Patriarchy, Engagement Rings, and Jigsaw Puzzles

Making engagements more egalitarian

A Practical Wedding | Patriarchy, Engagement Rings, & Jigsaw Puzzles

As I’m sure my parents would happily verify, I have always been stubborn. Before I was a stubborn fiancée, I was a stubborn girlfriend. A child of divorced parents, I decided at the age of twelve that I would never get married, and as I discovered feminism as a teenager, I collected more and more reasons to never walk down the aisle. “Everything about weddings is rooted in patriarchy!” I would think angrily to myself. “Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce! Women in (heterosexual) marriages end up doing more housework even when they earn more money than their husbands!” All my research supported my initial hypothesis: Marriage was too risky, and definitely not for me.

Things were complicated, however, by my partner, whom I started dating when I was fifteen. Our relationship wasn’t always easy; in the last eight and a half years we’ve endured going to college in different states, semesters abroad, multiple bouts of we-say-we-are-broken-up-but-we-aren’t-actually-broken-up, trying to get over each other, and finally realizing that we have to do everything we can to keep each other in our lives.

So there we were, ten years after I had decided that marriage was for the birds, talking about the possibility of getting married. Or, more accurately, he was talking about marriage and I was trying to steer the conversation any other way. I would repeat my points ad nauseam: Marriage is patriarchal, statistically unsustainable, and I don’t need some broken institution to legitimize our relationship. He would take the more romantic side, saying that he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me and he wanted us to be a part of each other’s families. The best way he knew how to do that would be for us to get married.

Despite my stubbornness, here I am, engaged. A couple factors contributed to my change of mind and heart. One was that I went to a few weddings that were awesome and as nontraditional as the couples wanted them to be and that made me very emotional and touched. Another was that I knew it would mean a lot to my partner’s family if we got married, because they could acknowledge their support for our relationship in a way that was comfortable for them. And finally, I started my feminist research.

I read all the books and blogs I could get my hand on (including APW!) about how feminist women decide to get married and what their weddings and marriages look like. I realized that weddings and marriage can be whatever you want them to be, and could even be fun and slightly revolutionary. I realized that, while my previous ideas on marriage were totally valid, I had started to outgrow them. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to declare our commitment with the support of all our loved ones, and have a celebration that reflected our relationship and love for each other. After all, if my feminism didn’t allow me to celebrate LOVE, of all things, it would be a pretty terrible philosophy to live by.

So at the beginning of 2013, I gave my partner permission to propose to me, but there were some things he had to agree to. (Did I mention that I am also somewhat of a control freak?) I didn’t want a proposal in a public place, especially not at a sporting event, and I didn’t want a ring. Well, what I actually said was that I didn’t want to be the only engaged person in this relationship wearing a ring, so he would either have to let me pick one out for him or figure something else out.

A note on patriarchal traditions: They are everywhere you look in our society. It is damn near impossible not to participate in any of them, and trying to do so would take a lot of energy and probably result in a lot of stress. Every feminist I know picks her battles differently, and the same is true about wedding planning. Some wedding traditions rooted in patriarchy still feel okay to me, and some I stubbornly refuse to participate in.

To me, the idea of wearing an engagement ring while my fiancé wore nothing didn’t sit right with me. Why was it important for me to have a physical marker of engagement? To let other guys know that I was already “taken”? No thanks. Plus, I’m not really a jewelry-wearer, so the idea of having a beautiful ring did not appeal to me. And the money! I am a frugal lady, and the thought of my partner having to spend more than $20 on any piece of jewelry for me was—and is—mildly horrifying. He didn’t want a ring, either, and so we nixed it.

When the time came and he proposed, what I got instead was a jigsaw puzzle:

A Practical Wedding | Patriarchy, Engagement Rings, & Jigsaw Puzzles

Now, some pretty cheesy symbolism can be extracted from an Engagement Puzzle: Just like a relationship, it takes time and work to make everything fit together, etc. However, my fiancé wasn’t thinking about that. He just knew that we have a lot of fun when we do puzzles together, and that after eight years of dating, there are a lot of cute pictures of us together. Either way, it was perfect for us.

I was expecting a lot of questions about my ringless finger after we announced our engagement, and I braced myself for some weird responses. To my surprise and delight, everyone loved our Engagement Puzzle story and no one seemed to care that I didn’t get a ring. In fact, even after being engaged for six months, fewer than five people have even asked about a ring, and my fiancé has received many compliments on his creativity and adorableness.

