Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. That means you’ll most likely be saying, "I love you" to your sweetie with flowers, chocolates, a romantic dinner, or perhaps (depending on your budget) something even grander like a diamond necklace or a tropical cruise. These tokens of your love are a nice gesture and will surely be appreciated. But in terms of creating togetherness, these "special occasion" gifts pale in comparison to the little moments repeated over and over all year long.
It’s the unique rituals—which you and your partner develop and nurture over the course of your life together—that make your relationship meaningful.
There’s nothing wrong with big romantic gestures like Valentine’s Day gifts, but really, they’re just a start. What couples need are regular shared activities to create memories, stories, and experiences. Whether it’s a regular date night or a weekly tennis match, these events when repeated over time can provide a deeper sense of unity and mark what’s unique about you as a couple.
It’s so critical to make time for rituals. People think they can’t because they’re working 60 hours or shuttling kids around 24/7, but many rituals take very little time. You just need to be intentional and commit to them. They give meaning to your relationship in a way that no culturally sanctioned gift given on a manufactured "holiday" ever could.
Here are 10 examples of rituals you might try:
Say hello and goodbye. Greeting rituals can be an important and brief way of communicating love and dedication to your partner. These repeated gestures of importance can be as simple as a hug, kiss, or special word or phrase used when saying hello or goodbye. Some couples develop more elaborate or distinctive ways that signal to one another that they’re special. The key is that the gestures are consistent—they become part of a couple’s own language of love.
For example, Carolyn and Nathan have a "secret handshake." It involves a number of movements in sequence and ends with three squeezes. These squeezes signal the words, "I love you." They do the handshake at the airport when departing or in front of their kids when they feel like it. It’s a sign of affection, and it’s unique.
Schedule nights out alone. Okay, this one is not exactly earth shattering, but how often do you actually do it? If you’re busy or you’ve fallen into a routine that’s all about work and family, taking time to schedule a night out—for just the two of you—can be a proactive step in easing the demands of a time-starved relationship. The key is to be consistent and intentional, even if it is one night a month. Making an appointment for your relationship means you’re giving it priority. Keeping semi-regular times out means keeping your relationship a priority.
After you’ve made time for your night out, take time to talk about what would make the time special. Think about your most memorable dates, if you need direction. Finding examples from the past may give you new ideas for the future. Being intentional about sharing expectations keeps you tuned into the needs and desires of your partner.
…Or at least set aside time to talk. Couples with small children or limited resources often find it difficult to get away for a date night. In these cases, setting aside 15 minutes to talk on a regular basis is more realistic. If this is a better option for you, find a consistent time that both of you can count on. Set boundaries—for example:
* No interruptions.
* No electronic devices.
* No discussions of work or children.
Your goal is to keep the time focused on each other. Keep the time manageable but also meaningful. If you’re wondering what you’ll talk about, you’re normal. Start with quantity, and trust that the quality will show up. For some couples, just 10 minutes in the same space without stress and demands reminds them of what’s good in life.
When you feel pressured and the ritual feels forced, trust the process. Setting aside a period of time without demands and with your partner can give you a breather—even if it isn’t the most romantic 15 minutes of your day.
Put it in writing. Writing a note or sending a card tells your husband or wife that he or she is important to you and on your mind. Whether it’s a text message, e-mail or handwritten note, written expressions of affection show your partner that they count.
These notes often mean more when you’re separated by time or distance. When you tuck a note into your spouse's suitcase before they head out on a business trip, it can be a welcome surprise for your partner. It shows that you’re intentional and that you’re thinking about them. This simple action can trigger feelings of love and affection, even though you aren’t in the same room (much less the same time zone).
These notes don’t have to be long—they just have to be personal. Let your spouse know something that you’re thankful for or that you appreciate. Notes of gratitude and appreciation help you express what can so easily be taken for granted in a marriage.
Learn something new together. Rosa and Fred found that they had more free time after their youngest child graduated from high school. So, the couple decided to take a series of golf lessons. They were at different skill levels, but they scheduled their lessons at the same time and made a ritual out of their weekly golf lessons. They included driving together to the club, taking their lessons, and then having a drink together to talk about what they learned.
Learning a new skill gave Rosa and Fred something to focus on together. The challenge of furthering their skills demanded more out of each of them, and they found ways to share their triumphs and defeats. They also found the process of learning together rewarding. As they improved their handicaps, they rewarded each other.
