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THE F WORDA Fiancée Shares Her Story, from "I WILL" to " I DO"
By Kelly Bare
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2007 Kelly Bare
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJune 1
POP GOES THE QUESTION
"Will you marry me?" is the first of many.
Something astonishing happened to me this spring. My boyfriend of just-over-a-year asked me to marry him. Out of the blue, on a rainy, drowsy Saturday morning, as I lay staring at the back of his sleeping head, thinking how lucky I was to have him right there next to me, Jonathan rolled over, yawned, and started talking. He told me how happy he was, how lucky he felt to have me near him that morning, and every morning. I nodded along, making encouraging noises, but I had no inkling of what was about to happen, because I was distracted by the echo inside my own head ... me too, me too, me too. And then suddenly he was pulling something out of the pocket of some pants hanging on a hook near the bed.
I don't remember much of what we said to each other, other than that my words-something like "of course, of course"-came through smiling tears, and he cried, too, and we laughed a lot, and it was a beautiful jumble. I later described the moment of proposal and acceptance to friends as the most purely positive, purely emotional reaction of my entire life-there have been plenty of times when I've gone primal, but never, ever before that moment had sheer joy pulled the trigger. I guessnothing else in life has made such effortless sense.
Are you sitting there making little "gag me" motions with your finger? Seriously, you can admit it. No offense taken. It's a little sickening to me, even, to read it all spelled out like that. But every word of it is true, especially the mushy parts.
And that's what's so astonishing.
You see, not all that long ago, I would have told you that there was no "me" in "marriage." I couldn't see it happening; I didn't think I'd be pleased if it did.
But that was Before Jonathan.
Though I was taken by surprise in the moment of the proposal, I wasn't really surprised, if you buy that distinction. The bigger shocker was what had been happening gradually in my own head. A few months into our relationship, I already had a notion of where I wanted this thing to go; not too long after that, when the lights in his direction looked pretty green, I began cautiously mapping my trip. He made his move right around the time when I was beginning to strain to see if the signs I was looking for might be up ahead-and to wonder what the hell was happening to me.
The change had everything to do with him, and nothing to do with the desire to be married. Him I know, him I understand, him I love. He makes sense. But I have only the faintest glimmer of what marriage might really be about.
It's confounding. First off, how do I find harmony between my "issues" with marriage-which predate any personal experience with the subject-and my thoughts and feelings now that I have some skin in the game? "Don't let your politics get in the way," advised my boss, with whom I'm very close. "Just enjoy this." It's good advice, but hard to follow. For example, there's a part of me that thinks a woman's wait for a man's proposal is archaic and patriarchal and utter crap-but I honestly can't conjure an image of the me who would propose to a man, and I wouldn't trade our story for anything. I get indignant that a potential groom of a twenty-eight-year-old woman would think that her father had any say at all in whether she should get married-but at the same time, I was thrilled when Jonathan told me he'd consulted my family. My conscience smarts when I think about all the money and energy and long-lead-time planning it takes to pull off a wedding when there are so many other causes more worthy of those resources, but occasionally I drift into a reverie about which song might get the most people I love out on the dance floor to celebrate together. And forget trying to reconcile my pleasure at the thought of providing for Jonathan's needs with the cultural baggage attached to the word "wife."
Basically, it's an intellectual/emotional stalemate. (Is it at all telling that every time I try to type the word "engagement," I wind up with "engagment," until Microsoft Word reminds me with that polite little squiggly red line that I've made an error?)
Can you see why it's perfect that Jonathan made the first move?
The ring inside the little hexagonal black leather box-which, in the heat of the moment, we almost forget to open-was more evidence that, where I'm concerned, he just knows what needs to be done. It's different: a big opaque pink ruby set in white gold, discovered at a little vintage jewelry store down the street from his apartment. He picked it out by himself, and wanted to get it sized for the "proper" finger. At the urging of the proprietor, he finagled something from my jewelry box, which he plunked on her counter one day. "Honey, that's an earring," was the woman's bemused reply. (Indeed, it was-a braided silver hoop earring, circa 1992. ) Flustered, Jonathan bought it and fled.
