“So… what kind of ring do you want?”
Allyson looked at me expectantly over the lip of her wine glass. She flicked her wrist and the one-karat rock on her ring finger refracted the light. We were both two glasses of Chardonnay deep at our monthly book club, where we rarely discussed the book and devoted all of our energy to dissecting our relationships in excruciating detail.
“Not a diamond,” I replied. “Something colorful, maybe a sapphire.”
“Oh, that is so you,” Allyson said. My other girlfriends clapped and expressed their approval. Then silence descended over the room. “Have you talked to Will yet?”
I looked down. I shifted in my seat. I gulped more wine.
“Yeah… we’ve discussed it…” I said, my voice drying up in my throat. I took another big gulp of wine. “He’s not sure he wants to propose or get an engagement ring.”
It was like somebody sucked all the air out of the room. My cheeks started to feel hot. I could tell my friends were horrified by this prospect. Though they contorted their faces and tried to act understanding, I knew deep down they were judging my relationship. Normally, it wouldn’t have bothered me, except that over the last six months I’d started to judge my relationship, too. I loved Will and didn’t want to be with anybody else. He was my best friend and soul mate. We had a fantastic connection that stretched back more than a decade, when we met at a high school debate tournament in Kentucky and made out in the hallway of the dingy motel. In a time before email and cell phones, we swapped addresses, and then retreated to our respective hometowns in Iowa (him) and Virginia (me) and exchanged actual letters for two years. This continued into college, when we started flying cross-country to visit each other.
Even after ten years and navigating the complexities of a long distance relationship, we were still very much in love. I thought the next logical step for us was marriage. If he loved me as much as he said he said he did, then shouldn’t he propose just to make me happy? The fact that he refused made me question his commitment. If he wouldn’t do something as simple as buy me a ring, then what else wouldn’t he do?
Of course, Will had a thousand reasons for not wanting to propose with an engagement ring, articulated in quick succession like the closing speech in a debate round. Engagement rings were a scam perpetuated by the diamond industry. They were a waste of money. It was an arms race that he couldn’t win. He also argued that marriage proposals were antiquated rituals and that he’d feel silly getting down on one knee. He wondered if I was succumbing to pressure from society—or worse my girlfriends.
At the time, I vehemently denied being affected by my friends’ choices (or should I say choice, since they all either had engagement rings or wanted them). I’d always prided myself on marching to the beat of my own drum. I argued that proposing would reaffirm his love for me—that an engagement ring would symbolize our commitment.
But was he right about me?
When wedding season first entered my life—and showed no signs of retreating—I reveled in my bucking of social norms. I’d been with my boyfriend since high school. After he graduated from law school and joined me in Los Angeles, we took the plunge and rented a charming bungalow in the Hollywood Hills together. We reasoned that cohabiting and combining our prized CD collections were bigger commitments than marriage. At bridal showers and weddings, I brazenly flashed my bare finger, believing marriage to be an outdated tradition that oppressed women. I was educated. I was modern. I didn’t need a diamond ring to feel secure in my relationship, right?
But as the years passed and my thirtieth birthday loomed over the horizon, cracks began to form in my armor. Friends my age were already married, and now my younger friends were getting engaged and planning their weddings. Pictures of sparkly diamond rings and iPhone videos of proposals started infiltrating my Facebook newsfeed on a daily basis. Alerts kept popping up with maddening frequency as friends changed their status from “Single,” to “In a Relationship,” to “Engaged,” and finally to “Married.”
My relationship status hadn’t changed in over a decade. I started to feel left out. I started to crack. I’d like to deny that this period of my life didn’t exist, but it happened. I dropped hints to my boyfriend about my favorite types of rings. I left magazines and catalogues around the house, casually flipped open to ring spreads. I commented in a louder-than-necessary voice on Seal’s elaborate proposal to Heidi Klum in an igloo. While strolling arm and arm down the street, I dragged my boyfriend over to look at ring displays in storefront windows, oohing and ahhing over the glittering possibilities, then growing perturbed at his indifference. I did the math in my head, more than once. Three months of my attorney boyfriend’s salary at a law firm equaled a significant rock. I started to commodify his love for me and measure it in terms of clarity and karats.
