Despite my convictions, I felt guilty about breaking the ring rule for a while.
  • Despite my convictions, I felt guilty about breaking the ring rule for a while.
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Aanswer: Rules of Engagement

Question: What do De Beers, Emily Post, and the U.S. military all have in common?

My mother never liked the term “getting engaged.” She said it reminded her too much of signs she’s seen on airplane lavatories that read “engaged” when locked and occupied. However, my mother (who never had an engagement ring) had nothing against the concept of betrothal. In fact, she anticipated that, upon finding my prince, I would become engaged, get married, and so on. The details of how all this was going to happen weren’t as clear. Nevertheless, I grew up believing that betrothal was an essential part of the princess-frog equation. Subtle cues surrounding me both reinforced and perpetuated this notion. (And I’m not just talking about my ringless mother, here—although she helped.)

I took some of these cues from TV shows such as Love American Style and I Dream of Jeannie. The latter show in particular appealed to me. My favorite episodes are the ones in which Major Nelson proposes to Jeannie followed by their wedding and honeymoon in her bottle. It’s the pinnacle of Jeannie’s life, this marriage. She is validated and can appear in public; she becomes a real woman. I never stopped to consider that Jeannie was already all-powerful and could have blinked into existence anything she wanted—including Major Nelson—because wasn’t it the ultimate dream come true to say, “Yes, oh yes” with the velvet box opened to reveal a sparkling solitaire and the man down on one knee?

There was a catch to this dream, though. By the time I graduated high school, it wasn’t cool or appropriate to want these things (or admit to wanting them). My post-feminist generation rejected — on the surface, at least — what they saw as the crass materialism of the ring, the meaningless rituals of engagement and marriage. Casual sex, not surprisingly, never fell out of fashion. My peers and I came of age before AIDS hit hard and before the swing back to “family values.” The genie came out of the bottle for us and never felt like going back in. What this all meant, for me, anyway, was a confusing mix of signals. I was supposed to give my body freely (I was independent, after all), but I wasn’t supposed to expect support or guidance from anyone I gave it to. In addition, if I considered myself truly liberated, I wouldn’t want any of those things.

But I did. So, too, did many of my peers. Outwardly we scoffed at the conventions but inwardly we wanted them. My old friend Scott is a perfect example. In the months before it happened, Scott spewed vitriol at the hoopla surrounding the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. He couldn’t stop talking about how much time and money had been wasted, how this indicated that nobody knew what was important anymore. When the time for the wedding arrived, he stayed up all night to watch it on TV. He composed an epic poem about the event, a masterwork of bitterness and indignation at the ultimate moral travesty. About six years later, long before he turned 30, Scott had a giant wedding of his own that was traditional, cheesy, and full of pomp and regalia. He even had an engagement period beforehand with a ring, invitations, the whole thing. He had found his princess.

Almost every one of my college friends ended up engaged and married in traditional ways, although many of them waited until their 30s to do it. This was further proof of what I’d always suspected: the game always stays the same, it's just the rules that change. (And, yes, there are rules; just ask the wealthy women who wrote The Rules, which revealed how to get a man and keep him.)

Let’s break these rules down. Unwritten (and written) rules apply to every part of the mating and marrying process, including rules of engagement. “Rules of engagement” is an intriguing phrase. I don’t find it a stretch to compare the Department of Defense’s military rules of engagement with those of modern-day betrothal. The definition from the Dictionary of Military Terms reads, “Rules of Engagement Directives issued by competent military authority which delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.”

Really, all you have to do is remove a couple of words — “military” and “United States forces”—and substitute “man,” “woman,” and “fiancée,” and you’ve got the introduction to Emily Post’s wedding planner.

Engagement, it turns out, has many rules, and breaking them can result in serious consequences. Why else would Emily Post offer advice “to help you survive from the moment you make the big decision”? If Emily Post seems outdated, try The Engaged Woman’s Survival Guide by therapist Arlene Modica Matthews, published seven years ago and still in print, which sums up a strange sentiment in the title. We now have to survive the engagement. Why?

