The Dreaded Question: “So, when are you two getting engaged?”

Kenny* and I have been dating for three years. It was not meant to last this long but it did and I am glad. So is Kenny even though he was quite afraid of our approaching anniversary which was yesterday. I am not sure why he would be afraid but he was and he saw that it was quite a silly thing to be afraid of. See? I am not afraid of commitment! When this happens, a three year long relationship that is, combined with being 26 years old it is incredibly difficult to avoid questions like when will we be getting engaged.

Our friends, not the close ones who we spend every weekend with, tend to ask us this question a lot. The last time was one of Kenny’s mates, I forget his name, which is unusual because I am usually quite good with names, but that’s beside the point, at a braai we were at. (For my non-South African readers: a braai is a barbecue and it usually includes a lot of drinking and partying and often not so much barbecuing.) He was there with his girlfriend who he lives with and we were talking about some mates of ours who had recently tied the knot. He then posed the dreaded question, “So, when are you two getting married?”

I shook my head in mild panic, “Um, no we’re not getting married.”

He almost choked on his drink, “Why?”

“Because I don’t want to,” I shrugged.

To which he replied by slapping Kenny on the back “Well this one’s a keeper, put a ring on that before she gets taken up by someone else.”

As though I am a member of the livestock family and totally claimable. I told him that I will live with Kenny one day but we’re not getting married. He then went into a long story about how he gets lunch made for him everyday and his washing is always done and ironed.
“I thought you were living with your girlfriend, not your mom?”
“Um, yes well I – ”  he didn’t talk to me much the rest of the evening.

So when mates ask this fairly uncomfortable question, it’s ok. It’s quite easy to answer them honestly and in a way which will be least offensive. I mean really now, what mate wouldn’t be happy for his friend if his friend’s girlfriend was happy to forego the whole formality of ownership right? But what happens when it’s parents and other family members who bring up this touchy topic?

My parents are quite ok with my decision not to get married. I can’t say that they agree completely with it but they don’t disapprove. I am sure that they would prefer it if I did marry one day but all that they worry abut is whether or not I’ll be happy. Kenny’s parents are a little more old school than that though.

A few weekends ago Kenny’s dad’s friend from high school came around from Jefferey’s Bay, Oom F*. They were coming up for, believe it or not, his nephew’s wedding and decided to turn it into a catch up session of note. Oom F’s eldest son who is only a year younger than Kenny recently got engaged and they were up here too for the cousin’s wedding. To celebrate that Oom F had come to visit, Kenny’s dad decided to host a massive breakfast. He invited the entire family on his side which included his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, Oom F was there with his whole family and obviously Kenny’s whole family was there. Kenny’s Ouma was expecting some huge announcement and I think most of the people there were too, being the eldest I think they thought the announcement was coming from Kenny and I. Kenny politely nipped that in the bud though because this expectation was only told to me after we had left.

We finished eating our breakfast and we were getting ready to go, which with so many people, is quite an episode in itself. Oom F, who insists on speaking Afrikaans to me, asks “So when will we see you again? At your wedding?”  Being thoroughly placed on the spot here I respond with the first thing that comes to mind, “No.”

I receive a blank stare and realise that I just told this man he wouldn’t crack an invite so I back it up with, “because I’m not getting married.”  Hi mouth, my name is foot.

Kenny’s dad turned several shades of white and I felt the disapproval emanating from Kenny’s mom from across the room.

“It’s not Kenny, I just don’t believe in it.” I’m not improving the situation am I?

Kenny’s Ouma pipes up and says, “Yes that’s the best idea because then if you aren’t happy you can just get rid of him, just living with him is much better.”

Thanks Ouma I thought and while changing colour several times between myself and Kenny’s dad I managed to say “Yes that’s my plan really.”
Kenny hurriedly escorted me out of his parent’s house amongst rushed good byes.

Well at least they know where they stand, right?

I may never be entirely comfortable in that house again but at least they don’t have unrealistic expectations of me.  It’s not even like Kenny and I can get married yet.  We are both still studying and weddings are pretty expensive not to mention university fees.  That’s of course assuming I do want to get married at all.

* Names have been changed

Glossary:

Oom – Uncle

Ouma – Grandmother

Close Your Back Door

Keeping back doors open is easy

When I was living in London I used to do door-to-door sales as a way to earn money. In hindsight I earned nothing from it in terms of financial gain but I certainly have a few fantastic memories and experiences. In the company I worked for, there was the opportunity, if you were good enough, to work alone and open up your own branch of the main company. The only catch was that you had to make a lot of sales first. You needed to be pretty good at getting people to trust you and buy into what you were selling. Firstly you needed to reach the daily sales targets and then you could be in charge of a team of other sales people. Once you were a team leader you needed to make sure that all the people in your team reached their targets everyday and then after doing that for a while you got to open and run your own branch. It was hard work but apparently the benefits were well worth the effort.

