A promise to get married
Abria Mattina | Fulcrum Contributor
Illustration by Mathias MacPhee
ACCORDING TO STATISTICS Canada, the average engagement lasts 18 months. The age at which Canadian couples choose to marry has been rising steadily for years, and is now 29 for women and 31 for men. More people are choosing not to marry at all, but to live and potentially parent in common-law relationships. Couples who choose to become engaged or marry while they’re still students are considered to be circus freaks by many of their peers.
My fiancé and I are two such “circus freaks” who decided to buck the trend of waiting to put a ring on it, simply because getting engaged felt right. We’ve been engaged for two and a half years, and likely will be for at least another two, until we can afford to get married.
Going against the grain
I’ve always liked the idea of a long engagement. Watching couples get engaged after a year of dating and tie the knot six months later always made me feel uneasy, because the decision seemed so rushed. An engagement period of about five years sounded good to me—after several years of dating, of course.
My instincts appear to be right. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., 48 per cent of couples who marry before the age of 18 are likely to divorce within 10 years. My fiancé and I were only 20 when we got engaged, but by waiting to officially tie the knot, our union should—statistically speaking—be more likely to succeed. By waiting until the age of 25 to become husband and wife, couples reduce their chance of eventual divorce by as much as 24 per cent.
The worst reaction, however, came from the first people we spoke to: my parents.
Still, some said we were too young and not ready, but for me, it felt right. I met my fiancé Dan when we were fifteen. We were close friends before we began dating, so there wasn’t much of a “getting to know you” phase, and it wasn’t long before we began having serious conversations about where our relationship was heading. So much about the future is uncertain when you’re a teenager, but we were in agreement about one thing: we were in it for the long haul.
It was an unspoken fact of our relationship that we both expected to one day end up married to each other, probably with kids—white picket fence optional—but we didn’t begin to talk seriously about getting engaged until the fall of 2009. Our engagement wasn’t prompted by a spontaneous proposal; it was preceded by months of discussion and of approaching the same conclusion from many angles until we were both comfortable with our decision to move forward.
Family and friends usually react differently to the news of a young engagement than they would to an older couple with the same announcement. They tend to assume the couple’s motivations are suspect because, unlike people in their late twenties and beyond, they aren’t necessarily in a life stage that lends itself well to marriage. Dan and I were motivated by the same reasons as older couples: we were in love and wanted our relationship status to reflect our goals and commitment. Despite what others thought, we didn’t view getting engaged as a level up towards adulthood, as a status symbol, or as a way to improve our relationship. Neither of us wanted to prove something by having a wedding. We wanted a marriage.
A father’s blessing
Dan and I received mixed reactions to the news of our engagement, and some people did have negative feelings about it.
Our friends exhibited wary enthusiasm. They weren’t worried about us breaking up or rushing into things; they were afraid that being engaged would turn us into wedding-obsessed bores. Dan and I had made a decision that most of our friends probably won’t make for another five to 10 years.
The worst reaction, however, came from the first people we spoke to: my parents.
The idea of asking permission before getting engaged was one I embraced out of respect for my parents’ values. Asking for their blessing demonstrated that their opinion was valuable and that we wanted to share this moment with them. Because they were accepting and supportive of our relationship, it never occurred to me that they would be opposed to our engagement.
The problem was the timing. My parents were fine with Dan and I getting engaged—when we were 25, at least. Approaching them for their blessing when we were 20 was a bit ahead of their schedule, and they didn’t like it.
The process was very traditional. Dan approached my father when the rest of the family was elsewhere and told him that we were thinking of getting engaged. According to Dan, this conversation went very well. My dad shook Dan’s hand and said he would be proud to have him as a son-in-law, and the rest of the evening progressed normally. Then Dan went home, and it all fell apart.
It has been established since then that there were multiple miscommunications on both sides of the exchange between Dan and my father, though how one could mistake the meaning of “I’d be proud to have you as my son-in-law” still confuses me. The key phrase, it seems, was “I think you guys are a little young,” by which my father actually meant, “There’s no way in hell I’m condoning this right now.” Dan, already nervous, didn’t exactly help matters by including this gem: “I mean, if it doesn’t work out we can always break up… Right?” It’s no wonder his pitch didn’t inspire confidence.
My mother had different concerns. She worried that my getting engaged at such a young age would attract unwanted attention, and people might gossip about why I was in such a rush to grow up. A pregnancy scandal, even a fake one, was the last thing my family wanted.
The concerns my parents shared all had to do with timing. Dan and I were still in university, and Dan was on the verge of dropping out to attend culinary school. On paper, he looked like a pretty risky gamble.
In his book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, author and sociologist Andrew Cherlin writes that individualism is one of the reasons couples are delaying marriage.
“People are more concerned with their own self-development than they used to be. Therefore, people are postponing marriage until everything in their lives is working ‘in order.’ The order means after you’ve finished your education, perhaps after beginning your career … they’re postponing marriage until they think they’re ready for it.”
