Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

We can show love through our regular relationship rituals, if we are mindful of their role in our closest connections.

I credit some of the rituals that we created while carrying on our two-year transatlantic courtship with helping us make it to the next level in our relationship. Once our romance was launched, we used the fax machine to send “good morning” and “goodnight” messages across the Atlantic over the next two years. (This was 1996.) Because of the six-hour time difference, we each woke up with a greeting from the other, mine to him in Paris, sent before I went to sleep, and his written the next morning, before his lunch break while I was still asleep in Connecticut. Our tacit agreement to honor this meaningful exchange laid the groundwork for the 21 years of trust, surprises, and pleasure that were to follow.

The key to a ritual expressing and expanding love lies in the ability to continue to infuse it with meaning. Empty rituals are empty; they waste a person's time and become annoying. And rituals require periodic examination and re-evaluation to retain their utility.

What makes a meaningful ritual?

  • Trust that it will repeat with expected regularity. The details may vary, but the expectation is that the event will be marked by a ritual must be honored. Regarding an episodic anniversary, such as of a marriage or a death, one needs to rely on the fact that the event will be marked, even though the how can take a range of forms.
  • The ritual has a purpose. The purpose can be as simple as bonding between close friends — think trick-or-treating on Halloween together (and later shepherding small children or holding a party when they enter adolescence) — or as complex as coming up with a reliable way to announce a change in a family boundary when a new member is added or an old one lost. The ritual can be simple or elaborate, formal or casual, a replication of past rituals, or an original activity, but it is meant to honor a change in status within the tribe for those who belong to it and sometimes for others who do not.
  • The purpose remains meaningful. Even over time, the ritual continues to show love, with reassurance, comforting, celebrating, and remembering.

How can a ritual show love?

  • It signals periodic recommitment. During the two years of our transatlantic courtship, the magic of the good-morning faxes that David and I exchanged lay in their reliability. When we could not physically be with each other, the ritual reaffirmed our connection and commitment. When we were together, our ritual became a wake-up hug, accompanied by a spoken private greeting — the first words of the day. Twenty-one years later, each morning the embrace and the words feel and sound fresh — because they are.
  • A ritual underscores an important connection. By sharing in the ritual together, two people honor a connection between them. Little rituals matter. Each time we go on a bike ride together, David loads the bikes onto the car rack, and I bring freshly filled water bottles and our helmets. Our tacit agreement that we will share the tasks reaffirms our connection, making the shared pleasure possible.
  • A ritual can signify a symbolically important and reliable aspect of the relationship. Each morning that we are at home, David brings me tea at approximately 10:30. He is wordlessly announcing both that he will interrupt what he is doing to please me, and that he will take care of me. My gratitude is his reward, even when I don’t voice it until later, because I am involved in my own activity or lost in my thoughts.
  • A ritual can reduce stress. Knowing how an upcoming situation will be handled can remove stress that otherwise might feel overwhelming. Knowing you will take a few days off for an end-of-winter time in March can help you bear a long, dark winter.
  • Holidays are naturals for rituals. They permit you to participate, to be part of a larger culture, and yet allow room for personal variations. Countless families personalize their family seder, celebrate Christmas in idiosyncratic ways, herald Valentine’s Day with private moments, use Memorial Day as a chance to take a long walk, or simply get the grill ready for the new season.

Why a ritual can show love

  • It reflects commitment. Each time a meaningful ritual is repeated, it can be repeated mindfully. In that manner, it has the potential to announce dedication again and again and again.
  • It can define relationship boundaries. Rituals often identify relationships by defining who is included and who is not. Some can be completely open, available to anyone who chooses to participate, or available to those who opt into a particular group, tribe, or affiliation. Or rituals can be dyadic, shared only between two people whose relationship has a unique intimacy.
  • Ritual can comfort. One common reason rituals are created is to provide comfort through predictability. Familiarity with what happens in a trying situation can remove uncertainty — a huge source of stress and anxiety — and can promise activities that bring solace or reassurance. Information and structure bind anxiety.
  • Rituals awaken memories and underscore that the loved one is worthy of the time and the space taken up by the rituals.
  • Rituals provide anchors for positive expectations. Marking transitions can help ease the unknowns that await when one moves from one activity or status or identity to another.
  • Shared rituals provide support or pleasure, confirmation that life need not be navigated alone.

What rituals are most important to you? How do they bring love to you? Have you ever consciously adapted a ritual to changing circumstances, needs, or participants? Can you remember realizing it was time to either end or radically revise an old ritual? 

Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower. Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com

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