I am a woman who is engaged to be married. But unlike lots of your friends who are busy posting photographs of their diamond engagement rings on Facebook, you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at my left hand.
This is because I told my fiancée many times before we got engaged that I wasn’t interested in getting an engagement ring at all, diamonds or no. There are a lot of reasons I feel this way, including my particular indifference to jewelry. “Honestly, I’d rather have an iPad,” I told him.
Diamond engagement rings are a translation of a much older sexist tradition of putting a down payment on one’s bride. This is, incidentally, still legally the case. In many states a bride-to-be can still sue her fiancée for breach of contract if he breaks off the engagement, as a Georgia woman did last year. After all, it is only women who are marked with an engagement ring as taken, suggesting that the balance of power doesn’t lie with the one who wears it.
Furthermore, the amount one is supposed to spend on said diamond engagement ring — two month’s salary, supposedly— is a “tradition” that was invented by the diamond industry giant De Beers less than a century ago. (I really recommend reading The Atlantic’s expose on this — it may be from 1982, but the history of the industry hasn’t changed.) But my concerns aren’t just the legal or financial implications of a big rock. In my mind, a diamond ring is simply a terrible prerequisite for evaluating a potential lifelong partner. All it judges is one’s wealth, something that tells you nothing about his ability to be a great partner, husband or father. Spending so much money on something so frivolous should work against a potential partner, not for him.
The deck is stacked against buyers of engagement rings. Diamond rings, which are in plentiful supply around the world, are actually getting more, not less expensive. That’s in large part because the entire cost of getting married seems to be going up and up. Even the estimated median cost of an American wedding, $18,086 — which clocks in at significantly less than than the astonishingly high average cost of $28,427 — clocks in at more than a full-time minimum wage worker earns in a year. The more we make weddings about the stuff we’re supposed to feel obligated to buy, the more we’re making marriage into an exclusive club with a velvet rope set up along class lines.
Sure, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a diamond ring and a wedding to get married. But it’s certainly become a cultural norm — and a powerful one. Pew recently looked at the so-called decline in marriage rates and found something startling. It’s not that all people are choosing not to get married, according to the statistics collected by Pew. Instead, poorer people are increasingly opting out of tying the knot. Middle- and upper-class people’s marriage rates are relatively stable, and the higher one’s education, the more likely one is to get married. Pew says:
“The survey finds that those with a high school diploma or less are just as likely as those with a college degree to say they want to marry. But they place a higher premium than college graduates (38 percent versus 21 percent) on financial stability as a very important reason to marry.”
In other words, the message that marriage is only for the upper crust is one that’s well-received by those with a less than high school diploma. Anecdotally, of course, I’ve heard of plenty of men who resist getting engaged to their significant others simply because they don’t feel they can afford an engagement ring. It’s become an extremely bizarre measure of masculinity for far too many men today, one that ties the ability to “provide” to the one-time purchase a highly expensively piece of jewelry.
This doesn’t mean that engagement rings are necessary, of course. Lots of people I know have opted for a family ring or a less expensive used engagement ring. And though I’d put some hope in LGBTQ folks joining the marriage club changing some of these old traditions, the engagement ring has stayed, often with both members of the couple wearing an engagement ring. Alas, these are workarounds for a tradition that should just be chucked altogether.
When my fiancé proposed to me we were on vacation, and all he had to do was ask. Folks will just have to believe us when we say we’re getting married — after all they’ve been believing men who say so since the tradition was born. And despite my radical stance on engagement rings, I’ve actually encountered very little awkwardness surrounding it. One close friend confessed she looked for it, but she didn’t comment when I didn’t have one until I later brought up my general objections. Very few people ask me why I don’t have one, and if they do, I shrug it off. “Engagement rings aren’t really my thing,” I say.
A small part of me hopes others will start to feel the same way, and we can dump this tradition once and for all.