Zen: Going Public

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.

Photo: LeahAndMark.com

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  • Shiri

    “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.”

    This. I needed this. I’m 11 days from my wedding and this reframing (again!) just gave me the best sense of calm. Thank you.

    • Amanda L.

      Even though I’m three months past my wedding, I still think this is an awesome sentiment. If only more brides could read that and internalize it. APW FTW!

  • Tatyana

    I know that our engagement and our eventual marriage is simply a public way to share with our community what we already feel. After all, that’s why we’re having the big party – to allow everyone to share in our love. But we already know that we’re a family and we don’t need a wedding or a certificate to tell us so. What I’m really struggling with is why my community expects to be involved in every step of our becoming a family when we feel that we’ve already been one before we started to plan a big party.

    • Florence

      I totally agree with you… I hate how EVERYONE suddenly had an opinion after we got engaged about the way my wedding was supposed to be (“but it’s TRADITION !”) or how we’re supposed to act as a family in the future .

      • Tatyana

        I wish there was some nice way to tell people that we’ll ask if we need anything, otherwise, they’ll get an invitation in the mail. There isn’t though, is there?

        • Lynn

          I just said, “Thanks. We’ve already got that planned out, and I can’t wait for you to see how it works at the wedding” and then steered the conversation into different territory.

    • Zen

      I’m still thinking this through, but one’s community being total busybodies at the engagement/marriage stage kind of makes sense to me. I mean, I don’t *like* it, but it feels like an inescapable part of the process. In a way it’s just a flipside of how generous people can be when you’re planning a wedding — people fly long distances, spend money, make things, help out, and I don’t think they do that just because they love you; they do it because they feel invested in your wedding. It’s your thing, but it’s also their thing! Hence the unsolicited advice and unwanted comments.

      • Florence

        Of course, and weddings are (kind of) public events, it’s understandable that people get excited and want to give advice and participate. I can totally handle people criticizing my choice for centerpieces or telling me we should have a sit-down meal instead of a buffet.
        But I can’t stand people telling me or my fiancé how to handle the relationship part, especially when their only advice is for me to stop working so hard on my career and start working on the baby/housewife part, or that I’m supposed to obey my husband at all time…

  • One of my favourite moments was the trip to the Registrar.

    It felt like the first real step to becoming a family of 2. I loved that it was just the two of us sharing in that moment. (Twas rather tempted to elope at that point!)

    For me, engagement is the private declaration and the marriage ceremony is the public declaration.

  • Getting used to the “public” aspects of engagement and marriage has been really hard for me. I always imagined our marriage as a private commitment, or at the very least a very intimate commitment that should only be witnessed by those we hold very nearest and dearest. Dealing with the fairly large and circus-like event that it has become has caused me a lot of personal grief.
    My best tool for dealing with the difference between my expectations and reality has been imagining our (very private) engagement and following vacation as the commitment part that is just for us, and our (very big) wedding as the part that is for our “community”, which surprisingly, contains a lot of people we don’t know very well. I just keep my engagement story brief and vague and hold those tender moments very close while I’m dealing with the landslide of RSVP cards that are rolling in these days.

    • Zen

      “our “community”, which surprisingly, contains a lot of people we don’t know very well”

      Hah, yes. I think you can either do a really personal celebration and have things all your way, or do one that’s for your community … and have very few things your way. I feel I’ve compromised on a number of pretty major things in planning my wedding, but I know why I’ve compromised, so. I’ll live!

      • Exactly! And you get the rest of your life/marriage to be private and not compromise to accommodate hundreds of virtual strangers. I do really like the idea of all the wedding brouhaha as a process though. We’ve grown a lot so far. I’m just very very glad that I’m only going to have to do it once.

  • Jashshea

    I promise to continue reading, but Holy S this is funny:

    “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.”

  • kmc

    “as a kind of extra nice friend I hoped would stick around indefinitely” — I love it! So true.

    I’ve been married 2 years and I’m still making that transition, though. My husband & I just flew back from a vacation — in the airport, the security guard asked if we were family & I answered “we’re married” without pausing to realize that yes, we’re a family now. I still view our relationship as a thing just between us (which it is in a lot of ways, obviously) but in another way, it’s a public creation.

    • Ashley/ Ailee

      This is so true for me- it’s been very interesting to expand my definition and understanding of family to include him in a very real and public (and publicly accepted) way. Especially given the intense things that we have supported each other through, he was already the equivalent of my family, and I was already fully devoted to our relationship and considered him a permanent fixture and non-negotiable part of the package that came with me (adding in the kind of permanent anxiety and “what-if-this-is-really-actually-the-most-awful-decision-I’ve-ever-made-since-he-forgot-to-buy-more-dog-food-AGAIN-it-must-mean-that-we’re-not-meant-to-be-together-because-I-am-not-his-mother-and-no-one-is-sending-ME-reminders-about-daily-life).

