Marriage itself is a ritual — one of the most prevalent in today’s society, and one that’s been around in one form or another for centuries or even millennia. But unofficial rituals are also important, and they may play a key role in our major life decisions.
The season of rituals is almost here. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and all the family holidays are, essentially, rituals. We may not think about them that way, but that’s essentially what they are. We meet with our friends and family and we take part in a series of predefined ceremonies. These rituals, researchers say, are very important for our social life.
“Rituals have the power to bond individuals and give us a preview into family life and couple life. We found they help magnify normative relationship experiences,” says Chris Maniotes, graduate student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) at University of Illinois and lead author of the new paper
Rituals can make or break our interactions with other individuals. They can be a rite of passage or a way to anchor a relationship, and there’s no real relationship, researchers say. Researchers focused on a particular type of relationship for their rituals study: the decision to wed (or not).
The researchers carried detailed interviews with 48 individuals (24 couples) in the US. The participants had an average age of 23 years and were in a relationship for an average of 2.5 years. They were randomly selected from a larger study examining commitment to wed in heterosexual dating couples.
Rituals, like spending the holidays together with the extended family, played an important role in deciding whether the couple wants to try to build a future together.
“Rituals provide a unique time to review one’s partner and relationship; you get to see a host of behaviors and interactions that might normally be obscured,” Maniotes notes. “Some of the ways rituals affected commitment to wed with these couples was by altering their view of their partner, giving them a new perspective.”
It makes sense. Meeting the parents or spending the holidays together is, understandably, a nerve-wracking checkpoint. But it’s also a time to take a moment to reflect and ponder your relationship. You also get to see your potential lifelong mate interact with the rest of your family in a stressful situation that’s often riddled with conflict.
“Rituals seem to really play a role in pausing and slowing down individuals, helping them take a better look at their relationship. They help them see, ‘this is who we are as a couple; this is who we are as a family,’” Maniotes explains.
Rituals don’t necessarily define a relationship — a healthy relationship can overcome an unpleasant weekend with the family — but understanding how rituals affect our relationships can help us better integrate them into our lives, researchers say.
The study has been published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.