[There is an update version of this post at my Psychology Today blog, here.]
If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Beyonce, Single Ladies
Is Beyonce’s famous line sexist or what? What does it mean to put a ring on it? What if you put a ring on it and then wanted the ring off it? That's my focus here, but I'll come back to other aspects soon.
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. Let’s talk today about engagement rings and a recent story in the news about their history.
While engagement ring customs are not universal, there are universal aspects of marriage customs that govern various factors related to marriage such as courtship, rules about betrothal, and rules about how and if a marriage can end. The customs vary but they often have a lot to do with assuring true intention to follow-through and provisions for the security of a union that is the basis, often, for a family as well as the joining of two families (the latter still being considered very important in many parts of the world).
Especially in an era where marriages are founded around the principles of intimacy and deeper connection, a central role that commitment plays is to secure romantic attachment. When there is intense attachment to another but unclear commitment, it makes most people anxious about the potential loss of the partner. When commitment is clear and working well between two partners, it promotes safety in the connection and the future of the relationship. People relax and invest when there is safety and clarity in commitment.
Therefore, some customs around romantic relationships represent emblems of commitment and they serve the function of signaling security in commitment. Enter the ritual of engagement rings.
Matthew O’Brien at the Atlantic writes about business and economics, and recently wrote a piece about engagement rings that a friend noted I’d be interested in. So right. The piece is entitled, “The Strange (and Formerly Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings.” It’s an excellent little piece. O’Brien notes the degree to which this custom took hold was propelled in our culture by a marketing campaign by N. W. Ayers on behalf of DeBeer’. This is fascinating, though it makes me feel about as warm and fuzzy as knowing that greeting card companies started some commemorative days I am emotionally attached to and celebrate. 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 through my site here, for a fee, of course. If you’d rather just keep your schedule free from another day where something is celebrated, just send me 5 bucks and forget the card. US funds are preferred. 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 how their used to be laws about the breach of promises made in marriage). These laws allowed women to sue men for failing to follow through on marriage plans. Apparently, since even many decades ago, it was not uncommon for a couple to have sex before marriage, and virginity was highly prized when one became married, males could be forced to compensate females for reducing their value by having sex with them but failing to follow through on the promised marriage (which often became the pretext for the sex happening in the first place). 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.
You may have noticed that times have changed in a few respects here. O’Brien cites work by a legal scholar Margaret Brinig that supports the idea that the engagement ring (expensive engagement rings—with Diamonds, thanks to DeBeers’) became an actual custom performing the same function as the breach of promise laws once those laws started to disappear. So, the legal obligation was replaced in some parts of society with an economic promise of forfeiture should a male promised to a woman not fulfill the promise to marry. Hence began the custom that a woman keeps the ring if the man bails. These days, you’ll see plenty of 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 this debate is over, but I’m not so sure it is. He considers it somewhat obvious that the woman would give the ring back to a man who did not follow-through on a promise to marry.
All of this raises some interesting questions. Let’s deal with a few here and then I’ll continue in the next post.
Q: Why don’t women, historically, give something expensive to the man in case she changes her mind? Is this sexist in the pejorative sense of sexist-bad? Is this sexist in some rationale sense, whether one wants to think it good or bad, related to differences in men and women? (I’ll come back to this in another post, but have fun thinking about it.)
Q: In the following vignette, should Tyra give the ring back to Sam?
Sam and Tyra started dating when they met at age 26. They got engaged at age 27, and he gave her a really nice ring. Now they are 32. So, the engagement has gone on for 5 years. I think this is a new trend, by the way, long engagements. For some, endless engagements reflect a desire to tell others they, as a couple, are more committed than average but 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 but we may never really walk the aisle.”
Anyway, Sam and Tyra are now 32, have been cohabiting for 4 years, and they are still engaged. Sam starts to fall for a woman at work, and the gravitational pull toward this new woman just grows and grows. After some anguish and a lot of effort to work through untangling their lives, he achieves enough escape velocity to move on. (See recent, prior notes on inertia!)
Tyra is feeling VERY burned. Of course, the burning could have happened just as easily either direction, but in this case, Tyra felt that the engagement and the cohabiting were sure signs they were going to get married. She plans to keep the ring and she wishes it were bigger still. In his article, O’Brien suggest that women would/should generally give rings back in this day an age because are increasingly likely to be the ones with the good jobs, and therefore, do not really need the collateral of the ring. While not stated, I would imagine he and many others these days would also not consider Tyra to have given anything more away than Sam has by them having sex and no longer being virgins. It is an interesting question to consider, though, if she was risking more, even in this, and how that is the case. Again, maybe something I'll get into in the next post.
At any rate, Tyra doesn’t feel like Sam owes her for her no longer being a virgin. She feels that was pretty mutual and not something to blame him about. And while she's deeply hurt about him leaving her for another woman, that's not the biggest reason she feels he owes here, either. She feels Sam owes her for wasting time on her biological clock. You might say she is "ticked" off. Tyra wants children and Tyra wants a nuclear family to raise those children in. Tyra has read a great deal about the biological clock and knows well what her odds are and how they have already changed, and what time might be left on the ticking biological clock. Tyra does believe she has lost something of value because she’s lost some of her window on one of her most deeply held life goals.
Does Tyra keep the ring? Should they have talked about the meaning of the ring in the first place, and what happens if what if happens?
Next up, a post on sexism and commitment and babies. Should be fun. I promise you, and if I have your number, I’ll give you a ring when I post it.