On my commute this morning, a man who was about to get off the train said to a young woman who had been sitting across from him "I just have to tell you, that is a really nice rock! You got yourself a big sucker!"
The woman had an iPod on so she might not have heard him properly, and she just responded with a slightly confused smile. I didn't get a chance to see the rock in question, but I kept wondering, just how big was it? And what did he mean by the "sucker" remark? Did he mean the ring itself was a "big sucker?" But the way he said it sounded like he meant her husband/fiancé was a sucker for spending so much on her! And if that was what he meant, why would he say something so insulting, implying that she wasn't worth it? And that she "got" him, i.e. snagged a guy with money. She was an attractive woman, and for all anyone could know, also the nicest person on earth, smart, and wealthy herself. Why wouldn't he think of it as someone snagging her?
And why do people think that way about the rock itself? There is so much at stake for guys when it comes to buying engagement rings. If they try to skimp out, they'll be trashed by the bride's friends, if not the bride herself. Among women I know, even the most independent, progressive types seem to get a sinking feeling if the boyfriends they far out-earn don't drop some serious cash on the ring. (And when I say "out-earn" I'm talking about couples where the woman is a lawyer and the guy works at Starbucks.)
I don't think it all just comes down to pure status consciousness, though. I think that in some of the couples I've known and heard about, it comes down to a question of responsibility. If the woman is working at a high-powered job and the man is not, that can seem ok for a while. But if the couple starts to talk about getting married and having kids, the reality is that the woman will have to take at least a little time off from work. Ok, that may be paid time, and then the husband may be able to take over child care later, but what if something happens? What if the woman loses her job, or has health problems? If the guy is working at Starbucks because he's just procrastinating about figuring out what he really wants to do, the woman is going to feel like he's not taking the future seriously, and not seeing that he'll have the responsibility to take care of her and their children. This doesn't mean he has to run out and find a 6-figure job, but he'd better at least seem like he cares-- it's about the attitude more than the money itself.
Well, that is enough rambling on the topic... amazing how the most random subway comment can take on a life of its own!