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By: Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Associate Director, Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, California State University
Years ago, I decided to take a belly dancing class because I found the music and movements enchanting. The class exceeded my expectations. It provided so much more than a step-by-step guide on hip movement. I was informed about the ancient origins of belly dance and how the same music and movements have been used for thousands of years by women in different parts of the world. With each style we learned, our instructor reminded us that our movements were connecting us to people throughout history who had moved in the same way. That class made me realize that rituals connect people across time and space.
This concept of transcendence can be applied to a variety of rituals. For example, perhaps one reason individuals feel strongly about their cultural traditions is because throughout history, people with a shared ethnic background have prepared foods the same way, worn the same type of clothing, spoken the same words, listened to the same music, and danced the same dance. By engaging in these repeated, meaningful acts, over and over again, groups are able to create and maintain a shared identity.
My daily routine provides additional examples of how simple, repetitive behaviors connect me to others. Each morning, I wake up, stretch, and make a cup of hot coffee and toast. Then, the day of work begins, followed by a break to workout, more stretching, and a 30-minute meditation. At twilight, which is my favorite part of the day, I return home to water my garden, admire the sunset on the mountains, have a drink on the patio, and make dinner. Everyday, everywhere, humans partake in parallel behaviors, and these practices bind us to each other.
In my research on couple and family rituals, I’ve noticed that rituals can range from simple to complex, and from frequent to infrequent. Simple and frequent rituals include the ways people say good morning or good night. One couple might snuggle for 10 minutes in bed before waking and sleeping, whereas another might send loving text messages each morning and night. Other rituals are more elaborate or infrequent such as when family members develop their own code language, or partake in annual celebrations including birthdays, Christmas holidays, and family reunions.
Through my research, I’ve also discovered that rituals serve numerous positive functions for couples and families. People who maintain their rituals, even during transition or crisis, for example, experience better outcomes. Familiar patterns, such as sitting down for a meal together, provide predictability and stability when things are chaotic and stressful. Rituals can also facilitate transitions such as when partners become parents, when children enter preschool, or when family members become ill or pass away. Engaging in rituals during these times of disruption help family members adjust and cope with change.
It’s exciting to think that the things we do each day might connect us to a larger group of people. We might become inspired, not only from the joy of a particular activity, but because of the connections we are fostering to people who have done the same thing, in the same way, across time and space.