‘My Idiot Boyfriend Claims I Want a Ring, But I Don’t!’

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Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I am angry … not in a usual, I-lost-my-temper-and-we-will-talk-about-it-and-see-each-others’-side way, but in a long-simmering, I’m-not-sure-what-to-do-with-it way. You see, my partner of over three years (“Liev”) told a friend and co-worker of his that I was pressuring him for a ring at his office Christmas party, in my (and many other mutual friends’) presence. And I am SO ANGRY about it.

Not because I was embarrassed. There’s not a whole lot that embarrasses me. I laughed it off at the time. I was shocked, though. And angry. (Did I mention I was angry?)

I have made it very clear over the course of our relationship that I in no way care about a wedding ring or marriage. It’s a societal convention I’ve never identified with. I never imagined my wedding day as a child, never felt like it was something I needed for happiness. We’ve had this conversation many times … although he has said he wants to marry ME.

There are a few related elements I feel I should mention here:

We already have a child and a house together. What else do we need?

We are completely committed to each other. I love him deeply.

I have a son from a previous marriage (!). Yes, I have said I don’t care about marriage. I married my ex in a shotgun wedding, seven months pregnant. It was partly for the health insurance, partly because I was terrified about the situation (we’d been together only ten months before the pregnancy, and I was a lot younger then, in my 20s), partly because his Catholic family wouldn’t talk to me until I did it. Yeah, not the best motivation for a life change. At any rate, we are now divorced, obviously, and I’m not in a rush to marry again. Liev knows this.

I’m now 35, with two kids. I was (and AM) a strong independent single mom with a career when I met Liev. We have established our lives together. I don’t need physical proof of our love. I see it every day, in the way he takes care of our kids, in the ways we take care of each other. I think that’s more important. He’s a very empathic, sensitive person who identifies strongly with women, who prefers their company to men’s. He’s definitely a feminist, he’s loving, he’s kind. I thank the fates for him every day.

Enough backstory. What really makes me angry (I think, though I’m still trying to process it) is the way this brief exchange highlights women’s position in society, how even someone who seems to understand our position has swallowed this perspective, that women depend upon men for our happiness/wholeness. How it’s expected.

It makes me feel a little bit weaker, a little bit more dependent, a little less ME. I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this, but I feel like it reflects upon all women, too. We keep trying to say “Hey, I can be a person without you,” but I don’t think it’s getting through.

What should I do? What should WE do?

This Is PURE Bullshit

Dear TIPB,

Sometimes I think that men are designed to torture us by listening to us talk about our complex, conflicted feelings for hours (okay, fine, that part is pretty generous), acting like they understand everything (that part is good, too, probably, when you consider the alternative), then walking out the door and parroting every fucking stupid bullshit sexist thing they’ve ever heard.

Even the very best men do this. They don’t even know they’re doing it. I know I’m excusing male bumbling here, but I honestly don’t think these kinds of mistakes run that deep in a lot of cases, any deeper than unconsciously ingested cultural norms, at any rate. Saying “Ah, yeah, she wants a ring! You know it!” is a little bit like saying, “Aw, stop nagging!” to the wife YOU nag all the time. Men resort to clichés to cover their own not-all-that-macho tracks.

But they also resort to clichés just to make random, arbitrary noises while they have a drink in their hands. “It’s all good!” “That’s what you think!” “Meow!” “She’s got her claws into you now!” Take almost any guy and put him in a new pasture or habitat, and he’ll immediately start mimicking the other animals there. Why? Because men, for the most part, feel weird around other men they don’t know that well. And it takes men centuries to get to know each other. As they slowly, painstakingly eek out some clue about what is really going on with other men, they’re all, “MAN SOUND! MANLY DON’T CARE SOUND!” and “HA HA MAN NO CARE! WOMAN CARE TOO MUCH, SILLY WOMAN! MANLY MUMBLE!” Trust me, I am married to a nerdy, neurotic professor, and when you set that motherfucker down next to a dude he doesn’t know, he is reduced to the lowest common denominator of tedious male small talk. Go ahead and tell me I’m gender-fixated. You know who’s the most fixated on gender anywhere, ever? Men. Particularly men who have long-term partners and are very good at being in long-term partnerships. Happily coupled men finally have the intimate relationships and best friends they’ve craved their entire lives (in part because it takes them centuries to barely-get-to-know other men), and this makes them even more paranoid about making man sounds. They seem less and less like their genuine, good, kind, open, weird selves around strangers, and more and more like confused animals.

