Last time, I left you with a question:  Should Tyra keep the engagement ring she got from Sam? If you didn’t read the last post, here’s the skinny. I covered something of the history of diamond engagement rings and gave an example of a modern couple to highlight the question about whether or not Tyra should give the engagement ring back to Sam when the plans for marriage were called off—by him. Sam had unceremoniously dumped Tyra after five years of engagement, leaving her for another woman.

Here’s my answer: I believe that Tyra should keep the ring, if she wants to keep it. Of course, she’d likely prefer to keep it and sell it than keep it for any sentimental reasons. But I can see why she would not return it to Sam. My reasoning is based in the fact that Tyra feels she lost something of value with Sam breaking off their long engagement. What was lost? Valuable time on her biological clock. In this particular case, the value of the engagement ring is in line with how they came to be commonly used in the past: As a promise backed by something of value to follow through on the intention to marry.

A colleague of mine was looking up some case law about what technically may happen with engagement rings after broken engagements these days. Apparently, in most states of the U.S., the default legal position is that the person who has received an engagement ring usually has to give it back to the person who gave it, no matter who broke off the engagement. It’s a kind of “no fault” broken engagement law. I am no lawyer, but I think that’s silly.

Consistent with this trend in legal thought, but for different reasons, a writer specializing in economics had asserted in a piece in the Atlantic that the custom of a woman getting to keep a ring after a broken engagement was outdated. That author, Matthew O’Brian, had asserted that there was no longer any particular rationale for a woman to keep an engagement ring, even if the man broke of the engagement, because there was no longer a special value attached to a woman being a virgin in the marriage market—which lands close to some of the original thinking behind the practice. (See my last post if you want more on that.)

Overall, O’Brian was quite right in noting that some things have changed, but here’s where I think he was wrong. His argument ignores the one thing that has not changed in all of this calculus—that there is an important biological difference between men and women. Before I get myself in hot water with some readers by noting that there are some actual differences between men and women, I want to point out that I personally like the idea of both partners giving an engagement ring—that is if both are doing the “engagement” thing and both are up for it. While that’s unconventional, I can see a lot of merit in that. But I also accept that biology is still very much present, which means there is some sex-based linkage to how one might think about societal customs like the giving of an engagement ring.

One of These Things Is Not Like The Other—In One Important Way

What’s the difference between men and women that matters most for this discussion? It’s not complicated. Women can get pregnant and men cannot. Women are also the ones who bear children (which goes with the whole pregnant thing).  While there is a rapidly growing number of exceptions, women are still far more likely than men to be the ones who spend the most time and energy on child care. So, it’s not just the bearing of a child but the rearing of a child where the initial biological difference can come into play.  

What does that mean? Women, on average, have more at stake in how relationships with implications for childbearing and rearing turn out. Are their exceptions to this? Loads and loads and lots. But it isn’t rational to ignore the fact that biology affects societal trends and cultural customs when it comes to dating, mating, marriage, and family development. This is why it’s important for females to accurately decode the commitment levels of their partners as relationships develop. This is important for men as well, but it’s critical for females of childbearing ages to do this well.[i]

Women have made huge advances in careers and earnings, and along with birth control, these changes counter the biological difference to a degree. But there isn’t a way to completely wipe out some fundamental differences that begin with who can and cannot have a baby as result of the sexual activity of two partners. Even where having a child is not possible, the behavioral and psychological patterns are deeply ingrained.

Regardless of sex and gender, there is a perfectly good rationale for the existence of societal customs that push romantic partners, male or female, to produce clear signals of commitment as relationships progress. While such customs are waning in favor of ambiguity (see my earlier post related to that), those who stand to lose the most if things go wrong have the most to gain by looking for clear evidence of commitment—at whatever stage of relationship it starts to matter.

Give Me a Sign!

When it comes to correctly decoding the commitment level in a potential partner, the clearer the signals the better for doing this well. Informative signals of commitment have several characteristics: The signal will be something that is under the volitional control of the one sending it. The signal will be something that is public. Sending the signal will likely involve some cost, in either energy, money, or both. That investment is part of what makes a signal informative about commitment. Whatever else you think about marriage or engagement rings, engagement rings do fit the bill as potent signals of intention about the future. Facebook status is also a serious signal in that it is volitional, public, and comes with some cost (designating one as off the market).

Looking for Lasting Love?

If you are looking for lasting love with long-term commitment, here’s some advice.

1.  Give serious thought to what you would consider valid signals of commitment from a potential partner. Unless you want to live in a sea of ambiguity—which I’ve argued is risky as more time goes by—what will indicate to you that someone is really committed to you?

Note that public displays of commitment beat the snot out of private, ambiguous messages. And DTRs are great but they take a lot of skill and guts to do them right. (I wrote two pieces on all that, here and here.) So, it’s good to have clear ideas about what else to look for when you want to decode commitment. 

2.  If you are a person who can become pregnant and bear children, it’s likely especially important for you to look for, and wait for, clear evidence of a mutual commitment to the future before allowing yourself to get too deeply drawn in with a partner. To be the most useful, evidence of your partner’s commitment should be something you and others can see.

Some of you may be thinking, “hey Scott, what do you mean by ‘if you can become pregnant?’” 

Simply this: Is it biologically possible for you to become pregnant?  You may or not be intending to have sex and/or you may be using birth control.  Birth control methods have failure rates.  So do intentions not to have sex.   

3. Whether you are male or female or someone from Mars (or Venus), here’s another question related to the importance of signals about commitment: “Do you attach strongly to people, and often quickly?” If that’s you, you also are at greater risk from failing to properly decode signals of commitment in a partner. Your own desire for connection can lead you to misread the signals about how committed another person is to you.  Lots of people find out, painfully, that they were “over-giving” to a partner who was never going to become more seriously committed. 

4.  If you have a friend who seems wise and knows you well, share what you are thinking about solid signals of commitment and see if they can knock some holes in your ideas. A lot of people look to what are false signals of commitment. If you are getting more serious with a partner, make the gutsy move to ask those you trust what they see in your developing relationship. Can they see something of concern you are not seeing? Don’t ask for honest feedback if you are not able to handle getting it. But if you have true and wise friends, and you can handle it, ask.

Love is blind but you don’t have to be when your future is at stake. 

Follow me on Twitter: @DecideOrSlide

[i] As an example, David Buss (in The Evolution of Desire, 2003) highlights the importance of acts of love in conveying information about commitment (p. 43). He goes on to suggest that, throughout human history, it has been crucial for women to accurately discern the commitment levels of males because of the comparative advantages to a woman of having the resources of a devoted male given the personal costs of pregnancy and childbirth to women.

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