The wedding industry is very bride-facing. And this was a deliberate campaign aimed to make marriage more stylish and fashionable. After all, traditional weddings were practical mergers and business arrangements. So today’s floral fantasy is an entirely feminine invention. The wedding ring – however – was invented by guys. It initially showed ownership and exchange.
In some patriarchal cultures, wedding rings are still a matter of status and possession. But the modern wedding ring holds so much more power than its archaic ancestor. Plus, because men (and same-sex couples) wear them too, their significance has shifted over time. So let’s look at some of the various shades of meaning that can be applied to that symbol of nuptial union.
Meaning 1. Romantic Love
In the old days – think Shakespeare and King Arthur – marriage was a way to secure your lineage and transfer property. It wasn’t an issue of love. That’s why so many knights had lady-loves that were other people’s wives. During such entanglements, a knight may give his lover a posy ring (posie/poesy) with a secret love message inscribed on it – one on they could decipher.
This tradition may later have developed into etchings or engravings in wedding rings. The ring will often have markings indicating its karats or weight. It may have the manufacturer’s name. But the couple will often carve their names on the ring, the venue, or the date of their wedding.
Or maybe they’ll pick a line from their favorite song, a poem, or some wording that is significant to them. Wedding rings are worn on the left ring finger because it was believed this finger had a Vena Amoris or ‘Lover’s Vein’ that led straight to the heart, so wedding rings were worn here.
Meaning 2. Marital Status
This may seem obvious – wearing a wedding ring is a clear visual marker that you’re ‘taken’. Especially in today’s dating scene where infidelity is grounds for expensive divorces. And in many cultures, married women have a higher social status than single ones, so that ring makes a difference, even if your marriage is less than perfect. But in Ancient Rome, things went deeper.
They had three kinds of marriage – usus (common-law cohabitation), coemptio (commercial marriage arranged by male relatives), and confarreatio (legal marriage among nobles). In the latter, the groom gave his bride an iron ring called annulus pronubus. It seemed to mark her as a husband’s property, and her family paid a dowry to cover her upkeep in her new marital home.
Meaning 3. Permanence
Wedding rings are circular. Circles are a universal symbol of infinity, endless eras, eternity. Rings were forged or cast using lots of different styles but the seam was always invisible. The idea was that a wedding ring had no beginning and no end. In some communities, it was believed to be pre-ordained. This made sense since many marriages were arranged unions.
The Roman wedding ring we mentioned earlier – annuls pronubus – was made of iron to symbolize the strength and unbreakable nature of marriage (although divorces did happen). The metal also represented the permanence of this bond. The concept is similar – if less romantic – than the idea of being together forever in endless love, at least until death divides you.
Meaning 4. Material Matters
The first-ever wedding rings were made of reeds and plant matter, and they had to be routinely replaced. Today’s wedding rings can be made from wood or silicone if you have an aversion to metal. Silicone rings are easier to keep clean, so they’re preferred by health workers and people with hectic jobs, active lifestyles, or heavily hands-on daily routines e.g. assembly line workers.
Wearing a bamboo wedding ring or a bridal band tattoo could mark you out as ethical or as an environmentalist. But if you still want a metal wedding ring, you could still choose yellow gold to represent fidelity, rose gold for romantic love, or white gold for friendship. You could get a tri-metal wedding ring to symbolize all three, as well as your shared past, present, and future path.
Meaning 5. Holistic Healing
We’ve established that wedding rings came from the Ancient Egyptians. And we know they had a deep and complex religious system that included aspects of marriage, rebirth, and alchemy. So it makes sense for the gemstones on your wedding ring to hold a special significance as well. Ordinarily, engagement rings have larger stones while wedding rings will have smaller ones.
A wedding band may not have gemstones at all unless is part of a pair or trio. Either way, if you don’t go for standard diamonds, you may pick birthstones or some other precious stone that is significant to your relationship. You might select a healing stone-like rainbow obsidian for shared childhood trauma. Or petrified wood for shared history. Or emerald for fertility.
