Rules of engagement

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
February 22, 2001

Betsy Lancefield knew early on that she didn’t want to live with a man before getting married. But then she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t consider marrying a woman he hadn’t already lived with.

She was torn. So they compromised.

“Six months into the relationship, we got engaged,” says Lancefield, 37.  “He went to work in Indonesia for eight months, and when he returned, he moved in with me. My family and friends were excited when we got engaged, but then when they heard we hadn’t set a date, they were sort of let down.

“When the engagement dragged on past 6-1/2 years, I think they thought we would never get married. As time went on, people just stopped asking when we were going to get married. After a couple of years, I switched my engagement ring over to my other hand, since it didn’t really feel like we were truly engaged, either.”

What the Evanston resident went through isn’t uncommon. People get engaged for all kinds of reasons, and some of them have nothing to do with marriage in the near future.

“When there’s a prolonged engagement, it’s usually the guy dragging his feet and the woman compromising on marriage,” says intimacy and relationship expert Dr. Drew Pinksy, co-host of MTV’s  “Loveline.”   “It’s his way of saying he’s not ready. When he says that, the woman has to listen to what he says and, if necessary, let him go ’cause it is not doing her any good to have a man who won’t commit.

“I believe in engagements lasting about a yearish. Beyond a year, that should be a sign that something is wrong. Unless one part of the engaged couple is sent overseas or something that would make it impossible for the couple to be married right away, it doesn’t make sense for a couple to get engaged and then not set a date for the wedding.”

Sheri Stritof, who along with her husband, Bob, heads up www.marriage.about.com, says 20 percent to 30 percent of couples who decide to get married opt for prolonged engagements. But, like Pinsky, she doesn’t believe it’s a trend that works in the couple’s favor.

When a couple starts to stretch the engagement for more than a year, you get two people getting too comfortable with the status quo. Most engaged couples are already living together. As a result, what we’re seeing is they’re not in a big hurry to get married. There’s no sense that they need to wed.

“Studies have shown that couples who live together prior to marriage seem to have a higher rate of divorce, and part of that is because there is that expectation that everything is going to be the same after they get the license. But it isn’t the same. Same thing with engagements. The ring doesn’t really have any significance if they don’t act on it.”

At the Engaged Encounter Weekends that she and her husband host, Stritof says many of the young couples are shocked to learn the Strifofs got engaged a month after they met, and wed six months after their first date.

“I’m not saying that that’s right for everyone either,” she says, laughing. “I don’t want to encourage rash behavior because you should certainly spend time getting to know each other.”

Then there are couples, such as Gold Coast residents Ray Podwojski and Karen Milligan, who wed within a year of their engagement. Of course, they had 16 years to get to know each other while they cohabitated.

Now married for 14 years, Podwojski, 48, says, “When we started going out in the ’70s, no one was married. We were in school, and getting engaged or married was the last thing from our minds. Even as I got older, I really felt I wasn’t ready to be married, which is such nonsense because when you’re together with someone for 10 years, you’re married whether you admit it or not.”

Then, too, he adds that he started to feel silly referring to his live-in love of 16 years as his “girlfriend.”

Milligan, also 48, says marriage was never something either felt was necessary in their relationship. But she says people “treated them kind of weird” for not getting married after such a long courtship.

“We pretty much just decided to get married out of the blue,” she says.  “It wasn’t just one thing that led to the engagement and then the marriage. But I do think that at a certain point, you want to say, `This is it. This is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with and that is important.’ It also made our families much happier, which made us happy.”        

Oh dear. What would etiquette guru Emily Post have said about prolonged engagements and decades of living together before marriage?

According to wedding expert Peggy Post, who has taken over where her great grandmother-in-law Emily left off, probably nothing.

“Contrary to popular belief, etiquette is not about solid rules,” Post says.  “It’s based on common sense and consideration. As long as the couple is being considerate to each other, there is no rule that you have to get married anytime.”

She notes, though, that the average engagement period in the United States is 14 months.

“In the past, brides were property in many ways and the engagement period was the time for the bride and her family to get the dowry and trousseau together,” says Post.  “These days, when couples plan an engagement, it’s based around their lifestyle and when they want to begin life as a married couple.”

Which brings us back to Lancefield. She finally set a wedding date for this September. But she’s engaged to a different man she met two years ago, and got engaged to three months ago.

“Now that I’m `really’ engaged, I can see that there’s a world of difference between saying, `Yes, I really think I’d like to marry you someday,’ and `Let’s get married. Get out your calendar!’ ”

*****

Average length of engagement: 14 months

Average wedding cost in America: $20,000

The engagement is off–who gets custody of the ring? Etiquette maven Peggy Post says it is always better to take the high road and return the ring, especially if it’s a family heirloom.

OK, you got the ring back. Can you return it? Policies vary at each store. Many department stores, such as Marshall Field’s, require a return within 90 days, assuming the ring hasn’t been worn or damaged.

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