Photograph by John Dyhouse

The Rules of Engagement

Welcome to wedding season, when lovers and their kinfolk celebrate true love and go into debt. We rounded up a panel of experts—authors, academics, and the recently betrothed—to discuss the current state of the Great American Wedding.

When we realized several of our staff members were engaged, it seemed like a good time for a roundtable on the state of giving rings. Toss in two experts, plus an expat British banker on the brink of his wedding day, and we figured we had a pretty well-rounded crew to discuss the origins of the poofy white dress, how the recession is affecting china-pattern selection, and the desire to murder one’s own family.

Andrew Cherlin is professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, and author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.

Liz Entman is TMN’s copy chief. She works in the media relations office at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. She is engaged to be married.

Eric Feezell is a contributing writer for TMN. He lives, loves, and ghostrides the whip—sometimes simultaneously—in Oakland, Calif. He is engaged to be married.

Mark Glossop is an expat British banker in New York who was resigned to the happy life of an eternal bachelor when he fell in love with an American girl. He proposed last summer and has only a few weeks to go. He is surprisingly calm, considering.

Katherine Jellison is a professor of history at Ohio University, and author of
It’s Our Day: America’s Love Affair with the White Wedding, 1945-2005.

Kate Schlegel is TMN’s managing editor, and lives in Brooklyn. She is engaged to be married.


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TMN: Passover and Easter are behind us, and we’ve entered wedding season. Brides and grooms across the country are getting ulcers, guests are burning through their frequent-flyer miles. There are “bridezillas,” wedding planners, and a reality television show about the pursuit of the perfect dress. Whatever happened to just saying “I Do?”

Katherine: It all started with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. They are the folks who made fashionable all the elements of today’s elaborate wedding celebrations—the once-in-a-lifetime white gown, multiple attendants, multiple floral arrangements, multi-tiered cake. People have always marked the change in status from single to married in some form or fashion, but elaborate ceremonies such as Victoria and Albert’s were simply too expensive for the vast majority of Britons or Americans to afford until relatively recently.

For example, in colonial New England, with its Puritan viewpoint that marriage was strictly a civil contract, magistrates rather than clergymen performed wedding ceremonies. The bride and groom usually wore nice clothing for the occasion but not something made especially for the wedding day. Attendees were usually only family members who lived nearby. In the nineteenth century, this continued to be the typical way in which Americans married, although a clergyman now more frequently presided. Even those wealthier Americans who could afford something that approximated Victoria and Albert’s ceremony—special clothing, numerous attendants, hothouse flowers, a wedding banquet—did not necessarily have a “white” wedding. Wedding gowns were made in a variety of colors. The idea that every bride—no matter her social status or bank account—should aspire to something like Queen Victoria had, including the once-in-a-lifetime white dress, only developed after World War II. Postwar prosperity and the development of affordable mass-produced synthetic-fabric wedding gowns made the formal white wedding more practical for the masses. Whether that was a negative or positive development is open to debate, but many Americans would probably agree that wedding spending—and the stress that accompanies it—has gotten out of hand in the 21st century.

Mark: Navigating through the circus of wedding consumerism is part of the fun and, I’ve been told, good training for married life. I’m all for traditional simplicity, but hey, Bridezillas and Say Yes to the Dress are compelling watching and (unless you are marrying a bridezilla yourself) make you count your blessings every episode that you picked who you did.

In the end, it seems like family harmony is worth the extra money.Kate: Weddings have been crazy for a long time, but I feel like they had been growing hand-in-hand with economy in the past 10 years or so. People felt like they had more money on hand, so why not spend more? Wedding planners and magazine publishers and TV producers realized the market was golden: Brides knew their parents had the money so didn’t feel too bad asking for it, and Dad wasn’t about to say no. It’s like the ultimate, and yet most basic, collateralized debt obligation. When will we see the “bridal bust?”

Andrew: Having a wedding has become a symbol of having a successful personal life. People want to celebrate this milestone with their families and friends. Many adults in living-together relationships say they won’t go “downtown” (i.e., use a justice of the peace at City Hall) to get married; they will wait until they can afford a wedding.

