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20 December 2001
Xmas Rituals Make A Happy Marriage
by George Atkinson

Couples that participate in and find meaning in religious holiday rituals such as decorating the home for the holidays or lighting candles may be making their marriages stronger. That's according to a new study which finds that couples were more satisfied with their marriages when they found meaning in shared religious holiday rituals. The findings are reported on in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

In their study, psychologists Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., and Thomas J. Tomcho, Ph.D., of Syracuse University interviewed 120 couples who had been married for an average of nine years with at least one pre-school child. The couples were questioned about their family rituals and about the relative importance of religion in their families as they were growing up and in their current family. The couples' marital satisfaction was assessed through a 32-item questionnaire that asked questions like "Do you confide in your mate" and "How often do you laugh together?"

Religion is related to marital satisfaction through the meaning created in shared rituals, according to the study. The effect was found stronger than the mere practice of religious holiday routines or the degree to which religion is considered important by the couples. "The couple's private world of intimate ties and connections often becomes public in the practice of religious rituals," say the authors, "and the couple may reaffirm their connection and intimacy through the practice of meaningful rituals."

Such rituals are often passed down from one generation to the next, which played an indirect role in predicting current relationship satisfaction, according to the study. "Although family-of-origin ritual practices were not directly related to marital satisfaction, they were related to current ritual practices that in turn were related to how satisfied couples were with their marriage," said the researchers. The family of origin may influence current relationships by structuring religious experiences through holiday celebrations that can be carried on by future generations.

Some gender differences were found; husbands' marital satisfaction was more closely linked to ritual meaning and wives' satisfaction was more associated with the routine practices surrounding the rituals. Sometimes referred to as the "kin keepers" of rituals practices, wives usually have the responsibility of carrying out the routine and passing down the practices from one generation to the next, according to the authors. However, husbands' emotional investment in these events was also found to be an important indicator of marital satisfaction.

The practice of meaningful religious rituals may be just one aspect of how families create meaning in their relationships, according to the authors. "In the context of a changing society in which marriage is a vulnerable institution, religious ritual practices may preserve relationships and serve as a positive template for future generations."

Besides strengthening marital bonds, the researchers say the results of their study highlight the role that religious holidays play in contemporary American life. "Whereas popular culture paints a picture of religious holidays as a prospect for marketing and materialism, our findings suggest that couples embrace the symbolic aspects of celebrations and value the opportunity to reaffirm their beliefs and relationship."

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