Rituals-old and new-are the glue that hold families together

December 01, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

They are four adults who share a house in Boston, busy professionals with crowded lives. Days may elapse in which they barely see one another. Most weekdays, their television set sits idle in the living room.

But every Saturday night, the house mates -- three men and a woman -- adhere to a practice that has become near-sacred. First, they gather for their one group dinner of the week. Then, with an eager sense of expectation, they move into the living room and watch "Star Trek, The Next Generation."

Nothing -- no crisis large or small -- interrupts this household habit, says Chris Tuttle, a 25-year-old researcher at Boston University. "It's our one chance to show our closeness." With a laugh, he adds, "It's our 'Star Trek' ritual."

In the turmoil of a high-tech, far-flung world, rituals are appealing in large part because of their predictability. And as the notion of "family" broadens, experts say rituals become all the more important. Their very existence offers a rhythm to smooth life's rocky edges.

People "are ritual-making creatures," says Evan Imber-Black, a family therapist in New York and co-author of "Rituals for Our Times."

"Rituals serve the seemingly contradictory functions of providing continuity with the past and of carrying us into the future.

"In the times we're living in now," she continues, "people need rituals as a kind of ballast."

The occasion may be as culturally established as Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. It may have religious significance -- as in Christmas or Hanukkah. But families also develop their own rituals. Ms. Imber-Black recalls, for example, the family that made an annual celebration of the day a disabled child was able to move into her own apartment.

To illustrate the way rituals assume new meaning as families splinter and regroup, Janine Roberts, Ms.Imber-Black's co-author, describes the father she observed sitting behind the wheel of his car each morning, eyes trained on a little boy walking square-shouldered up the steps of his school. As he approached the entrance, the child would turn to flash a "thumbs up" sign. Just as quickly, the father's thumb would shoot up in reply.

School officials told Ms. Roberts, a family therapist in Amherst, Mass., that the boy's parents had gone through a bitter separation. "So this small daily gesture," says Ms. Roberts, "was their way of saying 'Things are going to be OK, we're going to make it.' "

In any family grouping, says Helen Coale, a family therapist in Atlanta, "rituals can solidify the unit." Daily life is unconsciously organized around rituals, she says, "beginning with something as basic as whether you eat breakfast together or who gets the kids up in the morning."

The woman who lives alone and routinely takes a bath by candlelight is performing a ritual, Ms. Coale points out. So is the childless husband and wife who agree that instead of fighting verbally, they will throw pillows at one another.

In the Leverett, Mass., home of Tom Levy and Helaya Priest, rituals offer connections to their previous families as well as acknowledgment of their new family. Ms. Priest and Mr. Levy are psychotherapists. Each had brought a daughter to their marriage four years ago, and each had suffered the death of a child in their former households.

Mindful of the complications in blending their families, Mr. Levy and Ms. Priest started married life with an annual "sisters' ceremony" for their two daughters. The girls wore wreaths, traded rings and shared stories about sisters. As the girls' relationship matured, the need for the observance ended -- as did their pre-adolescent patience for it.

But another ritual initiated by Mr. Levy and Ms. Priest has grown in importance. Mr. Levy, who is Jewish, and Ms. Priest, raised in a Catholic home, decided that their special holiday would be the winter solstice.

The party has now become a local tradition, an event at which friends gather to celebrate the seasons.

"I just feel that time and the years are passing by so fast that marking the seasons is really important," says Ms. Priest, who suggested the idea of commemorating the day that the sun is at its farthest point from the Northern Hemisphere.

"It was a way of creating our own world view -- something that was spiritual but non-secular," Mr. Levy says. "Instead of trying to make the old forms fit, we came up with one of our own."

But if rituals help to bond families, they can also be sources of conflict. Ms. Coale says that "because of the disruption [inherent in their creation], stepfamilies are particularly vulnerable" in this regard.

"There can be more conflict because there are multiple experiences to consider and also more households," Ms. Coale says. Rituals can also be problems "in blended families, when there are repetitive kinds of patterns that keep people stuck" in ,, what may have been an unhappy past.

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