Demanding the big rock

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 She wants her fiance to spend three months’ salary on her engagement ring. Is that fair to the man?

 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 28, 2005

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s and my best friends broke up. She was unhappy and disappointed with him; he was rejecting and cheating on her. We all got together and got married at the same time, and they had been together over 12 years. They have a son (whom the husband never wanted) who is now 3. Since then, he has been through a couple of new girls, and she has recently moved in with her boyfriend of about a year. He is the complete opposite of her ex-husband, and is a very good man. I thought he would be her rebound man, since he was the first one after the split and is not really her type, physically or culturally. She has said right from the beginning that she’s not really attracted to him or passionately in love. She has been honest with him about that, but he hung in there. She now says that she loves him, but not like the way she loved her ex. He is good to her, and is trying hard with her son, who is a willful boy, to say the least.

My concern is that she may be in this relationship for the wrong reasons, but maybe I think that because I was raised very differently from her. I never expected a man to take care of me or that I would be dependent upon anyone. My friend sees this man as a way out of a financial hole. While my husband and I were progressing in our careers, our friends were working low-wage, dead-end jobs, despite high levels of education and potential. My friend has had severe financial difficulty, particularly since the baby and the split. Her job is better now, but she still couldn’t support herself alone. Her boyfriend’s company pays their living expenses, and he has always saved his money — he doesn’t believe in living in debt. This support is enabling my friend to get back on her feet financially. Her boyfriend is very generous, and she takes good care of him.

They have a conflict, though — they have been talking about getting married and she is adamant that she wants an expensive engagement ring — worth three months of his salary. She says that she doesn’t want to be greedy, but after the split she told herself that her next guy would be fairly well-off and the ring is an important symbol of that to her. I tried to tell her that’s a lot of B.S. put out by the diamond industry, but her upbringing was more traditional and she wants this. She’s also starting to lobby for a new, more expensive house, which he would pay for. He doesn’t believe in spending money on rings, he would rather spend it on something more worthwhile — like a vacation or furniture or a house. He has also depleted his savings setting up their current home for her, and needs some time to recuperate, but my friend is working herself into a tiz over the ring.

My question — is this a normal expectation that women have? It seems very antiquated and unfair to me. Is it right for my friend to expect an expensive ring? I see a lot of women wearing them — am I the weird one for thinking it’s ridiculous? Actually, I think part of the problem I have with this situation is that I see her as selling her soul for material goods. She loves this man, but does she love him enough? I don’t know.

Feminist Friend

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Dear Feminist Friend,

My first thought is that your friend feels so strongly about the ring because it represents restitution, the righting of a wrong. “Wow,” she may have said to herself, “I was royally mistreated by my first husband, but I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to make sure the next man treats me right.” I don’t just mean that the first husband didn’t give her enough jewelry, either. It’s about more than that. As women have achieved greater economic independence, some of the exchanging of goods between men and women has acquired an air of quaint antiqueness. So it’s important to remember that the exchanging of goods is about more than just the goods.

Social progress in private behavior is full of paradox, because as we become more “progressive” and “fair,” the remnants of feudalism and patriarchy retain a deep psychic pull, sometimes erotic, sometimes infantile and sometimes poetic. The magic of a ring, for instance, can work on many different levels. It can, for instance, convert to purposes of erotic narrative the politically objectionable facts of economic inequality between men and women. By sacrificing so much of his cargo for this ring, he is demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy her desires — which, you must admit, can be quite an attractive trait in a man. He is also performing a sort of quest, or contest: She sets for him this task, which he must complete to win her. He undertakes it willingly because he understands what the act represents: not that a woman is an object to be bought, but that, in an era of continuing economic inequality between the sexes, he is willing to sacrifice some of his goods on the altar of post-feminist reality. (Am I stretching it? Have I had too much coffee?)

We all know that in spite of social progress men still make more money than women and thus wield more power. So requesting that he buy this ring, although it sounds old-fashioned, may also be her way of asking that he recognize this continuing social and economic inequality; the act of buying the ring is a symbolic giving up of his unfairly derived power, a laying himself bare. It is also a symbolic sacrifice, much as one might spill wine or burn the flesh of sheep or goats. It makes ethereal beauty of a gross material good, as it were, much as the pressure of the earth itself over millions of years makes diamond of coal. It is a kind of alchemy, if you will: The man willingly transforms some of his economic power into a thing of beauty to adorn the woman. This could be a deeply satisfying ritual. It doesn’t have to be seen as a brazen and crass gold-digging.