What I learned from this is that my family and friends know us well enough that they don’t expect us to have a traditional engagement, wedding, or marriage. No one will be disappointed if I don’t wear a white dress or don’t change my last name, and everyone will love it if our first dance is to a Beyoncé song (his idea, not mine!!!).

While I know that the WIC world will continue to insist that there is a right way to do our wedding, and our marriage, I at least know that my nearest and dearest have my back. The pressure is off in a major way. I can be stubborn about the things that are important to me, we can figure out creative ways to do what we want, and we will come out married and ready to make our married lives awesome.

Top photo: Kelly Benvenuto. Jigsaw puzzle photo taken by Marie.

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  • Karen

    LOVE the engagement puzzle! And good for you for figuring out how marriage and a wedding would work for you.

  • Laura C

    Some of my fiance’s friends were apparently mad at him, thinking I “deserved” a ring or something and probably wanted it even though I said I didn’t. Maybe a puzzle would have made them happier? It’s awfully cute.

    • KC

      It has been my experience that when subverting “traditions”, having something to point to instead, rather than just skipping, provides something for people to respond positively to.

      (of course, some people are just not going to respond positively to anything other than the norm. But the rest of them!)

      Saying “I’m so thrilled with X that we are doing instead of Y” or “X that he/she gave me instead of Y” both gives something for the social script (they now know what to express congratulations and being-impressed-with and whatnot over!) and gives you a better chance of convincing them that you really are happy with your situation (because instead of a blank, there’s something there; the same holds true at parties where you can’t eat anything [due to, say, a colonoscopy the next day, or allergies, or whatever] – it’s easier to carry around a plate with an olive [or something minor] on it and a glass of water than to deal with continual “oh, do you want something?” solicitous concern).

  • Erin E

    I thought it was interesting that you mentioned you started to outgrow your previous ideas on marriage. Isn’t that amazing how that can happen? I felt similarly about marriage in my 20’s – I had serious reservations and political beef with the institution. As I’ve grown up, the idea that I’m able to define what I want my own marriage to be has been revelatory. It’s a good point to keep in mind: as we age and learn, our opinions and philosophies need space to evolve as well.

  • Heather S

    I also initially dug in my heels about an engagement ring. At the end of the day, my fiance really wanted to give me a pretty, sparkly, diamond present. It was important to him, and with very involved families, the engagement was something which was just ours. He made sure that it was ethically sourced, did his best to make sure he wasn’t contributing to the social injustice of the jewelry industry (to the best that one can these days), and made sure that he designed it himself so that he was making conscious choices about money and value every step of the way.

    At the end of the day, I knew he wanted to give me a present. And I understood that sentiment, because I also really wanted to get him a present. Not as a symbol of patriarchy or because we were so happy. We like to buy presents for each other. I looked long and hard for easier presents for him (a watch! cuff links! etc.) that wouldn’t “undermine” his masculinity, but in the end we threw that all out the window. He admitted he wanted a ring too– so I got him an engagement ring. His big sister made fun of him, and I know he gets jests here and there, but I see how happy he is when he plays with it absent mindedly when he thinks I’m not looking.

    He wears his engagement ring every day on his right hand, in homage to my German roots. We got to say what mattered to us– which was giving each other a present that we could wear every day. At the end of the day, rings were just what was right for us. We got to opt into tradition, and I’m so thankful we consciously chose to do so.

    • APracticalLaura

      A “mangagement ring”? I was thisclose to getting one for my now-husband too! Right on!

  • Michelle

    LOVE the engagement puzzle! My partner and I also totally vetoed rings and a proposal because it totally didn’t fit with us. We ended up exchanging hand-made bracelets that included a portion of each of our old bicycle chains on a big bike tour from Seattle to San Francisco (and engagement ring totally does not fit under bike gloves!)

    I’m so glad you wrote this piece because we need more non-traditional cultural narratives for what engagements can be! It’s an important marker, and for those of us who don’t want a ring/proposal/etc. it can be difficult to find something that works. On the bright side, it lets you and your partner be super creative and come up with something that is really meaningful for the two of you. Rituals are important, and my partner and I kind of felt left in no-(wo)man’s land when it came to this one, because there seems to be two options: 1) engagement via proposal/ring/questions or 2) announce you’re engaged because you decide mutually (also a rad option for tons of folks), but if you want something to mark it, or have your own ritual that you create, where do you start?

