Incorporating Rituals Increases Couples' Connection

What defines success in a relationship? Dr. John Gottman and his research team have studied thousands of couples, and found this: Happy couples have created mental maps of each other’s lives, they show affection and respect for each other, and they respond to each other positively—even during conflict. Happy partners value the dreams and ideas of the other.

These are the ingredients of a stable and healthy relationship. What Dr. Gottman has to say about bringing all of these ingredients together, to find lasting happiness in your relationship, sounds a lot like what positive psychology advocate, Martin Seligman, has to say about life: There are many ways to be happy, but finding meaning is perhaps the most deeply rewarding of all.

Why are shared meaning and rituals of connection so important?

“What’s the problem?” or “What’s going on in your relationship that brings you to see me?” may be the first question asked in couples and marriage counseling. In some cases, there is no immediate problem, conflict, or tension, but an unidentifiable dissatisfaction in the relationship. Yet years down the road, some couples who show no hostility or indifference to each other, still divorce.

Gottman and his researchers suggest that these relationship failures have less to do with problems that are present, and more to do with what’s missing.

Maybe the relationship advice you’ve gotten in the past advocated elaborate date nights or a weekend getaway. Maybe you’ve been told to have more sex, or to approach your sex life in a different way. While all of these suggestions can help, they leave much unsaid.

If you return from a romantic weekend retreat with you partner, and find that the lack of connection you felt at home still lingers, you and your partner might find the connection you’re missing is a spiritual one. You’re missing a culture of symbols and rituals that are unique to your marriage. You’re missing expressions of appreciation for the roles you play for one another, and the goals you share together.

How can you go about creating shared meaning in your relationship?

Growing up, the symbols and rituals through which your family connected probably held great meaning. Maybe you find that the memory of a particular board game, or watching football on Sundays, still strums internal chords of belonging and family communion.

It’s also possible that recalling the rituals from your past causes you pain or discomfort. Maybe connection wasn’t the centerpiece of your family life at all.

The wonder and importance of creating shared meaning with your partner is that this time, you get to choose. The rituals you create can be as simple as a long kiss in the morning, before you both leave the house. Maybe you drink tea together and talk about your day, after the kids are in bed.

Rituals can be more formal too: What holiday traditions from each of your pasts do you most cherish? What do you wish had been different about the traditions you didn’t enjoy? Talk about how you can bring your personalities and values together to build new meaning.

There are lots of opportunities for building personally meaningful rituals of connection. Think about:

· How you leave each other for work.

· How you reunite after time apart.

· Carving out time each day to offer a supportive shoulder, and share personal stresses.

· Avoiding conflict during mealtime; cultivating attention and affection instead.

· Frequent expressions of gratitude.

· How you take care of each other when you’re sick.

· Celebrating milestones.

· When and how sex is initiated, and how you talk about sex—finding ways to share physical intimacy even, when you’re busy or stressed.

Rituals in a relationship are the things that you can count on to be present every day, every week, and every year. Establishing rituals creates a narrative backdrop connecting you and your partner again and again, decades into your relationship.