Emily Blunt and Jason Segel in The Five-Year Engagement.

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel in The Five-Year Engagement.

How long is too long (or short) to be engaged?

Almost impossible to avoid, the marketing blitz for Judd Apatow’s new film The Five-Year Engagement has got me thinking about engagements. If five years might be considered comic timing, what does that say about plights that stretch to six, seven or even eight years? Are they sensible strategies built around a desire for thorough preparation, or a sign that one – or both – of the affianced are unwilling to actually commit?

A stunning Pre-Raphaelite painting by Arthur Hughes, The Long Engagement, captures a time when it was common for middle class couples to wait quite a while before actually tying the knot; a husband-to-be had to accumulate enough wealth and status to properly keep his wife. Similarly long periods between proposal and wedding march have long characterised the aristocracy, with the troths of noble children often plighted at birth.

Of course, today’s marriage market is different, impacted by mores more permissive of independent social behaviour. Arranged marriages aside, most people in Australia are today freer to choose who they’d like to spend the rest of their life with, and when, a factor that has contributed to the steady increase of age at first marriage we’ve seen since the 1990s (though this has stabilised in recent years at about 28 years old).

But perhaps the most significant factor impacting changes to the way we marry is the increased likelihood couples will live together beforehand (last decade, almost 74 per cent of marrieds cohabited prior). In fact, that we may now live with our lover before marriage makes it more likely that the long wait will be for the proposal, not necessarily the wedding day.

Recall ‘Waity Katey’ for example, an unflattering title conferred to the Duchess of Cambridge while she was still Miss Middleton and supposedly desperately waiting for the good Prince William to drop on bended knee with an offer she could not refuse. Some commentators raised their history of shared living when talking about ‘her inability’ to ‘land her man’, so raising that awful cow-milk analogy (vomit).

Nevertheless once the were engaged, the process was remarkably swift – six months was all it took to go from fiancé and fiancée to husband and wife. So does their brief engagement and long courtship speak to a broader trend?   

Local statistics are somewhat hard to come by, though a report from an American wedding research group puts the average length of engagement at 15 months. Interestingly, that represents a decline in time taken to say “I do” – apparently it was 18 months about five years ago. This seems to support the idea modern engagements may shorten relative to pre-engagement relationship length.

Indeed, this length of time might have more to do with how long it takes a couple to save up enough to have the big day they always dreamed of, rather than how long they’d like to. We’ve all heard about the $50,000 ‘average’ wedding cost (and, if you’re like me, you’ve shuddered at that thought).  

So the question remains, is it better to keep engagements brief or belated? If you’re already living together, does the engagement really change things enough that taking the time to readjust is a good idea? Might a long engagement help couples better come to terms with their decision? Or do we already over think and over complicate things – is short and sweet really the best way to go about it?

Tell me what you think – I’ll be reading!

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kfeeney@fairfaxmedia.com.au