I began my interview with Emma Duncan ’12 and Corbin Went ’13 with a skewed perception of young engaged couples. I lumped them all into the “Mormon” or “entirely overeager” categories. However, Emma and Corbin approach the prospect of marriage differently. Both 21, they’ve been together for over four years, engaged for two, and will be married at the end of June 2012. They met in a California tearoom kitchen their senior year of high school; he wooed her with a Scrubs reference, and they now live together in Slonim House.
“We have a confusing tale,” Emma starts, “Because we haven’t been in the same place the whole time.” For two years of their relationship, they commuted between San Francisco State, where Corbin studied, and Sarah Lawrence, Emma’s new home. After weathering Skype-centered interactions freshman year, they realized something had to change. Sophomore year, either Corbin or Emma would fly to the other’s coast—every three weeks.
“A couple different times, I would be finishing class Thursday and then Friday morning I’d fly out of JFK to San Francisco,” Emma remembers. “I’d spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday then fly back red-eye. I remember getting to JFK at 6 in the morning on Monday and then going to class all day. It was wild.”
I ask if the cross-country commute was worth it. “It was necessary,” Corbin responds without hesitation. This display of commitment is indicative of Corbin and Emma’s entire relationship. In fact, they see it as the key to long-term survival. “One person always has to be willing to stand up for the relationship,” Corbin says, “And in our case, one person always was.”
“I never thought, ‘This relationship is costing me too much,’” Emma adds. It’s not that they’ve figured out some secret to love, just that both decided they would go the distance—literally—no matter what. Thankfully, when it came to international relations, the two got their passports stamped simultaneously for the British American Drama Academy. They lived together in London their junior year and are now, for the first time, together at Sarah Lawrence.
When I bring up The Proposal (big P intended), they respond in unison: “Which one?”
“That’s not because I ever said no. I never said no,” Emma clarifies. Instead, Corbin and Emma decided they would get married nine months before officially announcing their engagement. “We were just in bed one night,” Emma says with a laugh. Corbin elaborates: “I got really upset about something to do with my family and how I didn’t want to become them and no kids want to grow up to be their parents and we agreed on that and I was like, “Okay, marry me then. Marry me!”
This private engagement meant that when it finally came time for Corbin and Emma to announce the decision to their family and friends, they were long used to the idea. Corbin officially proposed over their three-year anniversary dinner. He held Emma’s hand beneath the table: “There was a tiny box!” Emma recounts. “I opened it and it was this tiny fold of tissues paper and I was like, “That can’t be what I think it is; it’s too tiny! Did you get me, like, a tooth? What the fuck is in this?” It was the ring (Corbin’s mother’s diamond ring), just slightly bent after years of disuse.
Both Corbin and Emma’s parents support their decision, though their larger social circles are sometimes less gracious. Younger people just respond with “Really?” Older people have asked Emma if she’s still serious about her acting career or if she’s ready to have babies soon. “I was legitimately shocked by [the career question],” she says, “I was like, ‘Guys, the last 100 years of social development have occurred where you can be married and have a career. It’s not a thing.’” And no, she’s not looking to procreate in the near future.
“We’ve had to deal with a lot of subtle digs,” Emma elaborates. “If one more family friend sees me at home and says, ‘Hey, still engaged?’” …She doesn’t name a consequence, but given that she smacked the table in anger three seconds ago, my guess is the confrontation wouldn’t be cordial. “People don’t realize what an inappropriate question that is.”
At the same time, Corbin says, “We’ve gotten some incredibly beautiful and nice comments about people who believe in love because of us.”
When Emma changed her relationship status to “engaged” on Facebook, at least 23 people commented with congratulations. Since then, the couple have chosen not to publicize the majority of their wedding plans, but technology has played a part in their relationship throughout. Skype calls, Facebook announcements, and one particular wedding forum have all facilitated Corbin and Emma’s connection as well as their wedding plans. Emma is active on offbeatbride.com, a blog that deems itself “an ongoing celebration of couples who dare to walk off the beaten aisle.” The site features posts on authentic Norse weddings and LARP ceremonies. Emma has drawn do’s and don’ts from the various wedding profiles she reads.
“We’re deconstructing some things,” she says frankly. “We’re really keen on walking down the aisle together instead of my being ‘given’ by my father, because that word makes me so uncomfortable. I’ve explained this to my dad and been like, ‘Look, Dad. This is not about us, this is about my feminist principles and the fact that this is not a bargain in which Corbin accepts a dowery of goats.” Sarah Lawrence women everywhere are nodding their heads in approval.
Weddings are filled with all kinds of ancient traditions, some of which are repeated solely because the participants are uninformed on the greater meaning of their actions, or because their family enforces a set of guidelines. Corbin and Emma are able to approach their ceremony on their own terms. They won’t be mentioning God, and their officiate is a mutual family friend who Emma describes as, “a ridiculously tall, super stylish gay man.” They’ll quote lines from ‘As You Like It,” exchange Etsy-commissioned wedding rings, and retire to a garden tea party afterwards. “I’m totally fine with debaucherous everything,” Emma clarifies, “But I hate that people turn weddings into discos. Anything that involves a hired DJ yelling at me makes me angry.”
Amidst their customized proceedings, Corbin makes a point of mentioning, “In all of the modern wedding business that’s going on, we will be saying, ‘Till death do us part,’ because that is a strong belief. Marriage is important, and it is something you only do once.”
On Offbeat Bride, many members remove any mention of the traditional vow. “I’ve read several different blog posts where people are like, ‘What’s the point of having this beautiful day where you say all these true things and then making these promises that you can’t necessarily keep?’” Emma recounts. “I’m like, ‘You probably shouldn’t get married.’ Because I really think that’s the point. Why would you have the ceremony unless you’re planning to be together forever?”
Here, Corbin and Emma reflect wise Beyoncé’s words: “I may be young but I’m ready/to give you all my love.” In late June, the world will see an official declaration, a giving of a name (Emma will be Emma Went), and legal documentation. But for Corbin and Emma, this choice will simply change what they call each other. Corbin says, “You can be in a relationship and never get properly married and identify as the other half of another person, but this is putting a label.” Emma adds, “It’s about needing to be as close to another person as life and society will allow you to be…[My relationship with Corbin] is in the top bracket of things that I use to identify myself as a being: I’m a woman, I’m young, I’m an artist [she looks at Corbin], I’m in love with you. I’m getting married.”
As we all begin this “wedding phase” of our lives, we can only hope that couples like Corbin and Emma will pave the way in order to look back and offer us advice. For them, marriage is a natural, joyful choice. It involves no obligation or dread. There will be no “last hurrah” strippers or Kardashian-style split, because these two have always chosen to approach their relationship with hope and courage. This wedding is invariably a transition, but it’s more about continuation. I ask them what they’re looking forward to about married life.
Corbin: “I’m excited to have mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Went,” and I’m excited to figure out how to file taxes.”
Emma: “I’m looking forward to the wedding, but more just like…”
Corbin: “Figuring out how we’re going to have a life together, what we’re going to do.”
Emma: “More that. The wedding too, but mostly that.”