But the idea of a “starter ring” is dangerously close to that of a starter marriage, and is worth a second, more critical look.
Many people still consider the engagement ring the pinnacle of courtship. (There’s a reason the Beyoncé song “Single Ladies” took as its refrain, “Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it”). So what happens when that symbol doesn’t meet others’ expectations? Ask Rachel Pederson, who for years after marrying her husband endured questions from family and friends about when she was going to upgrade to “a bigger ring.”
When she finally posted a response on Facebook, it went viral and became a kind of manifesto against the “bigger is better” engagement ring message. “Wait a minute,” she wrote, “Since when did the size of someone’s ring become an indication of success? For me the ring is SO much more.” She went on to describe how the ring was a symbol of her commitment to her husband, not merely bling to be flashed around.
Many more women agreed. “No upgrade needed here,” another woman wrote after sending in a picture of her own modest engagement ring to the Huffington Post. “This ring belonged to my husband’s grandma. Before he proposed, he, his brother, and his dad all decided I was the woman they wanted it passed on to.” Another woman wrote, “I have been wearing this ring for 26 years. It’s not the value of this ring that matters to me, it’s what it represents. A marriage that lasts because of true commitment, loyalty and honor to one man through the struggles of life, learning and growing old together.”
In previous ages, the engagement ring was a public symbol for a private promise, but at a time when we’ve lost both the concept and experience of courtship and dating, what meaning does the engagement ring even have left in society?
And nurturing expectations for having to give or get expensively large engagement rings might lead millennials (many of whom face a daunting job market) to delay getting engaged at all. Millennials are cynical about marriage as it is. They are beginning to embrace the idea of the “starter marriage,” for example. On the most recent season of the HBO series, Girls, one of the characters gets married and is very quickly headed to divorce a few episodes later, “treating marriage like an exotic semester abroad,” one critic noted. And this attitude is drawn from real-world experience. The New York Postcites a study, claiming that “forty-three percent of millennials supported a form of marriage that allowed couples to easily split up after two years.”
Engagement rings are to marriage as stained glass is to churches. They reflect the light and love of the faith, while pointing to something higher. If we begin placing too high a value on the ring, perhaps we will confuse the symbol of marriage with the reality. The beauty of an engagement ring is the story and symbolism, not the size of the rock.
And what’s wrong with cherishing the symbol of your husband’s vow of love, no matter what the size of the ring? Opting for an upgrade carries with it a whiff of narcissism and sends the message that perhaps in a few years, a woman will want to upgrade the spouse, too. Just ask any man—in this instance, my local bartender—what he thinks of the engagement ring upgrade, and the reaction isn’t positive. If she was so intent on receiving an expensive ring, he declared, “I wouldn’t be dating her in the first place.”
Get back to what the ring symbolizes: commitment to embarking on a life together. For observant Catholics (as well as people of other faiths), the most obvious symbol of a strong marriage is not a large ring, but a large family. Exorbitantly expensive rings can lead to exorbitantly high expectations for engagement and marriage. Large rings are tangible evidence of the “capstone” versus “cornerstone” views of marriage today. Putting a high price on rings and weddings is not symbolic of actual marriage. Couples should choose a ring they can afford, and love it for what it is—a symbol of their love, and a promise for a future together.
Or, as Rachel Pederson, the woman whose Facebook post launched a small revolution of women embracing smaller rings and greater commitment to marriage said, “I never expected I would meet somebody where the love was so instant and the love was so strong.” Unlike women in pursuit of larger rings, Pederson said that her and her now-husband’s shared love and commitment “took over the priority of having some material possession that proves love.”