Rituals for Putting Your Relationship First

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Establishing small rituals at key times during the day can help you build a solid foundation for your relationships. Psychotherapist Stan Tatkin and his wife Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin reveal some of their rituals in this interview.

Omega: Why are rituals important to relationships?

Stan: Rituals bring families together and make us feel connected and safe. Taking your shoes off before going into the house, having a family dinner together, putting the kids to bed at night with a story or a back rub. Rituals signal to us that we can relax. Rituals organize us and make us feel connected to ourselves and others. They are especially important at the more vulnerable times of the day, like morning and night. We think it’s important to have rituals as part of our relationships, things like praying together, having pillow talk, or any number of other things.

Omega: What are some of your rituals?

Tracey: We have very different schedules—Stan is more of a night owl and I’m more of an early bird. If he wants to stay up and do more work, he’ll spend 10 minutes with me when I’m going to bed. In the morning, if I have to get up and leave before he’s awake, I might make his lunch or his tea and leave it on the counter. He doesn’t mind drinking his tea cold. Just having it there, he knows I’ve thought about him. I’ll also go in and tickle his arm and kiss him goodbye before I go. He smiles to acknowledge he hears me. If we go to bed at the same time we’ll do a gratitude talk or read together. We create time to send each other off to sleep or off into our day.

Stan: The one ritual we insist on with our clients is a going to bed ritual, even if you go to bed at different times. We know that people who don't do this don’t sleep as well and they are not as energetic during the next day. We ask everyone to try it, and almost everyone who does experiences better sleep and has a better next day.

Tracey: We also have a welcome home ritual. When one person comes home, the partner that is already home stops what they're doing and goes over to welcome the partner who is just arriving. We then hug, tummy to tummy, and fold into each other. If we feel tension in each other’s back, we rub that spot. We hold each other until we feel our two nervous systems connect. Once we’re calm and in sync, we look each other in the eyes, separate, and go back to what we were doing.

Stan: What we’re doing with the hug is changing our psychobiological state. We do that by changing the state of the other person with the hug. We don’t let each other go until we see the other’s eyes soften. And when that happens, because we’re the tuning forks in the house, the house suddenly seems to be more organized—it looks better and everyone’s behaving better. Couples are the roof of the house. They have to do it first and then the rest of the family follows. When two people come together and average out their nervous systems, it’s like putting a comb through hair and everyone is better off.

Tracey: If people have young kids, this can be a great family ritual. It just takes one or two minutes and we have people report back to us that as they and their partner are hugging, the kids will come over and hug their legs and even the pets will get into it.

Omega: What if you come home from work and you were upset with your partner? Would you still go through with the ritual?

Stan: The ritual itself isn’t a law. If we don’t do it because one person is mad, that’s not grounds for divorce. But it’s important to know how to deal with how your partner feels. If the relationship comes first—if we have an agreement that if either of us are in distress we drop everything and minister to each other—I have a duty to deal with you and to relieve you as quickly as possible.

Omega: What do you mean by the relationship coming first?

Stan: When two people come together they create a relationship that is like a fingerprint. It is unique and can never be duplicated again. It is different from every other relationship. This is something we can’t quite explain—it’s phenomenological and uniquely us. We think of it as the golden goose. This is what we are building and protecting through things like rituals and serving each other. We serve each other in order to create the relationship that supports us both. This then creates a situation where there's something greater than us—a relationship we forge based on principles we agree on that protect us.

Devoting yourself to the relationship is better than thinking I’m devoting myself to you, which puts us right back into childhood where we worry about fairness or we don’t want to do something for fear that something bad will happen. By thinking of the relationship as a third thing that can never be built again if it is lost, we are less likely to do things to mess up that ecosystem because we both suffer. If a couple is insecure, they work on each other. If they’re secure, they work on the relationship.