Married ... with ritual

In November my husband and I ‘celebrated’ our 19th year of marriage. Our anniversary happened to fall on a Tuesday night and our three kids were, of course, in the house. We managed a drink and a brief conversation alone by the pool before we were swallowed whole by the normal everyday demands of family life.

We didn’t actively make time to really celebrate our partnership, our love story. It was simply another night on auto-pilot, trying to do the best we could to get through everything that needed to happen. I’m sure most people can relate – most of us are time-poor, tired and overworked.

But we should have made a fuss of our anniversary. It could easily be a ritual in our home to celebrate this important day (no matter which day of the week it lands on). We spend years at school and in tertiary education so that we are qualified for our jobs, but most of us commit no time at all to educating ourselves about how to be intentional about the most important thing in our lives - our relationships. This is where CatholicCare Social Services’ Marriage and Relationship Educator Robyn Donnelly can help!

“When we are falling in love we create rituals. We only see the good in each other. But most people, over time, become complacent and stop the rituals, never fully understanding their importance. I was no different. When I started working in relationship education I was in the worst stage of my own marriage. But as I learnt the evidence-based research from people like John and Julie Gottman and William Doherty I became more conscious of creating specific rituals within my own home. I found that the more rituals and intentionality I had, the more I wanted to be with my husband,” said Robyn.

Clearly Robyn’s life and relationships have blossomed as a result of her job and she couldn’t be happier.

“I feel really privileged to work in relationship education and it’s given so much to me personally. I’ve stayed married, ‘in like’ and in love, because you cannot present this research and not walk the walk. It keeps you honest,” said Robyn.

So what does the research show and what will you learn by attending relationship education?

You will learn how to do small things, often. You will learn about emotional bank accounts and how to keep them well-padded so the challenges, when they come, are easier to cope with. You will learn how to look for the good in your partner instead of scanning for the negative (something that we do, sometimes unintentionally). You will learn about rituals and how to make them a regular and planned part of your day, week, month and year and how they can help you create shared meaning in your relationship.

“The Gottman research tells us to share our fondness and admiration and turn towards each other. I was in a taxi with my husband recently and he was really engaging the Afghan driver in conversation and listening to his story. I felt a lot of admiration for him and later made a point to tell him. This is just a simple example of how you can put the research into practice.

“The more we appreciate and admire our partner intentionally, the more appreciated they will feel. They won’t be able to help but admire you in return. Working on nurturing our friendship and being more empathetic naturally makes us less critical,” said Robyn.

Of course, the research not only benefits partners, but is also easily applied to parent and child relationships.

“We started age-appropriate rituals with our kids early on. We always had dinner together and each of us would say the best thing and worst thing about our day and then share with each other how we helped someone. We still do this and our sons are now 21 and 16. In fact, at Christmas all thirty-five people who share our table know that they will have to share the best and worst thing about the year, as well as a way they have made a difference!   

“We also use conversation cards to kick-start some wonderful conversations. You can use these in the car or at the table,” said Robyn.

Investing time in your own relationship also has positive flow-on effects for your kids.

“Gottman says that the greatest gift you can give your kids is a strong relationship between their parents. Over the years we have always put time and effort into our relationship, be it a dinner out or a weekend away, so that we can reconnect and build shared meaning for the future when our kids leave home.  By doing this we have intentionally said to our kids that it is important for a married couple who are in love to spend time together on their own,” said Robyn.

So why are people sometimes reticent about investing in their relationship via education courses?

“I attend bridal fairs to promote our ‘Before We Say I Do’ program and couples often say ‘oh we don’t need that, we’ve been together for years’, but I encourage them to attend because surely people want to feel as loved and valued in twenty-five years time as they do when they’re getting married. We can give them the tools to make this a reality.

“I think people think it will be about what they are doing wrong, but relationship education is not about being perfect; it’s about learning from each other. I present the research and we help couples understand the practical ways they can establish good patterns or strengthen their relationship,” said Robyn.

After spending an hour with Robyn I’m convinced and will be making time for some relationship education in the near future. After all, it’s our 20th anniversary next year and we should celebrate it with intentionality.

To learn more about CatholicCare’s relationship education P Robyn Donnelly, 4979 1370. Courses available include pre-marriage programs ‘Before We Say I Do’ and ‘FOCCUS’, ‘Bringing Baby Home’ for couples expecting a baby or with young children at home and ‘Enhance’ for couples wanting to strengthen their partnership.

5 daily questions for making my relationship a priority

  1. What choices am I making today to move me closer to my partner?
  2. How have I set aside time for myself and my partner, so they know they are a priority in my life?
  3. What can I do today to make my partner feel appreciated, valued or special?
  4. How did I turn towards my partner’s bid for attention?
  5. What questions have I recently asked my partner which helped me know or understand him/her better?

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Joanne Isaac Image
Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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