What does an engagement ring actually signify?

engagement ring
Jasmin Awad/Getty Images/EyeEm

Even as I question the institution of marriage and all its traditions, I find myself still wanting a ring.

My partner is, by way of understatement, a private person. One of our early spats was occasioned by my wish to post a photo of him on social media (I lost). He’s since relented on that front, but he remains a man who prefers to keep his business to himself, particularly in the digital world. His face is un-Google-able. He refuses to allow any professional organization he affiliates with to feature his name or contact information on its website. His friends and family are kept on a need-to-know basis with respect to details of his personal life.

Rotten luck for him that he fell in with a writer. Still, even I put up a sizable wall between the real intimacies of our relationship and my public persona (it feels grandiose to claim I have one, but in the online age, we all do). I guard the pleasures and subtleties of our connection like a jewel, a private, glittering thing that shines brightest in the shadows. Not that I don’t occasionally post a cute picture of the two of us (or write an article about our goings-on), but I find myself skeptical of these kinds of displays, especially when made frequently. If something is good, you just know it; you don’t have to prove it.

But here is the part where I eat my words. Recently, we’ve decided that marriage is in the cards for us — on the imminent horizon, in fact (because in this country, “romance” is just another word for “health insurance”). So the discussion of the wedding rings has ensued.

Deciding to wed hasn’t much dampened our skepticism for the institution of marriage. We’re not religious, and we don’t plan to have children, so the symbolic resonances of marriage have dwindled to a vague sentiment about unity and commitment. We would prefer to be the ones who write the story of us, rather than play bit parts in the homogenizing cultural narrative of what love ought to look like. In particular, we both find the American cultural trappings of the ritual totally strange and off-putting: proposals, diamonds, bachelor/bachelorette parties, white dresses, name changing. Also, I’m not straight, and marriage has been a heterosexual-dominated business for, well, forever.

But despite all this pooh-poohing, we’re both sort of into the idea of rings. Not the expense, not the sparkle, not the status symbolism, but the simple and universally understood statement that a metal band on the left ring finger makes: I belong to someone, and they belong to me.

My partner and I met in the workplace, under slightly odd circumstances, and kept our relationship secret at first. Even after we went “public,” all was not easy sailing for a while. But after a few years together, things have quieted into harmony and routine. I think, now that we’ve dropped anchor in a calm, secure harbor, we both want to say to the world: we made it, and we’re boring and normal, just like you. (And fuck the haters.) Even we two skeptics of tradition find ourselves invested in this outward-facing symbol of a private intimacy.

Of course, for most of its history, marriage has had little to do with private intimacy. Prior to the past couple of centuries, the functions of marriage in the West were social and economic: to enact alliances between families, ensure childbearing, maintain family ties and racial “purity,” shore up wealth, and transfer property (part of that property being the bride herself). In other words, marriage was by its nature a public contract, a way of structuring familial bonds in service of society, or at least a certain idea of how society should be.

But everything (ostensibly) changed in the 18th century with the advent of love or companionate marriage; the product, supposedly, of a man and woman’s sincere fondness for one another, and attendant to their emotional and sexual needs (though in practice, for most of its existence, serving only the man’s). As some women attained higher levels of education and financial autonomy, they became incrementally less dependent on their connections with men to establish their place in society. In the latter part of the 20th century, building on strides made by feminism and the civil and LGBTQ rights movements, marriage edged closer to true parity for its participants — de jure, if not de facto, parity.

That both partners in a conventional two-person marriage have equal rights under the law has meant that, outside of the legal and tax benefits accrued to the couple, the advantages of marriage are now largely symbolic. What marriage “means” is suddenly wide open to personal interpretation and variation. As we gradually expand our notions of what a relationship can look like, of how people may choose to structure their social lives, assumptions about the public face of love fall by the wayside.

(This is not to paint a falsely harmonious picture of a social utopia that does not exist. Many couples and groups still suffer discrimination and oppression for their gender and sexual identities and expressions, intimate arrangements, and lifestyles. I am merely suggesting that in some places, at varying rates, the acceptable bounds of love and marriage have widened.)

Advertisement for diamond engagement rings by George E. Marshall in Chicago, 1901.

This multiplication in popular conceptions of the shapes and forms of intimacy puts more of the onus on individual couples to show or “teach” the outside world what their relationship means to them. That onus is not moral but social. None of our human connections flourish in isolation; like us, they must be fed with the oxygen of recognition and acceptance. It’s why LGBT outfits have sprung up in churches and other religious organizations all over the country. We want to be witnessed by the people who matter to us: our civic, professional, and spiritual communities.