On the other hand, such rituals can be practiced without any understanding of their underlying psychological significance. He may think that he’s buying her. She may think he’s just paying what she’s worth. Who knows? Once the man renders himself vulnerable in this way, it may be tempting for a woman who is still smarting from her former mistreatment to take advantage of his vulnerability, to enact her revenge on him as representative of men in general. He is piling his goods up for her, displaying them, hoping to win her. She may be tempted to take the stuff and run. So he is testing her as well: Can she resist the temptation? Can she accept what he offers and not become greedy? Can she absorb the meaning of his generosity and be satisfied by it, or has she some moral flaw, some bottomless hunger, some insatiable need?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they are both capable of understanding the rituals they are performing. (Or at least that they respect their mystery. Part of a ritual’s power is that we don’t fully understand it in a literal sense; it retains a mysterious power over us, whence comes its peculiar satisfaction.)

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The bride fired her bridesmaid — me!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 10, 2009

I guess I’m guilty of conduct unbecoming a bridesmaid — but I thought she chose me for who I am


Dear Cary,

I was asked by a dear friend to be her maid of honor. I was immediately a little worried. I’m not into traditional wedding fanfare. I’m kind of like the stereotypical guy in that respect: Tell me where to go and what to do, and I’ll do it. Plus, the wedding has been on a rushed schedule at a time when I have a lot going on in my life too. Add to that the fact that the bride and I have been drifting ever since she met her fiancé, about a year ago. The two are inseparable and not that social; I’ve just naturally spent more time with other company. Maybe my biggest mistake was not expressing my concerns when I was first asked. But I’ve been a maid of honor before and it’s gone fine, and I imagined this would be the same.

You can see the train wreck coming. Fast-forward to a month before the wedding: I get a scathing e-mail from the groom without the knowledge of my friend (I’m certain she did not know), stating that it’s time to “talk to me about my role as maid of honor” and maligning me for my many failures in the role. The e-mail was snide and contemptuous, questioned my values, and accused me of being “irresponsible,” “unaccountable,” “selfish,” of “not caring” and not being true to my “compassionate progressive values.” He said I misunderstood or underestimated the role, and that he couldn’t understand my lack of involvement or inquiries about the wedding planning. He ended by saying he had no faith that I’d show up for rehearsal and that he didn’t care anyway.

It felt like having the wind knocked out of me. So, I responded immediately, cc’ing my friend, basically saying “WTF?” (probably should have waited until I had a cooler head, admittedly). A few more e-mails ensue, I try to defend myself and point out that the groom’s e-mail was totally inappropriate and graceless, and my albeit defensive response is construed as a statement that I feel like the wedding is a burden, or that it’s all about me, and my friend’s whole family and the rest of the wedding party are royally pissed at me because of my response to the groom’s e-mail. So, my friend boots me from the wedding party because “others” don’t want me in the wedding anymore but says I can still come as a guest. I tried after my initial defensive response to be as apologetic and deferential as possible just to try to salvage things (trying to take the high road), but to no avail.

If the bride and groom’s actions sound irrational and extreme, it’s because that’s exactly how I experienced them.

After all the drama, honestly, my first reaction to being ousted was relief. A couple weeks have gone by, and now I feel totally pissed off. The truth is, I tried. I participated in planning and throwing a shower, and a bachelorette party, I got gifts, tried on dresses, etc., rearranged work responsibilities to make all the events … by no stretch was I the model maid of honor, but frankly I can’t imagine treating anyone close to me the way I’m being treated, especially someone who’d been doing things for me all summer — even if I found those efforts disappointing. And maybe this sounds like a lame excuse, but she never once expressed any hopes or expectations for what I would do. The missive from the groom was the first word ever uttered to me. I feel totally hung out to dry.

I was gracious when she dumped me, and we both tried to spin this as not an indictment of our friendship, but more and more it feels like one. Neither of us have reached out to the other since the “break,” and yesterday I reaffirmed my commitment to go to the wedding in an e-mail to see if I’m still welcome (still trying to take the high road) and received no response. It took her three days to write a tepid response that I can still come.

Our mutual friends agree I’ve been treated badly but think I should suck it up, and for the sake of the friendship put on a smile and go to the wedding. They think she’s stressed and under the influence of an overzealous fiancé and family, and that I’ll earn respect by showing up for her.

