Friday, December 23, 2011

This Relationship Corner: Your Landmark Traditions

There are many vital ingredients that make up a good relationship, and today I'm focusing on traditions. This isn't about having a traditional relationship and adhering to traditional values, though feel free if that's what you want. No, I'm talking about the traditions that the two of you create for big, landmark occasions, including holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, traditions with the kids, and even your traditions for handling bad news.

Every long-term couple develops habits and patterns, and it's important to take a look at the most important habits and patterns and make them a regular part of your relationship. While sometimes you'll just let the tradition happen, it's very important to actively nurture and develop your them so they make your relationship better.

You need traditions because that's what bonds you as a couple. It helps you define your relationship and makes you feel a part of something. No one else will have your set of traditions. If you have no traditions, or bad ones, then you are setting your relationship up for failure. Conversely, when you have good traditions that you can count on, your relationship has a sense of stability. It also gives the two of you something to look forward to, and that's never a bad thing.

My wife and I have developed many traditions over the years. Some began when we were dating, a few even before then, and the rest as we got married and began to build a life together. Those traditions gave our life stability and order, a point of reference we knew would be constant. They helped us reduce uncertainty and figure out not only where we'd been, but where we were going.

Let's start with the Holidays. No matter who you are, your nationality or religious faith, you and your partner are going to celebrate some sort of holiday together. Holidays are the way we as a society slow down and take stock of where we are and where we're going. They can be commemorations of past events or times of yearly celebrations with friends and family. They mark the end of one season and the beginning of the next, and it is essential you have a tradition with your significant other. 

My wife and I have a very special tradition for Christmas. While we always spend Thanksgiving with family, Christmas is just for us. Every year we get up and make a lasagna together. We vary the recipe every year to suit our moods, but for us Christmas always means lasagna. It's also the day we break out John Denver and the Muppets 'A Christmas Together,' one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time. This tradition helped us define our marriage and establish the fact that, while we believe family is important, the two of us will always come first.

That's one of the reasons you need to define your holiday traditions, so no one else can define them for you. It's perfectly acceptable to spend the holidays with family, but that should be your choice, not your obligation. If you are married, for example, that relationship is more important than all others, but sometimes those other relationships need to be reminded of that fact. That's what your holiday traditions can do, establish your couple identity.

Christmas and other religious and celebratory holidays are tricky, especially since you must figure out who you'll spend it with. But when it comes to Valentines Day, there's no question who you'll spend it with. (At least I hope there's no question. Otherwise you are in some serious trouble and I can't help you.) While it's fashionable (for guys) to call Valentines Day a made-up holiday, manufactured by greeting card companies and chocolate wholesalers, the truth is that it's a very real occasion.

I highly recommend you have a tradition for Valentine's Day. Romance is easy to forget about in a long-term relationship, and Valentine's Day is your chance to rekindle that spark. You don't need a complicated tradition, just make sure that you do something romantic for the two of you. Besides, if you have trouble thinking of something romantic to do, just do the same thing every year and call it a tradition.

Let's not forget about one of the most important holidays: a birthday. After all, while other days are about larger ideas and ideals, your birthday is a celebration of you. It's the one day a year that the world stops, if only for a moment, and acknowledges that it's great you're here. And if we expect the world to at least take a few seconds to write some generic birthday greetings on our Facebook wall, we demand that our significant other make certain we feel special.

The two of you absolutely need a birthday tradition. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, but if anyone should be happy that your significant other is still alive after another year, it's you. If anyone should make him/her feel special, it's you. A good birthday tradition not only bonds you as a couple, is something you can look forward to every year.

A few years back my wife and I started a new tradition for her birthday. She'd open up a recipe book, find whatever meal she wanted, and I made that meal for her. I did it on a whim a few birthdays ago and she loved it, and it became an instant tradition. Now she looks forward to her meal and spends weeks in anticipation. (I should point out that I'm a great cook, and we'll get to that topic in a future column.) Sometimes her birthday falls on a day we're both busy, but the great thing about this tradition is that we're allowed to reschedule to a more convenient day. After all, it's our tradition, we make the rules.

