I'm Not Even Close to Being Engaged, But I Can't Stop Obsessing Over Engagement Rings

As I ride the subway, I surreptitiously evaluate the diamonds of my fellow passengers almost without fail.
Publish date:
September 30, 2015
feminism, engagement rings, weddings, diamonds, engagement season

When I ride the subway, I inevitably look down at women’s wedding rings.

It’s a personal tick I have admitted to almost no one, so out of line is it with my self-image as an independent young woman terrified by the prospect of getting married too early.

I've only recently started to accept the idea of getting married at all. I never imagined a wedding as a child; I frequently told my parents that my life plans were to live in the Alaskan wilderness with just a dog.

I’ve never scribbled “Mr. and Mrs.” on a notebook in a reverie. I’ve never imagined wearing wedding dress, not even as while playing as a kid. The idea of putting a veil on makes me feel suffocated. And yet! And yet.

I love weddings. I frequently cry during the ceremony, no matter what my relationship to the couple. I love the idea of inviting your closest friends and family over for cake and to hear you say sappy things about your favorite object of sexual affection. I feel like there aren’t enough socially mandated occasions to tell people how wonderful you think they are.

And the ring! I love rings, even though my fingers are too fat to fit in the $5 ones they sell at Forever 21 and most of the ones that can slide around my sausage-y digits turn my sensitive skin an alien tinge of blue-green.

This leaves me fantasizing about buying finger jewelry made of actual precious metal, but, being cheap and insecure about broadcasting how much I secretly do want to adorn my body in a culturally sanctioned display of traditional femininity, I’ve skipped the reasonable notion that I might buy myself an upscale piece of glittery hand décor and instead focused the full brunt of my longing on the kind of rings that signify a lifelong sexual commitment.

Diamonds come with hefty historical baggage, not to mention the murky, potentially blood-bathed origins of modern gemstones. That they are, in the words of writer Matthew O’Brien, “virginity insurance” cannot be ignored.

A diamond ring is a bride price, security against the possibility that a man will rob a woman of the only valuable thing she has to offer the world—her intact hymen—and skip out on the altar. Infinite bond be damned, it’s hard to square that legacy with any kind of modern feminist ideals.

Or even just the ideals of rational frugality. Even if you can get past the creepy legacy, accepting an engagement ring means swallowing the idea of dropping thousands of presumably soon-to-be shared dollars on what is essentially a broadcast to the general public that someone liked you enough to put a ring on it.

If both parties received rings of equal value, that might be one thing. But somber wedding bands for both sides of a heterosexual couple are far outnumbered by the dimorphous manifestation, wherein ladies sport ostentatious, glinting gems as a token of their off-the-market status and men sport their unremarkable shadow (and then only after the wedding).

So why do I stare open-mouthed at every ring finger I encounter in public? As I ride the subway, I surreptitiously evaluate the diamonds of my fellow passengers almost without fail.

I look at settings and diamond-encrusted bands, wondering how much they cost and if they’re really sensible cubic zirconia masquerading as a splurge of rare gems. I daydream about what my own ring might look like, should I ever wear one. Would it be a small, round-cut gemstone, or a little piece of meteorite, or a plain metal band?

My attention magnetism toward that special kind of ice is worrisome in terms of my self-perception as an “I don’t need no man” kind of lady, as well as the kind of person who doesn’t need expensive jewels to feel secure and loved.

I may not require a male presence or a sparkly gift to fulfill my sense of self, but I crave that visible symbol of settled-ness.

Not that a ring is actually evidence of the kind of happily-ever-after sold in diamond ads. I’m sure some of the people whose hands I ogle would characterize themselves as less-than-content with their partnerships.

But a diamond ring is a advertisement of at least a smidge of certainty about your life, however naïve it may prove to be in the long run. It’s a physical marker of your belief that you’ve found the person you’ll spend the rest of your life—or perhaps more realistically, 10 to 20 years—with.

And yeah, that sounds pretty nice right now. I’m in my 20s. The longest time I’ve spent at one job was a year and a half. I moved to New York just two years ago, and am still trying to cobble together some semblance of a social circle.

