With the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton just over two weeks away, Buckingham Palace is letting out daily updates of the impending nuptials. Few bits of news have proved as controversial as the announcement that the future king will forgo a wedding band after he’s married.That decision hasn’t been well received by the press or the public. Even those who take no interest in royalty have been drawn into a debate about the larger issue: should men wear wedding rings?
We know—or we should know—that not everyone buys into the marriage ideal. (Many gay men and lesbians do buy into the ideal, but cannot have their commitments recognized by law.) People can be in enduring, loving monogamous relationships without getting married. People can also find happiness and fulfillment outside of monogamy itself: the experiences of many of my celibate, polyamorous, and proudly promiscuous friends have shown me that.
But at the same time, marriage remains an iconic institution. Lots of us still get married—though fewer than in earlier eras. Lots of young people I work with tell me that they want to get married someday, but only “if” they meet the right person. Most teens and 20-somethings have seen plenty of divorces and comparatively few happy and enduring marriages. These young people are no less romantic than their elders, but they are probably more fearful. They’ve seen that what can go wrong usually does. Plenty still believe in enduring love, but many aren’t at all sure it will “happen” for them.
So what about those guys who by luck or by choice have made happy marriages for ourselves? Do our wedding rings matter? Why should people care about our jewelry decisions—after all, are we really less married when we choose not to put on a ring?
Wedding rings have been around for a long time, but men only started wearing them regularly in the 20th century. Cynics argue that “double ring” ceremonies were pushed by the jewelry industry, eager to maximize profits by encouraging men as well as women to wear something permanent and expensive on their left ring fingers. But it’s also true that the practice of men wearing rings tied in with increasing urbanization. In a small town, everyone knows who the married men are. In the big cities to which more and more Americans migrated, a wedding band became the only sure-fire way to know who was available and who wasn’t.
I don’t think that every man who doesn’t wear his wedding ring is necessarily “sleazy.”
Some men (and women) loathe jewelry, or have jobs that make wearing a ring impossible or even dangerous. There are plenty of reasons why someone might not want to wear his ring—and at least some of those reasons have nothing to do with wanting to feign singleness.
But weddings are still social events; few of us get hitched without at least some family or friends in attendance. Marriage has both a private and a public dimension. Many religious traditions implore the congregation to pledge to support the couple whose wedding they are witnessing. As a former First Lady and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once wrote, it takes a village to raise a child. She might have added that it sometimes takes a village to help sustain a marriage. Just maybe, the village has a right to expect married men to act differently than single men. And one of the most obvious ways that married men can mark themselves out as “off the market” is with a wedding ring.
Since my wife and I were married six years ago, I only take my ring off to sleep, bathe, and work out. I travel a lot by myself, and often notice women (and, much less often, men) giving a quick glance at my left hand. I don’t flatter myself that all of those people would be interested if my hand were bare. Rather, many of them are looking to size me up quickly, sometimes as much to assess potential threat level as to determine whether I’m available. Though men with wedding rings still do hit on women, there’s at least a perception that a guy with a band on his finger is less likely to be on the prowl. (In my own purely personal experience, the stereotype that women are more likely to pursue a man who is wearing a ring has turned out to be a myth.)
It is not designed to ward other women off, or to remind me to be faithful. It symbolizes more than monogamy; it symbolizes partnership, it symbolizes that the decisions I make and the dreams I pursue are made and pursued in intimate concert with one other human being. It is a symbol that while there is always an autonomous and independent me, that me is inextricably linked to an “us.” The monogamous ideal we embrace is one vehicle for personal growth, it isn’t the only or even the best one. But it is mine, and it is ours.
The David Yurman band I wear has been a bit dinged over the years, but it still shines. My wife and I, like all married couples, have had our ups and our downs. Our bodies have aged a bit (mine far more visibly than hers), and have their nicks and scratches too. But our marriage still gleams, still empowering us to go out and serve in public and come home to the safe (but challenging) refuge of our shared private life.
I don’t judge men who choose not to wear their rings. But I’m proud to wear mine, and if you see me in public without it (and I’m not in workout gear), then I’ve either been robbed or something very unfortunate has happened. Feel free to ask.
And yeah, I wish Prince William would wear his, too.
This piece was originally published at The Good Men Project Magazine, an online publication which claims: “Unlike so many other men’s magazines, we don’t patronize or caricaturize our audience. We try to bring out the best in men, and we do that by producing content that challenges men to think deeply—and to talk about the things they don’t usually talk about.”
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