The Power of Ritual
Routines are enormously useful in keeping our lives purposeful and organized. For those of us with children, routines are more than useful – they can be a life saver; without routines, family life becomes chaotic and parenting exhausting as every moment of every day has to be directed. When children have no habitual practices to cue them to do things like getting dressed or putting their dirty plates in the sink, these simple habits of cooperative living must be picked up by the parent, or worse, the parent becomes the constant nag.
Routines, then, are enormously valuable as an efficiency practice; they save us time and energy by undertaking things that need to be done with less drama and less supervision.
Rituals are similar to routines with one important difference – they have positive emotional meaning. As such, they are particularly valuable for their capacity to connect us with others by providing a focus or activity that enables us to interact together in an enjoyable and meaningful way.
Connection rituals are essential to a healthy, thriving marriage and will nourish it for years to come. Almost anything can become a ritual when we make the focus of the activity about the relationship. For example, some couples check in with each other by phone during the day. It only becomes a ritual, though, if it is used as a connection time rather than just an exercise in exchanging information. We’ve had many years of this practice. The phone call might begin with a perfunctory purpose such a reminder to pick up one of the kids, but that is really just the excuse to make the call. It becomes a ritual because the heart of the activity is about checking in with how the other is going. In other words, it’s a simple connection ritual with “how is your day going” being the most common form.
There are three key elements of a sustainable connection ritual.
- Firstly, they are regular and repeated. Doing something once or twice doesn’t qualify it as a ritual; rituals need regular repetition in order to really deliver long-term relationship benefits.
- Secondly, they need to enable a deeper connection. It has to operate at more than just the superficial or practical level. Rituals like reading the paper after dinner are just a routine if you do it by yourself – there’s no relationship nurturing or emotional bonding happening in that activity. The positive emotional meaning happens when an activity like that is shared – for example, one might read the paper to the other while they wash dishes or fold laundry. A common practice for us is to take a walk after dinner together to debrief on the day. It is another simple example of a daily connection ritual.
Of course, it goes without saying that the activity has to be enjoyed by both. If one or both finds the ritual tedious, the positive emotions simply won’t be present and it won’t achieve deeper connection.
- Finally, effective rituals need a clear beginning and end point. Like book ends on a bookshelf, a ritual needs to be distinguished from the myriad interactions that typically populate a couple’s day or week. When these are clear, both participants know when the ritual is in process so they can give it the attention it requires to establish the connection goals. For example, if one begins reading the paper while the other is preoccupied paying the bills or outside feeding the dog, the connection values are broken. It can even cause one or both to feel wounded or offended.
When connection rituals meet these three criteria, they tend to form robust, sustainable practices that become the bedrock of a couple’s life; something they can rely on even when they are angry with each other or are feeling disconnected. The routine nature of them is an easy gateway to break the ice and restore affection.
Just like our essential daily vitamins, a regular connection ritual can keep our marriages healthy and vibrant. Make one a feature of your marriage, and it will nourish it for years to come.