Some facts before we get started: 1) I’m a man 2) I wear an engagement ring 3) Why is your face doing that thing?
Most of my previous relationships involved a lot of codependence, gendered chivalry, and emotional suppression – which have all become kind of relational norms for men – so the fact that there aren’t many things about my relationship with my fiancée that I would classify as “societally traditional” is an incredible relief for me. I’m grateful to have a partner who has encouraged me to question fundamental aspects of my personality and how I viewed relationships. I’m grateful to have a partner who has been an example for me to become more self-aware and more comfortable and eloquent about having and expressing my emotions, both negative and positive. And I am most grateful to her for introducing me to, and challenging me to internalize, the core ideas of feminism and the societal problems around gender and racial inequality. She’s been instrumental, not to mention infinitely kind and patient, in my evolution toward the man I’ve always wanted to be and can finally be proud of.
I’m grateful to be in love with someone who I can refer to as a “partner”.
Some of the most surprising things for people to comprehend, I’ve found, are the circumstances and details of our engagement so I’d like to talk about those things because I think they’re not only really cool for us but also what I wish modern relationship norms looked more like.
Starting early on in our relationship we’ve focused heavily on establishing and nurturing our compatibility in every way we can think of, from learning how our personality profiles conflict with and complement each other, to our educational and career aspirations, to parenting styles and where we’d like to live and raise our child. As we grew closer together and discovered more and more compatibility (and found that we could work on and respect our incompatibilities in mutually sustainable ways) it became more obvious that we would be married someday. Just like, you know, “duh”.
Our initial engagement was not very romantic, and that is kind of sad in some ways (no elaborate romantic story to tell for generations to come), but it was very revolutionary for me and, in a way, establishes our idea of “relationship choice” which I’m really proud of! We were driving back from some random nature excursion, talking about how our emotional commitment to each other felt (as we often do) and how calling each other “boyfriend and girlfriend” was just totally inadequate in describing that commitment. We actively know we want to get married but have no actual imminent plans to do so but why could we not get engaged anyways? We decided then, in the car with her sister in the back seat as a witness, that we would be engaged from that point on. It just described our relationship and our emotional commitment better than any other terms we could come up with.
It may seem silly to desire categorization or definition, but being able to accurately describe your feelings to yourself and other people with words does make a difference and it felt very relieving and exciting and loving to me to be able to use that word!
Our Rings (yes, with an “s”)
After our engagement choice we went about the very exciting task of informing our family and close friends and looking for engagement rings for both of us! Considering the history of our relationship and the circumstances of our engagement it seemed perfectly natural for us both to have engagement rings and I was very confused by the happy but quizzical looks I was given when I told people I was looking. “Oh really?” “Huh, I’ve never heard of that!” and “I wish my husband was like you, I can’t even get him to wear his wedding ring!” are just a few of the many responses that I’ve received from friends and family. But my question is why should that be the natural response?
What do we immediately think of when we think of engagement rings? (I’m being intentionally heteronormative/gendered here, bear with me)
- A man professing his love and commitment to a woman with a physical object.
- A man proving that he’s financially stable enough to support his wife in their marriage.
- Visually affirming to the world (or at least other men) that a man has claimed this woman as his property.
- All the “unity” and “commitment” and “eternity” feel-good fuzzies.
But almost all of these things just serve to perpetuate our society of gender inequality!
- Who gives a ring to whom in a non-cis-hetero relationship? Why does it have to matter? If an engagement ring is a symbol of commitment and partnership then why don’t both partners have the opportunity to choose to wear or not wear one?
- If you need a ring (or any other object) to prove your love and commitment or have it proven to you then you’re probably not doing a very good job of knowing yourself and using your words.
- Let’s not forget that De Beers invented the “tradition” of men spending one or two months salary on a diamond engagement ring after a decade of declining diamond sales through the 20’s. The idea of men proving they are capable of supporting a wife financially is counter-productive and insulting to the fight for gender wage and workplace equality.
- Are you personally insecure or afraid for the security of your relationship? That’s fine, talk about it with your partner. And if you still feel like using an engagement ring partially to prove to other people that your partner is taken and don’t also wear one yourself to show the same thing, acknowledge the double-standard!
- A note on “Diamonds are Forever”: No relationship is guaranteed to last forever. I don’t care how compatible you are or how in love you are. Even my partner and me, as secure as we are in our commitment and compatibility right now, acknowledge that people and relationships evolve and change over time. While we hope that we will continue to be as in love as we are now or more when we’re old and crotchety (and are committed to finding balanced and supportive ways of respecting and incorporating potential incompatibilities and grow together), we acknowledge that it is not an inevitability based on our current state.
But there’s great news, people! Emilie Littlehales wrote a great piece about how engagement rings and feminism can indeed coexist. She very appropriately writes:
Just because tradition dictates that an engagement ring basically signifies that a woman has become someone else’s property doesn’t mean that it has to continue to send that message. The ring itself is a neutral object, and has no meaning other than the one we divest it with.
We can redefine what an engagement ring means in our society and what it means to individual couples.
We chose our rings together based on what we found aesthetically and personally pleasing. Neither are extravagant or particularly expensive nor do they contain any diamonds. For our second proposal, I surprised her after a beautiful day of apple picking at a great orchard last November a couple months after our engagement decision. Spoiler alert: she totally said yes again! For our third proposal, just last month, she gave me my ring (less ceremoniously but just as lovingly) in her house because I had waited so long to have it made and was impatient to start wearing it!
We currently live in different cities so for us they are small reminders of our love and affection for each other while we are apart. They are symbols to us of our emotional commitment but not a requirement. And they are little pieces of beauty that we share together and can look at whenever we want.What does your engagement ring mean to you? What are your thoughts on male engagement rings? How else does it challenge traditional gender roles and expectations of masculinity? How will revolutionizing expectations about engagement and marriage potentially redefine how we look at relationships? Let me know in the comments!
 I’m choosing to define “Relationship Choice” here as the ability to acknowledge societal norms and choose to pick from them or completely abandon or redefine them in a way that is more conducive to personal awareness, uniqueness, and agency.
 It’s also super important to note that immediately preceding the De Beers campaign courts had begun to do away with laws allowing women to sue for financial compensation if her fiancee broke their engagement. Since sex (and loss of virginity) was commonly accepted after getting engaged and virginity was an important factor in marriageability, the expensive diamond ring became a literal “down-payment” for a woman’s virginity. Ick.
 I appreciate your enthusiasm but please don’t describe my ring as “manly” or “masculine”. My ring is metal and wood and has no internalized gender, nor do I define my own by it. Instead you have my permission to use words like “awesome”, “beautiful”, “kick-ass”, etc!