      But it always felt like I had to downplay the intensity of feelings (devotion was the first word that popped in my head, but for some reason for me it brings up this horribly negative connotation, when I use it to describe my experience, so I’ll stick with feelings) and priority he and our relationship took until we announced our engagement and was surprised at what a different tone and acceptance “fiance” and “husband” have versus “boyfriend”. It’s like this step has broadcast the permanence and legitimacy that we’ve felt and acknowledged for a long while, but I imagine it will take a bit getting used to, especially since my definition of wife and what it means differs greatly from what our families’ expactations are.

      It was so great to read this and get validation about how even though the private portion has always been priority and what I will go down fighting for, I really AM longing for the public part- the ritual and ceremony before our communities, and the celebration with our communities. I think it’s a little similar to wanting to “shout it from the rooftops”, and to borrow from another APW post, having people you love come to your graduation.

  • Jennie

    I love this post, thanks Zen!

    My fiance’s uncle is officiating our wedding and this post links nicely with what he will be saying. His planned words have really helped me to integrate the ideas of our marriage as public AND private:

    “Marriage is a private agreement and relationship between two people, as we all know. What Marriage means to Jennie and A is theirs to explore over time and that meaning will be personal and private. Though other people may have opinions about it, nobody else will really understand the true nature of the bond between them. This personal bond is the private part of the institution of marriage.

    But marriage is more than a personal relationship between two people. It is also a public relationship between the married couple and the larger community. This wedding is a joining of Jennie and A with each other but it is also a formal joining of the two of them, as a couple, with the rest of the world. The public meaning of marriage is based on the experiences of all the people who have come this way and been married before. Jennie and A will have their chance to play a part in defining what marriage means to us all. And we will all have our chance to support them while they do so.”

    • Marina

      That’s beautiful.

  • L

    I always love Zen’s insights and mellow writing style, but wow I needed to read this post so much right now.

    H and I are going to visit my parent’s house this week and we are planning on making our engagement official. I lobbied against this but my Mom politely requested that we give the extended family something to get excited about. Up until now we have been extra private about our relationship, which for me is primarily about protecting myself and what matters to me most – our partnership. Since we bought our plane tickets and decided that we would tell them in person (after procrastinating for at least 6 months), I have had a roller coaster of unexpected emotions. All of them about being “public”.

    My family has second-guessed my every move in life and generally considers me to be an emotional wreck (which I am not in any way when I am not around them). It leaves me feeling that I have to justify everything to my parents. This combined with the fact that I am young (my parents have always told me to wait until I was 30 to marry), and I am feeling extra vulnerable. My sense of self gets so shredded in their presence that I can’t fathom why we are willingly walking our relationship into the front lines.

    Although I keep picturing my parents asking ridiculously inappropriate questions, I more fear that I will feel violated and unprotected as well as disappointed and hurt.

    In a way I almost picture the wedding being the end of our vulnerability. After that we are married and no one has the right to interfere or ask too personal questions.

  • MDBethann

    Even though I didn’t have to “give public notice” when we got married earlier this year, I still want to “exactly” this entire post. Getting engaged and then married does make your entire relationship public, at least for awhile, as I’m continuing to see as I add my husband’s last name to mine. Each time I go to change my name on a document, account, or with an agency, I have to constantly say “I just got married and I’m changing my last name.” In some ways, it shouldn’t be anyone’s business why I’m changing my last name, just that I’m doing it. But because the process is “easier” if it is due to marriage, you have to make that statement all of the time. And as a “baby family,” we are a unit and no matter what our last names are, we should be projecting that to the world.

    The dichotomy between private and personal is interesting. Zen implies that just because a decision is a personal one, doesn’t mean it is private. You can keep your rationale for that decision private if you want, but that act of marrying &/or declaring you are spending your life with someone is a very public one, especially if you want that relationship recognized. Personal? Yes. Private? No.

  • Marina

    This is brilliant, and probably the one thing I wish I’d known when I was deciding whether or not to get married. Because it’s true, you have this relationship that is personal and private and really no one’s business but yours, and then the act of engagement, of declaring the intent to become married, is not private at all. For me I would say that is THE main difference between being in a long term relationship and being married–I took the relationship public. (Hm, now doing mental comparisons to an IPO… and whether our guests therefore got stock in our marriage… put stock in our marriage? hmmmmmmm.)

    But I wish I’d known this. I struggled with figuring out why I wanted to be married, and this turned out to be the answer. But at the same time it was a complete shock. I want every baby bride to read this.

  • Megan2

    “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.” —

    I was faced with this recently. I worry about money on the best of days, in general & specifically. It’s just “the thing” that I worry over. And I was having a freak out while I was over my parents’. Over all the long years, I had been able to hash these things out with my Dad, just talking about life & how it’s going & what to do next. What should I do for my job, what do I want to be when I grow up, they have the same questions still, even at Retirement.

    So it felt “normal” for me, in the face of all these big changes. To go back to a place that was familiar. Only … when I told FH, his face said it all. I wasn’t supposed to be doing that anymore. THIS is my new family, THIS is where I should talk about money or problems or any of that.

    One of our vows will be “& when we quarrel, we will tell no one of our grievances.” And while we hadn’t fought, I had already shared too much outside of the bounds I was promising to build. It was a great learning moment for me! To see all of the things we’re planning, talking about, coming into a real & actual focus.

