I technically paid for my engagement ring, at least in part. When my now-husband and I started talking marriage for real, we were already living together with a shared bank account and a domestic partnership. We had already made the commitment to be together, but we wanted to celebrate it, and I sheepishly admitted that, despite all the feminist arguments about its patriarchal symbolism, I wanted a ring.
So I presented my soon-to-be-fiancé with my great-grandmother’s engagement diamond, passed down to me from my aunt, for him to get a ring made with whenever the time was right. The diamond was mine and the money was “ours” — all for a symbol that I was his.
A few years ago, The Knot reported that 46% of those surveyed would be willing to split the cost of an engagement ring,but the majority of people were still not comfortable with the idea, citing things like the joy of a surprise or the ever-popular “tradition.” But our discomfort with this idea reveals a deeper discomfort when people act outside their gender roles.
The engagement ring has always been a conditional gift which “must” be returned (according to etiquette maven Amy Vanderbilt) if the engagement is called off. “Anthropologists believe this tradition originated from a Roman custom in which wives wore rings attached to small keys, indicating their husbands' ownership,” according to the American Gem Society. Diamond or not — and until very recently it was not — an engagement ring was a symbol that this woman had been “claimed,” because also until recently, that’s what marriage was about: Alliance, progeny, and service, not love.
Love makes the engagement ring trickier, because in many ways that piece of jewelry goes against our modern ideas about marriage as a partnership based on equity. More people live together before marriage than ever, and the idea that a proposal should be a complete surprise without at least one prior conversation about whether marriage is what you both want is quickly evaporating. We want our spouses to be our partners, someone with which to share all the bounties of life, our “best friends.” And yet the engagement ring tradition remains deeply unbalanced.
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On a Reddit thread asking about splitting costs of the engagement ring, many responded that they already split costs and shared accounts, so who cared? Some said it was because they wanted a say in the ring they were going to wear forever. Others said having their fiancé pay for it felt like a dowry. And in non-straight relationships, the rules are blown open: There is even less social expectation for one party to have one (though that often leaves them fielding questions of “Who is the man?” if there is one engagement ring, and utter confusion if there are two or none).
But it still seems that a woman paying for her own engagement ring is a big taboo. “It's not something you share. It's...a demonstration from him that he is serious about being committed to you,” wrote one commenter on Reddit, with others arguing that it’s a man’s job to surprise a woman, or to demonstrate that he can save money, or that traditionally the bride’s family pays for the wedding so costs are equalled eventually. But the main criticism is a vague sense of it being un-romantic to interfere with this dance. “Let him do it” is the message. Don’t meddle. Wait.
In her essay “Hunger Makes Me,” Jess Zimmerman explores the ways women are punished for wanting. “The low-maintenance woman, the ideal woman, has no appetite,” she writes. “The woman without appetite politely finishes what’s on her plate, and declines seconds. She is satisfied and satisfiable.” To ask for more — or really, for anything — or to act on something you want rather than to wait for whatever someone else presents to you is, we’re told, not how it should go.
An engagement ring is a perfect example of this. It’s an impractical extravagance stripped of genuine meaning that women are at once expected to be given and shamed for wanting.
Maybe the engagement ring and proposal endures because it’s the one chance we (usually) give straight grooms to shine during the whole wedding process — an issue in and of itself. But maybe it’s hard to get past paying for one’s own engagement ring because admitting that it can be a joint expense implicitly admits the rest of the engagement ring story is all a lie. If it’s not a sign of savings and commitment and ownership, if it’s not a surprise gift on behalf of a man that represents everything you’ve ever been told to want, if it is not a way for a couple to confirm the gender roles assigned to them, then it’s just a fancy ring.
Except, somehow, it’s still not.
We should be constantly reevaluating our traditions and societal expectations, to know what is driving them and who benefits and who doesn’t when we adhere to them. But just because the idea of a diamond engagement ring is a lie and a tradition with less than equitable roots doesn’t mean it can’t have a new meaning. Yes, having a conversation in which two people agree to get married can be perfectly romantic, but what is life if we just mutually agree on things and then they happen? It’s human to like occasion. It’s okay to want a proposal or a ring, a moment to mark that something new is happening. And it’s okay to ask for, and pay for, that.
After my husband proposed, as we were calling various relatives and friends, I tried to propose back to him with a ring watch I bought at Claire’s in 7th grade. He refused to wear it (I assume because it was too small, because the holographic peace sign design on its face was dope). I wanted to do something active, to make sure we were both asked and both answered.
Then I remembered whose diamond it was. I already had asked.
Jaya Saxena is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in ELLE.com, The New Yorker, The Daily Dot, and more. She is also the co-author of Basic Witches.