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Rituals in Unmarried Couple Relationships: An Exploratory Study

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Abstract

This study provides an understanding of rituals enacted in unmarried couple relationships. One hundred and twenty-nine individuals involved in unmarried relationships reported on their rituals in an online, open-ended questionnaire. A typology of 16 ritual types was developed. Twelve of the rituals have been shown to be common in marital relationships. Four new ritual categories, unique to unmarried relationships, emerged from the data. The new categories were gift-giving, helping each other/being supportive, future planning/daydreaming about the future, and family involvement. Implications for future research on couple rituals are suggested.
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Running Head: UNMARRIED COUPLE RITUALS
Rituals in Unmarried Couple Relationships: An Exploratory Study
Kelly Campbell
Luciana Silva
David W. Wright
University of Georgia
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Abstract
This study provides an understanding of rituals enacted in unmarried couple relationships. One
hundred and twenty-nine individuals involved in unmarried relationships reported on their rituals
in an online, open-ended questionnaire. A typology of 16 ritual types was developed, 12 of
which have been shown to be common in marital relationships. Four new ritual categories,
unique to unmarried relationships, emerged from the data: Gift-giving, helping each other/being
supportive, future planning/daydreaming about the future, and family involvement. Implications
for future research on couple rituals conclude the study.
Keywords: couple rituals, unmarried relationships, relational behaviors
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Rituals in Unmarried Couple Relationships: An Exploratory Study
Introduction and Purpose
Rituals are repeated and meaningful behaviors that people enact together. Some rituals
are enacted by entire cultures such as national or religious holiday celebrations. Others are
practiced in small groups, such as when families take annual vacations or when couples celebrate
a wedding anniversary. The purpose of this study was to identify rituals in the context of
unmarried couple relationships. Although rituals in marital and family relationships have been
studied extensively (e.g., Berg-Cross, Daniels, & Carr, 1992; Crespo, Davide, Costa, & Fletcher,
2008; Fiese et al., 2002), unmarried relationship rituals remain virtually unexplored. These
rituals are worthy of investigation because it is within unmarried relationships that individuals
may develop patterns for their future marital and/or family relationships. Additionally, compared
to the past, individuals are less likely to ever marry (Schoen & Canudas-Romo, 2005), making it
particularly important to understand unmarried relationship dynamics. A third reason for why
this topic is significant relates to the benefits associated with ritual enactment including
enhancing relationship quality and intimacy (e.g., Pearson, Child, & Carmon, 2010). In order to
examine the specific outcomes associated with ritual enactment in unmarried partnerships, these
rituals must first be identified.
Literature Review
Rituals serve a variety of functions in marital and family relationships. They promote
satisfaction and stability (Bruess & Pearson, 2002; Fiese & Tomcho, 2001), ease role transition
such as the transition to parenthood (Fiese, Hooker, Kotary, & Schwagler, 1993; Kalmijn, 2010),
contribute to a sense of marital and family identity (Braithwaite & Baxter, 1995; Crespo et al.,
2008; Doherty, 2001), help transmit family values and beliefs (Friedman & Weissbrod, 2004),
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and strengthen relationships during times of transition and crisis (Barnett, & Youngberg, 2004;
Eaker & Walters, 2002). In addition to the benefits provided to marital and family relationships,
Campbell and Ponzetti (2007) found that rituals enhance commitment for individuals in
premarital relationships. Although this work provided some insight on the topic of unmarried
rituals, the authors collected data using an adapted measure of family rituals because no prior
work existed on premarital relationships. As such, the types of rituals enacted within unmarried
relationships have yet to be identified.
Wolin and Bennett (1984) developed a useful typology for conceptualizing interpersonal
rituals. Based on their degree of frequency and meaning, they classified rituals as celebrations,
traditions, or patterned interactions. Celebration rituals occur infrequently, usually a few times
each year and include cultural, national, and religious holidays such as Halloween, the 4th of
July, and Christmas. Within a particular society, celebrations are enacted in a similar fashion and
on pre-specified dates. For example, cultural holidays such Halloween are celebrated the same
way and on the same date by most people. These holidays follow a generalized guideline of
enactment, which allows for modest variation depending on the individual participants. Because
these rituals follow established rules of enactment, they are less unique or idiosyncratic to couple
relationships.