    I did need to step back, to examine & really make the actual changes to my behavior. It’s not just talk, it’s not just paper. It’s a real measurable change in practices for me, for us.

    “new understanding is almost bound to happen no matter what your centerpieces look like.” — HA!

  • Jaime

    In an odd way, this post has finally gotten me to the root of why I so desperately want to elope and have a reception at a later time. For me, the vows, the signing, the legally being married is the most important aspect of it and I want those moments to be private between the two of us, not witnessed by family and friends that are waiting for it to wrap up because they’re bored or hungry.

    In the end I’m sure that I will be glad for doing it in front of our community and letting them in on the moment. It was just good to finally be able to vocalize it.

    Thank you for the great post.

  • K

    Gosh what a very apt post….

    I think the private to public transition has probably been the bit that has grated with me the most from getting engaged through the planning bit. Ours wasn’t a surprise out of the blue engagement, we’d gradually come round to it, mumbled intentions to families (well, it was a prerequisite to our cohabitation on his side, and my mother had put my partner up to asking my father his permission…), booked a day off work, bought a ring, had a very special slap up lunch (and spent the afternoon wandering a candle lit museum on the shortest day of the year. Magic, but that’s another story).

    Since when everyone else seems to have wanted to have their 10cents worth on what’s what, who will be where, gift lists (do we have to?), transport, etc etc. While I have to confess I can be ambivalent about the institution of marriage, the intrusiveness that this has felt like has made me more than anything else want to turn round and give whoever a piece of my mind (preferably recounting marriage’s history as a grim medieval institution for the transfer of women, chattels and other property – mostly to shock, if I’m honest). Thus far I have managed to resist the temptation, it has brought home to me that what I value in our relationship are those very private moments, even if I would like public recognition of the relationship’s status. …The associated wedding hoopla just seems, well, very un-Us.

    On the other hand – we had to ‘give notice’ for our Registry Office marriage too, which was actually another lovely day off (erm, and lunch) of just ‘Us’. …Albeit complete with separate interviews about each other’s families to prove that this wasn’t a forced marriage, and that we weren’t committing immigration fraud or bigamy!

    Me: ‘So have you ever had anyone come in after someone’s given ‘notice of intention to marry’ to object?’

    Registrar: ‘Oh yeah! This man, his first wife, she came in every day, and then she saw his name, she found out the date of his ceremony – and came with all her brothers and uncles to dispute it! But then this is Lambeth*, innit. Now you two have a very good day’

    *Inner city London borough.

  • Louise

    Oh man do I relate to this! For me, the public/private thing was most weird at work. Coworkers were SO excited, which I didn’t really get and was sort of awkward and uncomfortable with. I am a teacher and I didn’t tell the kids at all, and when the parents found out (from my coworker) two weeks before school got out, they didn’t understand why I didn’t tell them sooner. Um, because we’re not friends. I am your kid’s teacher. How does my changing marital status change that? I was totally weirded out by the attention my relationship received. I realized only recently because bothered me because to me, Nick and I were already in it for the long haul (8 years together and 5 of them living together will do that) and it felt like people didn’t really respect that when they made a big deal of the wedding — as though we are only worthy of celebration because we are doing this traditional relationship defining thing (albeit untraditionally). I thought we were pretty lucky and great all along, and only now do people agree with me? I know that’s silly, but it felt that way for a minute. On another note, I now completely understand what people mean when they say marriage is privileged.

  • Nicola

    We have never been ‘engaged’ – we simply decided a long time ago that we would get married. I have no proposal story – we think the conversation was in the kitchen on a Sunday morning, but we’re not sure. We kept the agreement between us for a while, and then told close family, and have only started telling people now we’ve set a date.

    Now we’re actively planning, a lot of people get excited and want to know more. At first I was put out by all the extra investigation into my life, but now I just smile. We love each other, and we love making plans together, and we’ll quietly make the day our own. We’ve divided the responsibility according to our interests (me:photography, him: catering) and we’re going to have the best day ever – not because we’ll get married (the day we both realised that we wanted to be together come rain or shine feels a lot more significant) , but because we’ll be with all our favourite people.

    This article made me smile, so thanks for reminding me that what we’re doing is so perfectly normal.

  • Jo

    Zen, this post rocks. So many things in here touched me and I nodded along to and such that I can’t even paste them all in. Just – yes. The private, personal experience of finding the person you want to marry, and then the very public shift bringing that baby family into the world… and the (I think) essential parts of the process that happen during your engagement, through wedding planning and the like. I have felt for a long time that something did change on our wedding day, but the shift was so slight and also so huge that only as the years start to go by (approaching our third anniversary) do I grasp what we built that day. We had already started putting our unit together, but some key transformations happened by committing to each other, for life, in front of our loved ones.

    Also, my mom did the one reading at the wedding, and it focused on how the “us” consciousness that permeates a marriage naturally extends to experiencing ourselves as part of a greater “us” of the web of life. That’s what our wedding felt like to me.

  • Zen, I really like your distinction between “private” and “personal.” Good stuff to think about in this post…thanks!