November 13, 2018

Staying Connected in Marriage

By Chad Olson, LMFT, MS


John and Julie Gottman are some of the nation’s top marital researchers and have provided valuable information for couples wanting to know what predicts happiness in marriage. Last year, I was able to attend a conference that they were presenting at and they shared an interesting statistic. They reported that most couples who participate in marriage counseling experience an increase in their marital satisfaction. This makes sense because couples are highly motivated as they sacrifice time and money to improve their relationship. It’s also helpful to know that the counselor will hold them accountable by following up with the invitations given in session. 

The next statistic the Gottmans reported was what percentage of couples maintained an increase in marital satisfaction when asked a year after they had finished couple counseling. Any guesses? The answer is 70%! This finding sparked an interest from the Gottmans to find out what the 70% of couples were doing that the 30% weren’t doing that allowed them to enjoy the increase in their marital satisfaction they experienced during therapy. During the conference, John and Julie Gottman reported that the commonality among the 70% is that they had created rituals of connection with each other which helped them feel close to each other. 

So, what exactly is a ritual and what makes a behavior a ritual instead of just a routine? A ritual is defined as “any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner” which implies intent. A routine is something that is done in a “habitual, unimaginative, or rote” manner. The similarity between the two is that they are both repeated, but rituals are intentional and create connection, whereas routines are something that just happens on a regular basis (e.g., brushing teeth). For some, meal time is just a routine, but for others, meal time becomes a ritual because its intentionally designed to create closeness by having meaningful conversation and opportunities to connect. 

Some rituals take place on a daily basis (e.g., giving each other a hug and a kiss before leaving for work, having a conversation before going to bed, etc.), on a weekly basis (e.g., date night, church attendance), or on an annual basis (e.g., anniversary trips, holiday celebrations). Sometimes, couples and families just grow into rituals, but it is best to be intentional about rituals and communicate about what each spouse will do in preparation for the ritual and during the ritual. 

The months of November and December provide amazing opportunities to intentionally participate in rituals of connection. The holidays are known for traditions and in this way, rituals and traditions are similar if they are done intentionally and with the intent to create connection. I often tell couples that happiness in marriage is not random – it is an outcome that results as couples engage in specific, empirically supported behaviors that lead to happiness. And the research is clear in this area – couples who consistently engage in rituals of connection will feel happier in their marriage. 

Take some time today to visit with your spouse about rituals and make some specific plans about what rituals you want to engage in as a couple. I have seen the happiness that comes to my own marriage when my wife and I intentionally engage in rituals of connection and I have had many couples over the years report back that as they participated in rituals that they feel closer as a couple. May the holidays provide opportunities for you to connect more deeply with those that mean the most in your life. 

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