The Problem With Engagement Rings

Commitment is not a circle of diamonds or a bouquet of peonies or a fancy ceremony in a chapel. And what we invest in symbols can easily disappear, says Wendy Fontaine.

The salesman brings a ring that isn’t at all what I want. It’s too big, too expensive, and sticks up too high on my finger. I want something simple, but this—this looks like something Zsa Zsa Gabor would sell in a yard sale.

It’s also a diamond, and I’ve specifically asked him for an aquamarine, a light blue gemstone that reminds me of the ocean and the sky. What aquamarine does not remind me of is a diamond and everything that comes along with a diamond—thoughts about engagement photos and parties, bridesmaids and cakes, invitations and seating plans. Thoughts about forever and happily-ever-after.

“No, no,” I say to him. “That’s not right at all.”

He looks surprised but determined, and dives back into his glass display case, pudgy fingers fumbling over rings that are still too big, too square, too heart-shaped, too fancy, too shiny. Yes, there is such a thing as too shiny. It seems ostentatious and boastful to wear such a showy ring, like I’m tempting the gods of love to prove just how fleeting and fanciful this emotion can be.

The salesman finally picks an aquamarine, the right shape and the right size, but surrounded by tiny diamond chips. He can’t help himself. Marriage means diamonds, and a woman who walks into his shop asking for something other than diamonds can only be confused about what she wants.

“Here,” he says. “Try this on.”

The aquamarine sticks up slightly, but not as much as the others. It’s elegant and graceful, fashionable but still classic. It’s too expensive, for sure, but mostly, it just looks odd on my finger.

That’s probably because the last ring I wore there is sitting in a ditch on a country road in western Maine.


The tires on my rusty Mazda squealed as I took the corners on the Gibbs Mill Road, a bumpy route winding past farmhouses, camps, and trailers. I had moved back there with my daughter, Angie, after her father fell in love with another woman. After the separation, and during the divorce, I wanted to be near my family. But after two years, country life had become monotonous and dreary, and I made plans to move with Angie to southern California to attend graduate school.

Sunlight flickered through my windshield as I sped along, past trees with autumn leaves as bright and shiny as the gold band I had just tried to pawn to help pay moving expenses. The dealer had offered too little for the ring, worn for 12 years, through pregnancy and childbirth, sicknesses and surgeries, from one city to the next as our careers relocated us all around New England. After the pawnshop dealer made his paltry offer, I shoved the slender gold band back into its plastic baggie and walked out of his store.

Right after the divorce, I sold the other ring my ex-husband had given me, a much more elaborate band with three diamonds, to mark our 10-year anniversary. Looking at it only made me angry, only reminded me of pain and sadness. When money got tight around the holidays, I took it to a jeweler near the university where I worked as a part-time secretary. He offered me $500 for it—enough to buy groceries, pay the phone bill, and give my daughter one heck of a Christmas. I cashed his check and drove straight to the local department store, where I filled a shopping cart with ornaments, garland, wrapping paper, and ribbons. Then I wheeled to the toy section and grabbed a baby doll wearing pink pajamas, a plastic cradle and a matching high chair, crayons, markers, and enough chocolate to fill both our stockings.

Angie’s squeals on Christmas morning were more beautiful and enduring than any diamond.

As I drove along the Gibbs Mill Road, I wondered, if that gold band in my purse was so valuable, why was I keeping it in a baggie like an old ham sandwich? Any significance it held, any reminder of the promises made by a young woman and the man she had loved, were gone. The sentiment that existed on that wedding day 12 years ago was a memory, not an object. He had thrown it all away; why shouldn’t I do the same?

I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and reached across the seat to roll down the passenger window with my right. As the road curved and straightened, I reached into my purse, grabbed the baggie and plucked out the band. I felt its smoothness, its thinness. I noticed, perhaps for the first time, its fragility.

Then I tossed it out the window.

In the rearview mirror, I expected to see the ring sitting in the ditch, like an abandoned puppy waiting for me to put the car in reverse and retrieve it. Instead, I turned the radio up as loud as it could go and stepped hard on the gas.


I wrinkle my nose and pull off the ring, then hand it back to the salesman. He looks more confused than ever.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “but that one isn’t right either.”

I want to want that ring. I really do. The aquamarine is so pretty, so pure, but I’m afraid that if I get used to the way it looks on my finger, then everything will disappear. The notion of forever scares me, not because I don’t love the man I’m engaged to, or because I doubt his love for me, but because the future often brings disappointments. People change. Promises get broken. And I’m not sure I’m strong enough to say goodbye to another golden dream.

My fiancé could not care less about rings or weddings, or any of the pomp and pageantry associated with engagements. In his heart, and in mine, we are already married. We are a family, and have been since Angie and I hung our clothes next to his in the closet. There are times when I am uneasy about the magnitude of our connection, afraid that I’ll jinx it or lose it or somehow scare it all away, but I accept that discomfort because our love seems stronger than my fear.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find a ring. Maybe it doesn’t matter. What we invest in symbols can disappear, over time or in an instant. Commitment is not a circle of diamonds or a bouquet of peonies or a fancy ceremony in a chapel. It’s the orange glow around the setting sun as the three of us walk along Venice Beach. It’s the lemon tree growing outside our front door. It’s the daily ritual of getting Angie off to school, picking her up, making dinner, making the beds, and paying the bills, all the while knowing that we still love each other as much as we always did—perhaps even more.

Engagement is when he reads my daughter a bedtime book, or kisses the back of my neck as I stand at the kitchen sink washing dishes, or when he puts a song he thinks I’ll like on my phone. It’s when he reaches across the passenger seat to grab my hand and run his thumb over the smooth skin on my bare finger, where I may, or may not, one day wear a ring.

Wendy Fontaine’s writing has previously appeared on the Huffington Post, Utne Reader, Brain Child magazine, Mamamia, iVillage Australia, and a handful of literary magazines. You can read more of her here at

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