There are many things that characterize healthy and positive relationships. We might immediately think of things like trust, respect, loyalty, reliability, fidelity, warmth, affection, and generosity of all kinds including emotional, spiritual, sexual, and material. We have a hunch what contributes to the crumbling and disintegration of a relationship. There are obvious problems like abuse and neglect and then there are other detrimental signs like contemptuous attitudes and behavior, relentless criticism, emotional stinginess, withholding care and attention, making threats about the status of the relationship, realizing that you simply really don’t have much fun with your partner, consistently focusing on your partner’s behaviors and your own feelings rather than also examining your behaviors and the effects on your partner’s feelings.
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Most of us intuitively know when we are feeling cared for and when we are not. I remember when I was first dating my partner, Mike and we spoke about when we knew our previous marriages were over, when the slow crumbling had become ruins. These are the three things I remember most: he told me that kissing and hugging upon entering and exiting the house for work had become as romantic and exciting as picking up one’s keys. And he shared with me the moment that he and his ex-wife were at an outdoor concert with their dog and she got up from the blanket wanting to dance and chose the furrier companion (hint: Mike doesn’t have much hair). Yet still the third thing he told me feels the most poignant. He said to her pointedly, “I need to know that you care about me.”
It is this that is the basis of this article—how might we best show our partners that we care, and that the care is deeper, more special, and easily distinguishable from the care we show others whom we love and appreciate. So, while all of the positive qualities mentioned earlier in this article are ingredients for a healthy and meaningful relationship, there are two other things that stabilize, balance and stimulate relationships that make them even stronger and a whole lot more fun: relationship rituals and grounded spontaneity.
Relationship rituals are crucial. Several weeks ago, I was out of town facilitating a work/life balance workshop at another university, and the faculty member who is my longtime friend and colleague who organized the event invited me to her home two nights in a row. Each time we arrived around 5pm and her husband had happy hour ready for us. The first night there were three cocktail glasses laid out, one with ice and lime for my friend and an empty glass for me until he knew what I wanted. On the second evening, there were two glasses with lime since he had just learned I love lime in my drinks. He paid attention. He cared. It was obvious. And then they told me that they enjoy happy hour together every single evening and have done this for many years. I was just sipping water with lime but I found myself buzzed from what was clearly the happiest hour. They met as colleagues at a different university and are writing partners and life partners. The week I returned home I found myself thinking of them at 5pm every evening, enjoying their urban courtyard with all the strings of lights, closing out a public day and turning inward to create a private oasis, exchanging thoughts from the day and creative energy.
There’s also my other friend who for over 30 years has sat down to tea every day with her husband. I remember the envy I had for that when I heard about it and was struggling in my first marriage. Through raising two girls and running a business and having jobs out of the home, they managed to make time for tea together every day. It’s a reminder that no one is really that busy. It’s about what we say yes to, what we say no to, what we make time for, and who we care about.
And then there’s my relationship with Mike. We live two hours apart and see each other every weekend, for vacations and other long stretches whenever we can. We’re going on six years together—truly the happiest of my life— and every morning, except for the ones when we’re together, Mike has sent me an email. You could set your clock to it. It arrives between 7:27 and 7:34 every morning. People ask me how he is able to come up with something to write to me about every day. And he admits that sometimes he wonders the same thing since we talk every night between about 9:45 and 10:30 or 10:45. The emails are romantic, supremely playful and goofy, badass, random and crazy, funny and there’s always an accompanying photo of some kind. Occasionally, I get poems, haikus and voiceovers. I was never a morning person; however, Mike’s emails are definitely a motivator for me to get out of bed and turn on my phone or computer. Plus, as someone who has always been the giver and the expressive one in virtually any relationship, it’s a new and wonderful feeling to just openly receive. Every. Single. Day.
Rituals are the bedrock of grounded spontaneity. Rituals are grounding, reassuring, and they are something to count on. In an increasingly busy, chaotic and speed-obsessed world, rituals invite us to slow down and relish in the moment. Rituals can anchor a couple and convey trust and emotional reliability. And, rituals give couples a chance to invent something new together that singularly defines their relationship while at the same time each individual gets a chance to reinvent themselves through these acts as well. In fact, the key to rituals so they do not get stale and boring is the aspect of reinvention and renewal.
When my friends enjoy their happy hours and afternoon tea together, these rituals are a coming together each day with some promise of mindfulness, presence and genuine interest in the other person’s day, ideas, observations, hopes and fears. When Mike and I have our morning coffee ritual together every weekend, it’s the conversation that happens in those moments that is where I get to articulate the germ of an idea for writing, it’s where Mike pushes me to start new writing projects and to be more fearless, it’s where Mike suggests plans for the day, it’s where I fantasize about all the vacations I want us to take, and we get to daydream together about the little boat we hope to get one day for our fantasy house on a tidal creek.
Meaningful rituals can even give way to the spontaneity we so often crave. This is because the regularity of rituals sustains connection, keeps us grounded, and best of all, allows us to see our partners with fresh eyes. When we are in a relationship in which our partner comes back to us again and again, meeting us for the purpose of ritual, the potential for newness is generated. And, the creativity and care we bring to our relationship rituals paves the way for spontaneity that is both grounded and freeing.