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  • How are couple’s relationship rituals evolving during the pandemic?
  • How are couple’s relationship rituals evolving during the pandemic?
    Ketut Subiyanto (2020) ©

Date night?! The science of relationship rituals

For many couples, lockdown has put a strain on their relationship – almost half of Americans say it’s been tricky to keep the spark alive. Canvas8 spoke to Ximena Garcia-Rada, doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, to learn how relationship rituals can act as powerful commitment tools.

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From serial daters to committed lovers, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all kinds of relationships. Hoping to help spice things up, Box42 is an experiential date-night subscription box for couples. Launched in the summer of 2020, it comes complete with activities, snacks, song suggestions, and a dinner menu – each month, the box is curated around a themed date night idea, like a cosy campfire or the Funfair. With date nights out swapped for date nights in – whether down to financial constraints, governmental regulation, or general fears over safety – couples are looking for new ways to enjoy time together.

But it’s not all smooth sailing – almost half of Americans say it's been difficult to keep the spark alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, while searches for divorce are up 11% in 2020 on 2019 figures. With relationship tensions growing, experts suggest that one of the keys to a satisfying relationship is to spend more meaningful time with one another. “On one hand, there are some couples that have more objective time together, but those added hours might not be contributing to relationship satisfaction,” says Ximena Garcia-Rada, doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School. “While on the other hand, there are other couples that have less time together because, even though they're both at home, they now have more responsibilities.”

But what does meaningful time together look like when you’re living inside the same four walls 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Canvas8 spoke to Ximena Garcia-Rada about her work "Rituals and Nuptials: The Emotional and Relational Consequences of Relationship Rituals", co-authored with Micheal l. Norton and Ovul Sezer, to understand the role of rituals in romantic relationships and how brands can third-wheel more effectively.


Why is this topic important to understand?
For some people, time together as a couple can be really limited. So it's important to see how you can make that shared time meaningful by engaging in experiences that foster the relationship. I’m really interested in couple decision-making processes, and there’s a lot of work on rituals – family rituals, individual rituals, group rituals – so I thought it would be interesting to study rituals in the context of romantic relationships.

In our work, we define a relationship as an activity that people make sure to do together with their romantic partner every so often. There are two important pieces that characterize these rituals. These are the (a) repetition over time – so maybe an activity you do every week at a certain time, like Friday night you have a date night or every Sunday you cook breakfast together. And (b) there's also that symbolic meaning in the sense that it's special for you. And that's important because this distinguishes a ritual from a simple routine that often couples have. Rituals are often things you really want to do because they have this symbolic meaning, whereas routines are more like tasks that need to be completed. That’s important because the consumption decisions people make will impact the relationships people have.

In this specific work, my co-authors and I study a very simple strategy that couples use to protect their time and foster their relationship: relationships rituals. We wanted to find out if couples really had rituals, and if having relationship rituals was positively associated with relationship quality. For marketers, it's important to understand these psychological processes underlying shared consumption decisions so that they can design products and, messages, with this knowledge in mind.

Mindful moments spent together help partners to feel more in sync
Mindful moments spent together help partners to feel more in sync
Jack Sparrow (2020) ©

How did you go about conducting your study?
We conducted four studies with different population groups – people in new relationships, those in long-term relationships, those who are married, and people of different ages and genders. The basic setup for these studies was a 15-minute questionnaire where we invited participants to complete a number of questions. In one of the survey sections, we took a broad approach to asking about relationship rituals. Participants read our definition of a relationship ritual – having a shared activity that has symbolic meaning, repeated over time – and we simply asked whether they had a ritual with their partner.

For those who said yes, we asked a few follow-up, questions about one relationship ritual like ‘describe the relationship ritual’, ‘how often do you do this ritual’, ‘how long have you been doing this ritual for’, ‘is the ritual private or public’, etc? In another section of the study, we asked about relationship quality. Using some validated instruments, we measured how participants felt about their relationship – for example, how satisfied they were with their partner and how committed they were to their partner. This was usually done by asking participants to rate their agreement with statements on a scale of one to nine, from completely disagree to completely agree.