Tradition rituals occur more frequently than celebrations and include events such as
birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and reunions (Wolin & Bennett, 1984). Each tradition, such
as a birthday, might only occur once per year for an individual, but could occur several times per
year when considering the number of family members and friends having birthdays. A given
person could therefore participate in a particular tradition ritual several times per year. These
rituals are guided by a cultural script, but are enacted according to personalized guidelines
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(Wolin & Bennett, 1984). For example, although a person’s birthday might include a cake,
candles, and presents, individuals celebrate their birthdays on different days and in different
ways. Because traditions are not enacted by all members in a given society at once, they are
more personal than celebrations.
Patterned interaction rituals include daily or weekly rituals such as eating meals with a
partner, saying hello or goodbye, and participating in weekend activities (Wolin & Bennett,
1984). These rituals can be confused with routines because they occur frequently and may be
enacted out of habit or efficiency. The characteristic that distinguishes rituals from routines is the
meaning participants ascribe to the activity or behavior (Viere, 2001). An activity is considered a
ritual if participants consider it to be a meaningful and important part of their life. Accordingly,
eating meals with a partner or engaging in weekend activities together may qualify as rituals for
some couples and not for others. Compared to celebrations and traditions, patterned interactions
may be the most relevant to unmarried couple relationships because they occur on a regular
basis. Partners who have been together for a short period of time are likely to have enacted
patterned interactions, but less likely to have enacted celebrations and traditions due to their
infrequency. Patterned interactions are often enacted exclusively by the couple members, do not
pertain to society at large, and may or may not involve family and friends. Because they emerge
from shared experiences within the relationship, these rituals may not easily be identified or
explained by anyone other the actual couple members. For example, although several people in a
given culture have mealtime or nighttime rituals, the manner of enacting these rituals is likely to
be couple specific (Doherty, 2001).
Patterned interactions are common in marital relationships. Bruess and Pearson (1997)
inductively examined the types of rituals enacted by married couples and identified seven types
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(in order of most to least common): couple time rituals, idiosyncratic/symbolic rituals, daily
routines and tasks, intimacy expressions, communication rituals, patterns/habits/mannerisms, and
spiritual rituals. Couple time rituals consisted of three sub-categories: enjoyable activities (23%
of all rituals), togetherness rituals (12%), and escape rituals (5%). Idiosyncratic/symbolic rituals
included engaging in favorite activities (7%), using private codes (6%), play rituals (5%), and
celebration rituals (2%). Daily routines and tasks (13%) included activities of daily living.
Intimacy expressions (12%) pertained to verbal and physical expressions of affection.
Communication rituals (7%) involved keeping in regular contact with one another.
Patterns/habits/mannerisms (6%) pertained to unique interaction patterns. And lastly, spiritual
rituals (2%) included activities such as attending religious services or praying together (Bruess &
Pearson, 1997). Each of these ritual types is further defined in Table 1. Based on Wolin and
Bennett’s (1984) typology, a majority of marital rituals (97%) would be classified as patterned
interactions.
Social construction theory is another useful framework understanding couple rituals.
According to the theory, partners develop shared meaning systems based on their interactions
(Berger & Kellner, 1984). When two individuals come together in a relationship, they integrate
their individual conceptions of reality to form a common definition of the relationship. This
shared reality is created and reinforced through regular conversations and joint experiences
(Duck, 1994). For example, couple members might use certain nicknames or private jokes that
are only understood by each other. This process helps partners establish a couple identity and
enhance the intimacy in their relationship (Braithwaite & Baxter, 1995; Doherty, 2001). Rituals
are an example of how couple members engage in the construction of a shared reality. Partners
identify activities they enjoy doing together and repeat these activities because they are
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meaningful and remind them of their shared life together. Based on these principles, the current
study uses an inductive approach that will enable individuals to identify and describe their
unique relationship rituals.
