College and 21st Century Courtship

Flash back to about seven months ago.

It’s the middle of summer, and my boyfriend and I were knee-deep in a Say Yes to the Dress marathon. Bellies full of pizza, eyes humming, we stared at the TV and made occasional sounds of disdain or grunts of disbelief as the episode’s featured victims tried on their dresses and flashed their freakishly white teeth at the cameras. We passed comments, both harsh and approving, talking down our noses like Anna Wintour at a runway show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a SYTTD  junkie; I enjoy it as much as the next closet reality TV fan does. My boyfriend… not so much. I think he finds it entertaining, if nothing else. I also happen to really like everything to do with weddings (it’s been a thing since I was little), but I’m also quite the commitment-phobe. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I just really like fancy parties. And also sometimes wedding dresses. But marriage? Yikes, amighty.

Back to the story. Randy dove into the dress room, several wedding dresses came and went, and I happened to get really vocal about one of them (not in a good way). My boyfriend looked up from his Twitter feed for the first time in ten minutes and said, “You don’t like that one?” I, of course, full Anna-Wintour, went, “No.” “Oh,” he returned, then after a moment’s thought, “Well, what do you like?”

This gave me pause. I, just as I had been taught to do by every rom-com and maternal figure in my life, was the champion of avoiding any and all talk to do with weddings at the risk of Freaking Out the Boyfriend. But, the feminist in me (which takes the form of a small but spunky spaniel) got all riled, and I decided to test the waters. We’d been together a long time, I trusted him, and I figured it would make it even weirder if I persistently dodged the question. So, I tried. “I like long sleeves, sometimes lace ones, an open back, either an Empire or A-Line waist, and usually everything from pure white to really light ivory. I’m not big into bustles, but a bit of a princess skirt wouldn’t hurt, and sometimes I like a little bit of beading, but absolutely no bling.”

Alas, SYTTD had failed me and, more importantly, my boyfriend. He clearly had not been paying enough attention to the wedding dress lingo. He stared at me, his eyes blank and uncomprehending, and I could tell he wasn’t going to drop it until he understood what the heck I was talking about.

So, I sighed and said something I normally would never dream of saying: “Would you like to see a picture?”

The relief on his face was instant. “Yes.

So, I leafed through my files (AKA Pinterest board) and pulled up a few examples. None of the dresses were ones I liked all of (I’m real picky, it’s bad), but they illustrated my point well enough. He looked at them carefully while I flicked through and pointed to stuff, and I got the sense he was actually interested in what I thought, which made me blush and get all flustered. Once I was finished, he looked up at me, said, “Very pretty,” and gave me a kiss on the cheek. We went back to cuddling and watching the show. He was just sitting there, his eyes on the screen, with no idea that he had just shattered every preconceived notion I had ever had about mentioning the “W” word in front of one’s S.O. All in all, it was pretty awesome. I wasn’t too mad at it, even if I was freaking out inside.

And then, I made the mistake that lots of people make: I told my mom about it.

I was in the middle of telling her the same story I just told you, and when I reached the part about showing him the photos, she audibly gasped. Now, my mother can be dramatic, but this was a reaction of such genuine horror that my stomach dropped. Next words out of her mouth: “Emi! I can’t believe you did that! Isn’t he going to think you want to get married?!?”

For a moment, I bought into it, and I felt as paranoid and scared as she sounded. How could I be so daring and foolish as to potentially drive away a future husband?? And then, I had a little reality check, and I spoke the first thing that came to mind: “Mom, we’ve been together for over a year and a half. If we weren’t in college, you’d be asking me when I’d have a ring on my finger. And last I checked, a photo of a wedding dress is not a plea for marriage.”

Needless to say, that shut her up pretty good. Now, my mom was a child of the women’s liberation movement, and she had to endure endless bias and discrimination as part of her career, considering that she received a PhD in a field dominated by men. But sometimes, these slippages of “old-school” tradition that she falls victim to really frustrate me. I’m not entirely sure where they come from — although I know that I can partially blame the persisting popular culture of the second half of the twentieth century, which often worked against the agenda of the feminist movement.

And besides, I wanted to scream at her, you should know how I feel about marriage! The fallout from my parents’ relationship and marriage left me with some serious scarring, not to mention my aforementioned phobia of commitment. My boyfriend likes to insist that I’m very cat-like, and, at this particular juncture, I have to agree with him. I’m slow to trust, especially in a long-term sense. Perhaps that is why I can so easily separate the commitment of marriage from the comparative party of a wedding.

