Despite my convictions, I felt guilty about breaking the ring rule for a while.
  • Despite my convictions, I felt guilty about breaking the ring rule for a while.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
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Aanswer: Rules of Engagement

Question: What do De Beers, Emily Post, and the U.S. military all have in common?

My mother never liked the term “getting engaged.” She said it reminded her too much of signs she’s seen on airplane lavatories that read “engaged” when locked and occupied. However, my mother (who never had an engagement ring) had nothing against the concept of betrothal. In fact, she anticipated that, upon finding my prince, I would become engaged, get married, and so on. The details of how all this was going to happen weren’t as clear. Nevertheless, I grew up believing that betrothal was an essential part of the princess-frog equation. Subtle cues surrounding me both reinforced and perpetuated this notion. (And I’m not just talking about my ringless mother, here—although she helped.)

I took some of these cues from TV shows such as Love American Style and I Dream of Jeannie. The latter show in particular appealed to me. My favorite episodes are the ones in which Major Nelson proposes to Jeannie followed by their wedding and honeymoon in her bottle. It’s the pinnacle of Jeannie’s life, this marriage. She is validated and can appear in public; she becomes a real woman. I never stopped to consider that Jeannie was already all-powerful and could have blinked into existence anything she wanted—including Major Nelson—because wasn’t it the ultimate dream come true to say, “Yes, oh yes” with the velvet box opened to reveal a sparkling solitaire and the man down on one knee?

There was a catch to this dream, though. By the time I graduated high school, it wasn’t cool or appropriate to want these things (or admit to wanting them). My post-feminist generation rejected — on the surface, at least — what they saw as the crass materialism of the ring, the meaningless rituals of engagement and marriage. Casual sex, not surprisingly, never fell out of fashion. My peers and I came of age before AIDS hit hard and before the swing back to “family values.” The genie came out of the bottle for us and never felt like going back in. What this all meant, for me, anyway, was a confusing mix of signals. I was supposed to give my body freely (I was independent, after all), but I wasn’t supposed to expect support or guidance from anyone I gave it to. In addition, if I considered myself truly liberated, I wouldn’t want any of those things.

But I did. So, too, did many of my peers. Outwardly we scoffed at the conventions but inwardly we wanted them. My old friend Scott is a perfect example. In the months before it happened, Scott spewed vitriol at the hoopla surrounding the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. He couldn’t stop talking about how much time and money had been wasted, how this indicated that nobody knew what was important anymore. When the time for the wedding arrived, he stayed up all night to watch it on TV. He composed an epic poem about the event, a masterwork of bitterness and indignation at the ultimate moral travesty. About six years later, long before he turned 30, Scott had a giant wedding of his own that was traditional, cheesy, and full of pomp and regalia. He even had an engagement period beforehand with a ring, invitations, the whole thing. He had found his princess.

Almost every one of my college friends ended up engaged and married in traditional ways, although many of them waited until their 30s to do it. This was further proof of what I’d always suspected: the game always stays the same, it's just the rules that change. (And, yes, there are rules; just ask the wealthy women who wrote The Rules, which revealed how to get a man and keep him.)

Let’s break these rules down. Unwritten (and written) rules apply to every part of the mating and marrying process, including rules of engagement. “Rules of engagement” is an intriguing phrase. I don’t find it a stretch to compare the Department of Defense’s military rules of engagement with those of modern-day betrothal. The definition from the Dictionary of Military Terms reads, “Rules of Engagement Directives issued by competent military authority which delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.”

Really, all you have to do is remove a couple of words — “military” and “United States forces”—and substitute “man,” “woman,” and “fiancée,” and you’ve got the introduction to Emily Post’s wedding planner.

Engagement, it turns out, has many rules, and breaking them can result in serious consequences. Why else would Emily Post offer advice “to help you survive from the moment you make the big decision”? If Emily Post seems outdated, try The Engaged Woman’s Survival Guide by therapist Arlene Modica Matthews, published seven years ago and still in print, which sums up a strange sentiment in the title. We now have to survive the engagement. Why?

It’s those pesky rules. As in the military, rules for getting or becoming engaged are not clearly defined; they are contextual and vary from situation to situation. For example, military rules of engagement are meant to dictate when and how soldiers enter into armed combat with other soldiers, but the rules are vague enough and vary enough that military personnel often have to make decisions on how to act in a narrow window of time. It is much the same with the rules of matrimonial engagement changing constantly over time. Even if one is not a believer in frogs and princes, this can create confusion. And I don’t mean confusion as to whether or not to register china patterns or have a bridal shower. The confusion occurs when one wonders if one is supposed to want a bridal shower or pink monogrammed towels. Wouldn’t it be easier if the prince rode up on his white horse and took the bride away with him? This would eliminate the need for making decisions under duress of following what is “expected” (which ended up in an actual combat situation, in my case, but I’ll get to that later).

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