Current Study: Research Goals
Given the importance of rituals for maintaining relationships, it is surprising that few
researchers have examined unmarried couple rituals. These rituals are important to understand
because nearly all individuals are involved in an unmarried partnership during their lifetime, and
it is within these relationships that they may develop patterns for their subsequent marital and
family relationships. In order to address this gap in the research, the current study sought to
identify the types of rituals enacted within unmarried couple relationships. A second goal was to
comment on how unmarried rituals were similar to and different from marital rituals.
Methodology
Participants
Participants were 129 individuals (21 males, 108 females) who were involved in a couple
relationship. The mean age of the sample was 23 years (SD = 5.9 years). Self-reported
racial/ethnic identities were 83% Caucasian, 10% African American, 3% Asian, 1% Native
American, and 2% mixed. Ninety-four percent of individuals were involved in heterosexual
relationships and 8% were in same sex relationships. The mean relationship duration was 2 years
(SD = 1.9 years). Seventy-two percent of the sample reported being in exclusively dating
relationships, 14% were engaged, 11% were cohabiting, and 3% were casually dating.
Data Collection
An online questionnaire that was hosted on a university web server was used to elicit
responses about unmarried couple rituals. The researchers approached graduate and
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undergraduate classes at a southeastern university and informed students about the study.
Individuals who were involved in an unmarried couple relationship were asked to provide the
researchers with their email address. The researchers then emailed prospective participants with
a link to the online consent form and survey. In order to recruit non-student participants, the
researchers also posted the study information and link on professional list serves. Participants
were informed that they would have the option of entering a draw for a $50 gift certificate upon
completion of the survey. Anonymity was assured because contest information was collected in a
separate data file that was not connected to participants’ survey responses. The survey took
participants approximately 15 minutes to complete.
Unmarried couple rituals. Participants were provided with descriptions of rituals that
couples may enact in their relationships such as signaling “I love you” with certain codes,
communicating regularly throughout the day, and planning special meals together. After reading
the description, participants were asked to list and explain all the rituals that they repeatedly
enact in their relationship. They were instructed to include both present and past rituals.
Demographics. In addition to the open-ended question about couple rituals, participants
were asked to indicate their sex, age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, relationship duration, and
relationship status (e.g., casually dating, exclusively dating).
Data Analysis
The principal researcher and a researcher who was unfamiliar with the couple ritual
literature used Bruess and Pearson’s (1997) categories of marital rituals to code the open-ended
responses (see Table 1). The researchers independently coded the data and agreed beforehand to
add new categories when the data did not fit into the pre-existing coding scheme. After
completing the initial coding on their own, the researchers met to discuss their findings. The
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rituals were reviewed case-by-case and if the researchers assigned different codes to a ritual, they
discussed their rationale and arrived at a mutual decision. In one instance, the researchers did not
reach a consensus about an assigned code. Therefore, inter-rater agreement was over 99%.
The principal researcher, who was familiar with the couple ritual literature, found
categories in the open-ended responses that went beyond those identified in Bruess and
Pearson’s (1997) marital ritual study. The additional categories were helping each other/being
supportive, gift-giving, future planning/day dreaming about the future, and visits with family. As
the researchers discussed their initial codes, the principal researcher pointed out instances where
some rituals might fit better into one of the new categories. Through discussion, the researchers
arrived at mutual decisions about which rituals to code according to the preexisting schema and
which to code as new ritual types. At the end of the coding procedure, the researchers revisited
the new rituals to examine whether a noteworthy amount of rituals had been classified into each
category and whether the categories were conceptually distinct. Each category had 8-10 cases,
which the researchers deemed sufficient for a new category, and each appeared to be
conceptually different from other categories. Therefore, the researchers added the four new
categories to the ritual typology (see bottom of Table 1).
Results
A total of 756 couple rituals were reported by participants in this study. The average number
of rituals reported by each person was 6 (SD = 3.93). Each ritual type is described below with
examples to illustrate the participants’ perspectives. The rituals are presented in order from most
to least common.
Enjoyable Activities (23%)
Enjoyable activities were the most common type of rituals reported. These typically involved
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cooking and eating meals together, watching certain television programs, going on dates, and
engaging in hobbies (i.e., reading books together, playing sports, playing music together). One
individual described how she and her partner “enjoy going to the grocery store together, picking
out what [they] want to eat on [their] special date night, and going back to his house to prepare
the meal.” Another individual noted that she and her partner “lay in bed and watch adult swim on
Friday and Saturday nights.”
