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Why We Really Give Engagement Rings

... and what we do when marriage doesn't follow.

"If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it" —Beyonce, "Single Ladies"

Is Beyonce’s famous line sexist? What does it really mean to "put a ring on it"? And what if you put a ring on it, but then wanted the ring off of it?

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Do you ever wonder about how certain cultural rituals developed? While marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, the customs around it vary tremendously by culture and era.

If I had another professional life to live, I could enjoy being an anthropologist studying marriage and family. Below, I want to talk about engagement rings, their history, and what is going on with the whole idea.

While engagement ring customs are not universal, there are universal aspects of marriage that include similar customs governing courtship, betrothal, and how a promise to marry can be ended. The customs vary, but they often have a lot to do with assuring true intention to follow through.

In an era where marriages are founded around the principles of intimacy and deeper connection, I believe that a central role of commitment is to secure romantic attachment. Intense attachment to another but unclear commitment makes most people anxious about the potential loss of the partner. When commitment is clear and mutual, that commitment promotes a sense of safety in the connection and the future of the relationship.

People relax and invest when there is a sense of both present and future safety. Some customs around romantic relationships represent the giving and receiving of emblems of commitment. These emblems signal security in commitment.

Enter the ritual of engagement rings.

Matthew O’Brien, who usually writes about business and economics, wrote a piece recently for the Atlantic about engagement rings: "The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings." It’s an excellent piece.

O’Brien notes how the custom is relatively recent, taking stronger hold after a marketing campaign by N. W. Ayers on behalf of diamond giant De Beers. This is fascinating, though it makes one feel about as warm and fuzzy as knowing that greeting card companies started some commemorative days we're emotionally attached to.

(By the way, did I tell you when World Commitment-Related-Blog Day is? It’s coming up, but I have not set the exact date. I have to design a line of digital cards first that you can send to friends, for a fee, of course. U.S. currency is preferred, but old diamond rings, no longer being used, are acceptable as well.)

O’Brien points out that there used to be laws about the breach of a promise to marry (similar to onetime laws about the breach of promises made within marriage). These laws allowed women to sue men for failing to follow through on marriage plans.

Since even many decades ago, it was not uncommon for a couple to have sex before marriage; while virginity at marriage was still highly prized, males could be forced to compensate females for reducing their value as brides by having had sex with them, but failing to follow through on a promised marriage. Note the logic here: Women were more likely to give something of value to men in the context of the male promising commitment to the future.

Times have changed, in at least a few respects.

O’Brien cites work by legal scholar Margaret Brinig supporting the idea that the (expensive, DeBeers-jeweled) engagement ring became a custom by performing the same function as the breach-of-promise laws just as those laws started to disappear. The legal obligation was replaced, in some parts of society, with an economic promise of forfeiture should the male not fulfill the promise about marriage he had made. Hence the secondary custom of women keeping the ring if men bailed.

These days, we see debates in advice columns about if and when a ring should be returned, based on how a marriage has been called off. O’Brien seems to think the debate is over, but I’m not so sure. He considers it somewhat obvious that a woman would give the ring back to a man who did not follow through on a promise to marry. I’m less convinced.

I know many people reject gender stereotype arguments—and often for good reasons—but this is an area where there has historically been some rationale related to gender differences. I want to raise some questions, explicitly, and then give an example of something that seems complex to me.

Why don’t women, historically, give something expensive to a man in case she changes her mind? Is this sexist, in the pejorative sense, or simply a rational, gender-based difference, whether one wants to view it as good or bad?

Consider the following vignette:

Sam and Tyra started dating when they met at age 26. They got engaged at 27, and he gave her a really nice ring. Now they are 32. So, their engagement has gone on for five years.

(I think long engagements are a new trend, by the way. For some, endless engagements reflect a desire to tell others that they, as a couple, are... more committed than average. That is, it’s not as much a plan to marry as a way to signal this higher level of commitment to others—“We’re off the market even though we may never really walk the aisle.”) But for Sam and Tyra, engagement meant they shared a serious intention to marry.

So Sam and Tyra, now 32, have been cohabiting for four years as an engaged couple. But then Sam starts to fall for a woman at work, and the gravitational pull toward this new person grows and grows. After some anguish and a lot of effort to work through untangling their lives, he achieves enough escape velocity and moves on. (There is a lot of inertia to cohabiting—even more so with engagement—so it can take a lot of energy to move on.)

Tyra feels very burned. Of course, this break could have happened just as easily in either direction, but in this case, Tyra felt that the engagement and the cohabiting were sure signs they were going to get married. As I’ve written in various places, the former is a lot stronger signal of commitment than the latter. But Tyra plans to keep the ring (and wishes it were bigger).

In his article, O’Brien suggests that women should generally give rings back today, because they are increasingly likely to be the ones with the better jobs and, therefore, do not really need the economic collateral of the ring.

While not stated, I would imagine he and others would not consider Tyra to have given anything more away than Sam has by having had sex and no longer being a virgin. She certainly doesn’t feel like Sam owes her for that—this aspect of their relationship was mutual and nothing to hold him responsible for.

But while she's deeply hurt that he has left her for another woman, what she's most upset about is that Sam has, in her view, wasted years on her biological clock. Tyra wants children and a nuclear family in which to raise them. She knows well that her odds of achieving that have already changed. So Tyra does believe she has lost something of value—some of her window on one of her most deeply held life goals.

Should Tyra, then, keep the ring? Should they have talked about the meaning of that ring in the first place, and what would happen if things didn’t go according to plan?

Next time, let’s look at the sex difference thing a bit more. If I have your number, I’ll give you a ring when I post it.

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