    Whether it’s engagement puzzles or bike chain bracelets, bring it on! Here’s to your awesome engagement story, and to the many, many couples that you’ll inspire by your post! Congrats!

  • Hello fellow non-ring wearer!

    I’m amazed (and slightly jealous) by only 5 people asking about the ring. Maybe it’s due to my lack of a puzzle to explain the scenario, but I was shocked by how many people asked “where’s the ring?” as the first reaction to my engagement news.

    The naive feminist in me thought we’d be past this – that my interest in not having an engagement ring would be barely noticed. I was wrong.

    To stop the barrage of questions (and judgement of others of my wonderful partner), I would say what they wanted to hear, “I just haven’t found one.. YET.”

    This was a complete lie. But it usually ended the conversation (except with those with wedding fever who then wanted to talk about diamond cuts and settings).

    I found a better answer, the true answer. The first time I put on a ring, I want it to be with my husband as he puts on his. Together, on our wedding day.

    The biggest thing that your story (and the others that I relate to on APW) are ones where it is a celebration of us, together.

    • Irene

      I also got tons of questions and criticism because of I proposed to my husband and had no engagement ring. Not from friends or family… I was working in a bridal salon at the time and it was the customers. While helping them with dresses we would chat, and fairly often they’d ask if I was married, and frequently then about the lack of ring.

      Generally it seemed like reasonable behavior (we are going through the same big life event! let’s compare notes!)… but sometimes it felt like they were lashing out (usually subtly) because my engagement was different from theirs, and they wanted their way to be RIGHT.

      TL;DR: I would not particularly recommend working in the WIC while engaged, or possibly at all.

    • Marie

      Like KC said above, I think it had something to do with the fact that we were both so quick to tell the story about the puzzle so that people wouldn’t need to ask about the ring… but I was expecting more people to ask anyway. My main theory is that people were so surprised/excited that we had actually gotten engaged after dating for so long that they weren’t as curious about how it happened because the important thing was that it happened.

      Also, I LOVE this:
      “The first time I put on a ring, I want it to be with my husband as he puts on his. Together, on our wedding day.” YES, exactly.

    • SuzieCue

      I too am amazed that no one asked you about the ring – I am getting so sick of people looking at me pityingly (not only don’t I have a ring, there was no proposal either). My girlfriends are horrified and my fiance’s friends (I think) think he is really cheap, and there’s this undertone of it not being a “proper” commitment/marriage.

      It’s actually incredible how ingrained these traditions are; I didn’t realise there would be so much focus on something which actually has f-all to do with the fundamental commitment that marriage involves.

  • Rebecca

    I shared my engagement story on the Friday open thread, but here’s a link:

    My husband definitely held fast on two things: there had to be a “thing” that we proposed with and there had to be a story. I was adamant that the “thing” had to be equal on both sides. We wound up with modular piggy banks, on the couch. (Currently in black-white-black and white-black-white, with another section to add on our first wedding anniversary).

    • KC

      That is really, really cute. Thanks for re-linking the story – I didn’t catch it at Happy Hour.

  • loved this post. but i was most struck by this line: Women in (heterosexual) marriages end up doing more housework even when they earn more money than their husbands!

    Please tell me–how do women cope with this?? I’m going on 3.5 years now of being the primary breadwinner (I make 2/3 of our income) and still managing the majority of what it takes to run a household (bill paying, grocery shopping, appointment scheduling, walking the dog, etc). I don’t even want to think about how busy I’ll be when we have kids. Did I mention that my husband and I both work and go to school full-time? So why does he get a free pass on the housework, and I don’t? Please write a post about this because I’m losing my mind!

    • Eenie

      He shouldn’t get a free pass on the housework. It doesn’t actually matter who does more housework, but it matters if one person feels like they are taking on more than their fair share without a reason. I take on extra housework when I’m on break from school, but so does my partner when he has time off work. It might be that you are granting him a free pass unknowingly. Try to have a conversation about who does household chores and why. You might find a better way to approach the issue with him.

    • He shouldn’t get a free pass on ANYTHING that bothers you unless you give it to him. Speak up or give with a generous heart.