It's a funky ring, and sizeable, and at first, I wasn't sure what to think of it, or, really, what to do with it. I didn't know if I should get it sized, or if I even wanted to wear it every day. But it's taken up residence on the middle finger of my left hand, where it fits perfectly, and because I love the story behind it, and because I like how it looks there, I think that's where it will stay.
But if I allow myself to peel back that decision, I find a deeper truth. Wearing it on the "improper" finger gives me more control over its meaning. I can wear it with another ring stacked on top of it, an intricately carved sterling silver snake ring from the '20s, which I purchased myself at that same store, and which I've grown to see as a sort of talisman. I like how the snake is "guarding" my ring; I like the juxtaposition of an object he bought for me and an object I bought myself.
An unconventional ring on an unconventional finger doesn't signal to people that I'm "off the market," but as long as Jonathan's OK with it, I'm not concerned about the impression I'm making on others. But the way a glance at my left hand makes me feel is pretty damn important. When I have a wedding ring, and a new identity to match, I'll use the "right" finger. But for now, during this transition period, I want to take my time in becoming.
When it comes to spreading the word, however, there's no such thing as gradual. Sure, there was a moment when we were alone with our secret to keep or tell, a beat of bewilderment and possibility. Should we savor it privately? Run to the phone to book a reception venue? Send out a fleet of carrier pigeons, with little tulle bows on their ankles?
But eventually you have to make one call, and then another, and pretty soon the juggernaut begins to roll. News of an engagement is a force only slightly less powerful than that which binds people to babies and puppies: "When? Where? Tell me everything!" We've gotten cards and gifts and phone calls; it's sweet and flattering but overwhelming. There also have been some negative reactions; friends and family whose first response was less than enthusiastic. I think that because the engagement took people by surprise, many reactions came from the gut, shaped in large part by hopes, desires, victories, and flameouts that had little to do with us.
And that's fine with me. Because another thing I've learned is that this is not just about us. On our first post-engagement visit to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, welcomed with love by Jonathan's extended family, I saw in their eyes that they weren't just happy for us, they were truly touched by our decision, in a literal way. It almost immediately had a very real impact on their lives. I now believe that the laws of eminent domain apply in families; that the people who created us have at least some claim on the course of our lives. I finally understand what people mean when they say that marriage belongs to the community.
And so one of my first short-timer takes on the meaning of marriage is that "us two" is an exponent. It quickly gets bigger than you thought possible, with larger and larger concentric circles radiating out from it, and arrows and boxes and footnotes, and everything overlaps, until suddenly the process of getting from engagement to wedding to beyond looks like a blueprint for a thermonuclear reactor.
Or, on brighter days, it looks like instructions for building some magnificent, complex vessel; a sailing ship, a spaceship, maybe even a time machine. And though right now Jonathan and I don't even know which way to hold the plans, let alone how to start building, every day provides a learning opportunity.
F Words of Wisdom
If you've just gotten engaged, and you're not sure what you've gotten into, you're not crazy, and you're not alone.
* * *
It's not a bad idea to wait a while to share the news of your engagement with family and friends. Sure, if you're bubbling over with happiness, you want to share. But in some ways, it's the last truly private moment of your relationship.
* * *
An unconventional ring can help make the engagement process more private: You're not wearing a giant, sparkly billboard for your status, in any sense of the word.
* * *
A piece of this process belongs to your families. Just look into their eyes and you'll see that it's true.
* * *
LEARN BEFORE YOU LEAP
Everything a new fiancée never wanted to know about marriage-and had no clue to ask.
Short of a couture gown, is anything as tailor-made for a new fiancée as a reporting assignment at a marriage conference? Getting ready for this year's "Smart Marriages," held in Dallas earlier this month, I was keenly aware that my professional and personal lives might never again be so perfectly aligned, and determined to make the most of it. On the early morning flight out from New York, clutching my green tea and new blue pen, I had that geek-in-heaven, first-day-of-school feeling: There never was a newbie so eager to sit at the feet of gurus and absorb their wisdom.
Three days and a coffee-stained, scribble-filled notebook later, instead of feeling remotely "smart," I felt like I had been given a marriage swirly-like someone had stuck my head in the marital toilet bowl, and flushed. Couldn't see anything, couldn't hear anything, couldn't even think of anything but the mind-bending exercises looming ahead in my own personal copy of "Marital Theory and Practice" (first edition).