My parents were worried that focusing on our dedication to each other at such a young age would compromise our dedication to other pursuits, such as education.
But like naive young people, we believed all we needed was love and a good relationship to make it work. The naysayers seemed like such a minor obstacle.
It hurt that my family wasn’t supportive of our engagement, at least initially, but it didn’t really change anything. I’m a woman of the 21st century, enjoying more freedom and independence than any other generation of women have. My father does not own me. My parents’ blessing was something I’d sought as a way to pay them respect, but I wasn’t going to arrange my life around the desires and schedules of other people. On December 31, 2009, barely a week after Dan’s conversation with my father, we got engaged.
Hamilton, Ont. isn’t much to look at in the daytime, but sitting on the edge of the escarpment just before midnight, we took in the city lights and the stars over the bay. Dan proposed with a love letter, and I said yes.
“You didn’t even look at the ring,” he said after. The ring could go hang. I wanted him.
After 21 years of dealing with my stubbornness, she seemed to accept that I wasn’t going to change. Her timing was perfect.
How they found out
My parents found out about the engagement through Facebook. Sounds like the punchline to a bad millennial joke, doesn’t it? Dan and I had been engaged for about a year and a half before he changed his status on Facebook to reflect that.
“Should I?” he asked before making the change. “Your sister is on my friends list.”
My response was the product of two fundamental personality flaws. First, I was always the type of child who would rather beg forgiveness than ask permission. Second, I am notoriously bad at delivering bad news. I figured the damage was done; we’d been engaged for quite some time and nothing my parents could say or do would change that. Also, I dreaded having to tell them in person. Facebook to the rescue.
And nothing happened. For months. I thought I’d gotten off scot-free, that my sister had simply ‘liked’ the status change and, like the coolest sibling ever, had kept it to herself. It wasn’t until I went home for a visit the following summer that my mother said, “Why does Dan’s Facebook say you’re engaged?” She said it so calmly, so casually, that I knew I was in the deepest sort of trouble. Worse, we were in a car at the time. There was no escaping this conversation.
“Because we are,” I said, my life flashing before my eyes.
“When did that happen?”
“New Year’s Eve… Before last.”
“So, right after your dad and I said no?”
And then she surprised me. “Huh. Well that didn’t stop you.” After 21 years of dealing with my stubbornness, she seemed to accept that I wasn’t going to change. Her timing was perfect.
My dad, who had been the more anxious of the two when Dan and I had first asked for his blessing, was suddenly enthusiastic.
“Do you have a ring? Let me see it.” The knowledge that they couldn’t undo the past made them, if not more accepting, at least less vocally opposed to our engagement. We didn’t talk about it again for quite a while.
The reactions of our extended families tell a story about how the perception of young marriage has changed in Canada during the last 70 years. Our grandparents, who were all married with at least one child by the time they were 23, didn’t see a problem with young engagement. They even came to our defence when others criticized our decision.
For our grandparents’ generation, there was no such thing as “young marriage.” It was simply “marriage,” since the median age at first marriage was 19 for women and 21 for men. The postwar marriage boom of the ‘40s and ‘50s may have been a contributing factor to the divorce boom of the ‘70s, but those who tied the knot during that period don’t seem to have any less confidence in marriage today, or any qualms about the age of the couple.
My parents came to Ottawa for Christmas in 2011. At the time, I had lived with my fiancé for nearly two years, but this was the first time I would be hosting my parents.
The visit marked the first occasion my parents and I met as adults. I was a host, they were guests, and the power dynamic that existed throughout my childhood and adolescence was suddenly gone.
“You’re so settled,” my mother remarked, looking around our home. We weren’t in a dorm. We weren’t in a grungy tenement, cooking Kraft Dinner on a hotplate and sleeping on the floor. Dan and I had carved out a real home for ourselves, and seeing that is what brought comfort to my parents. If we’d asked for their blessing then instead of in 2009, I think they would have been much more willing to give it.
Since then, things have changed. My family has been through a lot this year, and sweating the small stuff just isn’t a priority anymore. My mother casually refers to our wedding in conversation, and it’s no longer a sore spot or a point of debate.
I don’t regret getting engaged at a young age, but I also recognize that Dan and I are in the minority. Most people in university are neither ready nor willing to commit to a lifelong relationship, let alone take the preliminary step of getting engaged. Although it does create a divide between us and our single or casually dating friends, Dan and I are happy with our choice.
There is only one thing I would have done differently: I wouldn’t have asked for my parents’ permission. I didn’t need it, and it put unnecessary strain on my relationship with them. I’m grateful they accept it now, because I’m running out of ways to explain the simplicity of our engagement. I just know I want Dan to be the one I have shouting conversations with when we’re both old and can’t remember where we put our hearing aids.