After seven years of marriage, I stopped wearing my wedding ring.
There was no big fight. In reality, my husband and I were having some of the best months of our marriage after nearly a year of struggle. We were being open and honest with each other. We were working on giving each other the space to be our full selves.
Something about that space made me look down at my hand and think, Why am I wearing this?
I couldn’t answer that.
Growing up, I saw my unmarried parents fighting and waited for them to leave each other, grateful they weren’t legally bound. I didn’t dream of a beautiful dress. I didn’t dream of a husband. I had no religion to suggest to me there was something sacred about a union. And when it came down to it, I was fully skeptical that two people should ever sign a contract with an oath of till death — gulp — do us part.
But married I was. My husband and I signed the paperwork in a courthouse when I was 17. My husband was from the United Kingdom, and we could either get married to keep him in the States, where we could be together, or he could keep leaving to go home. At the time, this seemed like an impossible option.
We planned the non-wedding with two days’ notice. His mother gave us some money and we ordered our rings in bulk — a three pack off of Amazon, an engagement ring, and matching wedding rings for us both. When they arrived the day after we were married, I had to ask which hand I was supposed to put them on.
I’d barely gotten used to calling him my boyfriend. And there he was — my husband.
Marriage became an armor I wore. We weren’t allowed to fizzle out like another high school relationship might. To fail meant to prove everybody right: The teachers and my peers who suggested I was naive (I was) or that I would end up pregnant within the year (I did not) or that I would be stuck in that small town for the rest of my life (I wasn’t).
This was how my husband and I forged our relationship. We had to prove everybody wrong.
And then last year, my mother died. Losing her, I realized with an intense clarity that only grief can provide how much of my life I was missing. I was caught up trying to be perfect so that I could avoid any pain or disappointment. And yet there was no avoiding the pain of losing her.
Almost immediately, my husband and I started fighting. We fought about my brother, who had moved in with us. I got resentful of all the responsibilities that were on my shoulders that I felt my husband wasn’t trying to alleviate. But the details didn’t matter. What mattered was that we started digging into every last thing we’d done to hurt each other, and for the first time, I felt like I was seeing our relationship for what it was, right there in that moment, and not for what it could be someday in the future. I looked at us and couldn’t see why either of us was still there.
For the first time, I was looking at our relationship and thinking, I don’t have to be here. What’s the worst that could happen if I leave? If I leave, I will still exist.
So I started planning to leave. We were going into the holiday season, and I thought it would be cruel to leave then. I figured I would leave in January, the month my brother was expected to move out. Instead, on Thanksgiving Day, my mother’s favorite holiday, my husband made us dinner and got frustrated with my silence. “It’s like you’re not even here. I feel like you’re stringing me along,” he said.
“You’re right,” I told him. “This isn’t working.”
For two hours I explained why I couldn’t stay. I was measured and patient as he asked me questions, and I felt relief that I was saying exactly how I felt. I wasn’t blaming him or me. We weren’t fighting. It seemed like it was really, truly done. But then he asked me what I wanted to do about sleeping arrangements. It felt like he had surrendered to the idea that there was nothing he could do, that I was making my own choices, and that’s when I felt a glimmer in my gut that maybe we could start from there, from that broken place of near-leaving and surrender. “Maybe we can start over?” I said. I told him I wasn’t staying forever but that I would stay for today, and we could see where it went from there.
It sounds cliché. I can’t get away from that. We took a long weekend together and had the most honest conversation we’d had since we’d met.
It was three months later, when we’d fallen into a comfortable connection again, that I slipped the ring off my finger and put it in my jewelry box. I wanted to see what it felt like to be free of it. I didn’t know why at the time.
“Are you trying to tell me something?” my husband asked when he noticed its absence. It took him a while to believe me when I said it didn’t.
By taking off the ring, I was giving myself space. The space to be a married person who could decide for herself what that meant. A person who was choosing to be here. A person who was willing to let go. A person who was whole all on her own.
My husband still wears his wedding ring. He told me that when people ask why I don’t wear mine, he says, “That’s just not who she is as a person.” It took me a long time to realize that was true.
Taking off the ring was a way of coming back to myself. Maybe. Or maybe it was just a ring.