I’d never really noticed them before, but now everywhere I went I saw rings, rings, and more rings—at the grocery store, at the dog park, at the gym, at the dentist’s office. And then I felt shame creeping up my neck. I’d shove my hand deep in my pocket to hide what was missing from my finger. I even considered buying a ring for myself and forcing my boyfriend into a proposal. One afternoon, I snuck out to a jewelry store and tried on different ring settings, each more glorious and expensive than the last, and then left sheepishly through the security door, feeling the emptiness on my finger and in my heart.
After six months passed with no proposal—or even a hint that one was forthcoming—I grew bitter and resentful. My anger at my boyfriend came out in inappropriate ways, over who would wash the dishes after dinner or take the dog out. At my lowest point, and under the influence of Oprah, I constructed a vision board filled with pictures of everything I considered vital to a happy and fulfilling life—healthy eating, yoga, hiking with my dog, writing and publishing a novel… and an engagement ring.
Not a happy relationship or marriage.
A ring. In rose gold. With yellow diamonds.
I cut pictures out of magazines and pasted them on the white foam board with rubber cement, filling the entire upper right quadrant with images of women flashing their diamond-studded bling for the camera and looking blissfully happy. When our gay friends got engaged by exchanging designer watches, I felt jealousy rear up. Here were our friends who were denied the legal right to marry and even they’d gotten engaged!
Finally, after one epic, tear-filled fight when my boyfriend refused to propose once again, I tore the ring pictures off my vision board and shredded the flimsy paper, strewing it across the floor. I stared at the defaced board. Strips of rubber cement dangled off it. Pieces of foam had been gouged out. It was supposed to represent all the positive things that I wanted to cultivate in my life. I glared at the jagged holes and sobbed.
Had my insecurity and obsession with rings torn up my relationship? Was this vision board symbolic of where my life was headed? If so, it wasn’t a pretty picture.
I wanted to hold onto my anger and resentment and continue to blame my boyfriend for my unhappiness, but I had to look at myself. Slowly, it dawned on me that I was the one who was destroying our relationship—not him. I was trying to turn my boyfriend into someone that he wasn’t. I loved that he thought deeply about social institutions that most people just accepted. What’s more, if I let go of the expectations of my parents and friends and society and the wedding industry, I realized that I actually agreed with most of his arguments about getting engaged.
For starters, why did the man have to propose? If we believed in that marriage should be an equal partnership, then shouldn’t we approach getting engaged the same way—as equal partners? Why did my boyfriend have to spend three months of hard-earned salary on a rock that originated halfway around the world, possibly under inhumane circumstances? I thought about the astronomical cost, money that we could use to travel around the world, or save for a down payment on a house, or donate to charity.
Eventually, I came to realize that what really mattered wasn’t the proposal, or being able to post a video of it on Facebook, or even flashing my ring at book club so that my girlfriends could squeal with excitement (and hopefully a twinge of jealousy). What mattered most was getting married to a wonderful man who I loved with all my heart. After months of heartache and fighting, I knew with sudden clarity what I had to do.
A few weeks after our epic fight and my vision board meltdown, Will and I were sitting at the dinner table when I broached the subject again.
“Look, I know you don’t want to propose or buy a ring…” I could see him already tensing up, so I quickly plowed forward. “But I also know you love me and want to get married. So why don’t we just pick a date and call our parents?”
He agreed to the plan right away, and we started discussing dates. After we zeroed in on a Saturday in early October just after his birthday, I shot him a sly smile.
“What do you think about wedding bands?” I asked.
I braced myself for his answer.
“Now that I can do,” he said happily.
Six months later we were married in a small ceremony in Santa Barbara, and we wear wedding bands to celebrate our commitment to each other—in rose gold, of course. I thought that getting married would settle the engagement controversy, but other people won’t let it rest. Strangers often stop me to take a closer look at my wedding band. They often comment that it’s an unusual setting—two entwined strands of diamonds. And then they shoot me a puzzled look when they notice what’s missing from my finger.
“But didn’t you want an engagement ring?”
“Oh, we decided not to do that,” I say with a confident smile.
And I don’t regret it.