Intimacy Expressions (19%)
These rituals involved using gestures to indicate love, saying ‘I love you’ at certain times of
the day, showing affection, giving each other massages, and having sex. One individual reported
that she and her boyfriend “almost always take a shower together in the morning and wash each
other’s hair.” Some individuals reported elaborate intimacy rituals exemplified in the following
account: “A ritual for my fiancé and I is to open a bottle of champagne, turn off all the lights,
light some candles, and dance in my fiancé’s den to slow music.”
Communication Rituals (14%)
These rituals typically included daily phone calls, leaving notes for one another, sending
emails, sending instant messages online, and text messaging. One participant noted that he and
his partner “call each other daily to talk about what’s going on in each others lives.” Another
participant described how she and her boyfriend “regularly talk on Instant Messenger on the
computer. [She and her partner] IM each other every morning. He always says ‘Good morning
beautiful’.”
Patterns/Habits/Mannerisms (10%)
These rituals involved common patterns such as alternating who pays for a meal, sitting or
laying in particular positions together, assigning roles to activities (i.e., one partner cooks, the
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other washes dishes), or doing things in the same way every time. One participant described how
her boyfriend “always opens [her] doors and gives [her] the first bite or sip of food that is
shared.” Another participant indicated that whenever she leaves her partner’s home, “he always
stands on his porch until [she’s] out of the driveway and waves to [her] as [she] drives off.”
Daily Routines and Tasks (8%)
These rituals were the most mundane or chore-like activities and included cooking and
cleaning, walking the dog, and doing laundry together. One participant described how she and
her partner do all their housecleaning together: “We do dishes, trash, laundry, beds,
vacuuming…normally we each do some jobs during the week, trading out cooking and washing
dishes.” Another participant indicated that “[she gets] home before [her] partner and each night,
when he gets home, [their] two dogs start barking to let [her] know it’s time to meet him at the
door. The three of [them] sit at the top of the stairs and greet him when he opens the door. [They]
then take the dogs outside, talk about [their] days, and make dinner together.”
Play Rituals (5%)
Play rituals included silly games that partners played together, joking and laughing, and
having fun together. In general, these rituals were very specific or unique to the partners
involved. For example, one man described how he and his partner invented a funny language,
which “involves changing any ’L’ in a word to an ’R’ sound. ‘Hello’ becomes ‘hero’.” Another
participant described an elaborate ritual he and his boyfriend call “Mixing Phat Beats”. In this
ritual, “one guy pins the other guy to the ground and uses his chest as one might use a DJ’s
turntable, including sound effects and sometimes lyrics. It’s never just a simple affair though, it
always involves a brief wrestling match to see who can pin the other first, and the winner gets to
mix the beats (while the other struggles to get away).”
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Togetherness Rituals (4.5%)
These rituals involved setting aside special time to spend with a partner. During this time,
partners might engage in a variety of activities, which were secondary to the purpose of being
together. For example, one participant indicated that she and her partner “enjoy spending time
together doing just about anything with just the two of [them] (fishing, movies, dinner out, six
flags).” One student described that she and her boyfriend “go to different colleges so [they] are
only able to see each other on the weekends. This is a ritual in itself. Both of [them] don’t plan to
go anywhere else but to see each other. The weekends are [theirs].”
Couple Favorites (3%)
This ritual type included preferred activities such as going to a favorite restaurant, buying
favorite items, eating favorite foods, or watching favorite television shows together. One
participant described how she and her boyfriend “have a special meal that [they] always cook
when [they] have the chance to cook together. [They] always make chicken and shrimp fettuccini
alfredo with all different kinds of seasoning that [they] like to experiment with. It is a favorite
meal for both of [them] and [they] do not get the opportunity to cook meals very often so it is
very special when [they] can.”
Private Codes (3%)
Private codes involved having established ways of communicating that other people may not
understand. For instance, partners reported holding hands and giving three squeezes to indicate
“I love you”, or calling one another by code names. One woman commented on how she used
“baby talk when [she] was ready for sex” and that her boyfriend “stretches when he is ready for
sex”. Another participant noted that he and his girlfriend “write notes everywhere [they] can,
with the word ‘SHMILY?’, meaning ‘See how much I love you?’ or ‘CYKHMILY’ meaning
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‘Can you know how much I love you?’.”