    • A little late to this but just wanted to say…Why DOES he get a pass on the housework? There is no logical reason you should be doing it all yourself! Please talk to him about it because there’s no reason it should all all on you!

    • Ginger

      Setting the expectations of housework and all types of work is entirely up to you and your partner—some people LOVE to clean, and why stop them just to make things even?? ;) If you feel things are out of balance, the only person who can do anything about that is you! I really like Eenie’s comment: “It doesn’t actually matter who does more housework, but it matters if one person feels like they are taking on more than their fair share without a reason.”

      I have always been someone who has higher standards for most things than other people do (cleaning, grammar, morality, driving… etc. etc.), and that makes me wonder: Does he just not care/worry about the housework, groceries, etc as much as you? So you end up doing it so that it gets done right? That can be very hard to deal with, I know. I think I’d suggest talking to him about it from the perspective of “this would help me out” and “I need your help,” and ask him for ideas of what you can do to help facilitate him taking on some of the responsibilities.

      For example: If you’re anything like me, you have certain brands for some groceries that are a MUST (two of mine are Select-a-Size paper towels, and Puffs tissues with Lotion. I don’t compromise on those!). Make sure he knows EXACTLY what to get when he goes to the store, so that he can do it right and you don’t end up in an argument when he comes home. If the trip results in a fight, he’s more likely to not be willing to go next time!

      Best of luck to you!!

  • Bethany

    Right on fellow engagement ring refuser! I was so happy not to waste the money on a ring and, though I’m not sure I realized it at the time, the inequality of it also bothered me. I don’t remember getting many questions about it but I think it might have been that I was quick to explain as part of our proposal story that I had specially requested no ring. I very much hope more folks join us in a no-ring (or two ring) trend!

  • phira

    Me too about the engagement ring! I didn’t want my partner to spend so much money on a sexist tradition. He really wanted to buy me a ring, though, so we ended up buying two rings, together, for our engagement. I’m very femme and love jewelry, so I do love my amazing ring. But I love (even more) that he wears one, too, and that he’s proud of it.

  • happyfeminist

    I’m far more excited by the engagement ring my fiance wears than my own — I didn’t have any opinions about what kind of ring I wanted, or if I even wanted one, but I knew I wanted to buy him one. We both love looking at each other’s hands and seeing a beautiful symbol of our love for each other — I can’t wait to add the wedding rings to the mix.

  • RA

    I loved this story! The puzzle is excellent.

    Some friends of mine both got engagement rings–hers was more traditional (although small, and totally suited to her tastes) and his was wood. It totally suited him, and looked very masculine and all. They ended up with a fairly long engagement (about 2 years), and he said that he loved that it got pretty battered through that time. He replaced his with his (gold) wedding ring, while she wears both as a set or just her wedding ring. I thought that was a really nice way to do it.

    If/when my partner and I get engaged, I would like a ring, and I hope she does too. It’s really hard for me to imagine being the only one to get one. It’s one of the places where I’m really glad we can avoid some of the centuries of gender stuff that’s built up.

  • Lily

    That puzzle looks great! Do you mind sharing which company he ordered it from? I’d love to make one for my future stepson.

    • Marie

      No problem! It’s They are quality, I’d definitely recommend them.

  • EF

    This is wonderful! I felt much the same way, though I’ve always had a claddagh ring (call it a boston irish catholic cultural tradition). I did NOT want him to spend money on something pointless like a ring. And I have serious misgivings about the diamond industry.

    The wonderful thing he chose? I’ve done a lot of work with NGOs and work in international law, so he knew my favourite charity was Oxfam. He bought us a pair of ‘engagement goats.’ It’s a goat couple, which is placed in an African town, and will provide milk (thereby cheese) and profit for the family that gets it. And it’s a fertile goat couple, so it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

    A lot of people didn’t understand at first, but I posted an explanation on facebook and we got tons of support, and a lot of people were like, ‘of course! that’s so you!’ and a bunch of people even followed up with donations to oxfam in our names.

    so really, do what makes you feel right. I couldn’t be happier.

  • Engagement Rings

    Alternatives to engagement rings get my heart throbbing. When I started Rings that Bind, the primary focus was on alternatives to engagement rings. This is the first puzzle I’ve encountered! I have a long list of other alternatives at