Kate: Well, I hope they’re patient. The average American wedding these days costs something like $20,000; my uncle (a priest) recently told me that he once attended a $300,000 wedding. With every estimate I receive for our upcoming wedding—for flowers, catering, photography, even the mixers at the bar—I bristle: Each dollar we spend on our party is going to be $1 less we’ll be able to put into a down payment on a house someday, or on our kids’ education. The idea of delaying the big day and saving just to spend it is crazy to me. If you can’t afford a $300,000 wedding, well, throw a $300 wedding and be grateful for time and money saved.

Liz: We’re trying to avoid the “wedding industrial complex” as much as we can, although we’ll use caterers and a few other professionals to help us get certain things done, just because it’s worth paying someone else to worry about it. We did concede to a larger guest list than we might have liked, just because once you get beyond parents and siblings, the guest list grows exponentially. In the end, it just seems like family harmony is worth the extra money. So it’ll be more populous than we might have wanted, but we’re still going to keep it low-key—just drinks and dessert after the ceremony, no wedding attendants, an off-the-rack dress, a homemade wedding cake, an iPod instead of a DJ.

TMN: How are weddings being affected by the recession?

Andrew: Too early to tell.

Katherine: One wedding industry insider has noted that weddings are not recession-proof, but they are recession-resistant. Now that elaborate weddings have become the American norm, they will continue to be marked by a greater level of spending than other social occasions—particularly when it comes to the wedding gown—but some other aspects of the celebration may be put on a stricter budget. For instance, here’s one recession tip I’ve come across: If the bride and groom want a big wedding cake, make a couple of the tiers out of frosted Styrofoam rather than real cake. It will still look like a magnificent cake but will cost less.

Some say mariachi bands and Ms. Pac-Man arcade games do not equate to practicality. Those people did not receive invitations to our wedding.Mark: The price of wedding cakes is absurd. We had the idea of piling rounds of cheese on top of each other to create a savory cake. We’ll see how it turns out. It should be more delicious than Styrofoam.

Liz: Two things that have come up for us is whether to wait for the market to recover—the money we have set aside for the wedding is in a mutual fund, and while we could pay for a decent party today, it might be nice to have a cushion if we wanted to cover the airfare or hotel for friends or family who might have lost the resources to travel. The other issue is that my fiancé’s office is closing within the year, and we don’t know exactly when. So we’ve had to consider the prospect of a shotgun marriage to get him on my health insurance, and then maybe having a formal party at a later date.

Mark: One reads of bankers postponing their weddings until the markets recover, but I’ve not really seen any evidence of this. Guests are definitely attending long-distance weddings in fewer numbers. I’m trying to squeeze my finger into a smaller wedding ring to cut down on gold.

Eric: I would say the process, for us, has not been noticeably constrained so far by monetary concerns, though we’ve certainly been mindful of it. While I don’t speak for my parents or future mother- and father-in-law, I believe that for a 150-person affair, when the grand total is finally tallied, we’ll get out the door for a steal—really more because we aren’t fancy-pants types than due to a conscious effort to control costs. (For example: buffet dinner service is a great dough-saving alternative, and we incidentally prefer the idea to a plated dinner.) And some might say mariachi bands and Ms. Pac-Man arcade games do not equate to practicality. Those people did not receive invitations to our wedding.

For others we know tying the knot, money seems to be an issue, though again not any major limitation. Most of these people, like us, are not all about the Benjamins. I don’t have any friends or family planning 500-guest, four-course events with ice sculptures and Vampire Weekend at the reception. It’s difficult to judge this sort of thing when you’re neck-deep in it yourself, I think.

Though my fiancé is from Mexico and I’m from Ohio, we’ll be marrying in New York. In the end, all of our friends are here and it feels best to get married in the city we love.Andrew: The recession probably will mean fewer weddings. Couples who think their financial prospects are uncertain will continue in living-together relationships until they are more confident that can make a go of marriage as a couple.