Celebration Rituals (2%)
These rituals involved celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. One participant
noted that she and her partner “always celebrate the anniversary of when [they] started dating
and this is something [they] will do even after [they] get married.” Another participant described
how she and her partner “give each other cards on [their] monthly anniversary, which [she] has
renamed ‘month-iversary’. In the cards, [they] recount all that has happened in the past month,
the struggles [they] have overcome, the good times, and [their] hopes for the future.”
Escape Episodes (2%)
Escape episodes involved taking weekend getaways, going on vacations, and taking time
away from everyday routines. One participant described how he and his girlfriend go on
“weekend excursions to another close-by city to experience a new restaurant together or an
attraction there.” Another participant described that when she and her boyfriend “get bored,
[they] will get in the car and go on adventures and drive until [they] see something interesting
and then stop and hang out there or go exploring for awhile.”
Spiritual Rituals (2%)
Spiritual rituals included attending religious services together, praying, and celebrating
religious holidays together. One participant commented on how she and her partner always have
Sabbath dinner together on Friday nights, which includes “wine, candles, and conversation home
alone together.” Another participant indicated that he and his girlfriend read spiritual growth
books together and that “God is the center of [their] relationship.”
Gift-Giving (1.5%)
One of the new categories, which was not identified in Bruess and Pearson’s (1997) study of
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marital rituals was gift-giving. As one participant described, “My boyfriend sends me flowers
and attached to each flower is a quote, song, or movie that reminds him about me.” Another
participant described how her boyfriend “is a regular rose sender. There is a $6 rose place near
[their] home that he gets the most wonderful colored roses from, fairly often. This gift usually
serves as a ‘hey just thinking about you’ gift, but has also been sent as an apology in some
cases.”
Family Involvement (1%)
Another new category, which was unique to unmarried relationships, pertained to family
visits. These rituals might occur weekly, such as when participants had meals with parents on the
same day each week. Other times, participants spent vacations with a partners’ family or went to
the family’s house for visits. One woman noted that she and her boyfriend “are from the same
hometown, so whenever [they] are heading home together, they make it a priority to see each
other’s family. This is a major part of the relationship because [they] believe in order to have a
good relationship [they] must get to know each other’s family.” Another participant described
how “Every weekend, [her] partner invites [her] Mom to join [them] for dinner. He picks [her]
and [her] mom up at [her] place and takes [them] to a restaurant that he knows [her] mom will
enjoy. After dinner, he either drops [them] both off at home, or comes in and watches TV with
[them].”
Future Planning/Daydreaming (1%)
Planning and daydreaming about the future was another new category, not reported by
married couples. One participant noted that she and her partner “love to talk about when [they]
will get married, where [they] will go on [their] honeymoon, and even [their] future sexual
exclusion, seeing how [they] are both waiting on [having sexual intercourse] until [they] are
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married.” Another participant recounted that she and her partner “constantly talk about the
future, getting married, [their] prospective jobs, and education.”
Helping/Being Supportive (1%)
The final ritual category that was unique to unmarried relationships pertained to helping or
being supportive of a partner. Examples of this ritual type included attending a partner’s sporting
events, helping one another with school work, or doing favors for each other. One participant
indicated that “[she is] not as good of a student as [her] boyfriend is, so he will regularly take
time out of his day to help [her] study or do homework.” Another participant described how she
frequently “visits [her boyfriend] at work just to say hi or bring him dinner.”
Discussion
In this study, we provided an account of the types of rituals enacted within unmarried
couple relationships. Unmarried individuals reported a variety of rituals, which have been
demonstrated as common in marital relationships (Bruess & Pearson, 1997). Four new ritual
types emerged from the data, which have not previously been reported in studies of marital
rituals: gift-giving, family involvement, future planning/daydreaming about the future, and
helping/being supportive to each other. In the following paragraphs, we contextualize our
findings in relation to marital rituals and comment on the unique categories that emerged from
our data. Where applicable, we comment on how the passage of time since Bruess and Pearson’s
study on marital rituals may have influenced the types of rituals reported.
