A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Engagement Ring

I can't wait to get my engagement ring back from the jeweler where it's getting resized. That's right, I said my engagement ring. I'm part of the five percent of men who wear an engagement ring (and I refuse to use the ridiculous portmanteau by which that Atlantic article refers to these rings).

I got engaged a little over a month ago, and in the lead up to that event, I noticed a surprising amount of verbiage being expended on the material and symbolic meanings of this little metal circle that betrothed women wear. Amanda Marcotte believes, "It's high time to end the tradition of the engagement ring, along with other wedding rituals that are built on the assumption that a bride is dependent and virginal." And Shannon Rupp writes, "I’ve always thought giving engagement rings was a slightly unsavoury custom, given that it began in an era when women were chattel, more or less." Kay Steiger says, “Honestly, I’d rather have an iPad.”

I get their points, but to be fair, all of their arguments about the negative historical connotations of the engagement ring apply just as much to the institution of marriage itself. Just as the social and legal institution of marriage has changed in meaning from a proprietary exchange to a partnership, so too can we change the meaning of the engagement, and with it, the engagement ring. The arguments put forth in Slate, Salon, and XOJane are built on a false dichotomy--either we do away with the engagement ring, or we hold onto it as an ironic vestige of the patriarchy.

Of course, it IS an ironic vestige of the patriarchy, but that doesn't mean it can't also have a new meaning, a new meaning conferred on it in no small part by the fact that it was a mutually exchanged gift. I don't currently live with my fiancée, and while we see each other almost every day and message each other throughout the day, I like wearing the ring as a reminder of our partnership. If I'm, say, bored or stressed out at work, it's comforting to know that I can always depend on her and she can always depend on me. And it's fun to think about how a little over a year from now, we'll have all of our close friends and family together for a big party where we'll stand up and declare our intention to jointly file our tax returns for the rest of our lives. And I know that she feels the same way.

She's my constant.
Side note: Remember how great Desmond and Penny were on LOST?

I'm not the only one who feels this way, and particularly given the shift in views towards same sex marriage in recent years, the idea of keeping the engagement ring around as a gendered institution is becoming increasingly silly. (Though as my fiancée noted when she was shopping for my ring, it's hard to find a men's engagement ring that does not look like it was designed to be given to a man by a man. Many of those ones look nice, but I'm just not that flashy. Clearly, this is an untapped market for the jewelry industry.)

But the thing that I most like about mutual engagement rings is the way it changes the proposal. I don't know how the rest of the five percent of guys came by their rings, but I came by mine through a mutual exchange. We got engaged in February, but we knew it was coming for about three months before that. It was a decision we had arrived at through ongoing discussions about our goals and our plans, and once we both knew that we wanted to get engaged, we spent the next couple of months buying rings for each other and making plans. Then in February we both took three days off work, went to Traverse City, ate good food and drank good beer, sat down at a nice restaurant, told each other why we loved one another, exchanged rings, and asked each other to marry us (wow, English pronouns do not make it easy to construct that sentence in an elegant way).

By comparison, "traditional" engagements seem tremendously stressful. As I understand it, you have to arrive at a point in your relationship where you're ready to commit to one another, which might be different for each party. Then, you either don't talk about marriage or only talk about it somewhat surreptitiously. Then the guy is obligated to plan a surprise proposal on his own that accords with his girlfriend's romantic sensibilities, while she has to wait on pins and needles for this life-altering surprise, possibly for maybe many months. The whole thing sounds crazy-making for everyone. Remember Charlotte and Harry in the sixth season of Sex and the City?

Our "proposal," on the other hand, was essentially a very romantic vacation. Weddings are a public event, a communal affirmation of your commitment for friends and family to share in. Getting engaged in this way made it into a personal event--not a surprise, but an affirmation in its own right, only one that was just for us. There's no reason why any ring would have to be a part of that affirmation, but I nonetheless feel good wearing my little metal circle.

1 comment:

  1. Right on point, Brian. The thing about mutual engagement rings is that it suggests the equal footing of both partners to arrive in this decision. Take your and your fiancé’s case, for example. You’ve been talking about weddings and families long before the engagement happened, so you both knew it was coming and planned it all together. Well, I don’t see how that kind of engagement that can be branded as an ironic vestige of patriarchy, given that both of you have obviously took efforts to prove your commitment on this. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter. Cheers!

    Ricky Rowe @ Finding Jewelry Experts