I love Lili Loofbourow’s essay about this and agree with the notion that most of us encourage and excuse bumbling men, and it’s a problem. But in this case, we are not talking about abuse of power or assault. If you’re with a truly wonderful man and you trust him and you know that he understands AT LEAST some small fraction of what you explain to him and you thank your lucky stars that you found him, every single day, then it behooves you to forgive him for his very typical man-sound bullshit. You should forgive him by explaining, slowly and carefully, exactly what feels wrong and regressive and unfair about what he said in front of everyone.

But it sounds like you haven’t talked to him about it yet. And that leads me to believe that it really did embarrass you. You should admit that, to yourself and to him. I’m guessing that his remark embarrassed you more than anything under the sun could’ve embarrassed you. He could’ve gotten really drunk and thrown up all over your boss, and you would’ve been less embarrassed than you are now. Because he implied that you want something from him out of weakness and neediness. He implied that you’re sad and unoriginal and controlled by some idiotic, skin-deep narrative about marriage and weddings and living happily ever after.

Which brings us to you. You want something more from Liev. Maybe it’s not marriage. Maybe it’s just a gesture. But you do want something, or you wouldn’t be so upset about this. And yes, of course, you know you don’t need it. You know that you’ll survive with or without him. You know that he’s in this for the long haul. But you want him to give you more, to signal that he wants more, too. You are incredibly ashamed of this desire of yours. Because this must mean that you’re weak and stupid. This must mean that you’re just like everyone else. If you want something, you’re automatically reduced to wanting it for the same reasons everyone else wants it. You’ve spent your whole life looking down on this desire, and the worst thing in the world you could do is discover some tiny scrap of it, deep within yourself.

Now you hate me just as much as you hate Liev for misunderstanding you. But stick with me here. You couldn’t have written me the letter you wrote without caring about commitment and marriage or at least something in that neighborhood. I’m sorry, but it’s true, even if I can’t tell which dimension of marriage you secretly desire. I believe you when you say that weddings themselves do nothing for you. I believe that you don’t necessarily care about rings. I would even venture to guess that you hated that part the most: Liev’s claiming that you secretly wanted A RING from him. Because in your mind, that is the most insulting thing, for him to imply that you want a man to claim you with a piece of jewelry.

But I also think that you’re mad because he fucked it all up by talking about it. Because what you want is for him to decide on some grand gesture, by himself, without getting you involved. You don’t want to school him. That’s why you’re so angry. Because you really, truly don’t want to sit him down and sift through your feelings about this and risk stumbling on the fact that part of you wants a gesture in spite of knowing it’s empty and unimportant. In fact, you hate that he has the power to make the gesture at all.

You’re not alone there. Here we are, living our lives in a deeply sexist world that has everything backward. Almost everyone we encounter, every day, agrees at some really unexamined level that men have all the power and women are property and men have to buy a symbol of wealth and offer that to a woman and then her ass belongs to him. It’s sick. And we grow up thinking it’s romantic and pretty, and then we learn what it all really means, and it’s like we suddenly hate ourselves for believing all those lies. And men never even have to reckon with it the way we do! They’re the heroes of the fairy tale! They’re the ones who take action, while we wait around!

But that’s not what your life looks like. You’re capable and you take action. You’re on top of your shit. You were a single mom and you made it work, and then you fell in love and had another kid and you’re still making it work. You’re strong and decisive. How dare he paint you as something other than who you are? AMONG MUTUAL FRIENDS.

It all makes perfect sense, actually. Liev knows what you want. He’s always had a plan, in the back of his mind, to give you what you want, because he loves you a lot. But I think he’s embarrassed to take action because he’s afraid of disappointing you. He knows that you’re seriously conflicted about marriage and weddings and rings. He knows you’re tough and you say you don’t want any of that stuff, but he also feels like you probably do want it, too, underneath your toughness. His truest feelings here are desire and shame. He wants to please you. He wants to stay with you. He is ashamed that he hasn’t made a giant gesture before now. He wants to make some gesture, but he can’t own it. He can’t own it for the same reason you can’t own it. It feels off. It’s not quite right for the two of you. He slipped up because these are things that are always bubbling underneath the surface. They can’t help but come out.

