When my husband and I were engaged, the pastor who married us recommended Mike and I interview couples whose marriages we admire. We asked each person two questions: What have you done well? What would you do differently? We listened intently, hurried back to the car, and transcribed everything we could remember into a notebook which we still have. This exercise turned out to be one of the smartest things we have done as a couple; those reflections have served as signposts in our journey.
Mike and I recently marked one year in Seattle, and we are anticipating him officially finishing his first year at Mars Hill Graduate School next week. In this year of intense transition, I have found myself going back to wisdom from my aunt who, in answer to our engagement questions, emailed us the following: “One of the most fruitful things we’ve done as a couple is to develop rituals. These rhythms of days, months, years have settled us, established us, defined us, united us, protected us. Little daily things and big annual events…You cannot possibly imagine how rich it is for your relationship to move in waves of rituals, which generate happy memories and give you identity, meaning.” If my aunt were using the language of Dan Allender, she would have said that rituals have helped them cleave together.
Developing an identity as a couple, cleaving to your spouse, is one of those core marriage issues. In Marriage and Family last spring, Dan said that to cleave or ”to cling means that you have held on so tight you cannot be broken apart. “ One practice which nurtures that interdependence is the cultivation of ritual and rhythm, concepts that challenge our deadline-driven culture. Rituals shift the question from “What must be done?” to “Who are we?” It’s easy to see why so much of the Law focuses on the traditions and rituals God establishes for his people: it helps keeps them focused on what they are really about.
While it all sounds good, my husband and I have found building rituals and rhythms into our life to be both much harder and much more important than we initially thought. Part of the difficulty stems from very different families of origin: tradition influenced nearly everything my family did—from holidays to Sunday morning—while Mike grew up in a much more autonomous home. I spent my first Thanksgiving with his family wide-eyed and amazed at how different our families functioned. For us, some of our rituals came easily: weekly date night, candles at dinner, cribbage at pubs, “Big Bang Theory” on Monday night television. But many have been hard coming and are still in process. We have found that traditions don’t develop without a significant intentionality on our part.
Yet, it is an intentionality worth pursuing. As Mike and I shape the movement of our life together, we are forced to ask: What do we value as a couple? How does the way we spend our time reflect those values? The answer to those questions anchors us whether in the busyness of everyday life or in the midst of significant upheaval—such as starting the counseling program at Mars Hill Graduate School. Yet through changing circumstances, our rituals remind us of who we are and who we want to be; they serve as a map to help us navigate deadlines, commitments, and expectations. And it is through rhythms of our days, months, and years that we learn how to cling together.