The late President Ronald Reagan and former First Lady Nancy Reagan had a happy marriage that lasted more than half a century. History records how deeply fond they were of each other. They were best friends. The secret to their successful marriage can in part be attributed to their shared rituals. Research on what makes couples stick together through thick and thin reveals that shared rituals help create lasting, strong connections in your marriage.
One of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan’s rituals included how they shared dinner together at the White House. The couple sat alongside each other in the president’s second-floor study, resting on floral-patterned sofa chairs, their dinner plates served on TV trays.
Rituals are predictable behaviors we engage in, often out of habit. Because they’re habits, we expend a low amount of brain energy to get them done. They give us a familiar path to take throughout the day, making life flow more easily.
Much of our everyday life is structured by rituals, from what we do after the morning alarm sounds, until we doze off at night. In a successful marriage, couples participate in some of these rituals together. These rituals benefit the marriage by adding structure and meaning to the relationship. Together, these rituals form a story about the couple and what it means for them be married.
On most weeknights, my wife and I go to bed together at the same time. We put our iPad between us in the bed and watch a classic TV series or a movie. My in-laws go out to dinner every Wednesday evening for their weekly date night. Other couples play together. Some couples fish and hunt. Others camp, or collect, and some read to each other.
The rituals of marriage take many forms and are unique to each couple. Some take planning, like an annual vacation, others are simple to execute, like a long kiss before parting for work each morning. The development of these rituals is influenced by who they are as individuals, their history as a couple, and their interests and dreams.
Rituals between couples serve as reminders that they belong together, put boundaries of protection around the relationship, and create an emotional bond that’s not easily broken. The husband or wife who makes a habit of calling their spouse each evening when their away on business travel has a bulwark that will help protect them against choices that could lead to an affair.
As you think about your marriage, look for things that you and your spouse do together on a regular basis that’s meaningful to both of you. Because they’re habits, they may not be at the top of your mind. But if you come up with a list that seems too short, starting new rituals takes only a little initiative and effort.
1) Identify your spouse’s interests and dreams
Pay attention to what makes your spouse feel good, and take note. If you want to go deep on this, the bestselling book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, by Gary Chapman, gives couples a useful model for discovering what kinds of actions make the most positive impression on each other.
2) Take action to honor your spouse’s interests and dreams
Once you’ve learned what makes your spouse feel good, do it. If she longs for a relaxing evening after a long day at work, tell her you’re bringing home take-out on Tuesday evenings and cleaning up afterward. If he’s into guns, go with him to the firing range and make it a date for the two of you. Knowing your spouse’s love language is helpful here. For example, some people feel best when receiving a gift, others get the most out of quality time with their spouse.
3) Practice your ritual until it becomes and habit
Doing it once won’t add meaning to your relationship, or add to the story. Rituals offer the greatest benefit to a marriage when they’re repeated. Develop a combination of daily, weekly and annual rituals. The more rituals you share as a couple, the more connections you’ll have to bind your marriage together.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.