Meaning 6. Sustenance
We’ve seen that men didn’t historically wear wedding rings. And even today, married women hold a higher social stature than single ones. So why was … and is … so much power endowed by that piece of jewelry. Well, even in the hard-up war years, wedding rings were still made of gold. They were called utility rings, weighed 3 grams, and only had 9 carats. But they were still gold.
Also, keep in mind the groom gave the ring to the bride, often in the presence of her family. It’s clear a bride’s ring was among her most valuable possessions. In fact, as she left her father’s house to go live with her husband, it was arguable her only possession! The ring symbolized her groom’s ability to provide for her … and it was a back-up she could sell in case of emergencies.
Meaning 7. Fidelity
Even in today’s morally ambiguous world, adultery isn’t sanctioned. That’s why when you cheat on your partner, you can expect drama at best and a lawsuit at worst. And yet – even in the most developed nations – fidelity is gendered. Married men can still get away with cheating while married women get vilified, even at a legal level, cheating influences custody disputes.
In this sense, faithfulness is closely tied to the meaning of wedding rings. And because wives wear wedding rings more than grooms do, the fidelity meter does seem skewed in their direction. Society does seem harsher on cheating wives than husbands. That tells us we put more value on a woman’s wedding ring than her husband’s, even in same-sex marriages.
Meaning 8. Formality
The meaning of marriage has changed over time. But it was always a legally binding contract recognized by state authorities. In modern times, you have to buy a marriage license from your respective government, even if you’re getting married in a church or at home. In that sense, the license is the official mark of your marriage. Your ring then becomes the social symbol.
After the exchange of vows, gifts, flowers, and all that other bridal hullaballoo, the wedding rings remain as the visible sign of your social contract. Your engagement ring serves this formal purpose too but in a slightly different way. Together, these two rings are the ‘official signs’ that you’re now a respectable married couple and that he has made an honest woman out of you.
Meaning 9. Beginnings
The outer circle of your wedding ring represents eternal, unending love (or unbreakable business deals). But inside that ring, there’s a chasm, and that has meaning as well. Remember, the Ancient Egyptians were big on reincarnation and spiritual spaces. So the hole in the ring is a gateway, and entryway, ‘a path to things both known and unknown’ in your journey as a couple.
It could also symbolize an opening, a start to your new status as a couple, as parents, as in-laws. The wedding ring – in this instance – is a rite of passage that offers permission to enter married life and all the pleasures and challenges it presents. Before, you were a daughter or a son.
Now you are a husband or wife and soon to be a parent, probably. Your wedding ring marks both your transition and your status in this new chapter. It also marks a gateway to family life as you continue the family line – marriage was the only recognized pathway to legitimate heirs.
Meaning 10. Sun, Earth, Moon, Life
This may seem a little esoteric but stay with me for a minute. In couples with a two-ring ceremony, whether it’s a hetero-couple or a queer one, one of the rings will be smaller. That can recall a larger sun and smaller earth or moon. Because traditionally, the groom (or the partner with more masculine energy) held more power. This comes out louder in yellow gold rings.
It’s also interesting that in some countries, weddings must be officiated before sunset. If you say your vows after dark, they’re not legally binding. These weddings have to be done ‘in broad daylight for all the world to see’. So both practically and metaphorically, many people see wedding rings as a representation of the orbs that rule our lives, literally.
Meaning 11. Commitment
If you’ve ever described someone as ‘just a friend’ then you know all about commitment. You know the second your family sees this as your girlfriend or boyfriend, it creates a whole new level of expectation. It may also be why you insist on referring to your significant other as your ‘partner’ or your ‘person’, even in heteronormative arrangements. That label matters. A lot.
So in this sense, your wedding ring becomes an outward sign of your commitment to each other. It’s a sparkly set of bragging rights, a signifier that you’ve publicly accepted and acknowledged your partner. This can be especially meaningful after cohabitation. You knew you were together, but it feels nice to have a tangible sign you can show off to the world. So go put a ring on it!
Do you wear a wedding ring, engagement ring, or commitment ring? Show us in the comments!