I have valued this friend. But the more I reflect on this situation I feel so angry and misunderstood. I feel I am owed an apology. It deeply offends me that my friend hasn’t stuck up for me, hasn’t acknowledged anything I actually did do for her, and doesn’t empathize with my point of view at all. Even though she blames the discord on the feelings of her family, I believe that they take their cues from her, and she could have stuck up for me as her friend.

How do I go to the wedding in these circumstances? But how do I not go, if I want to preserve a chance to salvage the friendship? Is there anything worth salvaging?

Maid of Honor Never Again

 

Dear Never Again,

I have long labored under the illusion that when a bride chooses a maid of honor she is expressing her esteem and love for that person, declaring her to be part of her intimate circle of friends and family and pledging, symbolically, to include her in the new life that begins with the ceremony and will continue for years afterward.

I did not realize that choosing a maid of honor was equivalent to hiring an unpaid event planner on a probationary period, pending her demonstrated competency and loyalty to the company, lacking which she could be fired like a janitor from Manpower.

I guess I was wrong, and so were you. You thought you were chosen for who you were, for how she holds you in esteem. It turned out that you were hired provisionally on a trial basis and dismissed when your performance was judged subpar.

Knowing that weddings are pageants of power and status rather than declarations of loyalty and love can perhaps dull the blow. You can say to yourself it’s just another bullshit social competition. Also, some of the pain we find in adult friendships and social conflicts can be traced back to childhood. But that does not make the pain go away.

So just exactly what happened here? What was it about this friend that you liked so much? Did she make you feel special in some way? Did you feel when you were with her that you were the most important person in the world to her? Did her loyalty indeed shift suddenly and completely to her husband? Certain people make us feel wonderful when we are the subject of their attention but leave us devastated when, with a guiltless, frictionless, sociopathic cool, their attention shifts to a new object of reflection. Such people do not form deep bonds and cannot empathize; their relations with others are reflections of themselves. When you are giving such a person what she needs, that is, reflecting back to her a suitable image of herself, then you are her favorite and she loves you as she loves herself (ha ha). When you express yourself, however, or deviate from the image of herself she sees in you, then she turns away to find a more suitable reflection of herself.

Perhaps that is what happened. Perhaps you were the victim of a person with narcissistic tendencies. After all, a modern American wedding is a narcissist’s dream. Such a wedding ignores the great fact of all rites of passage: that while something is gained, something is lost. It only celebrates and does not mourn.

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Rather than accept the reality that not all of her friends are perfect reflections of herself, and not all of her friends exist solely to support her narrow view of who she is, which would have been an adult approach, your friend retreated from reality. The loss she might have accepted she instead transferred to you. She made you lose, rather than face reality.

It is ironic that the one ritual that is supposed to usher us into adulthood is so festooned with pastel fantasies of preadolescence. It is also an indictment of our culture. Covering ourselves in the rituals and symbols of childhood, we blind ourselves to our coldest and most bloody conquering, muttering silly platitudes about God and country while blithely marauding across the planet, conquering and destroying all that is not Disney.

By acting in such a way, the bride turned away from maturity. You, on the other hand, can use this event to grow stronger and wiser.

Painful as this is personally, I hope you will examine in detail what friendship means to you. What traits do you look for in friends? What do you value? Who among your friends is truly your ally? Who would come to your aid in a crisis? Who values you for your uniqueness and cares about your feelings? And who seems to be hanging around you only for what they can get? Who steps forward and offers help when you are in a jam or feeling bad? And who seems to be around only during the good times? Did any of your friends tell the bride what they thought of this action?

As for your own character: Each of us must know our strengths and weaknesses. Next time someone asks you something like this, you have a chance to say, Sorry, I’m not sure that’s for me. There’s no shame in that.

Lesson: Beware the narcissistic bride. If you displease her, she will inscribe the scarlet F for Fired on your forehead.

Since it’s been a few weeks since you wrote me, I include your addendum here:

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UPDATE: Dear Cary — So, I did go to the wedding, sat with our mutual friends, and was basically ignored. This was a few weeks ago, and she and I have had no contact since. I have mulled whether there is anything else I can do, but I think now the ball is in her court, and I fear that this friendship is over.

My friend and her husband are decent, reasonable people. I honestly do not know how they justify between themselves this sustained anger at me. My only suspicion is that the groom is very possessive, and as my friend’s closest girlfriend, I wonder if that was threatening to him (subconsciously, as he would never admit that to himself). He does not like her doing things without him. She accommodates this, realizing it’s an insecurity but also flattered by the depth of his love and need. I feel that he set this whole thing in motion with his explosive e-mail, and that my friend lacks the perspective right now to look objectively at what he did. I believe she sees his letter as an act of loyalty and love.

