I do not like it. This was an impressive article, and I am so glad that someone has come to these conclusions about Christians’ view of engagement. Bravo!

  3. Pingback: Re-envisioning Engagement (Part 2) « viveza

  4. You are not the only woman who found engagement to be a difficult season of life! I lamented the lack of books that dealt with the engagement season (I used to think anything could be solved if you could just read a book about it), but finally realized that no one wanted to write about it after they’d gotten through it!

  5. Bride2Be

    OMG! I thought I was all alone here. I love the Lord with all of my heart I am committed to living a life that pleases God but this ENGAGEMENT season while very exciting is utterly frustrating as a believer. Yes. I get that you are supposed to work on the emotional, mental, physical transition but if the truth be told that’s how we went from dating to engaged. We got engaged because we worked diligently on getting to know one another on a much higher level. It has come to the point where even planning the wedding is only exciting for a little while then the reality of the fact that you’re not married yet begins to set in and frustration comes. Truly, only engaged believers can relate during this season. Thank you so much for this blog.

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