Demanding the big rock

Write for Advice

 She wants her fiance to spend three months’ salary on her engagement ring. Is that fair to the man?

 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 28, 2005

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s and my best friends broke up. She was unhappy and disappointed with him; he was rejecting and cheating on her. We all got together and got married at the same time, and they had been together over 12 years. They have a son (whom the husband never wanted) who is now 3. Since then, he has been through a couple of new girls, and she has recently moved in with her boyfriend of about a year. He is the complete opposite of her ex-husband, and is a very good man. I thought he would be her rebound man, since he was the first one after the split and is not really her type, physically or culturally. She has said right from the beginning that she’s not really attracted to him or passionately in love. She has been honest with him about that, but he hung in there. She now says that she loves him, but not like the way she loved her ex. He is good to her, and is trying hard with her son, who is a willful boy, to say the least.

My concern is that she may be in this relationship for the wrong reasons, but maybe I think that because I was raised very differently from her. I never expected a man to take care of me or that I would be dependent upon anyone. My friend sees this man as a way out of a financial hole. While my husband and I were progressing in our careers, our friends were working low-wage, dead-end jobs, despite high levels of education and potential. My friend has had severe financial difficulty, particularly since the baby and the split. Her job is better now, but she still couldn’t support herself alone. Her boyfriend’s company pays their living expenses, and he has always saved his money — he doesn’t believe in living in debt. This support is enabling my friend to get back on her feet financially. Her boyfriend is very generous, and she takes good care of him.

They have a conflict, though — they have been talking about getting married and she is adamant that she wants an expensive engagement ring — worth three months of his salary. She says that she doesn’t want to be greedy, but after the split she told herself that her next guy would be fairly well-off and the ring is an important symbol of that to her. I tried to tell her that’s a lot of B.S. put out by the diamond industry, but her upbringing was more traditional and she wants this. She’s also starting to lobby for a new, more expensive house, which he would pay for. He doesn’t believe in spending money on rings, he would rather spend it on something more worthwhile — like a vacation or furniture or a house. He has also depleted his savings setting up their current home for her, and needs some time to recuperate, but my friend is working herself into a tiz over the ring.

My question — is this a normal expectation that women have? It seems very antiquated and unfair to me. Is it right for my friend to expect an expensive ring? I see a lot of women wearing them — am I the weird one for thinking it’s ridiculous? Actually, I think part of the problem I have with this situation is that I see her as selling her soul for material goods. She loves this man, but does she love him enough? I don’t know.

Feminist Friend

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Dear Feminist Friend,

My first thought is that your friend feels so strongly about the ring because it represents restitution, the righting of a wrong. “Wow,” she may have said to herself, “I was royally mistreated by my first husband, but I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to make sure the next man treats me right.” I don’t just mean that the first husband didn’t give her enough jewelry, either. It’s about more than that. As women have achieved greater economic independence, some of the exchanging of goods between men and women has acquired an air of quaint antiqueness. So it’s important to remember that the exchanging of goods is about more than just the goods.

Social progress in private behavior is full of paradox, because as we become more “progressive” and “fair,” the remnants of feudalism and patriarchy retain a deep psychic pull, sometimes erotic, sometimes infantile and sometimes poetic. The magic of a ring, for instance, can work on many different levels. It can, for instance, convert to purposes of erotic narrative the politically objectionable facts of economic inequality between men and women. By sacrificing so much of his cargo for this ring, he is demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy her desires — which, you must admit, can be quite an attractive trait in a man. He is also performing a sort of quest, or contest: She sets for him this task, which he must complete to win her. He undertakes it willingly because he understands what the act represents: not that a woman is an object to be bought, but that, in an era of continuing economic inequality between the sexes, he is willing to sacrifice some of his goods on the altar of post-feminist reality. (Am I stretching it? Have I had too much coffee?)

We all know that in spite of social progress men still make more money than women and thus wield more power. So requesting that he buy this ring, although it sounds old-fashioned, may also be her way of asking that he recognize this continuing social and economic inequality; the act of buying the ring is a symbolic giving up of his unfairly derived power, a laying himself bare. It is also a symbolic sacrifice, much as one might spill wine or burn the flesh of sheep or goats. It makes ethereal beauty of a gross material good, as it were, much as the pressure of the earth itself over millions of years makes diamond of coal. It is a kind of alchemy, if you will: The man willingly transforms some of his economic power into a thing of beauty to adorn the woman. This could be a deeply satisfying ritual. It doesn’t have to be seen as a brazen and crass gold-digging.

On the other hand, such rituals can be practiced without any understanding of their underlying psychological significance. He may think that he’s buying her. She may think he’s just paying what she’s worth. Who knows? Once the man renders himself vulnerable in this way, it may be tempting for a woman who is still smarting from her former mistreatment to take advantage of his vulnerability, to enact her revenge on him as representative of men in general. He is piling his goods up for her, displaying them, hoping to win her. She may be tempted to take the stuff and run. So he is testing her as well: Can she resist the temptation? Can she accept what he offers and not become greedy? Can she absorb the meaning of his generosity and be satisfied by it, or has she some moral flaw, some bottomless hunger, some insatiable need?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they are both capable of understanding the rituals they are performing. (Or at least that they respect their mystery. Part of a ritual’s power is that we don’t fully understand it in a literal sense; it retains a mysterious power over us, whence comes its peculiar satisfaction.)

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