And yet. You sort of want him to be the kind of man who can make the gesture anyway, without getting your approval first. And he sort of wants to be that man, too, but he’s petrified. And you also DON’T want him to do it, because it will feel demeaning to you. Hell, you don’t even want to admit to yourself that you want it a little bit. And he doesn’t want to do it, either, because he can’t decide exactly what to do, and he’s pretty sure that you’ll hate it and reject his (embarrassing! Shamefully uncertain!) efforts either way.

You guys are very cute and you are both very sincere and earnest and you BOTH want to cover up all your conflicted, nutty feelings about marriage and weddings and rings. And let’s not even call it “marriage” or “weddings” or “rings” at all, because you two need some other way of doing this that feels right. What you two care about is being together and showing other people that you are together for the long haul. You two both care about that, a lot. And you want people to know that you’re staying together. That is a fact.

So even if, every time I say “You want this” you think No, I don’t want anything, you’re doing exactly what Liev is doing!, I want you to make sure that you understand what your wildest dreams and fantasies are made of. I want you to examine them and own them and dare to drag them out into the open. Even if I’m wrong, I want you to be brave and sift through your very conflicted feelings on this subject, without turning away from them.

When I met my husband, I was deeply conflicted about what I wanted. This also meant that I wasn’t good at telling him exactly what I wanted. Because I felt demeaned by what I wanted. I felt that my desires were beneath me. I was so embarrassed by my desires that they made me angry and confused. We took a trip together and we were supposed to maybe get engaged (though we hadn’t discussed it openly), and it was a complete and utter disaster. We were both embarrassed. We both wanted a lot, and we were afraid. I was angry at being placed in that position — by him, by myself, by our whole stupid sexist culture. It was pathetic and also very, very funny (in retrospect).

But let’s pull back from something as simple as getting engaged and look at the big picture, and look at YOU, because this is really important. Even if you disagree with every other thing I’ve written here, I want you to hear me on this one thing: You feel that your desires are beneath you. And when you feel that way, it is exceedingly difficult to be happy. Yes, you have many, many reasons for feeling that way. All women do. But in order to feel what you feel and GET WHAT YOU WANT, you have to let all those vulnerable, culturally poisonous, shallow-seeming desires into the room, once and for all. You have to show yourself, scary ingested gendered delusions and all. You have to own all the layers that go into making you who you are. You have to own your contradictory, irrational needs. You have to admit that you are someone who can be embarrassed and who can want something stupid or foolish or skin-deep, just because. You have to tell the full, complete truth. Maybe you never, in a million years, want to get married, and that’s the whole truth. Maybe you want to get married but you don’t want to get anyone else involved, you just want to do a private special thing, secretly. Maybe you want to get married and invite people, but you don’t want to call it a wedding or even call it a marriage. Maybe you want to have a party but not get a marriage license, because you hate the legal dimensions of it. Maybe you just don’t know what you want yet. But even if you want none of the above, you MUST start telling each other the whole, scary, vulnerable, convoluted, complex TRUTH.

Even though you want Liev to apologize and automatically understand where you are right now, your relationship will be much healthier and you will be much happier if you go to him and lay out the big picture, including the many conflicted feelings you have that feel so demeaning. You will need to say, “I don’t know why, but I feel sad about this, unbelievably sad.” You will need to say, “I feel like your words ruined everything.” You will need to say, “I act like I can’t be shamed, like I make up my own mind about everything, but what you said, out loud to our friends, made me feel small.” You need to admit that part of what makes you feel small is being shoved into a role that you didn’t write for yourself. And you need to, with an open heart, ask him how you two will write new roles for each other together. It will take patience, and maybe you’ll get angry along the way, and you’ll feel ashamed. You both will. But you trust each other and you know that you’re in this for the long haul, so it’s time to dig a little deeper and figure out what you both want.

One thing seems clear, though: You both want more. Celebrate that. You both are struggling, awkwardly, to show more of yourself to the world and to each other. His fumbling words signal that just as much as your rage signals it. It’s beautiful and sweet and it’s also really fucking funny — or it will be, in a few years. Stop trying to wrest control of this narrative, and just let go and look at what’s here: He loves you, in all his imperfect, stupid, fucked-up, clumsy glory. You love him, in all your defensive, tough, swaggery, secretly soft glory. This is as good as it gets. This is everything. Embrace it. Time is running out. Embrace exactly what you already have, and celebrate it. Show your hearts. Tell the whole truth. This is not beneath you.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Idiot Boyfriend Claims I Want a Ring, But I Don’t!’