Katherine: Since we’re in the middle of Earth Month and I made the previous remark about Styrofoam wedding cakes, I think it might be appropriate for me to note that a smaller-scale wedding is also potentially a greener wedding. So, there might actually be two strong motivating factors in creation of smaller scale weddings this year. Rather than Styrofoam tiers, just have a smaller cake to begin with, invite fewer guests who will use less in the way of fossil fuels to attend the wedding, etc. Eric’s point about some people out there planning 500-guest weddings with big ice sculptures (a questionable use of water resources) makes me think that if the financial climate alone isn’t enough to cause people to scale back their weddings at least a bit, then maybe concerns about the global climate will be an additional motivator.

TMN: What are the toughest decisions to be made after the proposal’s been accepted?

Eric: When you start talking about the future with your betrothed, you’re bound to discover you disagree on things you never even considered before. One point of contention for us (read: me) was the idea of eventually moving to a joint bank account—her being an advocate, me being lukewarm to the idea at first (love you!). I’m a terrible sharer with certain things (three brothers), and am extremely aware this is something to work on. That said, yes, we should and will have a joint bank account holding our money for the life we are going to share. It makes total sense. It’s just an idea I was slow to accept. On the one hand, I feel all persons should be afforded their own desired level of autonomy. On the other, more rational hand, there are better, more productive ways of asserting individuality without having to quibble about money.

It’ll be interesting to see how we work it. One big joint account? A joint account with separate personal accounts? Just give her all the money and shut up? Relationships are different, obviously, and after our many years together, mutually acceptable levels of personal privacy seem already to have been established. Sure, she’s got my PIN, but she’s never getting my Evite account password. Ever.

After the proposal, there are no decisions left for the groom. The proposal marks the point where the workload and stress is handed from one partner to the other.Kate: For many couples, I think the hard part is where to hold the wedding. I have New York friends who are marrying this spring in Ireland, at the bride’s parents’ house. It means many guests will fly, but for them it’s important to marry there. I have a colleague who, though her fiancé is Irish, she’s American and they live in New York, will be getting married in a little town in central Mexico, because they love the location.

There’s a lot of freight that comes with the decision, and in the end money is of course involved at least a little—if the bride and groom aren’t from the same hometown, at least some guests will have to fly. So which family has to make the choice about whether to spend for tickets and hotels? And is it unfair to put them on an uneven footing?

Though my fiancé is from Mexico and I’m from Ohio, we’ll be marrying in New York, where we’ve both lived for almost a decade. While both Ohio and Mexico would be lovely places to marry, in the end, all of our friends are here and it feels best to get married in the city we love.

Besides, I bet planning a wedding long-distance can be a real headache when the reception hall wants to know about the linens.

Eric: Location was an issue we wrestled with for a short time. We concluded there was no way we would be able to please most, let alone all of our guests. The solution: Choose the location we want and let people worry about coming to us. It is the couple’s day, after all, not Grandma’s or Uncle Maurice’s. (We’re getting married less than two miles from our house! I cannot stress how much easier this makes things.)

Mark: After the proposal, there are no decisions left for the groom. The proposal marks the point where the workload and stress is handed from one partner to the other, that’s what marriage is about, right, sharing?

To any family reading this: We love you and it is awesome that you want to throw us this party to celebrate our pending marriage. It’s just that, well, we feel kinda bad about it.Liz: You joke, but it’s kind of true. Planning this wedding is turning into a part-time job for me.

Eric: This is funny. Traditionally, it probably has an element of truth to it. However it’s not been my experience at all. My fiancée is actually relying on me to do a good amount of the planning. Of course she is allowed disproportionate input on certain things for which I have only passing interest (plate color, types of bar glasses, etc.). But the majority of the decisions have been 50/50. Then I get to go and make all the phone calls and send all the emails, since she’s “not good at that stuff like [I am].” Hey, wait a minute.

TMN: For those of you on the panel who are or have been engaged, what part of the process did you not see coming?

Eric: Wedding shower hoopla. To any family reading this: We love you and it is awesome that you want to throw us this party to celebrate our pending marriage. It’s just that, well, we feel kinda bad about it. “Hey, everyone, go ahead and get us two gifts for our two parties, OK?” It also seems like an unnecessary expense, especially if your parents, like ours, are footing nearly the entire wedding bill.

Yes, we understand this is being done purely out of love and anticipation, and not obligation. Yes, we’ll be there with bells on, of course.