The ritual types that were reported with similar frequencies by unmarried and married
individuals included: enjoyable activities, intimacy expressions, patterns/habits/mannerisms,
daily routines and tasks, play rituals, celebration rituals, escape rituals, and spiritual rituals.
Enjoyable activities were the most common ritual type in both unmarried and marital
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relationships (Bruess & Pearson, 1997), accounting for 23% of all rituals in both samples.
Intimacy expressions were slightly more common in unmarried relationships, accounting for
19% of rituals, compared to 12% in marital relationships. This is perhaps because unmarried
partners have not been together as long as married partners, and are still enjoying the
“honeymoon phase” of their relationship. Patterns/habits/mannerisms were somewhat
comparable in both relationship types, accounting for 10% of unmarried rituals and 6% of
marital rituals. Daily routines and tasks were also comparable, but were slightly more common in
marital (13%) than unmarried relationships (8%). This is likely because, compared to unmarried
couples, married individuals are more likely to live together, and would therefore engage in more
household maintenance activities together. Play rituals were slightly more common among
unmarried (5%) than married couples (4%), which may be related to the younger age and earlier
lifestage of individuals in unmarried relationships. Celebration rituals were identical for the two
samples, accounting for 2% of all rituals. These rituals may be infrequently reported simply
because they occur least often. Individuals experience birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays only
a few times each year. Escape rituals were more common in marital (5%) than unmarried
relationships (2%). This finding could be a function of the number of student participants in the
current study, who might not have the resources to take vacations or engage in other escape
rituals. And finally, spiritual rituals were similar in both samples, accounting for approximately
2% of rituals in both types of relationships.
The ritual types that were reported with different frequencies by unmarried and married
individuals included: communication rituals, togetherness rituals, private codes, and couple
favorites. Communication rituals were considerably more common in unmarried (14%), than
married (7%) relationships (Bruess & Pearson, 1997). As discussed in greater depth below,
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advances in communication technologies since Bruess and Pearson’s study have made it easier
for people to communicate when apart, which would influence the number of reported rituals. It
may also be that when partners live together, as most married couples do, their communication
rituals may not be easily identifiable because they blend in with everyday routines. When
partners are required to take time out of their daily activities to be in contact with each other,
they may be more prone to see their communication as a ritual in itself. Togetherness rituals
were more common for married (12%) than unmarried individuals (4.5%). It is possible that
work demands and the involvement of children require married couples to make more of an
effort to incorporate togetherness rituals into their relationships. For unmarried couples who are
not cohabiting, togetherness time may be considered the livelihood of their relationship, and
would be less likely to be viewed as a separate ritual. Private codes were more common in
marital relationships, accounting for 6% of all rituals, compared to 3% in unmarried
relationships. Couple favorites were also more common in marital (7%) than unmarried
relationships (3%). These two ritual types may be a function of relationship length, with married
individuals having had a longer period together to formulate private codes and establish favorite
places to visit, etc.
An additional four types of rituals, beyond those reported in Bruess and Pearson’s
research, were reported by individuals in unmarried relationships. These additional ritual types,
gift-giving, helping each other/being supportive, future planning/daydreaming about the future,
and family involvement, were the least frequently cited, but may be important to explore in
future research. A possible reason for the infrequent reporting of these ritual types is that they
were not included in the ritual description provided to participants at the beginning of the study.
At least two of these ritual types—future planning/daydreaming of the future and family
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involvement—may be unique to more committed couples, who see potential for their
relationship in the long-term. Future research might explore the frequency and salience of these
additional rituals for both married and unmarried couples.
Findings from this study can be contextualized according to Wolin and Bennett’s (1984)
ritual typology of celebrations, traditions, and patterned interactions. Using Wolin and Bennett’s
classification scheme, the unmarried rituals of spiritual, celebration, escape, gift-giving, and
family involvement qualify as both celebrations and traditions. Celebration rituals, such as
anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays clearly overlap with Wolin and Bennett’s celebration and
tradition categories. The other types-spiritual, escape, gift-giving, and family involvement-may
occur during celebrations and traditions, but could also be described as patterned interactions.
