In certain parts of America, the word fiancé does not mean what it used to. I first became aware of this when I was reporting a story in a small town in Wisconsin a couple of years ago and “Bug” Smith, a 50-year-old man who worked as a machinist introduced me to his “fiancée.” I was about to say “Congratulations!” but something stopped me. Their union did not have the air of expectant change about it. From their domestic surroundings, it looked like they lived basically as a married couple already, his boots next to hers by the front door, pictures of kids above the mantel. I later found out they’d been living together for 15 years and had two children.
Since then I have come across this phenomenon dozens of times, almost always in working-class couples, and usually younger ones. Someone will introduce me to his or her fiancé. But what they mean is more like my “steady lady” or my “steady man.” It could mean the person they are living with, or the father or mother of their child. It could also just mean the person they’ve been dating for a long time. It could be that they only use that title in the presence of outsiders (i.e., me) because it gives an official, respectable status to a relationship that’s otherwise amorphous. It could mean that someone has actually proposed, or bought a ring, but usually not. But what it definitively does not mean is that they are choosing a wedding date or checking out venues or pricing caterers or otherwise making any kind of concrete plans for marriage. In many parts of America, fiancé has become a permanent relationship status (permanent, that is, until it’s not).
The aspiration for marriage won’t die in America, even though fewer people are getting married or think they can afford to get married. People no longer think of a wedding as a milestone that happens somewhere between high school and having children. They think of marriage as what sociologists call a “capstone”—that is, something they earn after many other things are in place in their lives, like a good job or a nice house. But they might never get the good job or the nice house. “We intended to get hitched,” Bug Smith told me. “But we just kept finding other things to do with the money. Fixed the porch, got a new engine.” Smith and many others get lost in a free-floating longing for marriage that never gets fulfilled but finds temporary home in the liberal use of the termfiancé. (I once had a guy tell me that he and his girlfriend were “married.” Then he pointed to his chest and added: “Married, in my heart.” Which means that, technically speaking, they weren’t married.)
In the meantime, while fiancés are waiting for marriage, life goes on. People live together for longer periods. They have kids: Among Americans without a college degree, 58 percent of first time births happen outside marriage. People share huge life events with each other even though they’re not married, and yet the culture hasn’t adjusted by producing any new terms to describe these novel attachments or arrangements. Describing someone as “the guy I’m living with” or “the mother of my child” might be accurate but it’s not all that efficient, and a little clinical. Girlfriend or boyfriend belittles the relationship, and partner feels like something people in New York and San Francisco say, so fiancé fills in the gap. It conveys at least the correct level of emotional attachment, which is: something like spouse but not quite.
Mostly this is a class phenomenon. College-educated women flirt with not getting married, provide fodder for lots of movies about the glories of single life, but eventually they get married (even in the movies); among college graduates, only 12 percent of first time births happen outside marriage. But there’s a trickle-down effect. Everyone watches the same movies, so everyone has inherited the idea that marriage should be really special, maybe lavish, definitely worth waiting for, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas argue in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. But since many can’t afford that fancy wedding and don’t want to go “downtown”—a term women in the book use to describe a marriage on the cheap—they just stay engaged.
“I’ve seen it among poorer couples,” says Edin. “They’re willing to get engaged but not sure they are ‘ready’ for marriage. Engagement is not a promise to marry, but rather an indication that they are thinking about it. Perhaps an indication of the high bar for marriage across classes, plus a way of gaining some ‘official’ status without the confines and expectations of marriage.” In her new book, Doing the Best I Can, co-written with Timothy Nelson, Edin tells a story about Lavelle and Big Toya (the mother of Lavelle’s child). Lavelle asks Big Toya to marry him, but she turns him down flat, because she doesn’t want to lose “her freedom, her food stamps or her subsidized apartment.” But he persuades her to let him call her his fiancée anyway. She knows she will never marry him, but that title cements the relationship enough that she will now travel to Camden so he can visit with his daughter.
Sociologists Wendy Manning and Pamela Smock, who study changing family demographics, told me that they, too, made the mistake of assuming couples who said they were engaged were making plans to get married. But when they asked follow-up questions for a large qualitative study they recently conducted with young adults on “Cohabitation and Marriage in America,” they realized that wasn’t true. Instead the term engaged, for couples of all races, seemed to be a kind of placeholder, “a way to keep the relationship going without actually making the move to marry,” says Manning. Smock says she noticed that couples use the term fiancé or engaged in a “flexible” way, that is, when dealing with authorities on the phone, or in a social setting where they might want to “own” the person more or seem like more of an “official couple.”
David Lapp, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a pro-marriage think-tank, is doing research on working-class couples in Ohio. When he asked one guy he interviewed what he called his pregnant girlfriend, the guy said: "It depends on who I'm with." When he and his girlfriend were with what he called "professional people"—like at a car dealership looking for a car, or with a potential landlord—she's his fiancée, although he's never actually asked her to marry him. Otherwise, she's his girlfriend. As he explained it to Lapp, he calls her his fiancée in front of professional people because if people see them as married, there's the perception that they're more respectable and less liable to party and abuse alcohol and drugs.
If anything, the liberal use of fiancé is devaluing the old term girlfriend. In the ’60s, being a girlfriend was an official status, like getting promoted to two-star general. You would get pinned, or get the letter jacket, or some other visible mark of distinction when a guy “decided” you were his girlfriend. But now being a girlfriend or boyfriend can mean anything or nothing. So if you’re really truly the girlfriend or boyfriend, you’re the fiancé.
In The Marriage Go-Round, sociologist Andrew Cherlin describes our dysfunctional relationship with marriage. Americans have unusually high marriage and divorce rates, because we are culturally attached to both old-fashioned commitment and to individual freedom. Other countries have solved this dilemma by letting go of the marriage ideal, allowing people, for example, to live together and still be considered a family, by the state and by their neighbors. Even by the guy at the car dealership, who doesn’t trust them any less for not having a signed marriage license. With 10 more years of fake fiancés, maybe we’ll get there, too.