Don’t give back the ring!

Found this piece about engagement rings in the Atlantic a couple weeks ago to be quite interesting.  Take away point: don’t give back the engagement ring.  The whole reason you have it is so that the intended groom won’t renege:

Once upon a time, diamond rings weren’t just gifts. They were, frankly, virginity insurance.

A now-obsolete law called the “Breach of Promise to Marry” once allowed women to sue men for breaking off an engagement. Back then, there was a high premium on women being virgins when they married — or at least when they got engaged. Surveys from the 1940s show that roughly half of engaged couples reported being intimate before the big day. If the groom-to-be walked out after he and the bride-to-be had sex, that left her in a precarious position. From a social angle, she had been permanently “damaged.” From an economic angle, she had lost her market value. So Breach of Promise to Marry was born…

Let’s think like an economist. An engaged couple aren’t all that different from a borrower and a lender. The woman is lending her hand in marriage to the man, who promises to tie the knot at a later date. In the days of Breach of Promise, the woman would do this on an unsecured basis — that is, the man didn’t have to pledge any collateral — because the law provided her something akin to bankruptcy protection. Put simply, if the man didn’t fulfill his obligation to marry, the woman had legal recourse. This calculus changed once the law changed. Suddenly, women wanted an upfront financial assurance from their men. Basically, collateral. That way, if the couple never made it down the aisle, she’d at least be left with something. And that something was almost always small and shiny. The diamond ring was insurance.
So, should a jilted bride give back the engagement ring? Today, the answer is often yes. But back when rings first came into vogue, part of the point was that she wouldn’t. It was a security against a default on the engagement. The good news is that this seems so alien to us today. Women have their own careers. They earn more degrees. And, for the younger generation, they out-earn men. More importantly, the stigma against premarital sex has disappeared. A broken engagement isn’t a lasting financial disaster for a woman like it was before. The diamond engagement ring has itself undergone a transformation. It’s no longer a security. It’s just about signaling nowadays. It’s anachronistic. But don’t try telling your girlfriend that.

I think this is one of those anecdote/factoids I’ll be sharing with many an engaged person in the future.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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