It’s those pesky rules. As in the military, rules for getting or becoming engaged are not clearly defined; they are contextual and vary from situation to situation. For example, military rules of engagement are meant to dictate when and how soldiers enter into armed combat with other soldiers, but the rules are vague enough and vary enough that military personnel often have to make decisions on how to act in a narrow window of time. It is much the same with the rules of matrimonial engagement changing constantly over time. Even if one is not a believer in frogs and princes, this can create confusion. And I don’t mean confusion as to whether or not to register china patterns or have a bridal shower. The confusion occurs when one wonders if one is supposed to want a bridal shower or pink monogrammed towels. Wouldn’t it be easier if the prince rode up on his white horse and took the bride away with him? This would eliminate the need for making decisions under duress of following what is “expected” (which ended up in an actual combat situation, in my case, but I’ll get to that later).

One aspect, or rule, of the engagement process remains clear. It is to this rule that couples cling, a rule around which an entire industry thrives. There must, this rule states, be a ring.

Let’s consider the ring.

In olden days, the engagement ring was a receipt of sale signifying transfer of ownership of a daughter from her father to her husband. Not very romantic, if you think about it. Despite the loveless origins of the ring, it has come to symbolize devotion, the eternal flame of love, and so on. Look at the website of De Beers, those kings of the diamond world. The literature reads as if it were its own religion. Only a diamond can signify a commitment of forever. She’ll really know you love her if you buy her a very expensive ring, and honestly, is two months’ salary (or more, if you can) so much to ask for something that lasts forever? The bigger the diamond, presumably, the bigger the love — or perhaps, the bigger the worth of the groom and the more he’s willing to spend on his bride.

Perhaps the ring’s enduring popularity as a symbol is that it’s an easy item to attach significance to. We live in an age where expectations of a potential mate are varied and indefinable, traditional gender roles are a thing of the past, and nobody’s sure what they want or what they’re supposed to want. In her survival guide, Matthews tells us engagement puts our mental health at risk, what with all the stresses and conflicts over what we want. “Anxiety,” she says, “is clearly an appropriate response to such a major life change and such an awesome responsibility.”

In all this, the ring remains an uncomplicated jewel of clarity. We know we must have that. But when the ring becomes a substitute for what it is supposed to represent, there’s trouble ahead.

I was 26 and an unmarried mother of an 18-month-old son when I met Dominic over a cherry cheesecake. It was the first of many incongruities in our relationship. Dominic was the founder and co-owner of a two-man operation called Cake and More, a business devoted to providing sweet treats of all kinds. He sold his wares at Hoover’s, the diner where I worked as a waitress. Dominic’s cakes were beautiful. He wasn’t so bad either, although not at all what you’d expect from a guy who made his living with flour and pastry cream. He was dark, mustached, and very muscular (the result, I later learned, of hours spent with free weights and a Universal gym). He had a penchant for tight white T-shirts and jeans and sported a haircut held over from big bad ’80s hair. His look was one you might expect from, say, a construction worker. The fact that Dominic walked around holding pink cake boxes containing confections he’d created with his own hands made an interesting contrast—one that was very appealing (well, it worked for me). When I first met Dominic, he and his partner, Ian, were just starting their business, working night and day to bake, decorate, and get on the road to sell their product and establish permanent clients. Hoover’s was one of their newest accounts.

Thus it was that Dominic came to be leaning over the counter at Hoover’s flirting with me, the cherry cheesecake between us. Over the course of his next few visits, I learned that Dominic was from the East Coast and was the youngest and only son in a family of five children. I also found out that all his sisters lived close by, he was co-owner of the house in which he lived (Dominic co-owned quite a few things), and he was intent on making his business successful.

The personal information I shared with Dominic was that I had a small child and no ex-husband or ex-boyfriend, lived with my sister, and that I wanted to someday be able to write for a living. I didn’t tell him that he was the first man I’d looked at romantically since my son's father had exited my life two years before. I’d only just realized I was never going to end up with the father of my child, a conclusion that struck me as odd mostly because I’d taken so long coming to it. My son’s father had done his best to remain as far away as possible since my first trimester. Still, for months I’d held on to a hope that we’d somehow make a go of it. When I examined the reality of the situation (which I was often forced to do), the one reason I could think of for this hope was the biological pull toward the other genetic half of a child I adored beyond reason. Yet, by the time my son was inching his way to his second birthday, the hope had become a dry rustle in my heart, and I began to look around.

