When does the wedding ring come off?

(left to right) Katie Holmes, gold wedding rings, Tom Cruise (Images: Getty/Thinkstock)

Katie Holmes has been photographed in New York without her wedding ring after filing for divorce from Tom Cruise. When is it appropriate to take off the ring?

As soon as the Sunday red-top revelation that a celebrity relationship is on the rocks has been made, all public appearances of the couple will be scrutinised for the real signs the marriage is over - the "noticeably bare finger".

Katie Holmes was photographed in New York on Tuesday, left hand up to her face - no wedding band.

Not everyone wears a ring after they get married, but for those who do it is usually deeply symbolic, a sign of commitment. And, there's a painful contrast between the big, joyous ceremony involved with putting the ring on, and the loneliness of slipping it off when things haven't worked out.

For some couples, the ring comes off and goes back on as the relationship goes through its ups and downs.

But in the immediate aftermath of reports that celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole had been the victims of infidelity, gossip magazines and newspaper columnists pored over the presence or otherwise of a wedding band with a kind of forensic scrutiny akin to the Pentagon's Cold War-era Kremlinologists.

It's a dilemma familiar to the Independent's agony aunt Virginia Ironside, now 68, who recalls having to confront it at the age of 30 when her marriage ended.

"My instinct was to revert to my single name as quickly as possible," Ironside adds. "But I thought my ring was rather pretty, so I kept it on."

After a year, however, it was accidentally lost when it slipped off her finger. "The anxiety must have made me thinner," she recalls.

"Taking it off does help one psychologically," she says. "But it's a pretty emotional decision. Ultimately it's all about how you wish to be seen - whether you wanted the marriage to continue or not."

If the separation appears to be amicable, some people might not rush to remove the ring, out of a sense of respect.

Earlier this year, singer Seal said in a television interview that he would continue to wear his ring, even after it had been announced that he and wife Heidi Klum were to split.

"It's a token of how I feel about this woman," he said on on Ellen DeGeneres's chat show. "It feels really comfortable on my hand."

Image caption Holmes has been pictured without her wedding ring (above)

Less than a month later, however, on Valentine's Day, he was pictured without the band. A few days later, Klum was pictured without hers.

Others take less time. In 2004, it was reported that Wayne Rooney's then-fiancée Coleen McLoughlin hurled her engagement ring into a squirrel sanctuary after reports of his indiscretions.

"There is a lot of symbolism," says relationship expert Judy James. "In terms of the celebrity profile, a lot of them play games with the ring. It's a strong message to the public, but an even a stronger one to the person they are married to."

For many people, taking the ring off can be extremely final, she says. And it can make many people feel uncomfortable.

"It's not just that your marriage might be over, but to some people feel that it almost appears like they are looking for someone else. That might make some women feel self-conscious," says James.

"It is a deeply symbolic thing to take the ring off, but sometimes we're not sure what that symbolism actually means to us."

She says that a man is more likely to be really hurt if a woman takes the ring off.

"The ring has a deep historical symbolism - as a symbol of male ownership."

The divorce process can be lengthy and many people get anxious over the right time to remove the ring - when lawyers are taken on, or when the decree absolute comes through.

Many will feel they are living a lie wearing it, but are worried about taking it off in case it looks like they are signalling their intention to get back on the dating scene.

Internet forums and blogs indicate a spectrum of choices.

Some keep the ring to pass on to their children. One woman made a point by wrapping the ring in paper and placing it at the bottom of her husband's suitcase.

Often people take it off out of anger or spite - or as a cry for attention, leaving it beside the toaster after an argument.

Sharing their experiences on a recent thread on Mumsnet, a number of women said they took it off as soon as the decision to divorce had been made. One woman threw the ring at her husband, while another said she hadn't yet found the courage to remove the ring - even though she had found out about her husband's affair a few months previously.

One woman said since she removed the ring, she keeps touching the space where it used to sit on her finger.

For James, it is understandable that people might keep a ring on for quite a long time after the separation.

"It could be that someone doesn't want to talk about what has happened," says James. "Taking a ring off is a bit like updating your Facebook page to say that you are single.

"These days, there is an expectation that everyone wants to talk about what is happening in their personal lives but some will leave a ring on because they don't want to discuss it."

Additional reporting by Jon Kelly