The manager of the branch we worked at always told us that we wouldn’t make it unless we closed our back doors. What this meant was that we needed to put everything we had into our work. No holding back, we needed to be willing to become completely vulnerable and be ok with that in order to make targets and go big. We needed to keep our eye on the goal and be willing to walk towards our goal without looking back. The way he explained it was like this. When we embark on something new we keep a little escape hatch handy so that if it doesn’t work out we still have a way to save ourselves. When you start something new it’s easy to tell everyone you’re all in and to close the door that they entered through but you need to close your escape hatch too. Only once that’s closed will you be able to succeed in what you have set your mind to.

Getting married is the ultimate in closing that back door. You can’t leave when you are bored. If he sucks between the sheets you need to deal with it. Either you can talk to him about it or you can keep quiet and pretend you love making love to him. When he makes you angry, you can’t just get up and leave him. Maybe he has not put the toilet seat down and in your urgency to get to the toilet and have a wee you sit directly on the bowl. Maybe he hasn’t come home from work when he said he will. Maybe he keeps inviting his family over and keeps making excuses why yours shouldn’t visit. Whatever he has done to make you feel under-appreciated or worthless you can’t just leave him. Well not easily. Getting married is saying to him (and him saying to you) that you trust him completely with all your heart and mind. You know that he will look after you when you need him to and you know he’ll be completely honest with you (these are of course reversible). When you are married you need to try your best to make the relationship work, especially when it’s not quite meeting expectations. You can’t just leave when the other person stops making an effort. We all remember the first days of a new relationship. For us girls, our legs (and any other body part usually shaved) was kept smooth, consistently. We were always in a good mood when we saw him, even if we’d had a bad day. We made sure to keep the conversation sparkly even if we’d spent a long time with our new man. We always looked and smelled best. Once we got used to him though, it became perfectly acceptable to climb into bed next to him with the hairiest legs you’d ever set eyes on. It became easy and understandable to be in a bad mood over dinner, and even to take that bad mood out on him (assuming he didn’t cause the bad mood). Why is that ok? More importantly why don’t we think about these things when we get married? That is after all exactly what will happen in 5 years after the big day.

A friend of mine says that having kids a big deal. The things that don’t normally bother you when it’s just the 2 of you make you consider murder when a baby enters the house. She gave an example. You’re making dinner for the 2 of you and he is reading the newspaper. That’s ok, you don’t mind. Cooking isn’t an unenjoyable pastime. You wouldn’t say no to help but it’s not like you really need it. Now add a baby to the scenario. You are making dinner, he is reading the newspaper. Baby is crying, she wants a cuddle that’s all, but he refuses to get up and cuddle her. Well it’s not that he refuses his help; it’s more like he is completely oblivious to the sounds of her loneliness. As the childhood rhyme goes; Jill and man sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a golden carriage. Babies are a reality in the whole marriage story. When you get one you get the other. Why, you ask? It’s because people stop using condoms and other birth control devices.

On the topic of not using condoms I heard a horror story when I was at the tender age of 16. I was at the age when youth club at church was a pretty fun thing to go to. It was a good way to meet guys and a good way to get out of the house to hang out with them. This particular Friday evening, after a pretty thorough mouth examination by my boyfriend at the time using only his tongue, we went into the hall to hear the “message” of the evening. We all sat down and the youth pastor told us of a young woman from that particular church who saved her virginity till she got married. All her life she dreamed of meeting “The One” and when she did, she waited until the “Big Day” before she had sex with him. So far it was a pretty romantic story. They got married and they had babies, as you do. She had remained faithful to her husband throughout their marriage and she loved him dearly. One day during a routine medical check-up she discovered that she had HIV. How did she get HIV? She wasn’t using drugs, she waited until her wedding day to have sex and she stayed faithful to her husband. He, the swine, had decided that she wasn’t good enough between the sheets and had paid a prostitute for sex. Kick in the face. After telling her husband, indirectly, that she trusted him, he took that and gave her HIV. I can’t remember what the youth pastor’s point was in telling us about this because I was too busy considering her pain.

Love is about trust

Closing your back door when it comes to love is a scary and horrifying thing to think about, let alone do. You need to be prepared to take the good with the bad. Marriage is not about a big party in a white dress that you dreamt about since you were 5 years old. It’s about the nitty gritty of building a life together with another person. But if you don’t close that back door in order to prevent the draft from blowing your love away will you keep a hold of that love and have a fulfilling relationship anyway? Does love need to be declared publicly and cemented in marriage registers for an eternity for it to be real? Is it really any of society’s business how I feel about you or how you feel about me? When you date someone it’s quite easy to keep that back door open. It is easy to make sure you have an escape route handy. It’s a lot harder to actually pull and lock that back door behind you though.

