Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On Engagement Rings and Loans For Weddings

How much should an engagement ring cost? Three times the man's monthly salary? Ten times? What is the reason behind a very expensive engagement ring? Why not put a down payment on a house instead?

I have been looking at the way the wedding industry has changed this one rite-of-passage into something that costs more than your average university education, and even quite poor families are expected to come up with that sort of money. And the work that goes into the planning! At least a year's worth of invitation cards and guest presents and arguments about the bridesmaids' dresses!

Ok. I'm a curmudgeony and non-romantic goddess, probably. But I think this whole wedding bidness has gone haywire. Do your parents really have to use their retirement savings for your wedding to prove that they love you? Because that is what I have seen happen in some families. The wedding fever looks like a disease: previously quite sane women suddenly demand ten wedding showers, with the same aluminum pots appearing as presents in each of them. They also demand a set of twelve little engraved glass dishes for the sugared almonds that they will never serve later on. And the cost of those wedding dresses! A family of four could camp for a year with the price.

Oh my, how sourpuss that all sounds. Let's try something more understanding. There is a romance in a lovely wedding, and for many this is the one time when women can star in a major role. It's also fun to have big bash to celebrate the love and the promise to stay together, and perhaps an expensive engagement ring does signal love very well, given that to buy it the man must abstain from other forms of consumption. A trial of the will, in some ways, but I still think it is a cruel custom, on the whole. And yes, you could put a down payment on a house with the cost of the average wedding in this country.

Does the wedding fever have something to do with the pretty high likelihood that the marriage will end in a divorce? Is it like a form of magic which should make the ties bind for good? I'm not sure. I have a feeling that I miss on some fundamental appeal of the expensive wedding. If so, I'm sure that you will let me know in the comments.

Many of the current wedding customs are traces of the old ones, of course. The shower gifts, for instance, used to consist of various household linens that the friends of the bride made for her, because she would have no time for that later on, what with the children and the cows and the sheep and all the other chores of a farm wife. Likewise, the gifts at the wedding were to equip the young couple for their future lives together. Maybe some of them were a type of dowry, something to give the bride who would from the wedding day onwards work for room and board in the groom's family. It was the wealth that she was bringing in.

Weddings have also always been a way of advertising wealth, and this is probably one of the reasons for the current lavish weddings. Nothing wrong with that, for those who can easily afford such weddings, but there is real hardship for those parents who don't actually have the money.

What is the feminist angle to the booming wedding industry? Is there one? Well, many of the old traditions are based on patriarchal norms. Even the assumption that it is the bride's parents who pay for everything has its roots in the kind of world where a very young girl is married off from her parents' house. She has had no time to accumulate money herself, and her work in the future will accrue value to the groom and his family. It would make sense, then, for her parents to equip her as best they can.

But this custom looks odd when the bride is, say, thirty, and has been working for years and when the parents are nearing their own retirement and have already paid for her college education. Even the custom of the groom buying the wedding ring looks a little odd, given the current society. Of course old customs can be nice and quaint, but some of them do look a little silly to me.

It isn't really the hullabaloo around a wedding that I'm criticizing here, but the idea that the value of wedding is directly related to how much it costs. Love need not be all about money.