On my flight today, I observed man and woman bickering at each other. They were finding their seats and frankly acting quite childish. Every time I thought the argument had ended, one of them threw in another snarky comment at the other to escalate it out of pride. We’ve all been there.

Then I noticed a big sparkly wedding band on her left hand. It all made sense.

This was a married couple who had probably been together for a while and perhaps lost their spark. From my point of view, the only thing they had in common was the wedding ring. It really seemed like they weren’t happy together.

They gave up everything for each other when they were young. They rode the honeymoon phase of the relationship straight into a wedding, after only knowing each other for a year. Gradually, they got to know each other more and got to know themselves less. They developed a rut in their communication, and everything started to stagnate. These communication habits among other things prevented each of them from growing in their own way, so they both held each other back unknowingly. They now resent each other for it. Now, despite their unhappiness, they refuse to be one of those couples who get divorced for any number of reasons.

OK… I’m clearly generalizing here. Obviously I don’t know enough about this relationship to make an accurate judgement call. They could be very happy together, and this could be just how they interact. The bitterness also could have been a rare occurrence since it was a 6 am flight.

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume my generalization is correct. After all – if not here, this scenario surely exists somewhere.

What’s holding them together?

Is it the wedding ring? This is a symbol for love, and at one point it accurately represented their relationship. But people change, relationships grow, and it no longer fits. Yet the ring is still on her finger.

Is it the fear of being labeled as “divorced”? This is a symbol for failed love. It carries embarrassment, shame, and heartbreak. Those feelings are here, yet the label is not.

What if those symbols never existed? Would it be easier to act rationally in accordance with the present situation? Have the symbols hindered their ability to look past them?

For starters, they wouldn’t be married. They would merely be two separate people who used to love each other, but don’t anymore, though they still live together and they share a fair amount of habits and family relationships.

I’m convinced that even the most glamorous of wedding rings doesn’t have the power to hold together a dead relationship. It must be deeper than that.

Is it the unwillingness to break comfort of the habits they’ve developed over years? Is it the fear of being alone? Is it indecisiveness stemmed from sheer uncertainty?

It could be any combination of these.

Because she still wears the ring it on her finger, she examines the symbol itself; not what it was created to represent.

It doesn’t take much thought to look at the symbol and be reminded of what it stands for. It takes a lot more thought, energy, and emotion to look past the symbol and depict the objective reality of the situation.

They did that once when they got married.

Symbols blind us from reality. They are shortcuts. In this ever-changing life, it is impossible to wrap something up into a nice label that always fits.

They are useful tools, but we must consistently reexamine the substance behind the symbol.

The only reason symbols exist is to represent what’s behind them. It’s the changing reality that gives the symbol its value, and to rely on it without examination is to ignore reality.

When we default to relying on symbols instead of assessing reality, we lose touch with what the label once represented.

A college degree is a symbol. It says “this person is good enough to work in a job in X field.” Once upon a time, that symbol was accurate. But we have evolved and a college degree no longer accurately represents competence, just like the relationship evolved, rendering the wedding ring meaningless.

A job title is a symbol, when really it represents the certain actions someone does in order to accomplish certain tasks. It is not always uniform, and these tasks and actions evolves as the business does.

We call ourselves Christians, Atheists, Republicans, and Democrats without really knowing what they mean.

Symbols are here to represent something that innately cannot be represented. Use them with caution, and think.