Ever wonder why the holidays stir sentimental, feel-good emotions? It’s likely because your brain is rewarding you for practicing your traditions.
Rituals are at the core of the holiday season, and social scientists suggest rituals have two important biological functions.
Rituals “helps coordinate group behavior and it teaches the young how to behave,” and, thus, rituals become a “cognitive imperative,” according to a 2013 article on ScientificAmerican.com.
In other words, a ritual is a healthy adaption essential to humankind’s survival. As you perform rituals, your brain rewards you with neurochemicals that signal “keep doing this because it may save your life someday.”
Drawing on extensive research of thousands of couples, The Gottman Institute discovered that rituals impacted couples’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors in a positive way. Moreover, happy couples demonstrated the ability to create and adhere to rituals in their relationship.
As a marriage therapist and counselor, I work with couples to create rituals, traditions and customs ranging from the simple, daily ones (walking to the mailbox together) to elaborate ones (an annual weekend getaway).
I get very excited about the holidays because it is a wonderful opportunity, despite the busy-ness of the modern world, to create memorable rituals. Here is my list of suggestions to create shared meaning, or rituals, in your relationship during the holidays.
1.Give the gift of appreciation. Forgo the over-spending of Black Friday shopping, and fill your spouse’s emotional bank account with genuine expressions of gratitude. Research shows that successful couples maintain a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Linger in bed or make breakfast smoothies together as you tell your spouse why you’re grateful.
2. Give the gift of intimacy. Kiss under the mistletoe, take a nighttime stroll to look at Christmas lights, watch your partner’s favorite holiday movie. Even running errands together can become a time to show affection.
3. Give the gift of understanding. If your partner is flustered over the holiday rush, listen with empathy, without judgement and without giving advice. Show interest in his or her day. Let your partner know “we’re in this together.”
4. Give the gift of happy memories. Learn how your partner celebrated the holidays as a child. What are your partner’s best holiday memories? Find a way to honor that childhood tradition. Share your own childhood traditions. Create new, hybrid rituals for your family.
5. Give the gift of planning. Get organized and plan a specific date just for the two of you. Put the event on your calendar and make it a priority. Having a plan also makes it more likely that the date will happen.
I remind couples whom I meet in private therapy and at my couples weekend workshops in Colorado that simplicity breeds repeatability. Create shared meaning through simple rituals that can become habitual. In fact, anything can become a ritual.
These rituals, or shared experiences, strengthen friendship with meaningful connections to one another, by creating memories, and defining the “story” of your relationship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caralee Frederic, LCSW, has practiced as a private couples and individual therapist in Colorado, specializing in marriage and family counseling, for almost 20 years. Founder of Principle Skills Relationship Center, Caralee is also a Certified Gottman Therapist, presenter of ‘The Art and Science of Love‘ couples workshop, and a Certified Sexual Addiction Recovery Therapist.