The Petersons of San Diego have two young children and hectic lives. But every morning while dressing, they take time out for a simple, private ceremony: David removes Anita’s wedding ring, then slips it back on her finger as he says, “I love you.” Anita does the same with his ring, and they kiss.
“The ritual began shortly after our wedding, with David asking, `Will you marry me?’” Anita remembers. “Now we just do the ring ceremony without the question, but the result is the same: We’re reminded of all the wonderful reasons we got married. It seems to start the day off on the right foot.”
Such romantic gestures are more common among newlyweds. But even after the kids are born, and life and work get complicated, couples can develop special rites that will sweeten their days. This is not about habits, like a peck on the cheek before leaving for work. What’s magic about rituals is that they focus the participants on each other, while excluding the outside world. Although the rituals can be elaborate–like a wedding anniversary party that brings a big extended family together–the most memorable are often short and simple. The message they send is this: You are more important to me than anything else.
try telling Jesse and Marilyn Muro, the parents of seven in Kansas City, KS, that weekly rendezvous are too hard to arrange. The two manage to carve out a “date” together every Saturday night–without even leaving home.
“Our kids are between the ages of eight and twenty-seven, so we generally have five or six around on any given weekend,” says Marilyn. “Our date starts at ten-thirty, and everybody knows they have to be home by then. They’re upstairs and we’re downstairs in our bedroom, which we turn into a haven with candles and incense, and often, a fire in the fireplace. We have ocean and thunderstorm tapes for the stereo to block the noise from upstairs, and a plateful of fresh chocolate-chip cookies.”
The kids are hardly neglected. Marilyn’s 17-year-old son is in charge, and he earns money toward his car insurance in exchange for keeping order. There’s a separate telephone line upstairs so that, in a pinch, the children can phone for parental help.
What do the Muros do on their dates? “We have time to talk and plan and get reacquainted,” says Marilyn. “We might watch our favorite old TV shows, like Perry. Mason, or give each other massages or acupressure therapy. We bought books on both and have gotten very good at them.”
The Muros have, on occasion, rented pricey hotel rooms for their dates, but they always end up wishing they were home, says Marilyn. “This ritual we’ve created is as refreshing as a vacation. For minimal expense, we’ve found a little piece of heaven.”
Amy and Gary Bethel, of Seguin, TX, say that the five to ten minutes they spend praying together every morning has brought new intimacy to their 26-year marriage. “Gary and I sit down on a couch in the family room and hold hands,” says Amy. “We start out by asking, ‘How are you this morning?’ Then we go on to pray for our children, our friends, and each other’s day. If one of our daughters is having trouble, we’ll pray she gets the help she needs. Or if we have anything threatening to discuss, we do it at prayer time instead of holding it in till late in the day, when we’re tired.
“Them have been times when we were so angry, we didn’t want to pray together. That’s partly because we both know that once we sit down on the couch and hold hands, we won’t be mad at each other anymore. The intimacy of the moment is that powerful. It makes us realize we really do still love each other.”
Preslumber rituals are important to many couples–like Barb and Vern Brock of Cheney, WA, who’ve been ending their days together in the same way for 14 years. “The last thing we say to each other before going to sleep is `What’s the best thing that happened to you today?’” Barb notes. “We have a special little way of jousting with each other before we start, with two nudges meaning `You go first,’ and so on.”
Both Brocks work, and they have two kids, so sometimes the days are “wild and full of mini traumas,” says Barb. “On those nights, the answer to the question is: `Right now is the best part of my day.’”
Jan Berry and her husband, John Copley, of Ypsilanti, MI, have an even simpler bedtime ritual. They never go to sleep without kissing each other three times. “And then he always says, `Good night, sweetie,’” explains Jan.
Picnic Between the Sheets
As young parents, Jennifer and Levi Ross of Orrington, ME, have found that their two toddlers can really cut into the couple time they used to treasure. Even so, they’re reluctant to leave the kids with sitters. “So we started this thing of getting takeout and having a sort of picnic in bed after they’re asleep. We found a local gourmet restaurant that will let us pick up stuff like spinach salad and lobster stew,” says Jennifer.
