One of the biggest fights my wife and I ever had was about engagement rings. Specifically, her engagement ring. My position was that engagement rings were gendered (notifying other men that women were sexually claimed), expensive (relative to other things we were saving for), and not consistent with our values as a couple. Her position was that I was an idiot and she wanted one.
Predictably, I bought my wife the ring she wanted. And in the process, I learned a few things about myself and, given the number of my friends who have had the same fight, probably other people as well.
Rings are a unique problem. My wife is a fairly reasonable person and doesn’t advocate the spending of large amounts of money on non-functional things. We’re not at the same place on the spectrum of frugal (I buy my clothes on eBay, which I recognize is pretty close to the endpoint), but we’re at least in vaguely the same quadrant. So for her to advocate spending a pretty large sum on a ring isn’t consistent with her other values. The ring was a special case for her.
It was also a special case for me. Generally speaking, when my wife wants to spend money on something, I’m willing to go along with it. The budgeter in me moans and groans about it, but ultimately, we usually do it without a full-on fight. Something about the ring was triggering for me in a way that other purchases weren’t and I was willing to fight to the death over it.
Part of getting past it was accepting that we were fighting over symbolic meaning and nothing else. My wife needed a symbol of the stage that is engagement, without going directly from couple to married. She recognized that the value of the ring was socially imposed but as a member of society, she also felt how she felt and no amount of reasoning was going to make her feel differently. By that same token, I needed to know that our marriage would start from a place of reason and logic, free of traditions and values that were imposed on us rather than chosen.
To that end, it helped when I stopped thinking about it as a ring and started thinking about it like a couch. That is, I needed to get past the symbol and start thinking about my wife. If the argument had been over whether we should buy a couch, I might hem and haw a bit about it, but we’d get the couch. Because logically speaking, I love my wife and if a couch is really important to her, then it is important to me too.
And just like the couch, the ring actually has utility. You can’t sit on it but it still made my wife feel a certain way, predictably and reliably. I could rage against why it made her feel that way and I do: I don’t think we should socialize young women to respond to shiny baubles and when I eventually have a daughter, I hope to teach her other values. But the issue isn’t whether it should make her feel a particular way. No matter what else was said, the fact is that it did make her feel that way.
Now you could argue that I had to compromise my values here and she didn’t; after all, she did get the ring in the end. She also could have stepped back and thought of the ring as a couch, decided to let it go, and I’m sure there will be times when she will. All arguments require someone to compromise to move past them: either you buy the ring or you don’t. But compromising doesn’t have to mean win-lose. Buying her a ring was consistent with my values because I value my wife. The ring is just a couch for me and a whole lot more for her. In the end, I’m glad I bought it. We both won.
Side note: One of the reasons people love personalization so much is that it substitutes meaning for expense. That is, you can take something not that expensive and make it meaningful by making it personal. For example, my wedding ring has a design element called a “river”. And since they are made one at a time to size, designer Todd Pownell made my river match a topographical map I sent him of the river I grew up with (the Clackamas River in Oregon). It should be easy to do this with almost anything; engraving should be one of the most standard free services around.