When my husband walks in the door after a long day of work, I leave the task I’m involved with and greet him at the door. He puts down his brief case and we enjoy a long embrace. Without words we communicate a tome: I am well; he is well; we are well together.
Were this ritual to change, were I to remain in my office, and fail to participate in our 30-year ritual, he would wonder, “What’s the matter? Is she sick? Is there an emergency? Is she mad at me?” and the answer would be, “Yes.” If we fail to engage in our ritual, it communicates that something is, indeed, wrong. The forgetting of the ritual is a sign of change.
We all engage in vital rituals that shed light on the state of our relationships. When we change our rituals, it is a sign that the relationship is changing. The ritual of sending and receiving Christmas cards tells us something about our relationships with those with whom we correspond; the ritual of meeting a friend weekly for lunch tells us something about our relationship with that friend; the ritual of attending church tells us something about our relationship with God.
Sometimes rituals will change, of necessity, and that’s not a bad thing. The relationship may need to change. When my children were little we had a bedtime ritual wherein I would read them a story, and sit on the edge of their bed for a few minutes while they shared with me their thoughts about the day. As the children grew older, the ritual changed: not that I necessarily wanted it to change, but they became more independent, began to read their own bedtime stories, and work through their concerns about the day on their own. It was important that they develop some independence. Their desire to change the ritual was the sign that our relationship was changing.
Christmastime is full of family rituals. We used to travel to Grandma and Grandpa’s every year for Christmas. We packed up our presents and we packed up the kids and we trekked the many miles from wherever we lived at the time back “home” to celebrate the holidays. As we had more children and airline fares soared, we decided to begin our own holiday rituals, in which we avoided the travel and the toting of gifts. When rituals change it isn’t necessarily a sign that the relationship is in trouble, but it is a sign that it is changing.
Often when a new client calls me, they want to come in as soon possible, hoping even for a same-day or a next day appointment. They are desperate for my help and very dependent on the relationship. As they work on their issues and begin to heal, they become far less dependent on the relationship. They begin to call and reschedule appointments, or they may cancel for trivial reasons. That is a clear sign that our relationship is changing, and it’s important that I read the signs and don’t try to keep them in a dependent relationship, when they are ready for independence. Rituals are very helpful in monitoring the state of a relationship.
Sometimes when rituals change it is a sign of relationship distress. For example, if an adult child habitually calls you every Sunday evening to check in and say, “Hello,” and you have both enjoyed this ritual for years, you have reason to be concerned when he stops calling. Perhaps something is happening in his life that he is ashamed of, and he can’t bear to talk to you. In that case you will want to repair the relationship, helping him see that you are a safe person to talk to during a personal setback. Perhaps he has stopped calling because his feeling are hurt, in which case you will want to discover the reason he was offended. The fact that the ritual ceased is a blessing in disguise: it is the proverbial canary in the coal mine: it can be warning that your relationship is off track and needs a course correction.
Attending church is a ritual that we often take for granted. The importance of taking the sacrament each week is too often ignored. When we partake of the sacrament each week we are indicating that our relationship with our Heavenly Father is intact. We still desire to take Christ’s name upon us; we still desire to keep his commandments. When we stop attending sacrament meeting it is frequently a sign that our relationship with our Heavenly Father is in trouble. Perhaps we are not keeping the commandments. Perhaps we’re not so sure we want to take Christ’s name upon us. Recognizing that the ritual has changed is our clue that the relationship needs attention. Because God never changes, in this relationship it is a sign that we need to repair that relationship and get back on course.
We can look to rituals for hints as to the state of our relationships. When couples come into my office with marital problems it is inevitable that their rituals have changed: they no longer go on weekly dates, they no longer call or text one another in the middle of the day to say “I Love You,” they no longer have dinner at the table together, they no longer go to bed together, they no longer have couple prayers before they go to bed. All the rituals that preserved their relationship have been abandoned, and their relationship is rotting.
Recognizing that the ritual is a sign of the state of the relationship is what’s important. The awareness that a change in ritual signals a change in relationship gives an opportunity to discover if there is a problem before the relationship is unsalvageable. If the ritual is changing, and one or both parties doesn’t understand why, and isn’t comfortable with the change, the relationship will survive only if the change is discussed. Both parties may then agree that the change is warranted, or the parties may decide to repair the relationship and restore what they previously treasured.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Jacksonville Florida. She is the author of four books on relationships. To learn more, click here.