The picnic experience varies according to the couple’s mood and the weather. “On a cold winter night, I’ll take a hot bath and jump into cozy pajamas while Levi picks up the food,” Jennifer explains. “I’ll also warm up the flannel sheets in the dryer and have them on the bed when he gets back.” At other times, the two dine in elegance–candles, lace tablecloth, good china–and Jennifer wears her finest lingerie. Or they might watch an old romantic movie on TV and eat straight out of Styrofoam containers.
“It’s hard making the conversion from newlyweds to young parents,” says Jennifer. “Rituals like this have made our bond deeper and stronger.”
Howard Luper and Lisa Hughes of Sand Springs, OK, are former high school sweethearts who married other people, had children, got divorced, and then got back together. “My kids, who are five and eleven, live with us, and his gifts come to visit every other weekend, so it’s chaotic,” says Lisa. “We’re very affectionate people, and our ritual grew out of that. It started because one evening, he was complaining about having to shave, and I said jokingly, `How about if I do it? Do you trust me?’ He took me up on it and found out that he liked it.”
Now it’s become a playful ritual of “comfort and sensuality,” says Lisa. These days, she not only shaves Howard (known as Buzz) but also trims his mustache every Sunday, after the children are in bed.
Tom and L’Tishia Suk, parents of four in Evanston, IL, are about to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a trip to Hawaii. But the actual date of their wedding, August 18, was spent the way it s always been: eating pizza and asking each other fun, provocative questions. “On our first anniversary, we were in Italy and wandered into some hole-in-the-wall for dinner that served terrible pizza,” L’Tishia recalls. “It became kind of a joke, and now we always eat pizza on our anniversary, but at someplace good.”
The questions come from a book the couple picked up years ago, The Secret of Staying in Love by John Powell. “There are all these questions in the book to engage you, like: `Can you describe yourself in ten adjectives?’ or `What are the three strongest emotions you’ve felt in the last six months?’” says L’Tishia. “At our pizza anniversary dinner, we never talk about the kids or our jobs. Instead, we focus on whatever questions we’ve chosen. We learn so much about each other this way.”
Many couples, like the Kidds of Mentor, OH, share private words and signals. When Maureen was a child, her brother used a code in which a digit stood for the number of letters in a word. Later, when Maureen and Mike were dating, they started using the numbers 1,4,3 to stand for “I love you.” “As a wedding present, Mike had a jeweler create a gold necklace and earring set that featured the numerals stacked in a column,” Maureen recalls.
Sometime later, Mike, a meter tester for the local electric company, was issued a beeper, and Maureen got the idea of transmitting the code to him on special occasions or even on the spur of the moment. “Recently, I was out of town, and I’d been thinking about Mike a lot,” she remembers. “One day, something told me to stop what I was doing and page him. I found out later that exactly at that time, Mike had been in a very upsetting meeting. He was feeling really low, and then he got my beep. Somehow I knew when he needed a little love.”
Celebrating happy times is essential, but it’s also important for couples to create traditions for tough times. I know one woman who literally cradles her brawny husband in her arms and sings “Rock-a-bye Baby” when he’s had a traumatic day.
Similarly, Paula Penn-Nabrit and her husband, Charles Nabrit, have comfort rituals for when one of them is sick. “Our three sons find it excessively indulgent, but if either of us is ill, we totally take care of each other,” says Paula, who owns a business with her husband in Westerville, OH. “Charles brings all my favorite foods to me on trays, and he’ll even do laundry and run me a hot bath.”
Once, when Charles had to work on an out-of-town project for a protracted period and became ill, Paula jumped on a plane and surprised him with his favorite brand of tea, crossword puzzles, clean sheets, new pajamas, and a picnic basket of food.
One aspect of the illness ritual never varies: “We always read aloud to each other when one of us is sick–usually our most loved parts of the Bible, but other things too,” Paula says.
Carrie and Kevin Lear of Frederick, MD, started a new weekly ritual recently when they bought a Jeep. “We put the top down and head off into the mountains,” says Carrie. “It’s like our own private safari ride, and very romantic because we’re usually the only ones back on the wooded, winding roads.”
Sometimes the two pack a lunch and park near a beautiful waterfall. Often, they get out and take a hike together. And along the way, a lot of talking takes place. “We’ve definitely had our share of ups and downs, and it took us several years to realize that we needed time and communication to make our relationship work,” says Carrie. “We both work screwy hours–me in retail and Kevin in the restaurant business–but now we’ve fixed it so that we both take off Thursdays and Sundays, and spend those days really being together.”