Routines get us through the day. Rituals guide us through life.
Routines are concrete repetitive actions that help us develop skills while creating continuity and order. They ground us and create familiarity. Rituals, on the other hand, are routines that are elevated by creativity, driven by intention, and imbued with meaning. They lift us up and create excitement. They also help us say goodbye and process loss. Through repetition, routines and rituals both help us to delineate space and time. They create predictable structures, grounding rhythms, and a calming, stabilizing effect. Routines and rituals have a lot in common, but what makes them different is the key to elevating our relationships.
Rituals function like maps, helping us navigate transitions and major life events such as first dates, weddings, births, anniversaries, heartbreaks, and loss. There isn't a culture that doesn't have rituals to transmit the protocols and meanings of those special events. But we don’t need a special occasion to engage in ceremoniousness. Inviting the concept of ritual into our daily lives converts the mundane into the significant. Jogging every morning is an exercise routine. Walking in the woods together every Sunday afternoon is a ritual for spending quality time together in nature. Setting the table each night is a routine. Decorating the table with flowers, candles, and a special china is a ritual for a perfect date night. Brushing our teeth with our partner every night is a routine. But leaving our partner with a little bit of toothpaste on their toothbrush after a big fight is a ritual that signifies that we might be ready to make up. The difference is in the details and what they symbolize for us.
The Beginning is About Bonding
In the early stages of dating, creating rituals together is about establishing a shared reality. Morning coffee, dinner out, and stopping by a party together is routine. But picking our favorite coffee spot, planning a weekly date night, and meeting each others’ friends signify that “you and me” are becoming a “we.” Exchanging house keys, offering a drawer, and meeting each others’ families means that “we” are integrating our lives more fully.
When we’re really into each other, these initial steps feel natural. Pulled in by affection and attraction, everything feels new and shiny. With so much to learn about each other, newness itself is practically routine. What elevates newness to the status of ritual is creating special vessels that allow for deeper vulnerability. Sharing a playlist of our favorite music from our teenage years, playing “Truth or Dare,” picking a country we’d like to travel to together some day and making its signature dish—each of these activities give permission to reminisce and fantasize together. In the realm of shared dreams, we find new parts of our connection. Affirming and growing that bond as time goes on and as challenges arise is supported by creating rituals that acknowledge, affirm, and grow that bond.
Rituals for Long-Term Healthy Relationships
In long-term partnerships, rituals create continuity and affirmation while highlighting the specialness of the bond. Making rituals a part of our daily lives ensures that we don’t only celebrate our love and closeness on anniversaries—though celebrating anniversaries is one of the most important long-term partnership rituals of them all. When our lives are woven together, intentionally breaking our routines can become a ritual. Instead of eating cereal at home every morning, go out for a breakfast date. Skip date night, which can be exhausting after a long day, and take a bath together with candles. Make a private email address—a virtual destination separate from the realities of the world—and send each other love letters.
Rituals are a major part of long distance relationships or when we work opposite schedules. Always leaving something for or with the other person is a gesture that helps us feel each other’s presence even when we’re apart.
Rituals are also especially helpful in the transition from parent to partner. Changing clothes, location, light, trading the nursery rhymes for our favorite album, opening a bottle of wine together—these are rituals that signify it’s our time. We've put the kids down; we can focus on ourselves. We can switch from responsibility to play.
On social media, when we asked what rituals people have established in their relationships, you replied with great answers from building pillow forts together to having no phone date nights. You shared that you like to go through pictures together and talk about all the memories associated with each one. The constant theme was unification between two people around a shared story of specialness and meaning. All relationships are stories. Rituals help us tell them.
Rituals Help Us Have A Healthy Relationship With Ourselves
Just as there are ritualized behaviors and practices around engagement, marriage, and all important beginnings, there are rituals around endings. And oh, how well we know them: exchanging the items we once kept at each others’ places, giving the keys back, canceling the trip, unfriending, distributing loyalty among friends, untangling the web that once provided warmth and softness before it felt like a trap. How many of us have hesitated to get rid of an object that felt like the last piece of a former lover? Grief drives home the metaphorical quality of rituals—it’s not about the thing itself; it’s about what it represents.
On social media, you also shared with us rituals that have helped you through breakups. So many of those answers were about self-care and connection with friends and family who remind us that we are still lovable and worthy. Friends who come over to sage the house, take out the ex's belongings, and put new sheets on the bed help with those mourning rituals. Engaging with our closest community is an antidote to the isolation and shame we inevitably can feel after such loss. Coming together with those people and asking them to share their stories of heartbreak and resilience is a ritual that makes the experience slightly more common and normal. It provides evidence that everyone experiences love’s agonies and that love is not a scarcity.
Letting go of a past relationship is a process full of rituals, first with the former partner, then with our communities and perhaps a therapist, and finally with ourselves. Through self-love rituals—like daily journaling, trying something new each week, intentionally taking care of our mental, physical, and emotional health—the intrusive feelings of heartbreak eventually become less frequent. As time goes on, so does life, and so does love. We can never go back in time, but we can always love again—till the day we drop dead. Love matures with age, but love itself is ageless. Once we accept that, we open a door to a new beginning. And life’s most important rituals will be there, providing continuity from chapter to chapter and helping us write the next one.
"Inviting the concept of ritual into our daily lives converts the mundane into the significant."
Sign up for letters from Esther, a monthly newsletter + Youtube workshop and conversation where we sharpen our relational intelligence.