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The long and the short of engagement

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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140 comments so far

  • The $50k "average" wedding is pretty misleading. If you have ten weddings that cost $5-10k and then one that costs $120k, obviously that's going to skew the figures.

    It would be more accurate to look at the median and mode; most people getting married aren't spending nearly that much. It's just a figure that gets pushed by bridal magazines who make their money from high-end advertorials.

    Date and time
    May 02, 2012, 5:07AM
    • Agreed. Those magazines do support the same sort of mega-wedding culture that we see splashed around TV - one happily instep with the biggerer-betterer culture of consumerism we're so sunk in. Must - Claw - Way - Out!

      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 11:01AM
    • Actually just a comment on your figures there, to get a $50K average you would actually have to have 10 weddings at $38K and one at $120K.

      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 1:48PM
    • yes, a bell curve would be much better.
      or if the average is actually a Median average figure, then state that fact.

      chewing salty razors
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 2:02PM
  • Kate

    Someone hoping the other will pop the question?????

    - - -

    I suggest an 'appropriate' time for an engagement is largely a reflection of patriarchy and patriarchal structures. Somehow, the authorities (state and church) seem to believe that time sorts out (in)compatibility problems.

    I wish.

    In Yunnan and northern SE Asian countries, 'ethnic' Chinese have a marriage market. When young adults reach about 25 and have not become betrothed, they go to a market on a particular day and select someone to whom they will be married. No formality other than the subjective appearance test, and that the other looks like they can work. So, meet today, marry today. Now, that's a short engagement!

    - - -

    I doubt there is a universally accepted 'appropriate' period for an engagement here in Oz. Rather, it's up to the couple themselves.

    Shotgun weddings aside, many appear to think that about 18 months is a sort of benchmark.

    42 years ago we met, were engaged about 5 months later, and were married some 7 months after that. We are still married, share the same bed, and...


    Date and time
    May 02, 2012, 6:46AM
    • How does the patriarchy influence the amount of time that couples are engaged?

      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 8:26AM
    • @ Marc

      Patriarchy is .... (go look at wikipedia).

      Being an authoritarian system premised in religion, the social 'structure' (ie church / state ) deemed rules for individual behavior.

      If one goes back in time, you'll find that the church would not marry a couple unless they had fulfilled a certain amount of time in 'engagement'.

      That time is nowadays quite short, but once was quite protracted (except for Henry, who did as he pleased).


      Dalliance in reply
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 9:31AM
    • Patriarchy is simply rule by fathers and if you think in this day and age that fathers rule in this country, I have a bridge to sell you.

      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 10:26AM
    • @Direct
      So true, Direct.
      If fathers still ruled my daughter's current squeeze would be nothing more than an unpleasant and distant memory.
      What I have learned is that the more a father tells a girl that a particular young fellow is a scumbag, oxygen thief, loser, has no future, is a compulsive liar, a cheater, etc, etc, etc the more it pushes the girl into the arms of the POS.
      Freud gave up trying to understand the perverse and contradictory place that is the female mind. I understand why.

      crazy old cat man
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 10:53AM
    • One contributing factor to lengthy engagements I didn't mention came to light when talking with my male mate this morning. He said some of his mates proposed simply 'to keep her happy'. The wedding itself could then be put off while he figured out whether he's in or out... I understand that everyone is different, but that kind of attitude irks me - not every woman is desperate to get hitched!

      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 11:03AM

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