A couple of weeks ago Cephas and I went together to the registrar’s office to give notice of marriage, a legal prerequisite for getting married here in England. We sat in a sunny waiting room with fuchsia sofas and flowers on the windowsills, and read the notices of marriage and civil partnerships pinned on the walls.
The notices list the couples’ respective names, dates of birth, nationalities, and occupations in the driest possible terms. Even the font is boring, but the significance of the documents invests them with a certain romance. Each notice had a story embedded in it. It was easy to see what the investment banker and his fund manager boyfriend had in common, but how did their friends and family feel about the fifteen-year age difference? The company director and accountant made a nicely synergistic couple, but you wondered how the childrenswear designer and barrister had met.
It emphasised, as well, how two people who decide to marry are thereby transformed into a unit, and how one perceives units differently from individuals. A secondary school teacher might be an asshole, as might a general practitioner, but coupled together one imagines two cuddly people who like jumpers and the countryside, and want to have a dog.
After a half-hour wait we gave notice to a nice lady with a 1950s American housewife name, who struggled with my very non-1950s-American-housewife name, and almost forgot to get me to confirm that I wasn’t related to Cephas. When she was done she shook our hands and wished us luck, and we came out of the town hall into the sunshine.
It felt like a day invested with quiet significance. It made me think of the day—more than a year ago now—that we got engaged, and of the transition from the private to the public our relationship has undergone. Getting engaged did feel like growing up, in the sense that as a child you mostly live in the private domestic sphere of the home, with your parents acting as intermediary between you and the wider world, and as you grow up you move out of that private sphere and start participating directly in society.
Deciding to get married had a similar effect on our relationship. It started as something private between the two of us, built on conversations, encounters both planned and unlooked-for, all the secret significant things we told each other late at night that even we would forget later. Later, of course, we started to meet each other’s friends and parents, and figured out how our relationship fit into the context of the rest of our lives. Engagement formalised that process in a way I wasn’t entirely prepared for, bringing the relationship firmly into the public domain.
If you’re lucky, your parents will be fairly hands-off with your romantic relationships, but they expect to be involved in a wedding. I got used, over the years, to thinking of my relationship of Cephas almost as a delightful secret shared between the two of us; obviously my friends and family knew about its existence, but they weren’t really involved. Our engagement, though, is something that belongs to our families as much as to us. We’ve made plenty of promises to each other. An engagement—a marriage—is a promise that our community participates in, too.
And engagements are just public property in a way I hadn’t expected. Initially I refused Cephas’s offer to get me an engagement ring. Apart from anything else, I didn’t feel the need for that kind of public indicator; we both knew we were engaged and that was enough for me. And I was taken aback the first time someone asked me how he’d proposed. How he’d proposed? That’s private! Except it wasn’t. Even Cephas thought it was natural for people to ask and for me to tell the story.
Of course, it is still personal. It’s just no longer private the way it was when we were huddled in our rooms at college, talking about Chinese poetry.
Being engaged has been useful, a time for both of us to figure out our respective places within our families of origin. A time for us to get used to thinking of ourselves as part of a unit. Of course, there’s no need to get married to make that kind of commitment, but until we got engaged, I confess I mostly thought of Cephas as a kind of extra nice friend I hoped would stick around indefinitely. Now it’s hard to get away from the fact that he’s going to be part of my family. Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. And everybody is going to know it.
I wouldn’t say the conferral of public status is in itself a major factor in our decision to get married. But accepting that aspect of it—and the consequent work of integrating into our respective families, and of managing our and their and others’ expectations of how we’re going to operate as a unit—does feel an inherent and important part of the process.
As Meg says in the book, planning a wedding is the first step you will take as part of the process of creating a new family in the eyes of your community. I think it helps remove some of the stress of wedding planning to think of it as a process, the product of which is not a beautiful day or even a fabulous party, but a new understanding of your relationship. The nice thing about this is that that new understanding is almost bound to happen no matter what your centerpieces look like.