I’d love their questions if I hadn’t grown to hate them.
I still taste their smiles like stale maple syrup in the back of my mouth. I just got married last month—and trust me when I wish I could say it another way—but my engagement season has left me with an awkward feeling. It’s not like my engagement was a Nightmare on Elm Street—too few black-and-red sweaters and no drawn out chasing scenes from clumsy burn victims—but it wasn’t a Field of Dreams, either: Kevin Costner never made an appearance, and most times it felt like the only people gathering from afar came to ask how excited we were.
My then fiancé Kasey and I are Christians and try live life on purpose, but when it came to engagement we found ourselves in a curious situation: the Christians around us had a ton to say about marriage but little to say about engagement, and nobody in the church was really offering any purpose for engagement except to say that it was the thing you were right before you got married.
Our engagement lasted only six months or so, but this reality—that the church doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of engagement except as a precursor to marriage— made both of us feel like we were drowning in a sea of to-do lists and questions about our excitement, and the only response we could give back was to stay afloat, tackle the to-dos, fake excitement, and wait for marriage to happen.
I can’t go back and do it all over again, but I look back and know the ways it could be done for others in the future.
Why, I can think of three off the top of my head.
1: Reduce expectations.
I didn’t realize how immense my expectations for engagement were until they weren’t being met. For better or for worse and despite identical divorce rates, the American church holds a high view on marriage. Lofty images of family and biblical metaphors make marriage—and with good reason—a reality freighted with significance.
In practice, engaged couples experience all the stress, little of the pulpit guidance, and none of the finality of marriage.
My fiancé and I began the engagement season with our heads held high and ended with a bit of cynicism. It was only toward the end that we acknowledged our expectations that engagement would be awesome. Again, it’s a stretch to say that being engaged sucks, but it’s at least a little bit awkward. You kind of feel married, but you’re not. I wonder if the ingredients in engagement make it ripe for awkwardness, stress, and sexual frustration. And I wonder if that’s OK, so long as we don’t expect it to be like that.
2: Find the story.
Stories help us see the meaning of what otherwise just look like random series of events. And stories were huge for us, because it was hard not to see our engagement as anything more than random but necessary series of events.
As we took a storyteller’s eye to our life in the last couple months of our engagement, a story began to take shape that gave us strength as family conflict raged on and wedding details ramped up. We had been invited to join in a church plant out of state. I had almost died of pneumonia later that month. We decided life was short and God was faithful, so there wasn’t any reason.
Soon, what seemed like sound and fury became music and meaning. In the last few weeks, we were writing letters back and forth about the story that was unfolding:
“The sun was hazy and high, the cicadas chirped in the distance, and the bark of the tree felt hot in their hands. They took one glance—no closer to the infinite number of glances it would require to feel comfortable with the risk they were taking—and set the fledgling tree into the ground. It was the tree they made, and it was the tree they would keep making until they took their final breath.”
The hot bark was the pressure we felt, the glance was the anxiety we had about the commitment, and the tree was the relationship we were about to make permanent. It wasn’t magical, but we uncovered the meaning of our engagement: we were preparing to make “me” and “them” into an us that we hoped would bring all kinds of good into the world.
3: Invite God and others to join the space.
Like I mentioned just above, expectations are often little more than premeditated disappointments. With the expectations Kasey and I had, we were strangling out the possibility that God might be up to brighter things and people might surprise us by their love.
When our expectations proved to be stupid and unnecessary, we decided instead to invite God into that space in our life. That coincided right around the time that our premarital counseling began. That ended up being the turning point of the season: the counseling revealed that we were dealing with conflict in ways that would only get more destructive the farther along we went.
Our experience taught us that people’s favorite question was how excited we were. Answering that question got exhausting; mostly because we wanted people to do more than just monitor our excitement. Truth is we weren’t very good at inviting God or anybody else to do much more than that. Truth is that sometimes you’ll only be as intimate as you are vulnerable and you’ll only get as much help as you’re willing to ask for.
Each season comes with its blessings and its curses, but when we let go of our expectations and invite God and others into difficult spaces in our life, we get to see an unfolding story of a God at play restoring all relationships to real, tangible love.