All this, combined with the obvious attraction between Dominic and me, was enough to produce a first date. That date was so successful it led to a second and then a third. The third date was when I got the rest of the information. If I’d had my wits about me, I would have cut my losses and moved on.

But no.

The point is, I didn’t have my wits about me. Since my last relationship, I’d entered into a different subset of the “single” category, that of “single mother.” I felt my options for romantic involvements were now limited. I also felt the need to be responsible about relationships. I didn’t want to play the field; I didn’t even particularly like dating. I wanted to be home with my child, and I needed to be with someone who could not only accept this but who might enjoy it as well. But I was also in my mid-20s; I was enjoying the sensation of falling...if not in love then in something resembling it. So there were no wits involved at all. But let’s go back to that third date.

Dom and I were parked on a cliff top overlooking the city’s lights on one side, a black expanse of ocean on the other. He’d taken me to this lover’s lane not to make out but to divulge something that had been weighing on his mind.

“There’s this girl,” he started and laughed nervously.

“What? You are kidding, aren’t you?” I was incredulous but was also feeling something icy creep across my heart.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” he sighed. “But still...”

It turned out that Dom had pledged himself, verbally at least, to the daughter of his sister’s new husband. This was more complicated than it sounded. Dom’s brother-in-law was wealthy and over 50. That a girl from Dom’s family had landed such a catch was considered a small miracle. The rich brother-in-law had “done a lot” for Dom’s family, including housing Dom’s mother and a couple of sisters in his mansion. I got the feeling that the match between Dom and the “girl” had more to do with blending the two families than with love of any kind. But I didn’t say anything as I listened to Dom speak. I was too busy deciding how I would react. Dom went on, describing how the girl was far away, studying at an Ivy League school, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to continue on with her anyway, but he felt a certain responsibility because his marriage had broken up over infidelity and...

“Your marriage?” I asked. “What marriage?”

Yes, Dom had an ex-wife who’d been his childhood sweetheart and with whom he’d been crazy in love. They had a huge wedding, very expensive, and a honeymoon, and a few months later she had an affair with a guy (“Some fuckin’ poet, of all things”) and that was the end. He offered to take her back, but she didn’t want to come back. She divorced Dom and married the poet. She had a kid now, he told me. A little girl.

“But I really like you,” Dom said after a pause. “I think there might be something between the two of us. I just thought you should know about this.”

“Yes,” I said, with a hint of bitterness in my voice, “it’s a good thing you told me. At least you mentioned it before we got, you know, intimate.”

“Intimate...” Dom echoed as he leaned over and kissed me — intimately.

I liked him, too, so I ignored my reservations and went out with him again and again after that. He ended his agreement with the girl and introduced me to his family, brother-in-law included. Our relationship got more serious. He spent a lot of time at my apartment, but we sometimes had difficulty coordinating our schedules since he awoke predawn to bake, and I’d left Hoover’s for an upscale restaurant where I worked nights. He liked my son and was comfortable around kids from spending so much time with his sisters’ offspring. Having all those sisters, too, gave him a sensitivity toward women, if not a complete understanding of them. Dominic worked hard, and I had no doubt he would end up successful. He could be very sweet, and he welcomed the omnipresence of my family. And, of course, there were the sweets. The man had a gift with pastry.

Dom and I had been seeing each other for six months when he made an unusual midday visit to my apartment. He seemed out of breath.

“What’s up?” I asked him, concerned.

“Can’t stay,” he panted. “Have to leave soon. Couldn’t wait. Have to talk to you.” He seemed distracted as he grabbed my arm and maneuvered me into my bedroom, away from the bewildered eyes of my sister. Once there, he closed the door and got down on his knees and pulled me down with him. I was convinced that something in our world was facing destruction so I was astonished when he asked me to marry him. It was a real proposal, complete with the words “Will you be my wife?”

“Sure, I will,” I said. “You scared me. I thought something was wrong. ” And that was when things did start to go wrong. My family, who had tolerated Dominic prior to our engagement, began expressing their dislike of him after I accepted his proposal. My mother referred to him as “the Swarthy Cake Baker,” and my sister found him pompous. My father didn’t think Dominic was intelligent enough for me and resented what he felt was Dominic’s proprietary attitude toward me and my son. They all warned me that Dom was too concerned with money, status, and material gain. And they didn’t feel he was loving enough. When it started to look as if the wedding was imminent, my mother begged me not to marry him.

