The Power of Ritual
Some years ago, we attended a Smart Marriages conference in the United States. One of the most memorable inputs was from Dr Bill Doherty, a family therapist and author. Over dinner, he engaged the audience in telling stories about their relationship rituals, before unpacking how rituals work to strengthen marriages. It confirmed for us some of practices that we were teaching couples in our SmartLoving Seminars over many years about the power of ritual in marriage.
Firstly, there’s a difference between a routine and a ritual.
Routines can be very useful in keeping our lives purposeful and organised because they bring rhythm and stability. Routines simplify life by removing unnecessary decisions. For example, if our routine is to make our bed and brush our teeth each morning, we don’t have to think about it or decide whether we will or won’t do those things on any particular day. There’s no decision to make, no deliberation or weighing up pros and cons… we just do it.
Routines like this example are generally a constructive contribution to our lives, but some routines might be a negative. Such as checking our Facebook feed when we get into bed which can easily lead to us ‘falling down the Facebook rabbit hole’ leaving us tired and with post-event regret the next day.
Rituals are like routines with one important difference – they have positive emotional meaning. Rituals connect us with deeper values and with others by providing a focus or activity that enables us to interact together in an enjoyable and meaningful way.
In a ritual, an action carries an intended meaning understood by the others involved. So while on the surface an action may seem simple, to those who understand its purpose it carries added meaning.
Almost anything can become a ritual when we make the focus our 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. In this way this simple action has added meaning and purpose.
Secondly, practical marriage rituals have important features that distinguish them. Dr Doherty identifies these essential qualities for successful rituals:
- They need to be time limited so that the ritual doesn’t become long winded and thus avoided because we ‘don’t have time right now’.
- They need to have a clear beginning and end point so that we know when we are in the ‘ritual space’.
- Successful rituals are also linked to a natural trigger so that remembering to do it is not required. For example, linking it to the end of dinner or when we make a cup of tea.
- Finally, it should be primarily about being personal with each other and building positive connection. Rituals that get regularly ambushed by difficult discussions will be avoided by our natural fear of conflict.
Thirdly, every marriage needs Essential Daily Rituals.
These Essential Daily Rituals keep our marriages healthy and vibrant. They serve to connect us on a daily basis and build our sense of belonging and of being a team.
A married couple with children is unlikely to have the opportunity for uninterrupted personal time, unless it is ritualised. It helps to have a regular gesture calibrated to some event or a set time (e.g. as soon as the kids are in bed) that signals the ritual has begun. To maintain meaning, conversation should be personal and intimate. Avoid logistics and problem solving: the goal is to connect at a personal level. Also resist conflict items – this makes the ritual hard work and one or both of you are likely to start avoiding it. Finally, agree on an exit point (e.g. after fifteen minutes), as open-ended rituals are hard to sustain.
One of our daily rituals is our evening walking-talk. We follow the same route each evening which avoids the unnecessary tension of having to decide which direction to take. It gets us out of reach of the kids (now young adults) and away from distractions. We can speak confidentially, catching up on each other’s lives and we get some exercise – about 4,000 steps according to the pedometer!
Fourthly, to make our marriages truly intentional, an Annual Review Ritual is incredibly valuable.
This practice is an opportunity to review how we are going, share our dreams and set goals for the coming year.
Some couples ritualise New Year’s Eve or their Wedding Anniversary to connect with each other by reminiscing on the past year. If they also use the occasion to make plans for their relationship over the coming year, they will ensure that they stay connected build a resilient and vibrant marriage.
Finally, an ‘I love you’ ritual is also incredibly important – simple, playful habits that remind the other of our devotion.
Some couples write regular, even daily, love letters to each other. One husband will randomly buy a rose and put it somewhere in the house for his wife to unexpectedly discover. Another leaves post-it notes in surprise places like the teapot or in her handbag.
What makes these seemingly simple gestures powerful is the way that formative experiences work. The things we most remember years or decades later are those things that were associated with intense emotion (either positive or negative, like the birth of a baby or the trauma of a car accident) and the things that we repeated day in and day out, like family prayers or getting ice creams after Mass.
Repetition of meaningful rituals is the way that we proactively form ourselves and our children in the values that really matter. But they take effort to establish and commitment to maintain.
Like most things in life, our relationship rituals decline with time unless we actively choose to make them part of our life. Apathy and indifference are the enemies of rituals, eroding them as a river wears at the shoreline. On the other hand, commitment to our rituals provides the glue we need to stick together during the times of stress and the seasons of despair.
So choose your rituals carefully and they’ll keep giving back to your marriage and to your family year after year.