Got a ring? What about a date?

Posted on August 3, 2011 by


When debating the definition of marriage it usually becomes clear that what most people mean by the word is really civil union – a legal arrangement, essentially, that is soluble by a court in the event a couple decides to go their separate ways.  Traditional sacramental marriage is a more elaborate affair, containing a legal element,  but binding primarily by way of religious covenant, indissoluble except by a very few inelastic and express provisions made by God.  It’s seems pretty straightforward, but it’s an ongoing argument to claim the word by one group or another.

So, it’s not hard to believe the word engaged is often used incorrectly as well. Apparently, engaged is the new word for “dating somewhat seriously”.  Fiance(e) is the new “significant other”.   Traditionally, engagement was a once in a lifetime event, and only one degree removed from marriage, as it involved the resources and investment of both families, with a high level of intimacy that could potentially leave them vulnerable to scandal or  financial damage – there was something to lose.  The behavior of the intended reflected on their families, and the agreement was not entered into frivolously.  Now, a couple might announce “we’re engaged!” or represent themselves as such by referring to one another as “my fiance(e)” when there is little or no evidence of their intent to marry.   There is often a big display of “commitment” by way of an expensive ring, perhaps a joint venture into real estate, even illegitimate children.  Regardless of such attempts to skirt the matter,  engagement it is a two-part understanding.  A ring is an empty symbol at best, and at worst the result of a show me the money stand-off, or even a pay-off.  It is the hard deadline of a wedding date, and nothing else,  that establishes an engagement.

Like the attempts to redefine marriage,  engagement – the active agreement to marry – cannot be changed in order to suit a cultural standard, nor can it elevate a casual relationship (meaning any  romantic relationship other than one purposed for marriage) to legitimate status.  It’s a tricky semantic exercise, because more and more engagement is offered as justification for inappropriate sexual relationships and living arrangements between unmarrieds.  It is yet another context by which those who choose alternative romantic entanglements seek to reap the benefits of the traditional-normative without having to behave within the traditional context.

A description of engaged might include these from the dictionary:  betrothed, affianced, spoken for, involved, promised.  All words that conjure the image of a couple planning for marriage.  The balance of the definition is telling, though, and a reminder that words do matter….it reads:  busy, occupied, unavailable, in use, being used.  In other words, when describing yourself as engaged and hoping to be taken seriously,  don’t show me the ring –  show me the calendar.

Posted in: Relationships