But I was caught up in the idea of getting married, and I chose to gloss over my family’s concerns as well as some vaguely conscious concerns of my own. I began planning, just as I had seen other women do (women who were not at all like me: the kind who had engagement parties, white picket fences, and kissed the right frog). I looked into venues for the big event and bought a wedding planner. Dominic, who’d been through this already, was happy to let me handle the details. I priced flowers and chose colors. I went to lunch with Dorn’s sisters to discuss the wedding. They all looked alike, all female versions of Dom with the same olive skin and big ’80s hair. They all had strong East Coast accents.

“Why not do it in the summah?” one asked. “Summah’s a gohgeous time for a wedding.”

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” asked another. “Omigod, Dom was in such a hurry I thought, Jesus, maybe she’s pregnant, y’know?”

“No,” I assured them, “I’m not pregnant.”

“Seriously,” said the one who was married to the rich man, “you should think about having anothah one right away. I’m trying to get pregnant again.” She gestured toward her sleeping infant.

“I didn’t know that,” said one of her sisters.

“Oh, shuah. I mean, how much longah does Henry have?” she said, referring to the rich husband. “What if he dies and I don’t have my babies?”

Then, of course, there was the ring. Dominic made a big deal out of the ring. We had my finger sized and we talked about patterns, heirlooms, and carat weight. Finally, Dominic decided he wanted to surprise me and have the ring designed himself. He spent a lot of money on that ring, he told me more than once. I admit, I was just as involved in the fantasy as Dominic and his sisters. I was going to have the engagement and wedding I’d envisioned as a young girl. It would all be just right: perfect man, perfect marriage, perfect baby (which I already had). For me, the ring symbolized all of this, and I wanted it badly. But once Dominic put it on my finger, nothing was right between us again.

It wasn’t the ring’s fault. l It was a pretty ring, a half-carat diamond set in gold filigree with another quarter carat in diamond chips dotted around it. I enjoyed wearing it, liked the sparkle of it and the weight of it on my finger. For me, it represented an elusive dream — true love and safe haven rolled into one. Because for all my training as a post-feminist woman, I wanted a man I could lean on. I wanted a prince who would take care of me. And although I could spend a lot of money in therapy figuring out why I wanted these things, there’s no great mystery. Mating is a biological imperative, after all, and the quest for love, well, we’re taught from an early age (and know instinctively) that this is a basic human need. Of course, none of this had much to do with who Dominic was as a person or whether or not it was he that I wanted.

For Dominic, the ring seemed to represent something different. Shortly after he gave it to me, Dominic began taking charge of several aspects of my life, most notably my son. Dom’s attitude toward my son quickly changed from warm and casual to strict and paternal. Suddenly he was an expert on bottle feeding, potty training, and sleeping habits, and he told me how I should manage all these with respect to my child. If that weren’t enough, there was his attitude about my working. Once we were married, he maintained, I would have to give up waitressing. He didn’t think it was right that I should work around all those leering guys. Better I should stay at home and work on other projects, perhaps keeping his books. It would be nice if I spent more time with his sisters, especially the one married to the rich man; did I know they could really help us out a lot?

I wasn’t blameless. I should never have let things get so far. Not so deep inside I knew that Dominic and I were wrong for each other. As pleasant as he could be, he was prehistoric in his notions of gender roles and, despite my persistent belief in romantic fantasy, I could never become a housewife with an allowance, making trips to the mall with my sisters-in-law and our kids. Besides all of this, I ignored the voice in my head that kept insisting Dominic wasn’t over his first wife or the hurt she’d caused him. I was certain I was to be an updated version of this woman. But I let Dominic believe I was who he thought I was: a single mother who needed to be rescued by a big, strong man such as himself. I let him believe it because I wanted to believe it myself. I wanted the ring. I wanted the dream.

