With This Ring, I Thee Clutch

By | January 11, 2011

For a moment, let us put aside any noble-minded notions we might have of the wedding ring as a symbol of two hearts joined, unending encircled love, a precious token given selflessly,  etc., etc. After all, we each know that these romantic whims fade away in a few months anyway and reality sets in.

I remember slipping that ring onto my first wife’s finger. We were both 21 and survivors of the relationship turmoil that college often brings to naïve high school sweethearts. Now I can relax, I thought. I finally have her for good—I have the comfort and security I feared I would never achieve. And let’s not forget the self-worth I gained.

To have and to hold. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer, called the wedding ring “a circular instrument placed upon the noses of hogs and the fingers of women to restrain them and bring them into subjection,” in his A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. His wording is a bit more brusque than I would have chosen, yet in essence it would have rung true for me at the foot of that altar forty-one years ago.

Only a few years ago did I discover that checking to see if a woman wore a ring on her left-hand finger was one of the primary ways we men determine a woman’s availability. Several women have since told me that they wore rings even though unattached, just to feel safe. What charades we play.

Perhaps Johnson wasn’t so far off. In many traditional pastoralist and agriculturalist cultures, a man or his parents will negotiate for a bride in the same way livestock or other goods would be negotiated for. In fact livestock and other goods are often a part of the bride package. More digging turned up evidence that wedding rings, which in ancient Rome and Europe until recent times were worn by the wife only, evolved from the shackles and collars used on animals. And slaves.

No matter how much we sugarcoat it in white lace and poetry, we still have the man slipping the ring on the woman’s finger. And vice versa as well, in our time. Those feelings of male dominance and possessiveness are yet there for me—as real today as in those purportedly less-enlightened times. How could I have been such an unwitting player for so long in this insidious game? Many divorcees have told me what the have-and-hold ritual we call marriage ultimately turned out to be all about after the illusion had worn off. Some people who have remained married have told me the same thing in moments of painful honesty. Do I really want to perpetuate such an institution and continue displaying its symbol?


Stephanie on February 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm.

Romance aside. I delight in the commitment I have made to grow old with someone. We will change. This is certain. We gave and wore rings. Without attachment. History aside, it has the meaning we have given it, the power we have chosen. Now, neither of us wear it most days. I do not feel shackled, but I do feel bound- by my word. What do we live by if not by our word? I don’t feel infusing old symbols with new cultural meanings is wrong; it’s just letting go and moving on. Yes, I like using it to convey the notion of “unavailable”. I also accept that anything I do is somewhat a product of my conditioning. Try as we (speaking of myself and my spouse) might not to, we still live amongst the main stream. Therefore I have to communicate in a way most will understand if I am to be understood, right?

And the illusion. Why does a long-term, life-term so-to-speak, relationship suffer from illusion? I think because we are deluded to think that a human relationship will somehow not require “work”. Dispelling the illusion is accepting the work to grow in the human endeavor of living kindly and loving deeply. That’s what I think. I have only in recent years come to accept this. I no longer feel I suffer from some delusional idea of marriage. In fact, I rejoice in the work of knowing myself and being fearless to know someone else and grow alongside each other.


Tamarack on February 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm.

Greetings Stephanie,

I appreciate the point you make about the value of giving new definitions to old symbols and traditions rather than summarily rejecting them. Evolution is nature’s way, and at the same time, threads of continuity give a culture stability and richness.

The other night I had a series of dreams on this topic. I was shown that much of what we accept as truth is actually pretense. I was further shown that the more tenaciously I cling to a perception, the more I distort and diminish whatever truth is there. For example, when I think I’ve lost something, it is because I perceived it to be mine. Is the land I live on any more mine than it is the Robin’s who nests in the branch above me? In the same sense, is this dog mine, or this house, this money, this child, this woman? Our concept of exclusive ownership and the moral and legal frameworks that support it appear to be endemic to sedentary materialist cultures. I find the concept of usership, with a corresponding Zen-like nonattachment, to be more the norm with nomadic pastoralists and hunter gatherers.

What does this have to do with mated relationship and attachment-rings? If I’m looking forward to tracking our resident Wolf pack after a fresh snowfall, I don’t have to commit myself to doing it. On the contrary, you’d have to knock me out to stop me. What I consider to be a privilege and a pleasure needs no commitment, and this clearly applies to my relationship with my mate, Lety.

