Modern conundrum: thanks to the wedding-industrial complex transforming what should be a nice little celebration of love into a hilariously expensive clusterfuck, a lot of couples find themselves in an odd position, relationship-wise: they've ruled out marriage, but they also are pretty sure they're never going to break up. Enter the sham engagement, the hot new trend among people who aren't really planning on walking down the aisle but are tired of having their relationships viewed as illegitimate.
The wink-wink "engagement" trend is especially prevalent among low income couples, explains Hanna Rosin over at Slate, and it's growing in popularity for a variety of reasons. One of the main culprits? THE ROM COM.
Everyone watches the same movies, so everyone has inherited the idea that marriage should be really special, maybe lavish, definitely worth waiting for, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas argue in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. But since many can’t afford that fancy wedding and don’t want to go “downtown”—a term women in the book use to describe a marriage on the cheap—they just stay engaged.
I can partially blame witnessing several of my friends be slowly driven insane picking out centerpieces for my reticence to plan my own wedding; I was engaged for almost a year and was so shit-scared of the process and expense (both fiscal and mental) that I didn't so much as call a reception hall for a quote. Dress, flowers, venues, officiants, receptions, open bar, invitations, save the dates, food — even planning a low-key picnic tables n' grilled corn type affair seemed like too much. And my now-ex and I were "middle income."
But not every "engaged" couple is putting off getting married because they're letting the perfect white dress dream wedding be the enemy of the good park gazebo wedding; some people never entertain the idea of getting married and use the term "fiancé(e)" to denote a long-term life partner type relationship that has a little more of a legitimate ring to it than "boyfriend" or "my kid's dad" or "the guy I have been monogamously boinking for many moons." Being "engaged" used to mean "in a relationship with a person you concretely intend to marry;" now it just means "in a relationship that the couple wishes would be taken seriously."
Rosin notes that because of the expansion of what "engaged" means, other relationship categories are shrinking. She writes, "In the ’60s, being a girlfriend was an official status, like getting promoted to two-star general." But perhaps the issue isn't a demotion of "girlfriend," but limitations of language in describing the strange, constantly evolving organisms of human relationships. We don't have a word for "the guy I regularly sleep with and think very highly of," or "the guy I have agreed to be monogamous with but who is, like, months away from meeting my parents" or "the guy I'm infatuated with but who I'm not sure about." "Dating" could mean anything from chaste malt sharing to weekend sex vacations to bed & breakfasts and nightly text marathons. "Boyfriend" can mean anything from "the only guy I'm sleeping with" to "guy I live with" to "the guy I've grown to hate over years of togetherness but who I stick around because of inertia." "Partnered" is a good word, sure, but it's a little too liberal arts professor for most.
So, what's the best way to describe a romantic partner with whom you intend to remain forever? For now, fiancé(e) is going to have to do.