Last month, I underwent the peculiar rite of shopping for an engagement ring. Overall, it was pretty enjoyable, and I found a ring my fiancee loves.
However, as I made my way through various jewellers, I noticed some underlying assumptions they had about men and women. Their assumptions about women are another blog post in themselves, so I’m going to focus on the ones about men.
Now, these jewellers have seen enough blokes in my situation to make broad judgements about us. I imagine these assumptions prove true 90% of the time. Yet I found myself in the 10% for whom these aren’t true – perhaps that’s why they stood out to me.
Men Observe Tradition
When I said I was looking for an engagement ring, each jeweller produced gold bands, topped with gleaming diamonds. And, to be fair, most come for that. However, the single instruction my wife-to-be gave me was, “do not get me a diamond solitaire” (to which I replied, “I know, you never wear diamonds” – 10/10 for observation).
Upon this bombshell, each jeweller became slightly flustered. “Oh really?”, they asked. “Well, these are our other rings…”
My job, apparently, was to bring my woman a diamond – even though it’s a “tradition” that only dates back to an advertising campaign run by the de Beers diamond corporation in 1938. The diamond ring has subsequently become a cultural benchmark for a man who’s serious about marriage.
Part of this, I think, is that, when a man produces a diamond, you know he’s spent a decent amount of money. Notably, de Beers are also responsible for the tradition of spending two months salary on a ring. As someone who a) works for a church and receives two thirds of his modest income from charitable supporters, and b) thinks this convention is stupid however much you earn, I didn’t shell out anywhere near two months salary. My fiancee would have flayed me alive if I had.
In the eyes of these jewellers, I passed the rite of passage, but barely. It was unspoken, but my engagement appeared to be regarded as lesser, simply through the lack of an expensive lump of carbon.
Men Avoid Commitment
“Been dropping hints, has she?”
With one exception, every jeweller made multiple comments like this.
A light-hearted remark about my need to be coaxed and jabbed into yielding to my girlfriend’s lifelong desperation to get married. As a male, I was obviously expected to be averse to this commitment. Clearly it took her to drag me from sedentary bachelorism and voracious promiscuity into the joyous shackles of matrimony.
Except, that in no way reflects our route to engagement. I’ve never been wary of marriage. And she wasn’t planning her wedding when she was still in primary school.
Our culture assumes that men naturally avoid commitment. And sure, plenty do. Maybe most. And it’s a chicken and egg situation. Did Two and a Half Men create lazy, non-committal bachelors or did lazy, non-committal bachelors create Two and a Half Men?
Over the past forty years, people have been getting married later. The average male in the UK, Western Europe and the Nordic countries now first marries around 32. At 23, I’m closer to the world average in 1970. Now, there are many reasons for this. Average ages are lower in developing countries, so socioeconomic factors are obviously at work. And this data doesn’t account for other committed, long term relationships (though I’d still extol the virtues of marriage to you guys). However, it seems fair to say that our culture permits, even encourages, men to live like teenagers into their 30s, until someone makes an honest man of them.
It really hit me how low we set the bar for men in relationships. How can young men develop a healthy attitude towards commitment when everyone around them chuckles about how naturally non-committal they are?
Men Miss Emotions
The third assumption was that I am emotionally unreceptive. One jeweller joked that my fiancee must have been “sending out signals in her sleep”, of which I was utterly oblivious until she started mentioning ring size, or her friends took me aside. Only special revelation from her, or another sensitive female, could break through the closed universe of my male brain and enlighten me to these otherwise unobtainable facts.
But she never dropped hints that she wanted to get married. And if she had, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed. We both moved at the same pace and decided to get married together.
Now, again, experience teaches me that, in my culture, men generally are less emotionally receptive than women. But, again, this is self-perpetuating. When everyone assumes from childhood that only girls have an emotional radar, how will boys ever grow into emotionally receptive men?
Can Men Change?
I experienced a lot in the few hours I spent ring shopping (NOTE: you don’t need to take weeks of searching to find “the perfect ring”).
I came away saddened at what is expected of men in romantic relationships – to be non-committal, emotionally unreceptive teenagers, goaded by their partners, and able to cover over their faults by splashing out on an expensive trinket.
I know I’m not the only man of my age frustrated by this experience. Many dear friends of mine are now committed, emotionally aware husbands who I know have also been distressed at the receiving end of assumptions like these.
So how can we begin to change these cultural assumptions?
I don’t have a manifesto, but I think it can begin at the conversational level. This post comes off the back of little remarks – but remarks that indicated deep, broad assumptions. And they’re assumptions I make too, which undoubtedly crop up in my speech. So I’m challenging myself here.
We don’t need to default to lazy jokes about men. They tear us down. Our daily conversation – especially around something as significant as marriage – gives us constant opportunities to build up.
We have daily opportunities to celebrate romance that defies needless, expensive convention.
We have daily experiences in which we can openly praise and encourage commitment.
We have daily opportunities to encourage emotional sensitivity in all relationships.
Our words can be either poison or fruit. They can be death or life to a young man. They reflect our assumptions, but they also shape them. Never underestimate the power of your words – in the most flippant jibe or the briefest encouragement.
Rhys Laverty currently works for a church in central London, and attended school with a number of other Manoscopy staff writers. His interests include religion and postmodern critical theory. Follow him on Twitter: @IfADoubleDecker