If the two of you don't have a birthday tradition, you really need to get cracking on that. If you've celebrated a few birthdays already, look back to see what you enjoyed. Why not make that a tradition? If it doesn't work out, you can certainly switch to something else. But do something together; your relationship will definitely benefit.

What is a birthday other than an anniversary? That leads me to an incredibly huge holiday in the history of your relationship: your anniversary. When you are dating, it's usually the anniversary of your first date. This changes when you get married, and from then on you celebrate your wedding anniversary. There's no right way to celebrate this milestone, but there's plenty of wrong ways. The worst way is to treat it like any other day. This is an important occasion, and you need to treat it as such.

You are celebrating being together another year. An anniversary is a chance to take stock of the past year and look at how far you've come. It's a chance to chart growth and look at what was good over the past year and what was not so good. It's also a time to look ahead and see where you are going, and having a tradition that encompasses all this is important. Whether you have a specific tradition, or you just make a point to mark the occasion, a tradition of celebration for your anniversary is yet another way to keep the relationship strong.

Not all celebrations occur on pre-determined dates. What do you do when something good happens? Do you have a tradition in place for when one of you gets a promotion or raise, when you find a new job, achieve a long-term goal, or accomplish anything else of note? Having a tradition to celebrate achievement is important for a couple. After all, you two should be the ones who want to celebrate each other, and these traditions help you feel appreciated.

Some friends of mine have a small tradition like this. They're members of Toastmasters, like myself, and they celebrate every time one of them gives a speech. Their tradition is to hit up a small frozen custard stand just after the meeting as a way of celebrating. It's a cute little tradition, and while it may just be an excuse to eat frozen custard, it's part of what makes them a strong couple.

They celebrate their triumphs and cheer each other on in their successes. You need your spouse or partner in your corner, and these traditions demonstrate that fact. Call it a celebration or reward, it's another way of marking an important milestone or time of transition. If your spouse got a promotion or a new job, you should have a tradition that marks this occasion, even if it's just a special meal.

Having a tradition that celebrates important milestones also keeps you from getting envious of your partner's success. Remember that this good news doesn't just affect you or your partner, it affects you both, and this is why the both of you should celebrate, because when you are in a relationship, you share the good times. This tradition of celebration reinforces the fact that you aren't just in it for yourself anymore.

Sadly, what goes up must come down.You also need traditions for handling bad news, and there's a very practical reason. When your significant other get bad news, it's hard to figure out what to do right then. How do you comfort him/her? What can you do? Having a go-to tradition will make it much easier, because then you can go on autopilot as you deal with this bad news.

Finally, traditions are for more than just you. If you have a family, your children are part of the traditions, if not the focus for several of them. Traditions are how children learn about their place in the world and in their family. It's how you pass along your values to the next generation.You should have traditions with your children for the major holidays, birthdays, celebrations, even bad news. It gives children a sense of security and stability, plus something to look forward to.

Traditions for your children can also bond the two of you. Sometimes when all your attention is focused on the kids, you can forget about your own relationship. If you plan out these traditions, the two of you can have fun planning and executing the traditions with your children. The clever parents will find ways to use these traditions to get some time to themselves. Perhaps part of the tradition is that the child visits their grandparents or other relative for a few days while the two of you get a much needed break.

I can't state it enough: traditions are important. The two of you need them for any and all occasions, and if you find them lacking, or if you just aren't keeping up with them, then you might have a problem in the relationship. While traditions alone won't make a weak relationship strong, they are a good indicator of the health of the couple.

We are approaching the end of the year, observing many traditional holidays. We have a chance to look back at the past year and look ahead to the next. This next week is prime time for traditions, and if you feel that your holidays are missing something, perhaps you need to develop your landmark traditions. Make it a new year's resolution.

That's it for me this year. Have a very Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays. See you in 2012.

Looking for some good holiday reading? You might enjoy the book I wrote.

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