Things came to a head about four months after Dominic first proposed. We’d been arguing about everything. Dominic was spending more time going out drinking with “the boys” (something else he’d shown little interest in before), and I was working more nights at the restaurant. Then, during a routine examination, my doctor found a tumor on one of my ovaries. “It’s probably not cancer,” the doctor told me, “but you’re going to need surgery as soon as possible to remove it.” Nobody in my family took this news well, especially my mother, who once again begged me, “Please don’t die.” Dominic, who I’d thought would rally and provide me with a shoulder to lean on, became more distant after I told him. Two weeks before I was scheduled to have the surgery, Dominic and my father got into an argument over what kind of food my son should be eating.

“I’m going to be the kid’s father,” Dominic shouted, “I should be given a parent’s rights.”

“Sure, what do I know,” my father said facetiously, “I only raised five kids.”

“You don’t know,” Dominic yelled back.

“I don’t know?” my father steamed. “You’re confused, Dominic. It’s you. You know NOTHING!”

I started to cry, which sent my father to my rescue and Dominic out the door. I didn’t hear from Dominic for a week until he called and told me, “It’s over. We’re never going to work this out. Better we end it now before it gets really bad.”

“Please,” I begged him, “can’t you wait until after I have this operation? I’m scared and I could really use your support and strength right now.”

“I can’t give it to you,” he told me. “It’s not there to give. I’m coming to pick up my things. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Please, Dom...”

“And I want my ring back.”

“Fuck you,” I said. It wasn’t eloquent, but it got the point across.

“I’m coming to get it,” he answered. “I want my ring back.”

I wasn’t about to let Dominic into my house after that conversation. He had sounded mean, cold, and nasty, and I was angry. I gathered his things — a few T-shirts and assorted computer discs —and waited outside for him in the concrete parking lot in front of my apartment building.

Dominic seemed surprised to see me standing there when he pulled up. He was somewhat mollified since our phone conversation.

“Listen, I’m really sorry about this,” he said. “I’ll come visit you in the hospital. It’s just that we can’t be together. We both know it.”

“Here are your things,” I said and handed him the clothes and discs.

“Okay,” he said and put them in his car. “And the ring, please.” He was looking at my hand; I was wearing the ring. I never took it off.

“I’m not giving you the ring,” I said.

“Yes you are,” he countered. “I bought it, it’s my ring. We are not getting married, and now I want it back.”

“It is not your ring,” I said calmly. “You gave it to me as a promise to marry me. You broke your promise. You couldn’t even wait for me to get through major surgery to break up with me! It’s my ring.”

Dominic stared at me as if I was mad. He seemed unsure of how to proceed, but if there was one thing I shared with him it was a sense of determination. He had set his mind to something, and he wasn’t going to give it up. I watched as thunderclouds gathered in his face.

“Give me that fucking RING!” he screamed and grabbed me by the arm. Before I had a chance to react, he was on top of me, wrestling me to the ground, pulling at my fingers in an effort to tear the ring — that symbol of his love for me — right off my finger. It seemed he wouldn’t mind if he took the finger off with it, he tore and scraped at my hand so hard. Pinned under him, I couldn’t fight back but managed to curl my hand in such a way that he was unable to free much of anything from it, save a little skin. For a second, I worried that he might start beating me (he didn’t seem much in control), but before he had the chance to consider the option, I wriggled out from under him, ran like hell back to my apartment, and locked the door behind me. Dominic did not follow me.

My hand was red and swollen. I watched the flesh puff up around my engagement ring and felt such conflicting emotions that I started laughing. But I was shaking with adrenaline as well. The tears didn’t come until much later.

A few days later, Dominic called with a renewed plea for the return of the ring. He apologized for hurling me to the ground and explained that he was frustrated. He appealed to my sensible side. Couldn’t I see his point? He’d spent so much on the ring and was entitled to recoup it. Why would I want to wear it now anyway? “Consider it an expensive mistake,” I told him. “I know I will.”

“I will get that ring back,” he said.

I mentioned something about restraining orders and the law and hung up. Three days later, I had surgery to remove an ovary. My roommate in the hospital was a young woman who’d just had similar surgery. Her boyfriend was in the room with us almost constantly, hovering over her. When he finally left for the night, my roommate leaned over to me and held up her hand, on which she sported a tiny diamond solitaire. “We just got engaged!” she squealed. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

I turned my head away and threw up in my bed. It was a reaction to the morphine, I’m sure.

