Is Your Relationship Headed for Marriage?
New research finds that rituals may help reveal your relationship’s fate.
Posted Oct 22, 2020
When you look into your relationship’s future, what do you see? It’s hard to know. But you wonder nonetheless… where's this going? Do we have a future together? Is this the person I’m going to marry? Even if you haven’t pondered these questions yourself, a friend or family member has asked, “Are you guys ever getting married?” (I know my Grandma wasn't shy about asking.)
Sometimes you just really don’t know. Sure, you could see yourself getting married, but you could also see the relationship fizzling out. Knowing for sure is hard, so learning about any potential sources of insight is helpful. Well, new research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships by Christopher Maniotes, Brian Ogolsky, and Jennifer Hardesty from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows how ordinary experiences like rituals could provide a deceptively simple way to peek into your relationship’s future.
Rituals are festivities and holidays that couples celebrate together. They can include partners’ birthdays, the couple’s anniversaries, rites of passage (moving in or out, attending weddings and funerals), religious holidays (e.g., Christmas, Easter), or other holidays (e.g., Thanksgiving, New Years, 4th of July). Customs and traditions surrounding these events are potential relationship stressors that encourage conflict, but may also be facilitators that bring partners closer together. Specifically, researchers focused on commitment to wed, or the extent to which participants thought it was likely that they would eventually marry their partner (Surra & Hughes, 1997).
How They Did It
To study this, researchers used in-depth qualitative data from 24 couples who had been in a relationship for an average of 2.5 years. Researchers conducted initial 1-3 hour face-to-face interviews, then tracked participants over the next 7 months, checking in briefly each month. Finally, 1-3 months later, the researchers did another in-depth interview. At each interview, participants also graphed their chance of marriage (e.g., 50%, 75%, 100%) over time, along with any events that caused the chances to shift upward or downward.
What They Found
The researchers analyzed the interviews to extract common themes. Generally, they found that rituals acted as a magnifying glass that amplified relationship dynamics in three key areas: family interactions, conflict management, and relationship awareness.
Family Interactions. Rituals often involve a strong family component. That can be helpful when family rituals model positive aspects of relationships (e.g., showing how partners handle each other’s idiosyncrasies), or when family members provide helpful relationship advice (e.g., don’t go to bed angry). Family rituals also give valued members of the family a chance to give the relationship their blessing. As one participant explained, “We went to a wedding up there and his family accepted me more as a family member now instead of just [his] girlfriend.” Feeling like you’re part of the family is comforting.
However, family interactions aren’t always positive. When the family traditions are unfamiliar, or family members treat a holiday differently, it can create distance. For example, as one participant explained, “My family’s real close, and Christmas is a real sentimental time. His family is real spread out, it’s more of a time to do a lot of drinking, to joke around a lot and just very different, and I was feeling very isolated.” These events also provide more “behind the scenes” information that can give greater insight into family dynamics. For example, a participant described how a Christmas celebration revealed awkwardness and tension between her and her partner’s mother that she previously hadn’t noticed.
Conflict Management. Though it may seem like experiencing conflict around rituals could only hurt the relationship, it may actually help. As the researchers said, “Managing conflict and seeing it as surmountable reinvigorated the relationship.” One participant described how talking things out after a fight around Valentine’s Day reaffirmed his feelings. Another described how time away from each other over Christmas gave the couple a chance to pause and take stock of the relationship. In each case, couples leveraged conflict to enhance communication and increase commitment to wed.
Rituals can also create harmful conflict, especially when celebrations don’t go according to plan. As the researchers describe, “birthdays and holidays often have a prescribed structure to them that when altered can exacerbate concerns and create an element of uncertainty.” That uncertainty can fuel conflict and undermine faith in the relationship’s future. Getting into a fight near an anniversary, or during what should be a happy event (e.g., New Year’s) upsets the predictability that the ritual would normally provide, robbing the couple of a good experience and replacing it with disharmony.
Relationship Awareness. Participants’ interviews also made it clear that rituals prompted individuals to ponder the state of their relationship and its future. Attending weddings was an especially effective way to heighten relationship awareness. When you attend someone else’s wedding, it’s difficult not to envision the same for yourself, which seemed to increase individuals' commitment to wed.
Anniversaries can also serve as a launchpad that propels couples toward marriage. One participant said, “I realized that we were making it further than 9 months ... I could tell that ... we weren’t gonna just break up right after April. It gave me a lot of ... hope.” Similarly, another mentioned, “Then on February fourth we went ahead and celebrated our two-year anniversary. ... We’d been together for two years and so we could probably make it and everything.” In contrast to family interactions and conflict management, participants only reported rituals having a positive impact on committment to wed.
Ultimately, there are lots of ways to gather information about your relationship’s future. A Christmas celebration, a birthday, or an anniversary isn’t guaranteed to make your relationship better or worse. Rather, they provide a new context that’s outside of your typical routine, and along with that, challenges that you need to navigate. Can you get along with your partner’s mom? Will the family like you? Will you feel comfortable? What if your plans for their birthday bomb?
If you successfully deal with these potential obstacles, it can boost your confidence in the relationship’s future and pave the way to marriage. But, if you struggle and rituals create added friction within the relationship, it may result in a return to singlehood. As the authors conclude, “…rituals provide a preview to what lies ahead.” We all want to figure out where our relationship is going, and this research shows how rituals provide us with diagnostic information about our relationship’s future, by giving us a glimpse of what’s to come.
Interested in how your relationship's ups and downs can predict your relationship future? Click here to read more.
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Maniotes, C. R., Ogolsky, B. G., & Hardesty, J. L. (2020). Destination marriage? The diagnostic role of rituals in dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(12), 3102–3122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520952166
Surra, C. A., & Hughes, D. K. (1997). Commitment processes in accounts of the development of premarital relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 59(1), 5–21. https://doi.org/10.23 07/353658