- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

The candles, the murmured prayers, the star at the top of the tree these may hold the key to a better marriage as the holiday season surges forward on a tide of tinsel and eggnog.

"Trimming the Christmas tree or lighting menorah candles together may strengthen your marriage," said Syracuse University psychology professor Barbara Fiese, who interviewed 120 couples about the particulars of their religious holiday rituals.

Those shared, rare moments between husband and wife during the next few weeks "enhance marital satisfaction" because they are genuine and meaningful, whether they are modest, impromptu or gleaned from the most hallowed traditions of faith and family.

"Popular culture paints a picture of religious holidays solely as a prospect for marketing and materialism, or that we're all too busy for it," Mrs. Fiese said. "We have found that couples who embrace their rituals reaffirm beliefs as well as a relationship."

The couples who participated in the study were married nine years on average and had at least one child.

"We were particularly interested in the fact that husbands got as much out of these rituals as wives. It was all just as important to them, but in different ways," Mrs. Fiese said.

Far from playing the neutral bystander, men seem to take these moments more to heart than women. "Husbands' emotional investment in these events was found to be an important indicator of marital satisfaction," the study noted.

Women, on the other hand, set the stage and kept the home fires burning. They are the "kin keepers of ritual practices."

"Wives have the responsibility of carrying out the routine and passing down the practices from one generation to the next," the study said.

Mrs. Fiese, whose findings are published in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, does not underestimate the importance of it all in the big picture.

"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," she said.

However, the spiritual marriage eludes many, and a veritable cottage industry of self-help books, exercises and workshops has sprung up to help anxious couples find their way. A quiz on the Internet's most visited religious site, www.beliefnet.com, asks, "Is Yours a Spiritual Marriage?" Couples can score more points, for example, if they pray together or if they see their union as "a cosmic connection."

William Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, believes that rituals are "crucial for modern family members to connect with one another."

It's a matter of going back to "the core question," he said. "What do we want to get out of this ritual as a family, as opposed to what does everyone expect of us, or what have we always done in the past? It's about being intentional."

Still, Mr. Doherty thinks that mother and father must protect their marital turf from the rigors of family.

"In two-parent families, it's got to be both parent-child rituals and couple rituals," he says. "If you lose your marriage over time, that is not going to help your children."

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