Adventures in Egalitarian Marriage: On the Rocks, Please

A man wearing a gemstone ring on his pinky.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found engagement rings totally perplexing. The part about them being symbols of love and commitment made sense. I got the commercial appeal, too – after all, I was a child of the nineties. I had enough merchandise from every TV or book series I liked to learn the important consumerist message that when you really love something, you buy a souvenir.

What I didn’t get was why men didn’t get them. And nobody could give me a serious answer. Married men wore rings; why not engaged men?

None of the answers I got were very satisfying.

The “it’s tradition” answer exposed some ugly roots of marriage: Cynics explained that the rings were marks of ownership, signals to other men to step off the ring-purchaser’s property. Men didn’t wear them because they weren’t ever really expected to be faithful. The solution to that one seemed easy. Get the dude a ring, and now you’re both marked as each other’s property. Double standard solved!

Then there was the “manly men don’t wear jewelry” answer. But that just wasn’t true.

A men’s engagement ring, from Hytrek’s Jewelers.

Another answer left me even more uncomfortable: it had to do with money. Girlfriends don’t spend money on their boyfriends; it’s inappropriate, emasculating, even desperate for them to do so. There’s no traditional calculus of how many months’ salary a girlfriend should put into a ring for her man. And girls don’t do the proposing, so they don’t buy the ring.

I really didn’t like this. I’ve never believed that my gender entitles me to pulled-out chairs, opened doors (at least, no more than anybody else who follows another person into a building) or paid dinners. Those all seemed like a piss-poor return for giving up my claim to equality. In the rest of our relationship, we’re equals: we contribute equally to the bills, we trade off paying for meals, and his “proposal” was a private conversation, not a public show. So why on earth would I make him spend a bunch of money on a ring for me? It seemed like a tradition from another age; it certainly didn’t resonate with the rest of our life together.

So I brought up all these points with Stuart, my fiancé. He had never thought about it before, but all of a sudden, he started to find the double standard annoying, too. Then we went ring shopping.

We had to make some concessions to the economy. In my dream world, I wanted a blue diamond. I settled for taking a ruby out of an heirloom necklace from my grandmother and recycling that. Stuart’s stone (also not a diamond) has been bought, but we’re still saving for the setting. We don’t plan to buy separate wedding bands.

So we’re a little poorer, a little weirder, and a little happier. Fair’s fair.

Daughter of the Patriarchy, epilogue: What does leaving fundamentalism look like?
Daughter of the Patriarchy, epilogue: What does leaving fundamentalism look like?
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Blogging update
  • Charlotte

    It’s funny you posted about this, because I’ve always thought the same thing (although, I hadn’t realized until now that it was a feminist/equality notion). Engagement rings are cool, and they purposefully commit you to one person until your marriage. There’s no reason why a man shouldn’t have one, too. Also, I’m with you on not purchasing separate wedding bands. I can barely keep track of my jewelry as it is, and throwing two rings into the mix just sounds like an expensive pain in my butt! Thanks for reminding me to bring this up with my partner. (:

  • Lynn

    I like that :) I, too, have been struggling with the rings issue. Tradition vs. meaning. I already know I don’t need a diamond, and I only want one ring. I would like my boyfriend to get a ring the same time I do, but I wonder if he’ll feel awkward or get questions for wearing it before marriage. We have friends from Norway who got identical rings when they got engaged, with the plan to engrave them when they get married. I wish our culture in the U.S. was more egalitarian.

  • Gordon

    I heard the ring was something the girl could sell if the boy broke the engagement. I believe the implication was that an expensive ring meant premarital sex was ok.

  • smrnda

    I’ve known a few couples who just both started wearing relatively inexpensive rings as soon as their intention to be married became official, but many of these couples weren’t planning an actual wedding.

    The commercialism and classism inherent in the engagement and wedding rings, as well as in weddings in general have always bothered me. I recall when a friend of mine was getting married and how she was hitting up relatives left and right for money, including people she barely knew. At the same time, if she’d had a less ostentatious wedding, members of her family or the grooms (or even just guests) would somehow feel that it hadn’t been done right. It just seemed like a bad system.

  • Lana

    You rock. Love it!

  • Eva

    Congratulations! I think it’s great that you decided to do this your own way.
    As a Norwegian the whole engagement ring concept have always seemed rather strange to me. As Lynn said, the tradition over here is to start wearing identical rings when you get engaged. Ours have “Your …….”, the engagement date and the wedding date engraved on the inside. Except for the added engraving, the only thing that changes after the wedding is how we refer to the rings. They’re called engagement rings before the wedding and wedding rings after.
    But, there’s a lot of cultural mixing going on. The for-her-only engagement ring is starting to get more common, probably because of tv-/movie exposure to US customs. I think that’s too bad, I really like our egalitarian customs.
    And don’t get me started on the giving away of the bride….

  • Shannon

    I’m so glad you posted this! My fiance and I thought about whether or not he should wear an engagement ring because the for-her-only thing is ridiculous.

    In the end, my fiance is engagement ring-less. And while I think it would make a nice “statement” to have him wear one, in the end it has all come down to logistics. I wear a family ring as an engagement ring (which my mom gave to my now-fiance a few months before we ended up getting engaged), but will forgo a separate wedding band (I’m not sure when the whole two ring thing started…). My fiance will eventually receive a plain gold band from my aunt, but she doesn’t want to ship it so we probably won’t get it until the wedding. So while it seems fairly traditional, it was fun to think through the whole process and subvert tradition in a small way (by skipping the second band).

  • Becky

    I got my husband an engagement ring. His has a red garnet and mine has a rarer green garnet.

  • Sarah

    Awesome! The engagement ring never really bugged me until the last couple years, but it really is just a symbol of ownership and that makes me uncomfortable! Good job finding a solution. :)

  • Margie

    I totally agree!