Wow. Here's a randomly good indication of why marriage as a legal institution still matters in our society, and should be made available to romantic couples of all types*: if Cary Tennis, a seemingly progressive advice columnist at a modernized, liberal joint like Salon.com can so easily consider a girl with a boyfriend "fair game,"
we obviously need something a little bit more protective than "they've been together for a long time."
"That's one reason people get engaged -- to signal that, even though they may be capable of screwing up, they are trying to make this one work, so please back off and don't make it harder. Wearing a ring is sort of a request: Please don't hit on me, I'm engaged. But in my view, boyfriends and girlfriends are in a provisional status, a kind of limbo; they're still on the market until they do something to declare themselves otherwise.
Personally, I think one should respect a person's declared intentions more than perceived secret ones, and if one is going to try and sway them, one should do so very carefully, respectfully, and with every readiness to accept defeat. But perhaps guys (or girls!) should take this into account when they feel pressured into going shopping for rings by their significant other---perhaps your significant other just wants a piece of armour to keep away the sharks.
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*That is, all types not subscribing to "open relationships."