Mark: I did not see the whirlwind of wedding planning about to hit me the day after the proposal. In my naivete I had grossly underestimated how quickly this would all begin. A more suspicious mind may have thought that the planning had started before the proposal.

Kate: I have two sisters who’ve married in the past few years, so I feel like I had a pretty good handle on the planning process, but I was astonished at the nickel-and-diming at reception locations and from caterers. I’ve become very good at asking pointed questions and sussing out the details being left unsaid.

I love the men in my office—they couldn’t give a shit that I’m getting married, so we can still gossip about Obama and Britney Spears at lunch.Liz: The attention I would get from all the other women I know, including my mother and sister. It’s like suddenly all anyone can talk about with me is wedding stuff. I still have a life and work and interests to talk about, but all anyone wants to know from me is what kind of dress I want or what I’m going to do about bridesmaids. (And the ring! Ugh. May I never, ever have to talk about a diamond again.) I love the men in my office—they couldn’t give a shit that I’m getting married, so we can still gossip about Obama and Britney Spears at lunch.

Mark: Good point. As well as being asked for constant updates on the minutia of planning from people I barely know, I am forever being told by bachelors and married men alike that my life is soon to be over. It’s pretty tactless when you think about it.

TMN: What’s the best-kept secret about choosing to spend the rest of your life with someone?

Katherine: I’ve been married for almost 24 years. The secret to the success of my marriage is this: my husband and I each chose someone who believed in being an individual first and a member of a couple second. That has allowed each of us to grow in our own ways as persons while maintaining a relationship that is everyday an active choice and not an obligation.

Mark: It’s always more fun to embark on an adventure into the unknown with someone by your side who will be there with you whatever comes along.

Liz: When you go from a household of one to a household of two, you somehow manage to end up with four times as much laundry.

Eric: Comfort. Not comfort like, “you’re done, relax” (from what I hear, marriage takes a little work). Comfort in that you’ve chosen a path to take with the person you love most dearly in all the world—for better or worse as they say. Now you get to start anticipating things that before seemed infinitely distant, at best. It’s fun. Also, confidence. Engagement really puts wind in your sails. Try it.

When you go from a household of one to a household of two, you somehow manage to end up with four times as much laundry.Liz: I have to second the ego boost. Although I had been perfectly content to embrace spinsterhood, having a spouse—and the attendant jewelry—validates you in society in really subtle but multiple ways. I find—or maybe just feel—that I don’t have to prove my adulthood as much. Maybe it just indicates that you’re capable of long-term planning.

Kate: After my fiancé and I got engaged, our conversations changed slightly. For example, we had often spoken in theory of the kids we might one day have, but the kids were mostly not “our” kids but “mine” or “yours.” (In the back of our minds, of course, especially as we neared our engagement, they were “ours,” but it went unspoken.) After we became engaged, we both started putting more concrete ideas into place, about our potential family but about our career goals, investment decisions, and things like that. I feel like we’ve started using the word “when” a lot more. And now our future children’s potential misbehavior is “our” responsibility. (Even if each of us would like it to be “yours.”)

TMN: Some straight people won’t get married until there are equal marriage rights for gays; some gays are upset about gay marriage being focused on at the exclusion of more expansive rights issues. What’s your stand on the issue?

Andrew: I am in favor of gay marriage. The meaning of marriage has changed in this country. It’s about love and companionship now instead of being about having children together and working hard on the family farm. Marriage is now a lasting commitment by two people who love each other and want to provide support and companionship to each other. And there’s little reason to exclude same-sex couples from a marriage that heterosexual America has defined in this way.

Katherine: As a historian, I agree. The ideal goals for, and outcomes of, American marriage have changed significantly over time. Any adult should be free to marry or not marry a significant other—whether of the same sex or of the opposite sex. It’s a personal decision that I don’t believe any of us should judge. Again speaking as a historian, I think that the parallels between discussion of this issue now and the discussion of interracial marriages a couple of generations ago are amazing. It was only in 1967, with the Loving v. Virginia decision, that the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down all state laws prohibiting interracial marriages. And many people were angry about that decision, saying that their religious beliefs prohibited such unions. Today, very few people would view interracial marriage as something immoral or prohibited by their religion. Maybe in another 40 years, that will be the case for same-sex marriage.