This whole interaction really got me thinking. It’s the 21st century, and my mom is still worried about me finding a husband. But shouldn’t she be more worried about the degree of honesty and trust in my relationship? I should feel comfortable discussing any topic I want to with my boyfriend. Discussing weddings does not equate discussing marriage. Or, at the very least, saying the word “wedding” should not be understood as a plea for a proposal. Quite frankly, her reaction was a bit rich given how often she asks me when she’s going to have grandchildren. (I’m twenty, Mom. Twenty.)

Growing up, I was always very aware of the expectation that I should get married at a relatively young age, meaning before I turned thirty. I’m not sure where this expectation came from, whether it was my mother or just the pervasive cultural atmosphere, but I was certainly aware of it. It was something I thought about more than once, and I doubt I was the only girl who did so. One of my friends at college once told me how she had entered college with the expectation of finding the person who would become her husband — because that was what her parents and all their friends did, and the pressure of that expectation was something she struggled to escape. Plenty of people do get married right out of college. My friends and I joke about the “ring before spring!” phenomenon all the time, to the extent that one day at lunch I took a knee and offered my ring to my roommate (sadly, it did not fit her); and, just a few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I were out at dinner and he made a big production out of sliding a small onion ring onto my marriage finger. (It was very entertaining to play up the moment, especially after he ate my ring; but alas, no free dessert from the restaurant.) If my friends and I, including my boyfriend, can joke about marriage and treat it with such levity, why should I be afraid to reference anything to do with weddings in front of my boyfriend?

I have my own thoughts on immediate wedlock post-college. Personally, I feel too gosh-darn young to make such a huge decision and commitment, and though I admire people who do make said commitment at such a young age, I have to wonder if anything has really changed over the past century. Used to be, women went to college to find a husband. Many even left college if they’d gotten engaged prior to graduation. Women leaving college to get married isn’t nearly as common, but as I said earlier, “ring before spring!” is a pervasive phenomenon and joke for a reason. Why are so many women still getting married at such a young age? And is it even a problem?

I’m no sociologist, so I can’t give you an easy answer to that question. However, I can speak from personal experience. I have two female cousins: one of them about a year older than I am and the other about two years older than I am. Both of them got married within the past two years. They were both in school at the time and have either finished or stayed in school. The older of the two was the first to marry, and she met her husband in the military. I think they married, among other reasons, to assure themselves of some stability in the face of potential deployment for either or both of them and to build themselves a stable home life. I can’t fault them for that. My other cousin’s husband is also in the military. She’s finishing college. Even though they don’t get to see each other very often, it’s clear that they really love each other. I last saw her this past Thanksgiving, and she had just gotten a call from her husband with the news that he was granted leave to come home and see her on Thanksgiving. She was giddy. I felt a surge of affection for her. I don’t know the personal details of either of these marriages, nor have I ever met their husbands, but each of my cousins had a small wedding, the younger one especially so. They’re building new lives for themselves, escaping difficult and somewhat stifling family circumstances. Could you call these marriages wrong?

It’s almost impossible to say. However, marriage should not still be the ultimate answer or solution for young women, and I worry that it’s still advertised as such. I think that the way we continue to raise and educate women, along with our ongoing cultural obsession with weddings, doesn’t lend itself to an open and honest dialogue about marriage as something separate from the perfect wedding. This is not me saying that you can’t be obsessed with weddings (because, hello, hypocrite Emily) or discuss marriage with your S.O. — because there’s nothing wrong with either of those things. I just think that there is much much more to marriage than a wedding and a wedding dress.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t or that you have to marry the person you love. Every couple is different and has different problems to face and different priorities to weigh. But after thinking about this since that fateful summer night, I’ve realized that it all comes down to honesty, both with yourself and with your S.O. As a woman, it’s important to acknowledge the expectations you were raised with, just like my friend at college has, and to examine how you approach the bigger problems in your life. Are you marrying for the sake of escaping or for the sake of building something that could be wonderful?

This was part of what annoyed me so much about that exchange with my mother. I’m a person who’s been obsessed with weddings since I was a little girl, to the point that more than one person has told me I’d be a great wedding planner. Although I do think a lot of mainstream wedding stuff is overrated and often ridiculous, it’s still a creative outlet and indulgence that I enjoy and that is a part of my personality. Should I really hide that from the person I love just because he might think I want to marry him? I’m starting to think… maybe not.

A hippie-stuck-in-the-21st-century with an unhealthy addiction to pomegranates, Emily Ward spends the better part of her time spewing out short stories and soon-to-be-novels instead of doing her homework. She contributes a variety of things to Germ and is always more than willing to talk about the underlying themes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Wonder Boys.  You can reach her at emily@germmagazine.com or on her tumblr.

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