Last May, junior Cherelle Kantey and her boyfriend, Chris, celebrated their one-year anniversary over a romantic dinner in D.C. The two met at a defunct nightclub called Heaven 12 months earlier, and were well past “I love you’s” as they exchanged gifts across the table.
Kantey got Chris a watch and he read aloud two poems: one he had written and the other, Shakespeare’s sonnet XVIII. The latter is Kantey’s favorite and is famous for its inquisitive opening line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Suddenly, Chris pulled out a heart-shaped ring box and revealed the diamond-encrusted band with a small center stone that lay inside. Kantey began to cry.
“He said, ‘This is to symbolize one year of our relationship. I’ll propose to you with a bigger ring when the time is right,” Kantey recalls, smiling.
She immediately slipped the promise ring onto her right hand, where she has worn it ever since.
“I do” – just not yet
Promise rings, most commonly thought of as pre-engagement rings, have become increasingly popular among young college students serious about their relationships, but not prepared to get down on one knee or say “I do” just yet. Whereas it used to be more common for college couples to get engaged as they approached graduation, promise rings present a sort of modern alternative.
Junior Felicia Rodriguez and her boyfriend Billy Green, a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, prefer to call the sterling silver heart-shaped band that she wears on her right middle finger a “commitment ring” rather than a promise ring.
“Even though commitment and promise are similar, I feel like commitment is a better word because a commitment is an action – you have to do it everyday. It’s more of a responsibility. A promise is something you make and you can break,” Rodriguez said.
Green gave Rodriguez the ring last February as an anniversary and Valentine’s Day gift. The two reunited in January after a 10-month split during Rodriguez’s year studying abroad. Green said time apart was an “epiphany” for him and prompted his decision to buy the ring.
“I had a great time just being a young, 21-year-old guy, but there wasn’t a day that I didn’t think about being with her. In the end, I realized that no matter how much fun that is, it’s just that much better when I’m with her,” he said.
Green purchased the ring online from jeweler Tiffany & Co. for about $200. Though he said price was not his primary concern and he would have likely spent upwards of $600 on the perfect ring, he stayed clear of rings with diamonds.
“A lot of the rings I liked had diamonds in them, but then I talked to my boys and they said, ‘If you’re buying a promise ring with a diamond, why don’t you just buy an engagement ring?’ So it limited what I could buy,” he said.
Kantey, who said she anticipates marrying Chris “way, way down the road” in three to five years, never asked him where he purchased her ring or how much it cost. Although her ring has a diamond, she said it is modest in size and that only bigger diamonds begin to border on engagement, rather than promise.
“It doesn’t matter how big and extravagant (my promise ring) is.but I think my engagement ring will be much bigger,” she quipped.
Kantey said she and Chris are not yet ready for engagement because they still do not have their own careers or a sense of financial stability, but she is confident the two have a future together.
“Everyone talks about finding ‘the one’ and I’ve just met him earlier than others,” she added.
For Rodriguez and Green, his mandatory overseas tours for the Navy during the next five years make them hesitant to get engaged right away. Green, who will be stationed in Florida, moves to his new home at the end of summer, abruptly ending the biweekly visits he and Rodriguez have become accustomed to during their years studying at nearby colleges. The two are worried about how they will handle the separation, but Green said he hopes the ring with “help” during the time apart.
Added Rodriguez, “Looking at the ring, I think of the time he gave it to me and said I was the one for him.” She also said that the ring has not changed how she and Green act, because they were just as committed before.
In addition to career obligations, Rodriguez said the “social stigma” of early engagement factors into her decision to wait for a more serious commitment.
“People treat you differently and look at you differently. Your friends probably think you’re not as fun,” she said. “In college, it’s just way too serious.”
Although promise rings are generally considered a baby step to engagement, those who have them said the ring does not signify a step up, but rather, is a symbol of the love two people share at the moment. “It’s an outward expression of what’s already there,” Kantey said.
The ring, in fact, is secondary – and perhaps obsolete – to the emotions it represents.
“The love is there regardless of the ring, and people can see that,” Green said.
He added, “It’s not an engagement ring, it was a gift to her to make her happy, to make her smile, and that’s what I want most.”
Different types of promises
Although promise rings have become increasingly popular as pre-engagement rings, they symbolize a variety of vows, as one junior’s simple, white-gold band proves.
The junior, a Tennessee native who did not want her name used, got her promise ring in sixth grade during a church commitment party, where she and 25 of her peers took a vow to abstain from sex until marriage.
“It’s a promise between me, the person I’m going to marry and God,” she said.
She has worn the ring every day since signing her virginity pledge card to remain sexually abstinent until she enters “a biblical marriage relationship.” She wears the ring on her right middle finger because she purposely bought the ring big – big enough to give to her husband on their wedding night.
Her Southern Baptist church began the program in conjunction with True Love Waits, a Christian ministry operating under the religious nonprofit organization Lifeway. She points out however, that the decision to make the promise was her own, without pressure from either her parents or her church.
Though barely an adolescent when she got her promise ring, she said she does not regret making her pledge so early. However, she does think it is better to make such a serious commitment later, when one “knows more about life and relationships.”
“I did it real early when you don’t know anything about relationships or guys . but it’s something that’s so important to me; it’s something I’ve made a part of myself,” she said.
Her friends and acquaintances at GW have been respectful of her decision to wait, but the junior admits she does get some “weird looks” from people when they find out her ring symbolizes a promise to abstain from sex, not a commitment to engagement.
“A lot of times people are really surprised. They think of someone who is a virgin and think they’re prude or don’t know how to have a good time or they’re not normal – but I’m just as normal as the next person,” she said.
Because promise rings do not come with rule books on dating and hooking up, the junior said each person decides where to draw the line. “I’m a little more liberal with my line,” she added.
She has hooked up with guys in the past, and has even stayed overnight with a few – coming uncomfortably close to breaking her promise. She “reevlauted (her) line” last semester after waking up next to a guy she did not feel particularly “close” to.
“It was a red flag to me. There’s no reason I should wake and feel regret about something I did the night before. I decided the next person I hook up with would be someone I was in a serious relationship with,” she said.
Since then, she has not “gone past kissing” with guys. If she were to “mess up” and break the pledge she took almost a decade ago, she said she would stop wearing her ring because it would have lost its meaning.
“It’s so personal that the only people who know if you break it are you and God.”