Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Love And Intimacy Rituals Give Vitality To Marriage

November 12, 2001

"The biggest threat to good marriages is everyday living."

That is a quote from Bill Doherty, Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, taken from his book, "Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together In A World That Pulls Us Apart."

Doherty believes that one reason couples drift apart is the passive way they respond to the various cultural pressures that makes intimacy and mutual enjoyment difficult. These pressures are the ceaseless demands of work, consumerism, media, and cultural trends toward individualism and child sensitive parenting. Modern couples are too busy or distracted to give their most important relationship the time it deserves.

Vital and dynamic marriages require high maintenance and nurturing. Couples need to be intentional about creating personal time for conversation between spouses. Doherty suggests consciously developing "connection rituals" to insure that couples stay emotionally connected as friends and confidants.

Rituals are defined as social interactions that are repeated, coordinated and significant. These are the times when couples share time and attention with each other. He believes that connection rituals are at the base of the pyramid of marriage, right above commitment.

Examples of connection rituals. What are some of the marriage routines that are coordinated, repeated over and over and have emotional meaning? Such activities as mealtimes, running errands together, date nights, walks, working in the garden, greetings and farewells, and special times to talk are examples of connection rituals. Doherty devotes a chapter to anniversaries and special occasions as rituals. These rituals are predictable, coordinated and done with enthusiasm.

Doherty has developed the following ground rules for effectively making time to talk to each other on a ritualistic basis.

- Have a clear transition. A ritual is easier to enact when it is anchored to a part of daily life like breakfast, greetings at the end of a workday, after dinner or at bedtime. Without a pattern, the time will be inconvenient and difficult to coordinate.

- Make it enjoyable. Avoid talking about the logistics of living and family life, solving problems or working through problems. If it is about logistics, then it isn’t personal. It is it about problems, then it is work. If it is about conflict, then it is unpleasant. The goal is to enjoy each other’s company. The conversation is between emotionally connecting friends who are being curious about each other.

- Have a clear ending to the ritual. The time spent should be equally predictable or the time will have to be negotiated which involves struggle and detracts from the pleasantness of the experience.

- Be regular. If you have to miss a time, mentioning that fact will show that you both value that time together. The ritual is good for the relationship even though occasionally one partner may not be personally "up" for it. If travel, family demands or other intrusions interrupt the ritual for a while, put it back or you’ll lose it.

What do you talk about? Creating the ritual is like setting the scene and creating an atmosphere for talking. Couples need to ask each other some open-ended questions about the bigger issues of their life, the same way you would if you were meeting a friend you hadn’t seen in a while.

"How is work going?" "What is it like for you when¼?" "How are you parents doing?" "What do you look forward to next year?" "What is your biggest challenge right now?" "What do you see yourself doing in five years?" These kinds of questions express interest in what is going on with each other’s life and feelings.

Be curious. Don’t assume we know what is going on. There is a huge depth of information about each other if we ask the right questions.

The way you listen to each other is important. Be prepared to listen and show loving interest in going with wherever your spouse wants to take you. Doherty recommends relaxation on the listener’s part, a readiness to ask follow-up questions, to empathize with what the other person is saying, and to settle in and listen to the full story.

What you shouldn’t do is analyze the responses or disagree with them. That shuts down the conversation.

Sex as a love ritual. Sex also has to be repeated, coordinated and significant. Spontaneous sex can be great but there is too much opportunity for confusion and conflict. The marriage needs sex - not just when each partner spontaneously feels like it.

Couples should approach sex like an affectionate greeting ritual, you do it anyway whether you feel inspired at the moment or not. An emphasis on sexual satisfaction as a personal entitlement undermines the important role of sex as a connecting ritual of marriage. Doherty says, "Sometimes you do it because your marriage needs it."

The lack of a common bedtime routine is a detriment to marital affection. It is a part of the coordination that makes lovemaking possible. There needs to be a predictable regularity to sexual relations with appropriate signals, transitions, coordination, and favorite times and situations.

The best of both. According to Doherty. "Love and intimacy rituals are like regular sex and special sex; the first is a familiar and reliable companion, the second you can get yourself prepared for but always feels like a gift." Without rituals, you may lose track of the gift.