Pure Sex, Pure Love

Public displays of affection: Should a woman take her husband's name, and should a man wear a wedding ring?

Among the many decisions a couple makes on their way to the altar, two choices are very public—and tell us a lot about changing social norms: Will she take his last name and will he wear a wedding ring?

Today more women legally change their names and more men wear wedding bands than they did just 15 years ago. Why? And will these superficial, but very public, signs of commitment help us better live out our sacramental vows?

In 1975, about 4% of college graduate women kept their maiden names once married. That figure rose sharply in the late 1970s and 1980s, according to Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, as women increasingly “made a name” for themselves in higher education and the workplace before often-later marriage.

But then things started to change. Women are still making great strides in education and careers, and the age of first marriage continues to rise. Yet it seems our generation likes the old-fashioned way better: Among college-educated women in their 30s, just 17% keep their maiden names. That’s down from 23% in 1990, according to Professor Goldin’s data. And 91% of the married women who responded to our BustedHalo poll say they changed surnames when they took their vows. “It’s a great tradition, and it feels right to me,” says Melissa, 32.

Gail, 36, agrees. She uses her maiden name as a middle name to preserve her professional identity but took her husband’s name as a surname. “I know several women who kept their maiden names and then regretted that decision once they had children. I think it’s important for all the members of a nuclear family to share a common family name.”

And it’s not just women who are making public signs of commitment long after their vows: More men are wearing wedding rings now than ever before in American history. According to Peter Crump, who runs a website solely devoted to men’s wedding rings, about half of newly married men wear wedding rings.

To Answer the Questionnaire, click here.

In the new Broadway musical Avenue Q, one of the characters sings: “The more you love someone, the more you want to kill them.” Relationships aren’t easy. But sometimes you wonder if yours is just too hard. Maybe you’ve been apart for a long time; maybe you’ve lost that spark; or maybe you’ve been fighting a lot. Can it really be love if it takes this much work?

Questions include:

Have you ever read a relationship/dating/marriage self-help book?

When was your relationship threatened and how did you work through it?

How has your faith helped you make decisions in your relationships?

The tradition of a man wearing a wedding band is a relatively new one. At the beginning of the 20th Century, it symbolized prosperity and stability among the upper classes. During World War II men’s wedding rings became more popular as a symbol of the wives left back home, but it still didn’t really catch on.

My parents have been married for 34 years, and while my Mom proudly dons an engagement ring, wedding ring and commitment band, my Dad doesn’t wear anything. He says none of his friends who got married in the early 1970s wore wedding rings, but those who married in the 1990s did.

Social norms have changed: A full 87% of BustedHalo readers say married men should wear wedding rings, and of the married men who responded to our poll, all but one regularly wear their wedding bands.

Joseph, 31, says he’d like his future wife to wear a ring “to publicly acknowledge that she is out of the running” for other men. In turn, he says he’d happily wear a wedding ring to let the world know that he’s found “love after a long search.”

I’m with Joseph: Unless there’s a very good reason not to wear one (i.e. you work with high-voltage circuits and a metal band will electrocute you), a married man of our generation should wear a wedding ring, if only because women now expect to see one on his hand. When I see a cute guy walk into a room, the first thing I look for is a wedding band. And if I get married someday, it would be comforting to know that my cute-guy husband is sporting that wedding band as a stop sign to the rest of the ladies out there.

But perhaps I’m being a little insecure: Anne writes that she and her husband work at the same hospital, and both only wear their rings occasionally. “I believe that [rings] are outward symbols of my commitment, but our marriage is so solid that I see them as unneeded. People seem to cling to them as proof of commitment, when real commitment is visible in how we behave.”

She raises a good point: Our sacred vows should come through in everyday actions. But the fact remains that more women are taking their husbands’ names and more men are wearing wedding rings. So what is our generation hoping to gain by making these grander public statements about commitment?

According to Professor Avner Offer at the University of Oxford, as divorce becomes more common, couples try to send stronger, more binding signals about the strength of their marriages—more expensive weddings, stop-sign wedding rings, permanent name changes included.

For Catholics, marriage is about a man and woman joining together as one to create a new family, our replica of the Holy Trinity here on earth. The marriage ceremony—and the exchange of rings—is the public and visible sign of that sacrament. So while rings and legal name-changes aren’t necessary, are they helpful signs of the commitment that continues long after the honeymoon?

The big question is whether there is a correlation between these public displays and the actual strength of a relationship. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And please take a moment to share your opinions for next week’s column in the sidebar on the right: Can it really be love if it takes this much work?