What is the deal with getting engaged?

Engagement. Getting engaged. The dictionary defines it as “a formal agreement to get married” but us, fellows in the industry, knows it is so much more than merely promising to take your partner to the altar.

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With all the pressures of modern life, engagements and the time that you are engaged seems to be taking a back seat to the actual wedding, or planning of said wedding. People forget how truly magical it is to publicly display your commitment to each other, and how brave you are to have taken this step. It is truly inspiring to see, and absolutely wonderful to share in this journey!

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But where did this tradition come from, and why does it matter in today’s modern world? In South Africa, we typically follow the European engagement and wedding practices. To make the history lesson very short, the origin of these practices can be found in Jewish law. The Torah outlines that marriage consists of two separate acts – erusin (or kiddushin, meaning sanctification), the betrothal ceremony, and nissu’in or chupah, the actual marriage ceremony. Erusin changes the couple’s interpersonal status (and their social status), while nissu’in has to do with the legal changes, and the two practices usually took place up to a year apart.

Later on, in ancient Greece, this practice was adopted as the gamos and engeysis rituals, with Roman marriage law eventually also borrowing the giving of a ring from Judaism. The fiancé presented his bride-to-be with a ring after swearing the oath of marriage intent. But why a ring? The Romans believed the circle signified eternity, since it has no discernible beginning nor ending, similar to the bond between the couple. It was worn on the fourth finger (the ring finger) because the Romans believed the vena amoris, or “vein of love”, began from this finger. So by wearing your “promise to love you until eternity” ring from your loved one on this finger you were, in their eyes, literally connecting your love to your heart.

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Today, engagement not only signals intent, but also the commitment and able-ness to take care of the other person. In some cultures and countries, a bride price or dowry (or lebola) is obligated, and only once the whole amount has been paid can the wedding take place. In other cultures, the bride price has been replaced by the engagement ring. Once the price has been paid, whether it is in cattle, money, or a ring, the parents are usually expected to bless the upcoming marriage, and then the planning can start.

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This planning can be daunting for some, and pure pleasure for others. If you have been dreaming about your wedding day since you were a child, this can be a time of pure ecstasy (if you can get everything you have ever dreamed of) or pure disappointment (if you realise the budget does not stretch to cover Cinderella’s castle). What we always try and make our wedding couples see is that the wedding day is not the goal, your life together is. As with most things in life, you have to selectively choose where you want to spend your time, energy, and money. But we also know it can be overwhelming, with every friend, family member and complete stranger giving their opinions and trying to convince you about something. And then you have not even been to the wedding expos! Every service provider will try to convince you that they are the best, and you will most likely leave feeling more confused and frustrated than when you entered.

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The point is, or should be, that your engagement should signal the start of your life together. It should show the world how committed you are to each other, and strengthen your bond (to withstand the wedding stress none the less), a beautiful, fruitful time that is needed to get to know those last details about each other, maybe work out a few issues, and plan your future – you know, what happens AFTER the wedding. It is definitely not supposed to be a fast road to bankruptcy or family-estrangement, and definitely not a step or phase to be dreaded. Your engaged time should be special, and should lead up to a personalised, well planned wedding that did not break the bank.

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Being engaged feels completely different to merely dating, no matter how committed you were, and being married will again feel different to what it felt like being engaged. So enjoy every step, every phase. If you are lucky, you will only experience it once!

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