I never spoke to Dominic again.

I wore the ring for a long time, although I moved it to my right hand. Eventually, I took it off permanently when I could no longer bear to be reminded of what it represented and what it didn’t; of what it cost to get it and what it meant when I did.

Some dreams die hard.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to why I kept the ring in the first place. Had Dominic continued to insist, forcefully or not, I would have given it back. I can’t imagine I would have put myself at risk over a bit of gold and diamond. As our relationship careened toward its end, I’d anticipated I’d have to return the ring. It wasn’t like I’d been wearing it for long, after all. In her rules of engagement (which I had studied) Emily Post stated that, should the engagement be broken, “The bride must immediately return her engagement ring.” I didn’t feel I had much of a right to that ring, anyway. I had spent much of my engagement feeling as if I was borrowing another woman’s life, and the ring was part of that. In the end, however, it was Dominic’s lack of empathy, his refusal to even pretend to support me through a frightening experience that really got me. In a few weeks he’d gone from spending the rest of his life with me and raising my child to refusing me human comfort — that was the ultimate disappointment. I’d done everything right, I thought; I’d followed all the rules. I got the ring, all right, but not the love it was supposed to represent, and now I was supposed to give that back too? Not likely.

Despite my convictions, I felt guilty about breaking the ring rule for a while. I noticed that the statute of limitations on this offense has run out. Judge Judy Sheindlin, arbiter of many modem moral conflicts, had a similar case before her recently. The case was simple; a “promise” ring was given and then the promise was broken. The man was suing to get the money back from the woman to whom he’d made this expensive promise. Stopping short of calling him a complete schmuck, Judge Judy told the man that he’d given a gift and it belonged to the woman, end of story. Next time, Judge Judy counseled, buy something cheaper.

Perhaps the rules have changed again. The game, however, is much the same. These days, the happily-ever-after dream of the prince, the proposal, and the ring lives on strong as ever. We are obsessed with celebrity pairings and often focus on the size and type of ring involved. A recent issue of a popular newsstand magazine featured “87 Pages of Celebrity Weddings!” in which copies of various rings chosen by the likes of Rosie Perez, Helen Hunt, and Raquel Welch were displayed. Raquel Welch was featured again a few pages later with photos from her fourth wedding. Without a hint of irony, Welch related how this time she wanted to do it the old-fashioned way, with a long white dress, etc, etc. She wore a crocheted mini-dress to one of her weddings, it was revealed, because that was back in the ’60s when people were flouting tradition. This time, she wanted to show love for her newest husband with the trappings of a storybook wedding.

These days we can do it up right without the guilt my peers and I felt about wanting rings and veils. As Matthews states in her engagement survival guide, “We have gone from the ‘me’ decade to the ‘we’ decade. For reasons both romantic and idealistic, as well as practical and realistic, everybody wants to be part of a couple — a married couple.”

Consider how many people tuned in to the show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? This media event generated water-cooler controversy and inspired news articles over the social ramifications of an arranged TV marriage with pundits most often weighing in on the side of moral outrage. But millions of people watched the show when it aired and continued, months later, to discuss it. Perhaps the idea of a fairy-tale union strikes a deep, unsettling chord for many people. It always did for me. Incidentally, Darva Conger, the infamous bride of the show, also kept her diamond ring, although she kicked the husband to the curb within hours of the wedding. The ring, she pointed out, was part of the deal, and besides, she had expenses, what with the annulment and publicity and so forth.

I no longer wear any rings save for a silver band on my left thumb. I keep my old engagement ring in a box with a diamond ring from my grandmother, a small sapphire ring given to me for my 30th birthday, and a gold wedding band. A long story attaches to each one of these rings, and when I hold them in my hand, I can remember the details of each. The engagement ring, however, is the only one that inspires wistfulness. After our spectacular breakup, I can’t remember ever missing Dominic. I knew we were both better off apart. Over the ensuing years, though, I have missed the dream that Dominic and his ring represented. This is what I remember when I see the ring, and it makes me a little sad. I’ve tried putting the ring on since then, to see how it looks on my finger, but the funny thing is, it no longer fits.

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