Keeping a focus on learning and growing as a couple helps partners bring new energy and ideas to their relationship. Learning together can deepen a couple’s shared sense of accomplishment and the pride that goes along with it. Learning also involves taking risks, and that’s a good thing. Taking chances, failing, and succeeding brings couples together as they practice ways to support and celebrate their personal challenges and shared successes.
Invest in "relationship activities." Couples who have strong levels of dedication are more likely to be happier, more open, and have less conflict in their relationships. They’re more likely to take steps to improve and sacrifice for their marriage. That’s because couples’ needs change over time. Intentionally addressing your relationship makes space to invest in the commitment you share.
Reading a book on relationships can spark new ideas for growth and improvement. Sharing these ideas and participating in exercises provide practical resources for growing a stronger bond. Or you might attend workshops and retreats for couples. These retreats give couples time away to focus on each other and strengthen their commitment.
Other couples find less formal opportunities to focus on their marriage. David and Joy have a commitment to spend one weekend a year discussing their relationship. They call it their "summit," and they use the time to discuss the year ahead and important decisions they need to make as a couple. On one of the nights, they give themselves a relationship "checkup." Each person has time to talk about his or her joys, concerns, and needs.
“ Notes of gratitude and appreciation help you express what can so easily be taken for granted in a marriage.”
Celebrate milestones—even if that’s not really your "thing." Planning and remembering special days like anniversaries and birthdays mark the importance of people and relationships over time. Making a special effort to express appreciation for your partner communicates how important they are in your life. This strengthens your bond. Oh, and just because you grew up in a family that didn’t make a big deal about these occasions, don’t assume the same is true of your spouse.
Partners bring different family experiences to their relationships, and with these experiences come different expectations. A missed birthday or anniversary can be seen as a lack of care or concern. Taking time to discuss your different experiences and to share expectations can help you avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings in the future.
Find an interest you can share. Familiarity and boredom are intimacy killers. Securely attached couples find time to play together. Attachment rituals should be life giving to both of you. If not, it’s time to find a new ritual.
Vital couples find fun activities to share. Having fun together is a source of renewal and refreshment for them. For example, physical activity can be energizing and provide you an opportunity to stay fit and healthy. Hiking, dancing, or sharing a sport offers you a chance to organize around activities that combine leisure time and companionship.
Other couples organize around common artistic interests such as concerts, culinary arts, or literature. Others involve being fans of a sports team. Couples who are able to find a shared interest that they can invest in find new ways of investing in the bonds they share.
Serve others. Taking time to help others or give to those in need offers couples a unique opportunity to invest in their relationship. Serving a common goal helps a couple find a deeper sense of unity by transcending their personal interests. When you make a shared decision to dedicate your time or resources to others, you make a joint expression of your values.
Couples find many ways to serve. Some couples focus on caring for the environment, while others get involved in efforts to conserve and improve their communities. Volunteering as a couple expresses a common purpose that others see and affirm. Many couples share in religious and spiritual activities that include serving others. These activities may also benefit a couple by allowing them to be faithful to deeply held values.
Make time for hugs, handholding, and—yes—sex. Making love is an important ritual of connection. Sexual contact in a relationship of care, trust, and vulnerability communicates a deep level of intimacy. Couples who keep a focus on each other and expressions of sexual affection find a greater meaning in these rituals than those who focus mostly on their sexual needs. Keeping romance in sex often requires couples to find ways of being intentional about expressing both their physical and emotional desires.
Of course, you don’t always have to have sex to show affection. Everyday moments of sharing physical affection, like hugging, kissing, and holding hands, show partners that they’re important and special. Deliberate acts of affection are subtle and effective reminders of care and kindness and a demonstration that you hold a special place in each other’s life.
So this Valentine’s Day, take stock of the rituals that have marked your marriage up until now. And together, discuss new ones that you can commit to as the year goes on.
The good thing about Valentine’s Day is that it forces people to think about their relationship. Where many go wrong is that on February 15 they fall back into their old oblivious or self-centered patterns. No one is saying you must dazzle your husband or wife with gifts every day of the year, but you do need to make a mindful connection regularly. That’s what rituals are—and the good news is that making the effort is its own reward.
Brent Bradley, PhD, and James Furrow, PhD, are co-authors of "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies." Dr. Bradley is president of The Couple Zone (www.couplezone.org), a center for counseling, counselor training, and research in Houston. He is a former tenured associate professor of family therapy and a published scholar/researcher in emotionally focused couple therapy. Dr. Furrow is professor of marital and family therapy at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He is executive director of the Los Angeles Center for EFT and a certified emotionally focused couple therapist, supervisor, and trainer.