No Obligations

When I was 12, I decided that I would not get married.  I planned to have a boyfriend, live with him and perhaps have kids with him.  It would all depend on how I felt in the future.  When I was 12, I also had a very religious Bible ed. teacher (which is understandable I guess) and a very religious Sex ed. teacher (which is not so understandable).  They both maintained that if one decided to have pre-marital sex one would find oneself dwelling in Hell for an eternity.  For a fearful 12 year old, reliant on people not being angry with her this was a terrifying thought.  I did not want to spend the rest of my (after) life in Hell.  However, I also did not want to die a virgin.  New plan; I would wait until I got married before allowing someone to pop my cherry.

My new decision to wait until marriage was going well.  In other words, I was so terrified of all that fiery brimstone and the devil himself, that I did nothing with any boys.  My first kiss came at the ripe old age of 14 and nothing else followed that.  Until I met Gavin *.  Gavin was a little older than I was, 18 was not that old, just a little over a year, but it wasn’t so much him that affected my new resolve as myself.  I already had developed sexual needs and wants and Gavin, while still a virgin, was somewhat more experienced in these areas than I was.  He accepted my rules and told me that he’ll wait for me.  Less than a year later, I had broken my promise to God and myself to wait until I got married.  I do not blame Gavin in any way, this was my decision to take and if there had been any forcing, it was probably me forcing him.  Now I would be damned, forever, according to my helpful teachers.  I felt guilty, not for having sex but for breaking my promise, for going back on my (relatively new)resolve, for actually enjoying the experience, for relishing in the feeling that I was a rebel.  But I couldn’t escape that nagging memory that I would be relocated to Hell when I died and not Heaven.  New plan; I would marry Gavin, that would be sure to set things right.

What is love really?

A month after having my cherry popped, I began falling out of love with Gavin faster than Kryptonite kills Superman.  Gavin became stifling and unbearable.  I felt unable to breathe when I was near to him (it wasn’t his aftershave) and I dreaded visiting him or seeing him.  This was a major problem especially if you consider my new plan.  But this plan was the only way I could redeem myself, and keep having sex.  Five years later, Gavin popped the question.  I knew it was coming.  I couldn’t run.  The smallest and most expensive handcuff I had ever seen (my engagement ring) was housed in a camel coloured box punctuating the question scrawled across a beach near Durban.  To say I was disappointed would shatter his fantasy.  To say I was disappointed would mean confronting a fear I had locked away in a box with plans for the key.    I said yes, reluctantly.

A week later, we were in the car heading back to Jo’burg.  I felt like being ill the whole way back.  It wasn’t car sickness and it wasn’t morning sickness.  I was ill from nerves and a clear non-desire to go ahead with this.  I denied this non-desire and called it excitement.  Gavin and I got down to the rather expensive and stressful business of planning a wedding.  We set a date and booked a venue.  To those of you who are married you’ll realise that booking a venue means paying half of the cost as a deposit.  Onto the next task which, according to the wedding magazines I felt more embarrassed to buy than tampons, was to choose and book a photographer.  Also, the next expensive item on the list.  Luckily we were still in discussions and hadn’t made any payments or definite decisions.

A week after our 6 year anniversary, 5 months after our engagement and 7 months before our wedding I broke up with Gavin.  He didn’t see it coming. Nor did anyone else.  Who would after recently getting engaged?  It shows how well I had hidden my feelings from him, myself and everyone else we knew.  I’m not proud of it.  I had denied how I truly felt about this guy because of some prescription about sexual relations preached at me by 2 teachers who used their experience and my age against me.  I had lied to myself for 11 years about what I wanted, about what would make me comfortable and happy.  Just because of some prescription designed to protect (I hope) people hundreds and thousands of years ago.  How could I let this happen?  How could I be so out of touch with myself and so needy for acceptance from a being I couldn’t see and those I shared the Earth with?  I hurt Gavin really badly.  I wasted 6 years of his life because some old hags told me that I would go to Hell if I had sex before I got married.  I took his love, returned it half-heartedly and then threw it to the ground so that I could stomp all over it.  All because of a sense of obligation and a selfish need not to be judged too harshly.  New plan; no more obligations.

When I was 23 I made a new decision.  If I ever find myself being with anything or anyone for any reason other than the fact that I love it and can’t bear to be without it, I need to get out.  I need to pack my stuff and move along, before things get as out of hand as I allowed them to with Gavin.   I need to give them or it the opportunity to find someone else to take my place.   I’ve decided to trust my gut and my inner feelings regardless of what society says, thinks and approves of.  This might mean that I never get married.  It might mean that I do get married.  Whatever it means I know that I need to be honest with myself about what I want and what I need in order to be happy and to keep those around me as happy as possible.  My ideas, thoughts and feelings change as often (as the saying goes) as I change my panties, especially when it comes to the fairly contentious topic of marriage.

*Names have been changed.