Couples are setting aside time to reconnect amid pandemic stresses
Couples are setting aside time to reconnect amid pandemic stresses
Ketut Subiyanto (2020) ©

What were your key findings?
First, we find that on average, 70% of the people we surveyed said they have a relationship ritual. So a lot of people are doing these things that they consider symbolically meaningful. It’s clear that rituals matter to couples because rituals can serve as powerful commitment devices. Second, we find that couples who had rituals were more committed to their partners (7.7 on the scale) and more satisfied with their relationships (6.9) than couples who didn’t (6 and 5.3, respectively).

When analyzing open-ended responses including descriptions of relationship rituals, we find that it’s not as that important what the activity is, but it's more about how it's conceptualised. Let's say cooking together is perceived as a ritual for one couple, but another couple can perceive the same activity, cooking together, as a chore. And one of the surprising findings was that when looking at relationship commitment, investment, and satisfaction, it really didn’t matter what the ritual was but instead, it was more about how the two people thought about that shared activity. And if couples agreed that they both had a ritual, they were more satisfied than couples who disagreed on whether they had a ritual and couples who did not have relationship rituals. 

Using these open-ended responses, we also created categories of different relationship rituals. We find that the most popular relationship ritual catagory is a leisure activity, so couples having date nights and establishing that Friday night, for example, is their time together and that's something they're very protective of. We also identified other categories, like intimacy – where couples schedule time to be intimate – and thoughtful gestures – where one person does something thoughtful for their partner at a certain time every day or every week, like making a morning coffee. Finally, we identified other  ritual categories, like religious or spiritual rituals (e.g. couples praying together scheduling a time to meditate every day or week) and chores, (e.g.discussing their finances once a month, or doing the garden together every Sunday). 

From finance catch-ups to weekly date nights, quality time is important
From finance catch-ups to weekly date nights, quality time is important
Ketut Subiyanto (2020) ©

Insights and opportunities

  • Lockdown is causing many people to reassess their routines. Habits that were suboptimal pre-pandemic, or became suboptimal in lockdown, are getting a shake-up and being replaced with more beneficial behaviours. Take sleeping arrangements as an example. Research finds that 75% of Americans say sharing a bed makes for a poorer night's sleep, while 35% are considering sleeping in separate rooms. With ‘sleep divorces’ looking increasingly likely for many couples, traditional ideas of what a relationship should be are evolving. The same is true for milestone celebrations in couples’ lives, with micro-weddings giving new meaning to these intimate experiences. For brands, there’s an opportunity to tap into these modern romances and help strengthen bonds in new connection moments.
  • With work, rest, and play confined to the same four walls – and stress at a record high – it’s no wonder relationship tensions are growing. According to research by relationship charity Relate, almost a quarter of Britons (23%) have had more arguments with their partner since lockdown, with finances putting the biggest strain on relationships. To navigate these conversations, people are turning to financial advisors for professional support. In this space, there’s an opportunity for brands to encourage more meaningful time together without putting added pressure on money worries. HoneyDue is an app that allows couples to better manage their money together – including co-budgeting and bills tracking, as well as an efficient in-app chat service.
  • While the pandemic has been a trying time for some couples, others are thriving. In fact, 59% of Britons say they feel more committed to their partner after going through the crisis together, while for those in more established relationships, 42% say they welcome the quality time. At the same time, the appetite for dating among singletons is booming with virtual dates up by 36%. Across both these landscapes, there’s an opportunity for brands to cement themselves into new bonding moments – like becoming the go-to tipple for quelling nerves on virtual first-dates or the at-home meal kit for Friday-night dinners.  
  • Rituals aren’t just important in building satisfying romantic relationships. In times of crisis, research shows that they serve a coping function – consistent and predictable behaviours offer a sense of control amid uncertainty. Yet with COVID-19 resulting in the loss of many traditional rituals – family meals at Easter, get-togethers at birthdays, or connecting at school graduations – people are seeking this sense of control elsewhere. It’s why beauty routines – an often-ritualised, multi-step process, repeated daily – found a renewed importance in people’s lives. According to Klarna, spending on beauty products increased by 32% in lockdown compared to pre-pandemic spending.

Featured Experts

Ximena Garcia-Rada

Ximena Garcia-Rada is a doctoral candidate in Marketing at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses primarily on consumer behavior and well-being in the context of close, personal relationships. For example, she studies the psychological processes underlying how consumers make choices when taking care of their families and sharing experiences with their partners.




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