Speaking as a historian, I think the parallels between discussion of this issue now and the discussion of interracial marriages a couple of generations ago are amazing.Liz: I believe gay couples should have the same rights and responsibilities of civil marriage that straight people have. At the same time, I’m not going to postpone my own marriage in protest, mostly because I don’t think boycotting marriage is an effective form of activism. The people who really, deeply oppose gay marriage don’t really hate the idea of gay marriage—they hate the idea of gays. And they hate the idea of gays a lot more than they hate the idea of straight people living in sin—otherwise they’d be petitioning to make that illegal, too. You can’t just mildly annoy the opposition into submission.

Eric: It shouldn’t be an issue and I don’t really understand why people care so much who marries whom. Isn’t this kind of discrimination illegal in America if you substitute basically any other human adult demographic? It’s awful and is perpetuated by scientific falsehoods and religious dogma—both of which politicians and church officials used shamelessly to sway voters here in my “liberal” state of California to pass Proposition 8. It’s sad.

But abstaining from marriage will do nothing to help stop the injustice so much as it will simply acknowledge it, which, believe me: I do. If other straight people choose to forgo nuptials until there are across-the-board rights in that arena, that demonstrates virtuous conviction, though I don’t believe it ultimately makes any difference, other than being a valiant show of solidarity. Exclusionary laws can only be changed by active pursuits like voting, and I will vote to change it each and every new opportunity I’m given. Thankfully, there seem to be enough good people in politics chipping away at these barriers. It’s slow and painful to watch, but marriage equality will be realized on a grander scale, I think.

TMN: Given our country’s divorce rates, does getting married show an unreasonable amount of optimism?

Andrew: It’s hard work keeping a marriage together these days, but people are doing it. The divorce rate for college-educated couples had actually been declining, and is probably around one in three. What I think is happening is that the people who can still get good jobs in our globalized economy are marrying each other, pooling their incomes, and doing pretty well.

Katherine: It certainly demonstrates optimism—but not an unreasonable amount. After all, at least half of all marriages succeed.

The human race didn’t become emotionally inept overnight. We’ve always been that way.Mark: I think unreasonable optimism is what it’s all about. It’s a leap of faith, not a cold calculated decision based on statistics.

Liz: Divorce isn’t contagious. I suspect that the same percentage of people have always wanted to get divorced; it’s only been in the last half century that they’ve been able to act on it.

Eric: I think this answer nails it. There is no way that human relationships changed that drastically in the last 50 years. Our relationship to the church and the measure for what is socially acceptable? Yes, definitely. But it’s not as though the human race just became emotionally inept overnight. We’ve always been that way.

Andrew: I think more people want to get divorced today because our expectations of what we get from marriage have changed. We expect to be personally fulfilled, to grow and change in our marriage, to get emotional satisfaction in a way people did not a century ago. Then, marriage was more like a practical partnership between two people trying to put food on the table.

TMN: What advice would you offer to people considering getting engaged?

Kate: It only needs to be as crazy as you let it be.

Mark: If you are even considering it, then you have probably made up your mind enough to take the plunge, so come on in, the water’s lovely. Advice to foreign grooms like myself not yet wise to American traditions: A bridal shower does not involve the drenching of a group of young women, and should be avoided at all costs.

Andrew: Take your time. Make sure the person is right for you and the relationship is likely to be a lasting one. Don’t rush things.

Liz: Don’t tell anyone you’re engaged until you’ve set a wedding date.

Eric: It would probably be wiser to defer to someone slightly more experienced on the topic of marriage—a priest, counselor, or Warren Jeffs, say—but here’s a shot: Do it! Get engaged if you are seriously committed. Just make sure you possess the capability and motivation to love, encourage, protect, defend, forgive, and remain devoted and attracted to this person in body and mind, and all of this unconditionally, till you’re both geezers, and that’s probably a pretty good start.

Also, the Macy’s salesclerk is going to try to convince you that you must register for very expensive china. This is not required.

Katherine: Beyond everything else, maintain a sense of humor.