As some of you may know, I recently became engaged. While I’m very excited by the prospect of marrying the man
my mother bribed I love, I must say that my relationship hasn’t really changed in any significant way. My boyfriend and I met when I was fifteen, and started a relationship soon after my sixteenth birthday. We have lived together for ten years. We have been talking about marriage and babies and station wagons for a long time now. We even have a little pet family together. So no, engagement didn’t change a whole lot. It just made our decision to marry ‘official’, I suppose. You might wonder what the biggest difference between pre-engagement and post-engagement me is; well, the answer is simple: A ring.
For oft when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, I often think about what my engagement ring actually means. (Yes, half of that sentence plagiarises Wordsworth, guess which half?) When we got engaged, there was no real fanfare. For a few months beforehand, we had discussed what we both wanted in a wedding ceremony, even discussing venues. When I told my sister this, she got excited. She stated that this meant we were engaged, I wasn’t so sure. Yes, we had talked marriage, and even set a preliminary date but my partner hadn’t actually proposed. And there was no ring. When I pointed this out to my sister, she laughed.
‘Since when do you care about stuff like that?’ she asked me, bemused. She was right to be confused. I have never been a big fan of grand romantic gestures nor have I ever been a fan of (ladies, please forgive me for this) jewellery. I never wear any, despite making a valiant effort during my teen years in order to fit in with my decidedly stylish peers. I shun all types of bejewelled décor, especially rings. I have always found them uncomfortable and constrictive.
I decided to talk to my partner about it all. Not wanting to complicate things any more than they already were, I asked him straight: ‘are we getting married?’
‘Yes, of course,’ was his answer.
‘Then, are we engaged?’ I felt like a fifteen year old girl asking her date if they were going steady. My boyfriend’s response surprised me. He shook his head.
‘Well, no, not yet because I haven’t gotten you a ring. So it’s probably going to take a while because I’m saving up.’
‘Saving up?’ I was confused. My boyfriend is well aware of my ambiguous feelings towards rings. ‘Why do you need to save up?’
‘Well, everyone knows you have to buy a girl a diamond and that you have to spend three months wages on it.’ I have known Jack a long time, and I’ll bet that this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard him say. I proceeded to launch into a big speech about how I didn’t care if I had to wear an onion ring, that I’m not that kind of girl and that I was disappointed that he would think that I was. I told him that I wasn’t even sure I wanted a ring at all. He remained calm, as usual, and responded:
‘I don’t want you to have any regrets. It’s so easy to say that you don’t want a ring because you think that it’s the “right” thing to say, but it’s okay to want a ring. It doesn’t make you materialistic.’ Then he asked me to think about it.
And I did. I realised that Jack is a proud person. The macho part of him wanted to give me an expensive ring because he wanted to feel worthy. He erroneously assumed that I would want some beautiful bling to show off. And I understood that, even if I didn’t agree with it. Begrudgingly, I realised that deep down, I probably did want a ring, as much as I hated to admit it at first. I don’t call myself a feminist. I call myself an egalitarian. Our relationship has always reflected this. I have been told by friends and family that I have a “role” to fulfil as a woman. I have seen the shock on relatives’ faces when I tell them that I do not do my boyfriend’s laundry, nor do I do all the cooking. I have never believed that, as a woman, I have a pre-defined role in our relationship. Likewise, I don’t believe that Jack does. We are equal partners. So how could the strong, independent side of me be reconciled with the side of me that wanted to wear an engagement ring, essentially branding me as someone else’s betrothed? I remembered the words in a great poem, Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, by Adrienne Rich:
The Massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band/sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie/Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
Is that what engagement and wedding rings symbolise? Confinement? Submission? I loathed that thought.
I thought about the history of the engagement ring, and its traditional significance. I wanted to know why on earth my usually level-headed boyfriend would think I desire an expensive diamond. My initial research didn’t do much to assuage my doubts. Going back as far as Roman times (and possibly even earlier), the ring was seen as signifying the binding legal agreement of the male’s ownership of the woman. Hundreds of years later, the engagement ring also becomes something akin to insurance for an aristocratic bride to be. If an engagement broke, the female would be missing out on assured financial security for life, so she was allowed to keep the valuable piece of jewellery. Of course, I know that none of this is applicable or even relevant to my life. Our engagement would not be a business deal. There would be no dowry or contracts drawn up. If I was to wear a ring, it would have to symbolise something far more romantic than insurance or ownership. My dad can keep his livestock.
So what else could an engagement ring symbolise? Yes, it demonstrates one’s intention to marry. But is there a deeper meaning that goes beyond practicality? There were some romantic accounts on the engagement ring’s history, such as why it is worn on the left ring finger (due to the supposed ancient belief that a vein in the left finger, the so-called vena amoris, connected directly to the heart) although it was hard to distinguish which of these accounts were actually factual. Of course the engagement ring wasn’t always made from a valuable metal and did have symbolic meaning throughout antiquity and beyond. So that helps.
I was left wondering why I really wanted to wear one, especially since I have never worn a ring in my entire life. You might think I was over-thinking this, and you’d be right. I was. But an engagement ring is an important purchase. I needed to be sure about it. I wanted to be able to look at it without seeing it as something that compromised my independence.
