A note from the author: This is part of my new column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.
I have to confess that the idea of an Intentional Marriage isn’t entirely my own. It was inspired by William Doherty’s book The Intentional Family, in which Doherty champions the lost art of connecting on purpose. Doherty argues that the modern family is under constant threat from factors designed to distract them from each other. One of the more troubling observations from the book is that less than one-third of families in the U.S. regularly have dinner together. About half of the families that do eat together are having their meals in front of the television.
These were stats curated in 1997. Imagine what those statistics might be today, when we all have access to a screen in our pocket? I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my own family doesn’t regularly eat together, and we’ve shared more than a few meals in front of the television. We struggle to connect on purpose.
This is true of most of the families I know. Doherty argues that families need to prioritize connection through simple rituals. This is true for couples as well. If you want to have an Intentional Marriage, you’ll need to add both formal and informal rituals to your toolbox.
Ritual Isn’t Just a Routine
I don’t understand music theory at all, but I do know the difference between the melody and the beat. The beat is the regularly occurring pattern that brings stability and predictability to a song. That’s what rituals are. They’re the regularly occurring activities and interactions that help stabilize a relationship. Some rituals are formal: The way you host a game night on the second Tuesday of each month. The way you celebrate your anniversary by returning each year to the restaurant where you got engaged. The way you navigate “The Holidays.”
Some are more informal: The way you always say “I love you” before bed. The way he always cleans up the dishes after she cooks (and vice versa). The way you always make that special dip for the football game.
Take an inventory right now of some of your formal and informal rituals. Are there places in your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles that are predictable and meaningful? Certainly the annual traditions are the easiest to spot. Birthdays. Holidays. Vacations. When you build consistency into these events, they create meaning and value for the relationship. The daily rituals may be harder to spot primarily because you may not recognize them as rituals. Do you have routines for the way you part in the morning? Or the way you go to bed at night?
Keep Tabs on Your Relationship
A couple who has rituals has built-in checks and balances on the state of their relationship. For example, if you declared that one of your rituals was to hug and say “I love you” each day before leaving for work, the failure to accomplish that would be a clue that something was up. It could mean that one of you is sick or out of town. It could mean that you’re simply distracted by the big meeting you have that afternoon. It could also mean that the argument you had last night still isn’t resolved. Or that something more serious, such as complacency or apathy, is seeping into the relationship.
Rituals also help ensure that your relationship is unique. Many people confuse ritual with routine. Routines are the patterns you fall into as part of the natural flow of your life. Rituals are how you infuse your routine with creativity. Surely you recognize this in some of the couples you admire. They may have a ritual around a special meal each Sunday. Or they may be really good at protecting date night once a month. What rituals can you create to express the uniqueness of your relationship?
One major benefit of ritual is that it can help eliminate questions. This can be especially helpful in the area of initiating or refusing sex. You may bristle at the idea of planning or scripting this process, but when life gets busy, and you’re not as free to be spontaneous as you once were, having an agreement and an understanding of how you’ll engage in intimacy can diminish the fear of rejection or the confusion about whether one partner is “in the mood.” Your ritual may be simply asking. Or you could have a code or symbol that represents your desire to make love. If you create your ritual together, you can eliminate ambiguity and get straight to business . . . or not.
I talk with couples about ritual all the time. Every mature and intentional marriage has them. Decide today to add some new formal and informal rituals to your relationship. I’d encourage you to define a new ritual for your annual, monthly, weekly, and daily routines. Let your imaginations run wild. When you come up with something, give it some time to sink in and become part of your marriage culture. If it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t stick. But even the act of having the conversation will be a movement toward an Intentional Marriage.
Photo Credit: Manchik Photography