Rituals for Romantics

Looking for the perfect gift for your significant other? Sure, go ahead and gift the classic eye-catching, eye-matching sweater or gemstone studs. (Don’t forget noting the eye color match.) But you might consider a homemade bonus gift based on cutting-edge behavioral science research: a relationship ritual.  

Source: Max Pixel

Source: Max Pixel

Why a relationship ritual to strengthen your relationship?

In the words of my old sociology prof, the higher the level of ritual of any group, the stronger the group. This is true for families, sports teams, business groups, corporate culture and it is true for every stage of romantic relationship. By taking time to shape and propose a new and engaging relationship ritual, you are expressing, I value us. I’ve been thinking about a way for us to get closer. Let’s make our relationship as strong as possible.

Would somebody please define ritual?

You may have noticed competing definitions of ritual bouncing about. Sometimes the word is interchanged with habit or routine. Last month I heard a podcast where the guest was asked to define ritual. She said, the difference in a ritual and a habit is a ritual has more heart. I wondered if that was like me suggesting the difference between my singing in the shower and Andrea Bocelli at Wembley Stadium is he has more heart.

When behavioral science researchers speak about the surprising power of rituals, they are generally working with a ballpark definition something like “a repeated ceremonial routine.” A powerful relationship ritual will have both a physical and a psychological component. Something you move. Something that moves you. Something practical plus something inspirational or symbolic. Your fun and meaningful relationship ritual should be unique and esoteric. Bonus points if when you tell your best friends about your new ritual, they shoot you an awkward look.

Four ideas for crafting your relationship ritual gift.

1. Give an Enjoyable Couple-Time Ritual.

Researchers Bruess & Pearson used interviews and questionnaires to gather insights from 99 couples on how relationship rituals were being used to establish and maintain intimacy, connection and friendship. They observed seven categories of unique and symbolic relationship rituals. The most common type they called the Couple-Time Ritual. Couple-time rituals include recreational activities, communication times, and getaways you both enjoy.  

Here are some examples to get you thinking. A morning coffee ritual. A Saturday date night ritual. An exercise ritual. A little dance ritual. A daily expression of gratitude ritual. A final words, final moments, end of the day ritual.

Great relationship rituals don’t need to be infinite. I suggest when you offer the ritual gift, propose a limited and manageable frequency and duration. Perhaps a month or two. You can always hold a vote to extend.

2. Give a Quick Recovery Ritual.

Researchers Gino and Norton from Harvard Business School found that enacting a small ritual has a profound impact on helping people bounce back from losses or failure. Rituals help people regain optimism and control of their runaway emotions.

Source: Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons

This might be just what you need. Wouldn’t it be great if you could bounce back much quicker from your dust ups? You can. Create in advance a little ritual for relationship recovery — three or four things you each do that include something practical and something symbolic. For example, first, pause the conversation and take a cool down walk around the block — together or separately. Second, write down a few words on a 3x5 card and burn the card in the fireplace. Third, share a Reese’s cup. Sounds simple, I know. But it works.

3. Specificity is the Soul of Ritual.

Captivating word artist, Elizabeth Gilbert, says specificity is the soul of narrative. Specificity is the soul of a great love story and it’s the soul of a great romantic ritual. The beauty of your gift ritual will reside in your attention to seemingly minor details. Details of precision. Details of uniqueness. Put your fingerprints on it. Add your signatures. Your ritual should set you apart from all the other couples in the world.

Pro tip: When you give the gift of your ritual proposal, don’t have all the specifics worked out. Save some of the details for the other person to suggest.

4. Include a Little Theater.

No matter what kind of ritual you design, be sure to add something theatrical or ceremonial. If you have ever been to Pike Place Market in Seattle, one thing you saw there made a lasting impression: They throw fish. That’s theater. That’s ceremony. Include a sensory trigger of something good, happy, loving or positive. A song. A food or drink. A phrase you repeat.

The amazing thing about good rituals is how quickly they can become deeply meaningful. The first time you enact it, it may be nice but not that big a deal. But by the second or third time, you are sensing that this is becoming truly special. If you decide to give the gift of a relationship ritual, I’d love to hear how it goes. Please write me with your story.

References:

Norton, Michael, and Francesca Gino. "Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 143, No. 1 (February 2014): 266-72. 

Bruess, Carol, and Judy Pearson. "Interpersonal rituals in marriage and adult friendship." Communication Monographs, Vol. 64, No. 1 (1997): 25-46.

First published on psychologytoday.com.