The things I need to commit to are those I find distasteful or have no passion for. The hard times in a relationship could fall into one of these categories, and commitment can help us through them. The same time, I think of the saying, If you love something, let it go, and if it is meant to be, it will return. We materialists seem to believe more in, If you love something, secure and defend it. For Lety and me, the hard times are often the most valued, because they bring us the great opportunities to grow and heal by going out on the frontiers of our psyches and embracing the fear, woundedness, and illusion we find there.


Drew Jacob on January 17, 2011 at 12:55 am.

An interesting fact: in the early middle ages, the ring was not only used at weddings as a symbol of marriage, but also given to young warriors as a symbol of being initiated into a war band.

The ring, however, was a scaled-down version of what was originally used. In ancient times, it was a neck-ring or arm-ring instead. These rings were worn as symbols of either warband status (by men), marriage (by women) or devotion to a god (usually men, perhaps also women). If you follow the design of these rings back to the earliest times in Northern Europe, they were worn exclusively by SLAVES. It was a symbol of slavery, subservience and being owned. Only later did it gain the added meanings of being owned by a god, a respected war band, or, in the case of marriage, a woman being owned by man.

How romantic.


Nan on January 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm.

I think culturally marriage is seen as desirable because it appears to offer the stability and protection required to raise offspring. As a social construct, it is considered to be a “sacrament” within organized religions. Aside from that, it’s also a legal means by which wealth and status are acquired and maintained. Governmental institutions offer a multitude of benefits and privileges to married couples that are not available to other couples (without a lot more money and hella paperwork). For example, if I choose to have a mate listed on the deed to property I own, the name addition will cost me around $700 in Wisconsin, unless we are married, in which case there will be perhaps a token filing fee. If I have health insurance, I can get a married partner added to my plan, but not an unmarried one. If I’m married, I can attend my hospitalized mate in an ICU; if I’m not married, I am forcibly kept away unless I have a signed medical power of attorney. And so on.

Governments do more than grant special privileges to those who marry – they also control who is permitted to marry. My friends in same-sex relationships are not allowed to marry. In my parents’ generation (and earlier), their friends in relationships with partners of different colors/ethnic backgrounds were not allowed to marry, and if they somehow managed to do so could be thrown in jail if they were caught.

As my beloved used to say, “Make no unnecessary agreements with the State.”


Leah on January 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm.

I think this posting brings up some interesting points. When I was younger, a kid, and even into my teen years, I was obsessed with engagement rings. I wore a fake one, and it brought me an immense amount of comfort. I’m not sure how I interpreted it then, but it’s amazing what the mind will do to believe what it wants to believe. I suppose, somehow by wearing it, I could imagine that someone really wanted me, so much so that they gave me a ring. It’s hard to admit that I did that, but I did.

Fast forward to all of these years later, and I did it again. I bought a ring for myself, a ring I really loved, not an engagement style ring, and I wore it on my left hand on my ring finger. Again, that sense of comfort, and I had no desire to wear it anywhere else. In many ways it was a symbol of belonging from myself to myself, but it took on other meanings as well. Soon, it was caught up in a man who had in no way proposed to me. It took me many months to take that ring off and to feel not naked without it.

I wonder, you wrote above, that once the illusion wore off, people had different ideas of what marriage was. It seems through your writing that people came to you with similar stories. As someone who has never been married, and still doesn’t know if it’s the thing for her, this person would like to ask what you think it means to be married, what is everyone saying? What wears off? It wasn’t specifically mentioned in the text, and I’m wondering if you were talking about the original idea, that after the romance and novelty wears off, a marriage or a partner becomes simply another possession that we relate to like we relate to any of our possessions? Without true relationship? Does the notion of marriage and being bound to each other forever, does that actually degrade real relationship? Inhibit it? Those are my intuitions sometimes, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Tamarack on January 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm.

Hi Leah,

You are asking the hard questions that I think need to be answered if we want to restore the integrity of intimate relationship in our culture. People tell me that romance might make a marriage, but it’s pragmatism that sustains it. When the glitter wears off, they stay together for the kids, for comfort, for fear of being alone, or just out of habit. However, the majority of couples do not stay together, and most of their parting issues center on my theory for the existence of marriage in the first place — possessiveness. Who is going to get the house, the kids, the retirement account? Who is going to assume responsibility for the debt? Who is going to pay child support? Going in, to have and to hold may have romantic overtones; but coming out, it shows its teeth.

If marriage has any hope of being a viable institution, it needs a stronger foundation than myth and illusion. Why does sharing your life with the one you love called a commitment rather than an opportunity? Why is marriage sealed with a contract? Why do the majority of attorneys practice family law, and why do they make over twice as much as family-related therapists, social workers, and educators?


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