And then something bizarre happened. I worked on a staff of predominantly female teachers. All of a sudden, five of them got engaged. For weeks, there was constant squealing and fawning in the staff room and I have to admit, it was contagious. My colleagues’ rings were beautiful. I started to imagine what it would be like to wear something so attractive. Then, one evening, one of my newly engaged colleagues had stayed behind to correct homework with me. Admiring her ring for the hundredth time, I asked her what the ring meant to her. It was certainly unusual, but stunning. I know it’s a personal question, but I really wanted to know. She told me that the ring hadn’t been very expensive, but that her fiancé had seen it a long time ago, in an antique store and had always imagined giving it to someone as an engagement ring one day. She said that he kept it through all the difficult times in his life, firmly believing that someday, all would be okay, as long as the right person was wearing that ring. To her, it symbolised their search for each other. She felt that she had been moving towards him, and that ring, all her life. She finished by saying ‘it was mine before I even knew him.’ Granted, to some of you, that’s cheese on toast with a side of jazz hands, but she told it with such sincerity and conviction, that I couldn’t help but be touched. I realised that I had been judgemental.
I suddenly saw engagement rings in a whole different light. They didn’t have to be archaic symbols of dominance or ownership. And even if some girls derive a feeling of security from that, who am I to judge?
I realised that every ring has a different story, a different meaning, for every wearer. It is up to you to choose that meaning.
I know that this might seem obvious to everyone, but I had never really put much thought into engagement rings before and had always assumed that they were merely superficial. I bounced in the door that evening to my boyfriend, proclaiming that I was the luckiest person in the world to have someone who put up with my constant analysing and over-thinking, and that I would be grateful for whatever ring he chose. But we had to be sensible. We aren’t financially secure. For me, it would have been madness to spend thousands on a ring when I would be just as happy with one that didn’t make my finger go green. Jack took a little convincing. He told me he had read forums where women had said things like ‘I would dump a guy if he gave me less than a carat’ or ‘I would be embarrassed to wear a cheap ring.’ We both sat down, as he showed me questions on wedding forums from guys that were along the lines of ‘I only have $3000 to spend, is that enough?’ I have never seen Jack be influenced by societal pressure (the guy dances, in public, to The Spice Girls) but he seemed particularly stressed out.
‘Diamonds are expensive,’ he sighed, as I tried to assure him that I didn’t want a diamond. We argued back and forth. He told me that ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, I told him that he’d obviously never tried chocolate. He pointed out that in many episodes of my guilty pleasure, trash TV show, The Real Housewives of Atlanta; I had witnessed the women brag about their expensive diamond rings. Yes Jack, I base all my life expectations on contrived and structured reality TV *rolls eyes forever*
I explained that through my extensive (one hour) research (and that was in between episodes of The Big Bang Theory) that the first recorded person to give a diamond engagement ring to his betrothed was Archduke Maximillian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy, but that the modern usage of the diamond as the most popular engagement stone seems to stem from a very shrewd DeBeers’ marketing campaign in the first half of the twentieth century, when they promoted the slogan ‘diamonds are forever.’ Diamonds are nice, but I didn’t want a diamond engagement ring. Given our financial status, it made no sense to spend money on something I don’t feel passionate about. If you genuinely love diamonds, and jewellery, that’s another matter altogether. He worried about the constant judgement I would face from people when they asked to see my ring. I told him that the most important thing was that the ring meant something personal to us, and that I really don’t mind if other people don’t like it. I don’t even mean that in a defensive way, everyone has different opinions and I respect that. Maybe just don’t say it out loud though.
We chose the ring together. If I’m being completely honest (and I always am with you guys), I feel like the whole furore over the ring made the actual engagement slightly anti-climactic. We over-thought it: me, because I worried about what a ring ultimately symbolised and Jack because he thought that it had to be diamond and platinum and unicorn ivory horn. We did face a lot of questions from relatives about the ring, especially when they realised that it wasn’t going to be diamond. When we finally picked one out, it was weeks later. I sometimes wonder if I should have just kept my mouth shut and went along with Jack, but I know that we’d probably be living in a tenement and sharing a bathroom with a family of ten (at least, that’s what’s happening in my imagination). I’m grateful to have someone who wants the best for me, and so I wanted to alleviate that pressure that society had put on him, as a man, to provide something that was, at that time, unobtainable. I wasn’t making a sacrifice, or pretending that I didn’t want an expensive diamond for his benefit. I genuinely didn’t. In the end, we let the ring overshadow the most important fact of all: that someday, soon, we will be man and wife and he has to put up with me singing in the car for all eternity.
So why have I written this? Well, I suppose I thought of all the Jacks out there who are panicking and conducting internet research on the possibility of selling their eyeballs to afford a pricy ring and I felt bad for them. Is it true that, to paraphrase the wise (rolling eyes) Kim Zolciak, the ring doesn’t mean a thing? Not entirely. It should mean something, otherwise why wear it? Rings have long been a symbol of eternal love, fidelity, trust, strength…but the truth is, they can symbolise whatever you want them to. Does a sparkly diamond have to be the only symbol significant enough to demonstrate your eternal bond to one another? Why don’t you ask Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband, Kris Humphries? (Yep, I went there.) He bought Kim a diamond ring that set him back TWO MILLION DOLLARS. And their marriage? It lasted 72 days. I’ve had pen pals that I’ve committed to for longer than that. You shouldn’t have to spend thousands on a ring to prove to someone that you love them, and they shouldn’t expect you to. I think it’s important that I add: if you both want to spend thousands on a diamond and an expensive ring means something to both of you, then I’m not going to judge; that’s your business. I know plenty of women whose rings are worth more than my car (though that’s not saying much) and I don’t begrudge them. If it makes them happy, then where’s the harm? It goes both ways, too. I would hate for anyone to think that my decision to wear a ring somehow makes me less of an independent and progressive woman. For me, it symbolises many things. Submission is not one of those things.
So what about my ring? I love it. I love it because Jack gave it to me. I love it because it reminds me that I’m marrying him. I love it because I will wear it for the rest of my life. And most of all, I love it because it reminds me that even when we didn’t have much; we never for a second doubted our commitment to each other.