Rituals in Relationships

Article excerpt

WATCH A SMOKER handle a new pack of cigarettes. Better yet, watch that same individual handle several fresh packs. There is a ritual in preparing to smoke: perhaps a tap-tap-tap of the unopened pack on the base of the palm; then flipped and the other end tapped three times. Opening the pack always is done the same way: is all of the foil removed or only one portion? Is the cigarette put directly into the mouth or, is it, too, subject to tapping? A smoker experiencing withdrawal will begin to calm down in anticipation of the nicotine fix just by going through the initial ritual motions of handling the pack of cigarettes.

Absent any formal structure for ritual, such as organized religions or public meetings, humans will create ritual behaviors. Sometimes rituals are large: the multihousehold gathering at Thanksgiving, or attending an annual parade. Rituals may be private, or nearly so: I have heard addiction counselors assert that much of illegal drug use is ritualized behavior that has become, not only part of the addiction, but a replacement for healthy rituals that afford real meaning and connection. Some rituals are invisible to all but the participants: the intimacy of a Sunday morning church-breakfast-newspaper sequence that never varies, or weeknight family dinners. Rituals span the simplest gesture and the highest of sacraments.

Rituals, including the rites of organized religion, are critical parts of life. They provide context, meaning, rhythm, and connection. Research indicates that families with strong, positive ritual patterns produce well-adjusted children, while families without them often are chaotic and tend to have higher incidences of bad behavior. All rituals, however, are not created equal. In families where routines, such as dinner, are enforced rigidly with a lot of negative emotions and aggressive behavior, the ritual's effects are not positive and lead to more unhealthy family interactions. A family dinner where parents fight or nag their children creates toxic tipples that spread out into other circles of each member's life.

What makes a ritual? Rituals are predictable sets of behaviors with agreed-upon rules, repeated over time. Generally, most participants know their roles in the rituals, although these may evolve. The ritual is important as an individual experience as well as its value as a piece of a pattern. A family that visits the cemetery every Memorial Day finds meaning in each annual visit as well as in reminiscing about past years' visits and the expectation that the visits will continue.

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A ritual may be hidden to all but its participants, who, in all likelihood, generally do not identify what they are doing as a ritual; it simply is part of being "us." Outsiders (such as psychological researchers videotaping family dinners) may perceive painfully tiresome conversations where a family experiences a reaffirmation of connections and roles. Barbara Fiese, professor and chair, Department of Psychology at Syracuse University, recounts a story of investigators' boredom with a family's dinnertime rehashing of which members liked jelly on their peanut butter sandwiches; the family later explained that they were divided as jelly-nonjelly enthusiasts, and these were predictors of other characteristics (e.g., jokers vs. organizers). The family used their PBJ shorthand to characterize friends and family. The jelly-nonjelly references in conversation were important ritual assertions of family members' strengths and mutual reliance.

Therapists use rituals with families and couples to encourage deeper connections or healing from emotional wounds. A family project can be ritualized to evoke certain meanings; a marriage strained by addictions or adultery can create a ritual that symbolizes a fresh start and the reinvention of the relationship. Smaller pieces of the initial ritual can be inserted into daily life. Marriage enrichment programs, such as Marriage Encounter or Retrouvaille, provide daily activities of discussing thoughts and feelings about a prearranged topic to continue the connective work of the weekend retreat into the real world of married life. …