But since coming back to reality, where people don't scuttle back and forth between seminars with titles like "Hot Monogamy" and "Become a Divorce Buster!" while wearing buttons that say "I Love My Husband," I've realized how lucky I was to get a glimpse into that rarified world when I did.
Smart Marriages is a marriage-education conference, meaning it's for people who teach other people how to rise to the challenges of being a husband or a wife. That group includes therapists, educators, psychologists, social scientists, community organizers, the clergy, and even representatives from the government and the military (in which, I learned, the divorce rate is alarmingly on the rise).
The conference presenters included researchers of every stripe, from John Gottman, whose lab in Seattle tries to quantify the power dynamics of arguing couples and chart the resulting emotional damage; to Marline Pearson, who talked about marriage among disadvantaged populations; to Linda Waite, who correlated marriage and physical health. It also included such performers and pundits as John Gray and Pat Love, experts with a capital "E."
The one thing all attendees have in common is that they're idealists: They believe men and women can learn how to make marriage better once they're in it, and, more relevant for me, should take the time to explore what they're really getting into before they commit. The theory goes that strong, well-fed marriages are good not only for individuals, but also for society-and no one who's ever spent a minute with an angry, frightened child of a one-parent home would argue with that.
Never one for skipping class, I attended all the keynotes, and, with a staggering eighteen choices for every time slot, agonized over my workshops. I learned Janis Abrams Spring's take on forgiveness for extreme situations-when the other party is unrepentant, or dead. (Her message: Let go and save yourself.) I heard Gary Chapman talk about the "Five Love Languages," and how we don't always know how to recognize and interpret the caring other people are sending our way. I saw Scott Stanley present some startling research on the shaky fate of marriages in which the couple cohabitates first, and I felt great relief when I learned that even though Jonathan and I plan to move in together before we marry, our odds look OK. (The key, according to Stanley, is making a conscious decision to marry beforehand, rather than sliding into it once you've already merged homes.)
But my favorite presenter was Barry McCarthy, a professor of psychology at American University. Listening to McCarthy, also a therapist, author of a book for newlyweds called Getting It Right the First Time, and straight shooter who spoke candidly about his own background and marriage ("My wife was forty-five minutes late for the wedding because her parents were trying to talk her out of it."), one thing became very clear to me: Getting married is a choice. Especially today, thanks to progress, and prosperity, and the generations of American women before me who have worked for change, it's an elective. And because it's something I'm deliberately, consciously bringing into being, and because I have so many resources at my disposal, there's no excuse not to invest in it accordingly.
McCarthy has a list of eighteen things that he believes are predictors for the success or failure of a marriage. That's a lot of rules, right? But the great part about his list is that, when he explains it, you don't quake at the thought of everything you're lacking. Instead, you see where you're lucky, where you need to be aware, and where you maybe should make an extra effort. With so many things to think about, everyone is bound to have some strengths and some weaknesses, which means no one is perfect, and-joy!-you're no more imperfect than anyone else.
He also believes that if you're doing it right, the first couple years of the marriage should be the toughest-"just like college," he said. That's the time when couples are establishing their style, and their culture; learning how to fight, and how to make up. Getting the kinks out. Making the mold. "It will inoculate you against problems later," McCarthy promised the room, and I lapped it up, breathing a huge sigh of relief about the frequency of fights between Jonathan and me, on a steady upswing since we got engaged.
Looking back at my notes from McCarthy's seminar, I see "sign up for classes with Jonathan" underlined three times. I guess it hadn't occurred to me until that moment that we weren't considering getting premarital counseling of any kind. Sure, there are books we've agreed to leaf through-Susan Piver's The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do" has been on the nightstand for weeks-and we've been feeling virtuous about that. And we have good role models in our two sets of still-married folks, so it's not like we're totally oblivious to what a good marriage looks like. But come on: We have no plans for any dedicated study at close range with anyone who has enough experience with marriage to qualify as a teacher or a mentor. Just how, I'm now wondering, do we expect to learn anything at all-or even get a glimmer of what we don't know?
Excerpted from THE F WORD by Kelly Bare Copyright © 2007 by Kelly Bare. Excerpted by permission.
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