Taking slow steps down the sidewalk, an elderly couple strolled gracefully hand in hand with small bouts of laughter bouncing from each of their faces. The couple’s smiles glowed partially of wisdom that often comes with age, but it also reflected a deep sense of humility and gratitude for each other’s adoration. Slowly, I took in each spouse’s profile and attempted to imagine the couple’s road to bliss. And while many scenarios passed through my head, I noticed one thing that caused my mind to reflect on a staple in American culture.
Old, rusted, and almost thin as a paperclip, the couple’s wedding bands looked nothing like anything I’d seen in the United States. At the time, I was living in Spain, but it truly never occurred to me that there was a fundamental difference between Spanish and American culture regarding engagement rings and wedding bands. In general, I found the Spanish to be far less superficial and not obsessed with consumerism. But truthfully, I never thought to compare our emotions toward wedding and engagement rings.
I began to observe other couples’ rings, young and old. The profile was the same: not extravagant, simple bands, and often no engagement ring. And then, I started asking questions just to ensure that I was not making a cultural assumption. The responses confirmed my conclusions. Most couples did not find value in paying outlandish sums of money for engagement rings and wedding bands because the focus of marriage, from the beginning, should not be on material extravagancy. It should be on building a partnership, fostering intimacy, and making a commitment to a long-term relationship.
Those principles of marriage are not exclusive to Spanish culture, as intimacy and love are fundamental to the continuity of mankind. As Gary Chapman writes in The 5 Love Languages, “At the heart of humankind’s existence is the desire to be intimate and to be loved by another. Marriage is designed to meet that need for intimacy and love. That is why the ancient biblical writings spoke of the husband and wife becoming ‘one flesh.’ That did not mean that individuals would lose their identity; it meant that they would enter into each other’s lives in a deep and intimate way.”
Reflecting upon that passage, I began to wonder how much America’s cultural obsession with material wealth and superficiality had seeped into the institution of marriage, and thus, destroyed it. Before a proposal is even issued, I’ve watched men obsess over finding the largest, most visually stunning ring their pockets can handle, just to win the approval of their girlfriends. They save for months, if not a year, while tapping everything from high interest loans to credit cards to foot the bill. And sometimes, women are no better, buying their own engagement rings if their boyfriend’s pockets are not deep enough to meet their desire.
It is no secret that engagement rings have become less about the actual commitment to be married and more about impressing onlookers. It’s the social awe that’s enticing, not just for women but also for men who presumably purchased the ring. If the ring is small or less attractive, it tends to be a bad reflection on the couple or worse an indication of a low level commitment. Incredible amounts of value are placed in this tradition without any real knowledge about its historical origins, not to mention the disturbing contemporary politics of the diamond trade.
Considering how many American marriages break down due to financial issues, perhaps, our culture sets couples up for failure before they even walk down the aisle.
Should American couples place minimal emphasis on engagement rings and wedding bands? Or should we do away with the tradition overall? Speak on it.