It’s not that I want to get married right now. I’m not emotionally ready for that. It’s that in a world that’s utterly uncertain in almost every way—in that post-college period when it seems like life could go in any direction, potentially all at once, I crave that kind of decisiveness. I’d love to be able to say something about my future for sure.

Five years from now, it’s not far out to think I might be living in a different state, not to mention a different home, dating a different person, working a vastly different job.

I haven’t quite decided what I want out of even the smallest portions of my life right now. Any weightier question than “paper or plastic?” is enough to send me into a panic. (Paper, I guess?)

This leaves me looking at happy-looking young couples with matching gold rings with what can only be described as longing, if only because I can project upon them the ability to make a major decision. Whether or not they end up being the happy, loving couple that stays married forever, in that moment, I can imagine that they are blissfully happy in the world of two they’ve chosen for themselves.

Meanwhile, I panicked when, upon adopting a cat, I began to think about the fact that I was saying “til death do you part” to this animal I’d barely met, pledging my loyalty and care for what could be a decade.

A decade ago, I still had braces and had never kissed a boy. To sketch out the outline of my life a decade from now would be an act of science fiction at best. It would be like asking someone in the mid-‘90s to imagine social media scandals.

The idea of spending every day with the same person for the rest of eternity is fairly foreign to me. I’m in a fantastic relationship, but one that’s still too new to have experienced the sort of challenges that would allow us to really evaluate each other in terms of forever.

I’d love to be able to predict that my current partner and I could weather whatever emotional storms life brings together—that I could permanently give up on bad first dates and the crushing moments of realizing that a long-term romantic relationship must come to an end—but we both need to see a little more of life before making any sort of hypothesis about our future decades from now.

We’ve used the words “a long time” to measure the hypothetical lifespan of our relationship, but never “forever.” In my mid-20s, even a few years feels like an eternity.

When I visually ferret out wedding rings from casual fashion standing on a crowded train or in a cafe, what I'm really doing is asking, "Do you love someone enough to plan your future around them?"

When did you know, I want to ask them, and how do you navigate the moments when you think you might have made a mistake? It's a very traditionalist approach to musing about the inner lives of others, ignoring the vast swathes of humanity who have fulfilling interpersonal relationships, short-term and long, monogamous and not, that don't include diamond rings.

Yet it also gives me a lot of hope about humanity. Marriage is an institution with dark origins, a sanctified cattle trade that passed women between fathers and husbands for millennia, robbing them of a good deal of sexual agency in the process.

Still, for some reason I'm still drawn to the idealism of the modern incarnation, the optimism that you can seed your own permanent village of two and that no matter what happens in life, you'll always have a home there.

In the absence of tight-knit communities where you live and work and look out for each other among the same group of people for an entire lifetime, it's nice to be able to imagine at least one person other than your blood relatives being a through line between all of your years.

Natural diamonds form over the course of billions of years, as extreme heat and pressure within the Earth’s mantle, some hundred miles below the surface, bond carbon atoms together into crystals. It’s an apt metaphor for marriage, a partnership that’s supposed to bond two people together through the extreme heat and pressure of life events, joyous and tragic, everyday and once-in-a-lifetime.

I hate the commodification of love, and that there are so many outdated social mores associated with heterosexual engagements, dictating who gets to decide exactly when a couple should take that leap (the man), who should buy the ring (the man), how much it should cost (a lot), and what it should ideally look like (sparkly and diamond and big, no matter what your jewelry preferences).

But I can’t help but buy into the symbolism regardless. Nobody talks about marriage as an effortless relationship, and based on my limited knowledge of the struggles of long-term monogamy, it seems helpful to carry around a physical marker of the love of a just-engaged couple with their whole lives ahead of them,. A couple ready to forge a bond so deep it will turn a boring amalgamation of carbon atoms into a flawless crystal, the hardest known substance on Earth.

There's a part of me that wants to be reminded of that simplistic but lovely permutation of rom-com idealism every time my hand passes through my line of vision.