The large majority of rituals reported by unmarried individuals would be classified as patterned
interactions. In fact, all reported rituals, other than celebrations, could qualify as patterned
interactions, because they occurred frequently (i.e., daily or weekly) and tended to involve the
couple members exclusively. It can therefore be concluded that patterned interactions are the
most common and pertinent rituals in unmarried relationships.
With respect to social construction theory, participants provided numerous accounts of
how ritual enactment contributed to their shared meaning system. Their descriptions illustrated
that partners select unique experiences to endow with meaning, and that these experiences help
build intimacy and solidify a couple identity. Not only did participants report a variety of
patterns that were classified as “intimacy rituals”, but they also described how other ritual types
reaffirmed their partnership. For instance, one participant described a ritual of leaving notes with
the acronym “SHMILY”, which means ‘See how much I love you?’ Another participant stated
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that she and her partner exchange monthly cards to detail all that has happened in the past month,
including the ups and downs and their hopes for the future.
Limitations and Future Directions
In terms of study limitations, a majority of participants were heterosexual women.
Compared to men, women tend to be more attentive to relationship dynamics and better at
interpreting interpersonal interactions (Hall, 2006); as such, the rituals reported by women
should provide an accurate assessment. However, it is important to recognize that men may
perceive their couple rituals differently and future researchers will benefit from including more
men in their studies. Related to sexual orientation, Suter, Bergen, Daas, and Durham (2006)
found that same-sex couples face unique challenges because they must resolve tensions between
public and private rituals. The small number of non-heterosexuals in our study precludes the
ability to examine variations based on sexual orientation but future research should explore this
possibility.
A gradual next step will be to examine how unmarried rituals relate to intra- and
interpersonal characteristics such as attachment style, personality, satisfaction, and commitment.
Campbell and Ponzetti’s (2007) work indicated that premarital rituals are associated with
commitment, but their study provides one of the only accounts of rituals in unmarried
relationships. Longitudinal research is also needed to examine whether ritual functioning in
unmarried relationships is predictive of ritual functioning once a couple marries. For example,
does the frequency and types of rituals enacted prior to marriage (e.g., communication rituals,
future planning) shift once a couple gets married, and if so, how do these shifts impact relational
outcomes? It is important to note that we compared our findings to a study of marital rituals that
was conducted by Bruess and Pearson more than 10 years ago. As such, it will be important to
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examine whether and how marital rituals may have changed over this time period. It is evident
that a variety of avenues remain to be explored in future studies. We hope our findings provide a
stepping stone to more work in this important area.
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References
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Table 1
Unmarried Couple Ritual Frequencies and Definitions
Ritual type and frequency Definition
Enjoyable activities (23%) Enjoyable activities that are enacted with an intimate partner.
Intimacy expressions (19%) Verbal and physical expressions of love and affection.
Communication rituals (14%) Time set aside for couple communication. The couple may
interact in person, over the telephone, or by email.
Patterns/habits/mannerisms (10%) Predictable styles of interacting that are unique to the couple.
Daily routines and tasks (8%) Daily household activities such as sharing meals or preparing for
bedtime together.
Play rituals (5%) Having fun together as a couple.
Togetherness rituals (4.5%) Time spent together as a couple, irrespective of the activity
involved.
Couple favorites (3%) Enacting the couple’s most preferred activities.
Private codes rituals (3%) Using words, phrases, gestures, or jokes that carry unique and
special meaning for the couple.
Celebration rituals (2%) Things partners do to acknowledge holidays, anniversaries, and
special events.
Escape episodes (2%) Time spent away from the couple’s everyday environment.
Spiritual rituals (2%) Engaging in religious or spiritual activities such as prayer.
Gift-giving (1.5%) Giving a gift to an intimate partner.
Family involvement (1%) Setting aside time to visit as a couple with family members.
Future planning/daydreaming (1%) Planning for a future together or daydreaming about how
the couple’s future will be together.
Helping/being supportive (1%) Doing things to help a partner or indicate support.
Note: Rituals that have been identified in both married and unmarried couple relationships are listed in the
upper portion of the table. Rituals that were reported solely by unmarried individuals in the present study
are listed in the lower portion of the table.
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