I have two rival impulses at this point: I still want to express to my friend my point of view, which I never did for fear of “ruining” her wedding. It also makes me sad to lose her as a friend. But I think this is out of my hands. I actually think the person who holds our fate in his hands at this point is the husband. And that pisses me off and makes me want to walk away. I don’t know that anything good would come of trying to talk honestly with my friend. But it feels bad, too, to walk away without an honest conversation.

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More on my great big Muslim Jewish atheist wedding

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Hi Cary,

I hope you’ll remember what this is about. I wrote last year about falling in love with the wrong person at college, an atheist Jew, the polar opposite of what my conservative Muslim family has always wanted for me. I wrote about worrying about telling my parents, and how’d they react and whether my relationship with my partner would succeed.

I told my parents last year and they reacted surprisingly well. No anger, no yelling, certainly none of the violence some commenters thought I’d see. They were surprised, and asked for some time to consider it. Eventually, they refused ‘permission’ for me to marry him, or at least said that they couldn’t give me their blessings because even though he has converted to Islam, he only did so for me and would probably not be a real Muslim. More than that, I think my dad worries about what people are going to say, and that they’re going to gossip about us and my family. I spent 6 or 7 months trying to get my parents on board at least agree to come to my wedding, and my dad took some strides towards coming around in that he talked to some people who have been in similar situations, but seemed reluctant to go further than that. His response when I asked him seemed to be ‘I’ll deal with it soon’. One day, after a few months of this, I kind of snapped and sent an emotional message about how I felt stuck, and I wanted to move on with his blessings, and would he please consider that this is what is right for me. He responded by calling my mom and relented: I could marry him, but it would have to be after my older sister got married so it wouldn’t affect her prospects. There will be a small ceremony in the U.S. at some Islamic center, but only my mother and one of my siblings will come, and my father won’t participate.

My sister sent me some texts about this, saying that I couldn’t have both my family’s support and this marriage, and I’m heart broken because that’s what I came home from college to get. I wanted to spend my time here to show them that I am still committed to my heritage and beliefs, and that I wanted to include them in the process as much as possible, that this isn’t an attack on them but a decision for myself that I am sure is right for me. I can’t imagine a wedding without my family, but I don’t know how to get them on board beyond keeping the dialogue going for the next six months or so that will inevitably pass before I can begin to plan for my wedding (my sister is about to get engaged to be married). I’m heartbroken because my parents are mad at me, and I feel a little guilty because I feel like a terrible daughter.

Thanks for listening.

Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy Right Now

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Dear Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy,

I’m sorry to hear that your father is being intransigent. I answered your original letter on Sept. 13, 2013, a few weeks before I left Salon.

As this commenter says (there were 135 comments to the original), I really didn’t give you an answer, in the sense of concrete instructions on how to proceed.

I didn’t know what you should do. I still don’t. That’s not unusual. It’s just honest.

In your 2013 letter it sounded as though he was going to pretend to convert. It now appears that he has indeed converted to your faith. You are going to go ahead with the wedding. You are going to live in the United States.

Well, congratulations. I hope you will keep us informed. What interested me in 2013 still interests me: How we Americans perceive your situation, and the story we tell ourselves about what you say. I still think I said some interesting meta-things:

This is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. … Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.

The dark side of our mythology of self-reinvention is the charge of unseriousness. I mean, all the real cultural and psychic differences we overlook. Our silly millennial hope. Our political and economic evangelism. Our brittle, anxious faith. All that stuff. All that stuff that if you know what I’m talking about you know what I’m talking about.

I can say this, though: Here in America you can be married and forge your own life. Psychologically, you can’t escape your past or your families. You can’t escape who you are. But you can arrange the material conditions of your life together. You can choose what religious services to attend, and what to tell your children about what you believe. You can choose the schools your children go to. You can choose what to wear on your head.

Good luck. Please keep us informed!–Cary T.

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I want a perfect wedding, but my in-laws are trashy

 

Cary’s archival column from FRIDAY, SEP 28, 2007

 

My future husband’s 38-year-old brother and his pregnant 20-year-old girlfriend: Yikes!

Dear Cary,

I am thrilled to be getting married this spring to a wonderful man. My fiancé proposed last winter, and we have been planning our wedding for over a year. This is a big deal for us. We started dating in 1999, and have lived together since 2001. We have struggled financially in the past, dealt with harrowing layoffs, college loans, illnesses and the loss of our beloved dog to cancer. Now we are finally in a place where we can have a nice wedding and share our commitment with our family and closest friends.