Couples (and social groups involving any number of people) have found and invented nearly infinite ways to perform their intimacy for the world, inside and outside of marriage: apparel, social media, language, both verbal and physical. I wear my boyfriend’s college hoodie; he borrows a water bottle emblazoned with the name of my workplace. He puts his arm around me; I lean against his chest (we are fortunate that our affection can be safely displayed in public). The plural first person creeps into everyday speech: “We have a dinner on Saturday night.” We use special words for our companions at every stage of life: in youth, boyfriend/girlfriend; in the time between engagement and marriage (fiancé/fiancée); after wedding, every possible cutesy permutation of “husband” and “wife,” as well as gender non-normative/nonbinary terms (partner, spouse, primary).

Everyday objects like linens have played a role, too, from the embroidered towel sets of newlyweds to the hankie codes of queer subcultures. Members of marginalized groups have devised ways of recognizing and being recognized in potentially hazardous spaces, from haircuts to fashion to body language. For them, negotiating shared spaces while remaining true to their identities and intimate structures is a matter of life and death. Public displays of collective queer joy, like gay couples lining up to marry at the courthouse of a state that has just legalized same-sex marriage, take on an outsize meaning.


And under capitalism, consumption of objects is one of the main ways we demonstrate our values. We are what we buy. Companies, knowing this, market wares by framing their purchase as a statement of social and economic identity.

In the 20th century, the ring, particularly the engagement ring, became a status symbol of personal wealth. The relentless advertising of Kay and De Beers made a direct equivalencebetween the monetary value of the ring and the amount or intensity of, in traditional gendered terms, the man’s love for the woman.

This literal commercialization of love pushes some couples (including my fellow and me) in the other direction, to reject the false equivalence by spending very little money on the ring. These days, the internet teems with comely options that cost less than a low-end cellphone, sold by independent boutiques and artisans rather than faceless corporations, with claims, albeit unverifiable, to source conflict-free diamonds (for those who want diamonds at all). I’ve subtly suggested a 1 to 2mm yellow gold band featuring a few tiny baubles at the center, with a price tag of less than half a grand.

The fact is, we live, as Madonna once said, in a material world, and I am a material girl. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, but I’ve always liked rings. They don’t hang off the body and get in the way of daily tasks like a pendant or hoop earrings. You can easily forget you’re wearing one. And the use of a ring to signify the weight of my connection to someone is not unprecedented for me.

My high-school-and-college boyfriend, my first love, and I bought matching plain white gold bands a couple of years into our relationship, though we were never officially betrothed. The rings meant an implicit promise to do right by each other, and an appreciation of the joy we found together, the memory of which has not faded. The meaning of this ring has not dissolved, but changed. I still wear it sometimes. Part of me hopes someone might someday ask me about the ring, and I will tell them about a special thing that once was.

A ring’s power inheres in its simplicity, its symmetrical beauty, its broad symbolism. We wonder at how a smooth and flawless object was forged with no residual evidence of its violent creation. Symbols are a way of elevating ourselves above our physical bodies — in other words, of denying our own mortality, to ourselves and to others. We are imperfect because we die. Love’s eternity, symbolized by the endless wedding band, is meant literally to last beyond our deaths. In loving, we create something lovelier and more perfect than our small, flawed selves. Love is humankind’s greatest achievement; no wonder we want to boast its attainment with full lungs. But shouting in public is still frowned upon, and so we settle for a lavish, gleaming totem.

In his book The Art of Loving, the sociologist Erich Fromm wrote:

The only way of full knowledge lies in the act of love: this act transcends thought, it transcends words. … It is the knowledge that we shall never “grasp” the secret of man and of the universe, but that we can know, nevertheless, in the act of love. Psychology as a science has its limitations, and, as the logical consequence of theology is mysticism, so the ultimate consequence of psychology is love.

This is the essence of symbolism. To equate a physical object with the alchemy of desire is absurd, and that is why we resort to it. We can only address love in terms mystical, irrational, over the top, because it is above the ordinary language of science and knowledge. Thus, the outsize significance of the wedding ring, a clumsy flail toward concretizing what is essentially ethereal. A wedding ring is a wink and a nod to the desperate, subsurface need for intimacy that drives us all. Beneficiaries of the wedding industrial complex, from dress boutiques to bridal magazines to wedding planners, prey on women who have been acculturated to believe that intimacy should and must be normalized through marriage, with all its elaborate, expensive paraphernalia, which form unmistakable visual cues for those on the outside looking in.

But even our most monolithic institutions change with the times. The cultural importance of marriage appears to be trending downward. Americans are getting married later, divorcing more often, and cohabiting with partners without marrying. Slowly but surely, we are carving out new shapes and spaces for our intimate lives. No matter how we frame our relationships, familial and romantic, we will need ways of making them legible to the world at large.

For many, at our present moment in history, a lustrous cut of carbon set in metal prongs sends the message. Me and mine will settle on a modest token, a gesture toward rather than a full indulgence of the custom, as befits our adversarial dispositions. We are betting that those who know us will not think less of our love for the relative size of a rock, or absence of a ceremony, or public declarations. They will read the story we are writing properly.

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