One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache. I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed. A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home? Why didn’t you tell me you were home?” I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.” “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.
Was I detecting irritation in his voice? “Why are you getting mad? I was too tired to come find you,” I argued. He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home. I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.” “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that? You always come find me. You’re supposed to come find me. Why would I not care?”
Wow. He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.
This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.
Importance of Family Rituals
Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life. Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people. In families, they serve several functions. Here are some:
- Rituals aid identity development. Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context. The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
- Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
- Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
- Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality. They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.
Importance of Comings and Goings
Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality. Just like family rituals, there are different kinds: Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc. What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again. When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important. Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart. You matter to me.” Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.” It’s communicating that, “We are important together.” It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection. My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him. It was a mini-rejection.
Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity. Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.
People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime. In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier. This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness. Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.
It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.
“Lucy, I’m Home!”
One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series. It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.
I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection. With or without the charming Cuban accent. The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.
However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.
Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191
Photo credit: Copyright: flairmicro / 123RF Stock Photo