This should be the happiest time of my relationship, but I am struggling with an issue. My fiancé’s 38-year-old brother and best man has shacked up with a 20-year-old single mother who grates on my nerves. His brother met her through his ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s GED program. Seriously.

But it gets odder. She has just informed us that she is pregnant again, and will have the baby in time to bring him to our wedding. Now they are getting married too, possibly before the baby or immediately after. Translation: around the same time as our wedding. She keeps saying things like, “I’m not trying to upstage you guys, but we’re so excited!” She is beside herself with joy. She’s also leaving her job to go on government assistance. And she expects her new in-laws to help pay for everything.

The best man has children from his first marriage whom he has no relationship with, and is “really trying to make a go of this one.” He is very open about the pregnancy’s being an accident but wanting to do the right thing. I commend him for that; however, I am saddened and cannot process why people feel the personal need to populate the world with more children than they can obviously handle. I’m pretty sure it was intentional on her part, and she’s just a kid looking to “play house” or get a “meal ticket.”

I am also appalled that the pregnant girlfriend is so determined to interfere with our little wedding. I have been very positive and congratulatory to them, but their conduct is very hurtful to me. I know my fiancé loves his brother and will embrace his new nephew with love. We both will, but neither of us can understand their relationship. I also try to be respectful of them for my fiancé, even though it is often very difficult. Now I feel like I am involved in a “Jerry Springer” episode against my will. I just want to have a nice wedding. Does that make me a selfish Bridezilla?

Ultimately, I am not sure how to get past this. Do I have to be the bigger person at my own wedding? We weren’t planning on inviting kids, but she has made it clear the new baby will come, invited or not. I waited a long time to get married to the right person for all the right reasons. I cannot help being critical of my new sister-in-law, but I don’t want to be pushed around by a pathetic, attention-seeking 20-year-old, either. How do I deal with her without being a sucker or seeming like a total bitch by being honest and direct with her?

Baffled Bride-to-Be

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Dear Baffled Bride,

I must admit to you, honestly, I am very sensitive to the implications of family condemnation, of the looking-down-upon that happens in families, of “white trash” implications. I am sensitive to these things because of where I come from and what I have been through. Think of it as though I were a screw-up-type person and you were writing to me telling me that there is a screw-up-type person who wants to come to your wedding, and bring her child, and you are upset and angry about this and you want my opinion. I would say, well, as kind of a screw-up-type person myself, uh, I kind of identify with these folks!

No offense to recovering screw-ups. But I am, in my heart, that screw-up, that outsider, a person who has struggled mightily to gain respect, to live a good life, not always doing it with great grace or dignity or skill, often messing up and finding myself shamed and wanting. And yet I want to be at your wedding, too, if I am in your family. I want to be considered equal with others.

We are the scruffy ones you see at weddings off in the corners, scandalously ill-dressed, smoking or taking drugs to deal with the feeling of exclusion, trying to maintain bravado but feeling the clean and well-scrubbed scorn of the in crowd, feeling as usual not good enough, relegated to the margins. I identify with these people you would like to exclude. And in my happy little wedding movie, they get some love too. They get to feel as if they count, as if they are a part of the family too, screwed up as they might be.

That’s the happy little movie I play in my head when things get dark and tough. I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m doing OK now. I know it’s just a happy little movie in my head, and a sentimental one at that, filled with patriotic hogwash about diversity and welcoming the stranger to the table. I’m just saying that you don’t ever really know who you’re talking to. You know, how the king goes out into the countryside disguised as a beggar. You can’t tell. So to be a virtuous bride, a princess, if you will, what you do is you welcome everybody with a big, generous heart and a bride’s beautiful, radiant love.

That’s what makes for a joyful wedding, that spirit. And it comes from you. You set the tone.

A joyful wedding is a celebration of family. This future brother-in-law of yours, and this future sister-in-law, they are family. As such, they want to be welcomed to your wedding and to be treated with love. That is what we expect from family.

From the standpoint of those of us who may not live up to the standards of other more prosperous and well-behaved members of the family, that is great. At least we can be a part of something. At least we can be accepted. It means a great deal to us. You cannot know what we have been through, how sharply we ache to be a part of this family, how keenly we burn with rejection, how deep the knife cuts. You cannot know what this young woman has been through. You cannot know. All you can do is love these people and welcome them to your wedding.

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