The Yes Woman: The romance of marriage as a barter system is dead

As I try on a $1m diamond ring, I am struck by how complex the concept of marriage has become

Elizabeth Taylor shows off the rock given to her by Richard Burton. Photograph: Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty

Elizabeth Taylor shows off the rock given to her by Richard Burton. Photograph: Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty

 

I can't decide whether or not marriage is a prudent choice. The majority of marriages I’ve witnessed have failed, often in dramatic fashion, leaving a burned-out wreckage of emotional and financial carnage. Distance, infidelity, miscommunication, selfishness. These reasons (and more) have ruined the marriages of those around me, but I’ve never observed a marriage not to work because the diamond wasn’t big enough.

I am in Beverly Hills, California, standing in the famous Cartier shop on Rodeo Drive with a solitaire worth more than $1 million on my finger. It is the size of an olive, and the price tag only sort of spares it from vulgarity. I feel embarrassed – by the bizarre, glittering surroundings, by the scintillating gobstopper I’m wearing, and by the knowledge that there is more money on my finger than I will ever have in my bank account.

The thing sits there, shimmering conspicuously, as Cartier’s diamond expert explains what customers want in an engagement ring these days: “Asian customers like perfection over size. American customers like diamonds to be big, and don’t care about perfection. Europeans just like their diamonds cheap.”

I am there as part of a press trip, and acutely aware that, in my Converse and jeans, they probably wouldn’t have let me in if I’d been alone. Still, there’s no shame in looking like you don’t have diamond money. There is a mustard- coloured Rolls Royce parked inexpertly outside the front door. If that’s diamond money, we can all probably do without it.

 

An odd practice

The practice of giving an engagement ring is odd. Historically, it was essentially a downpayment on a woman of your very own, but nobody seems to have a problem with maintaining the tradition, because diamonds.

If a woman pays for it herself, then it is a diamond ring rather than an engagement ring. If a man pays for it, it is difficult to separate this symbol of commitment from some sort of asymmetrical expression of power.

At Cartier Beverly Hills, we are told, the men pay. Always. In that hub of wealth and glamour, people don’t have much of an issue with traditional gender roles, it seems. The price of the ring should, we are told, equate to three months of a man’s salary.

As I ponder how much more complex the concept of marriage is now than it used to be, the explanation of the item I happen to be wearing finishes up, and I find an expectant pair of eyes awaiting the ring’s return.

“Oh yes,” I say. “Er . . . yes.” I work the platinum band from my finger, noting that the diamond is wider than the span of the finger, and watch as it is returned to its glass case. A ring like that clearly isn’t the standard opener of a marriage contract, and Beverly Hills is hardly representative of most people’s reality. However, when you exaggerate the elements of what makes a wedding, as they are prone to do in Beverly Hills, the ridiculousness of the whole process becomes apparent.

 

The good old days

Marriage isn’t what it used to be. Those good old days are gone. It isn’t about a man protecting a woman from being stolen by bandits, or adding to his herd of livestock from her dowry. The romance of fathers giving daughters to other men is gone, along with married women having to give up their civil service jobs. It isn’t even about begetting legitimate progeny who might inherit your livestock and buy wives of their own.

It’s about a ceremony, which is by nature quite self-indulgent, and then a partnership of equals, which hopefully isn’t.

Still feeling the weight of that enormous diamond, I feel even more baffled than usual by Ireland’s struggle with the concept of marriage. Yes, we could continue to defend an archaic barter system and imbue it with some bizarre sense of romantic ideology. We could do that. Or, we could accept that marriage, thankfully, has a much broader definition than it used to. The word does not belong to traditionalists.

When we wish to marry, it should be a partnership of equals who, despite the odds stacked against their union, want to give it a bash anyway in the hope that love (and tax benefits) will keep them together. That’s marriage.

 

The Yes Woman says yes to . . . trying on diamonds and no to . . . Rolls Royces

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