So it turns out that engagements and weddings are are often opportunities for people to act like jackasses. OK! Here's the thing. This is what you say when someone announces his or her engagement or marriage to you:
That's it. That is what you say. That should be the first thing out of your mouth, and in all likelihood, the last thing. 99% of the time, if you have an opinion about this person's decision to get married, it really doesn't matter and you should keep it to yourself. No, I'm serious. If she wants your opinion, she'll ask. You're not the only one who knows how to use your words. And at the end of the day, I'm pretty convinced that etiquette is in large part about knowing when other people might give a shit about your opinions (which is, let's face it, almost never) and knowing how to stop projecting yourself all over other people's lives.
Let's discuss the contingencies. Which is basically my way of saying "the conditions you're likely to raise as counter-arguments."
(1) The person is marrying someone you think is inappropriate for them.
Oh, cherie. I get it. The future husbro or wifey is too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too Christian, not Christian enough, has a criminal record, didn't go to college, was dumb enough to try to get a Ph.D. in the humanities, has been divorced, has children, refuses to have children, likes things you don't like, is a Republican, is an anarchist, has offensive opinions, might actually be gay/straight/not the sexual orientation or gender they claim to be, got sorted into Hufflepuff.
Because A) you cannot save anyone from her own bad decisions, full stop. We get to do stupid things, even if the consequences are staggeringly and immediately obvious. And B) you might think you know, but you have NO IDEA. You don't know what the relationship is like — what it's like to be those two people, what those folks offer each other and how they shelter each other or strengthen and challenge each other. There's a whole world that exists between those people that you do not have access to, and because you do not have access to it, you cannot judge it or evaluate it. You just can't. So either assume that the blushing engaged one is exercising hir (sometimes I use gender-neutral pronouns, DEAL WITH IT) God-given right to fuck hir own life up, or ze has something special that you don't fully understand and is making exactly the choice that ze needs to make right then. If it's someone you don't know well, ze isn't interested in or enlightened by your fucking opinion in the first place! If it's someone you DO know well, you need to let hir make hir own decisions and/or share with you what ze's struggling with when ze is ready to. When you think about all the bullshit moves you've pulled, ask yourself: would anyone have been able to talk you out of them in the first place?
(2) The marriage is taking place under conditions you consider suspect.
The couple seem to you to barely know each other, someone's pregnant or needs a green card or health insurance, they did it in Vegas at a drive-through wedding chapel. Well, bless that mess anyway. You don't get to decide whether people are adequately in love or even if love is relevant at all! For a SERIOUSLY LONG MOTHERFUCKING TIME, marriage has been an economic contract as much as it's been anything else, and when you sign a marriage license you're not swearing that you love someone! How people choose to get their needs met is ALSO not your business, especially if you don't have a viable alternative or cash to back it up!
The ONE EXCEPTION to the foregoing rules arises when you think someone (and buddy, it has to be someone you know very well) is being forced into a coercive or abusive marriage — but even in that case, if you know anything about the psychology of abuse, you're not necessarily going to convince an abuse victim to leave a relationship. You might just end up cutting them off from a source of support they'll need later! So even in this situation, you may want to stick to "congratulations" and think about ways to subtly make yourself available for help without presuming that you're going to save someone from herself.
(3) You find marriage to be objectionable in principle.
That's fine! Sometimes I do, too. You're allowed to to think whatever you like and to choose to exercise your beliefs however you like (by, say, not getting married, or by donating money, or whatever). But it's still unkind to tell someone who announces hir engagement that you think the whole enterprise is a crock of shit. If it's someone you don't know well, they don't care! And if it's someone you do know well, they probably know what your stance is in the first place! Because etiquette is ALSO about being able to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind and heart at the same time — to feel happiness at someone else's happiness even as you feel frustration about the ways that rights are granted. Or whatever. What I have started to do to celebrate engagements while also affirming my politics is to make a donation to a nonprofit marriage equality or GLBTQ rights or marriage alternatives organization in honor of the newly-minted couple. (A few I'd recommend: Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders; Alternatives to Marriage Project; Freedom to Marry. Your local area may also have a smaller organization that does marriage equality or civil liberties work. The ACLU would work, too.)
(a) You think the diamond industry is bullshit and are pretty sure their engagement ring is dripping with blood. I get it! But raining on people's happiness is not strong activism. Helping people think through this kind of choice before it's immediately relevant or necessary IS. Talk to your bros or to your ladies about buying responsible jewelry or diamond alternatives before they buy a piece of jewelry. If it's THAT IMPORTANT to you, you should be thinking and acting on it way, way before someone shoves a bejeweled finger in your face. (Ugh, that's sort of the worst, isn't it? Alas, sometimes in life we must decide when it is important to bear others' rudeness.) Let's be honest: You're not going to positively influence someone by insulting something they've already invested a lot of sentiment and feeling in. And if you're not going to positively influence them, you're just shitting on them to get your yayas out.
(4) You are having a lot of Feelings about marriage that are about Your Own Life Journey.
Maybe you were recently dumped, or you or your parents went through a terrible divorce and hearing about someone else's engagement makes you want to cry/get shitty and cry more? I am so sorry. That must be very difficult. But odds are that whoever's sharing hir news probably wasn't thinking about doing it in a way that would hurt you. If it's a friend from whom you need more support, you should say so! Just not right then. So like, maybe it would go like this:
BRIDEZILLA: OMG GETTING MARRIED!!111!!!!
You: (smile!) Congratulations!
[three days later]
You: You know, I was so happy to hear you and T-Rex are getting hitched! I want to be supportive of you and this great moment in your life! But I also want to let you know that things have been hard for me since I (finalized my divorce/got dumped at Au Bon Pain) and this is a bittersweet moment for me. I hope we can both continue to Do Us as friends and be present for each other!
BRIDEZILLA: Oh, for sure! I'm sorry if it felt like getting salt rubbed in your wounds! Should we go drink your troubles away?
See? See!? Was that so bad?
So just say "Congratulations!" That's all you need to say! Congratulating someone — expressing pleasure at their joy, whatever — is not the same as validating or affirming or agreeing with their choices. (Y'all, I'm going to write a WHOLE OTHER COLUMN about how to support someone without validating their choices. It is gonna be so great.) I don't think you even need to be prepared with a follow-up question or a hideous, antiquated ball-and-chain joke. If you express polite enthusiasm and then maybe, I don't know, reflect something back to them ("You sound so happy!"), they'll probably pick it up and continue the conversation if that's what they want to do. I know you're a good egg, mama. You don't want to sully someone's memories of what they want to recall as a happy time in their lives. So don't!
P.S. Do you need to get a gift? Short answer: if you are invited to, and are attending, the wedding, yes, yes you do. Even if you have a lot of travel expenses (with possible exception of intense destination weddings). No, you do not have to buy a gift off the registry. No, you do not have to give cash. No, they should not have requested cash on their invitations; you're right, that it is tacky. No, you do not have to bring the gift TO the wedding — you can send it before or after. If you are invited to, and go to, the shower, you will be on the hook for a second gift.
Previously: The Bride (One of Them, Anyway) Wore Lime Green.
Simone Eastman is a cat lady.