Big milestones in a relationship make for great memories and fat photo albums, but they don't turn couples into happier couples.
Turns out, little rituals that are repeated over and over trump a perfect wedding or a long-awaited cruise in creating "togetherness."
Couple scholars and therapists Brent Bradley and James Furrow say in their book, "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies" that it's crucial to weave little traditions such as secret handshakes, notes in suitcases or weekly golf lessons into your daily lives.
Here are some of their tips:
Greet each other: 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," Bradley said. One couple mentioned in the book has a "secret handshake." It involves a number of movements in sequence and ends with three squeezes. They do the handshake at the airport when departing or in front of their kids when they feel like it.
Make time for date nights: If you've fallen into a routine that revolves around work and family, take time to schedule a regular night out - just the two of you. "The key is to be consistent and intentional," Furrow said. Making an appointment for your relationship means you prioritize it.
Or schedule a time to talk: Couples with small children often struggle to get away for a date night. In this case, set aside 15 minutes to talk on a regular basis. Find a consistent time that you can both count on and set boundaries such as: no interruptions, no electronic devices and no discussions of work or children. Keep focused on each other. For some couples, just 10 minutes in the same place without stress reminds them of the good things going on in their lives.
Pass notes: Write a note or send a card to convey to your partner that he or she is on your mind. Whether it's a text message, email or handwritten note, written expressions of affection show your partner that they are important to you. "When you tuck a note into your partner's suitcase before they head out on a business trip, it can be a welcome surprise for your partner. These notes don't have to be long - they just have to be personal," Furrow said. "Notes of gratitude and appreciation help you express what can so easily be taken for granted in a relationship."
Take a class in something new: One couple found that they had more free time once their children were in college. Even though they were at different levels, they decided to take golf lessons. They signed up for lessons at the same time, drove together and had a drink afterward. "Keeping a focus on learning and growing as a couple helps partners bring new energy and ideas to their relationship," Bradley said. "Learning also involves taking risks, and that's a good thing."
Be dedicated by investing in relationship activities: "Reading a book on relationships can spark new ideas for growth and improvement," Furrow said. "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 relationship," Furrow said. A couple mentioned in the book made a commitment to spend one weekend a year discussing their relationship. "On one of the nights, each person has time to talk about his or her joys, concerns and needs."
Celebrate milestones: Plan and remember special days like anniversaries and birthdays. This marks the importance of people and relationships over the time you've known them. Make an effort to express to your partner how important he or she is to you. Even if you grew up in a family that didn't harp on these occasions, don't assume the same is true of your partner. "A missed birthday or anniversary can be seen as a lack of care or concern," Bradley said. "Taking time to discuss your different experiences and to share expectations can help you avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings in the future."
Share a common interest: Familiarity and boredom kill intimacy, so find a ritual that the two of you can find engaging. For example, physical activity is healthy and energizing. Hiking, dancing or sharing a sport combines leisure and companionship. "Other couples organize around common artistic interests such as concerts, culinary arts or literature. Others involve being fans of a sports team," Furrow said. "Couples who are able to find a shared interest that they can invest in find new ways of investing in the bonds they share."
Volunteer: Taking time to help others offers couples a chance to invest in their relationship. Working toward a common goal helps a couple find a deeper sense of unity by transcending their personal interests. When you and your partner decide to dedicate time or resources to others, you make a joint expression of your values. Said Bradley: "Some couples focus on caring for the environment, while others get involved in efforts to conserve and improve their communities. Many couples share in religious and spiritual activities that include serving others."
Make time for intimacy: Sexual contact in a relationship of care, trust and vulnerability conveys a deep level of intimacy. Couples who focus on each other and express sexual affection find greater meaning in these rituals than those who focus primarily on their sexual needs. Keeping romance in sex often requires couples to intentionally express their physical and emotional desires. "Of course, you don't always have to have sex to show affection," Furrow said. "Everyday moments of sharing physical affection, like hugging, kissing and holding hands, show partners that they're important and special."
Remember that rituals, by definition, need to happen frequently, not on occasion. That means you need to practice them even if you don't necessarily "feel" like it.
"It's better to postpone or reschedule than it is to skip your ritual altogether," Bradley said. "Be careful to both agree on resetting the ritual. Inconsistency breaks the power of ritual, but flexibility is necessary to make consistency a reality."