Thursday, February 23, 2012

This Relationship Corner: Couple Culture

If you hang around a couple long enough you'll start to pick up on certain habits and quirks they possess. They'll have cute nicknames for each other, they might whisper something and laugh for no apparent reason, or they've got an elaborate ritual between the two of them that would leave a team of anthropologists scratching their heads. As a couple bonds, the two create their own couple culture, and it's more than just an annoying side effect all their single friends have to put up with. It's essential for that couple's survival.

Couple culture is one of those things that only makes sense when you're in a couple. On the outside, it's hard to make sense of the hows and whys of what a couple is doing. Once you become a part of a couple, though, you'll understand and appreciate it as you, too, start to develop these rituals and habits. Today I'll try to explain what it is, why it's happening, and why it matters.

My wife and I have plenty of our own little rituals and nicknames for each other. Some of them are cute ways we interact, others are how we celebrate big events. These rituals help maintain our relationship, and our shared language makes it easier for us to communicate, and that level of communication is also essential for relationship survival.

Part of couple culture is a shared code that the two of you possess. It's shorthand, and it gives you the ability to communicate very complicated information quickly and efficiently. A simple reference to a television show or movie you both enjoy, and you can bring your partner up to speed on any situation. If I want to explain to my wife why this coworker is driving me nuts, all I have to do is make a Buffy reference and she'll get it.

A big reason you need these rituals is that it defines your relationship as unique from any other. You don't call anyone else those cute nicknames. It's just for your significant other. No one else has an elaborate ritual with you when you see each other off at the airport. No other couple has a unique vocabulary for every day activities. Nor should they, because this is your primary relationship, the most important that you've got.

These rituals serve many purposes in protecting this relationship. It creates a clear us-versus-them dichotomy that bonds the two of you against anyone else, including interlopers who might want to interfere or swoop in and make a play for one of you. The more advanced your couple culture, the harder it is to penetrate, and that makes any kind of interference more difficult. An outsider won't know your little traditions, jokes, and games, and ideally this would keep everyone else at arm's length.

However, there are gaps the wall of couple culture, they appear if you're not maintaining and investing in it. If you get too busy for your rituals, if you ignore the importance of those cute nicknames, then you weaken the protection your couple culture provides. You remove what makes your union, your bond special, and when that happens, you invite trouble, and that trouble can come from without or within, and perhaps a combination of both.

When your couple culture is strong, it reminds you why you are with this person and no one else. When it's weak, it can open you up to the temptation of an outside relationship. If you don't see your bond as special anymore, if you don't see that you've got any private traditions keeping you, it's easy to justify spending less time with your significant other and more time elsewhere, leading you down a tempting and dangerous path.

Part of this temptation may be because couple culture is not just for protection, but also for stability. You can count on your traditions when you see each other. Perhaps you call each other by special names, or once a week you always go out to eat at the same place. These habits and rituals strengthen the bond, give you something to look forward to, and provide motivation to keep the relationship strong. It's a lot easier to maintain a relationship you love being a part of.

A married couple I'm very close to has a specific ritual every time they go out to eat. They each order a different item, and sometime throughout the course of the meal they switch plates. After a few bites they switch back. It's a cute little habit that allows them to share a piece of each other's world, while at the same time maintaining their own individual identities. It's a comfortable balance between the need for autonomy and the need for connection. Granted, to an outsider is can seem odd when they pull the ol' switcheroo, but once you get to know them, you see that this ritual is a reflection of the strength and stability of their marriage.

Another thing to remember is that these rituals aren't just communication shorthand, they can be relationship shorthand, and useful for restoring a relationship to it's more ideal state. If you've forgotten some rituals, if you just stopped doing them, returning to them could give you both that spark you didn't realize was missing.

Take the How I Met Your Mother episode "Three Days of Snow." In it, we see that Marshall and Lily have decided to give up on their rituals, which includes meeting each other at the airport, him in a chauffeur's hat, her with a 6-pack of locally brewed beer. However, the more Marshall thinks about it, the more he sees that he and his wife are drifting apart. He's spending so much time at work that he hasn't had time for the rituals, and that was hurting their marriage.

He uses the ritual in a big way to restore their relationship. Granted, bringing a marching band to the airport to play Auld Lang Synge is frowned upon by the TSA, but when Marshall arrived wearing his usual chauffeur's hat, it helped close the gulf that was forming.

However, it's important to understand that the ritual is not the relationship. The ritual has no meaning until the two of you define it. If you just go through the motions with the rituals, cute names, and traditions, eventually they'll be empty, and they are no longer sustaining. The ritual is supposed to represent your closeness, not replace it. That's why you can't just rely on what worked in the past, you need to keep developing your culture and working on your relationship.

Remember, too, that your couple culture needs to remain fresh. While the two of you will probably keep rituals alive that you both had when you first started dating, there's always room for new ones. Mixing things up with your couple culture keeps you from taking things for granted and going through the motions. When you appreciate why you still do what you do, you'll renew your feelings for each other, and every new addition to your culture makes you stronger.

You also can't force the couple culture to happen. It's going to take some time, and that means investing in the relationship well past your initial attraction. If you don't seem to have any couple culture, then you need to do things together that bond you, build up a history together, a catalog of experience you can refer back to. The more you invest, the more you'll have to go on.

Once it starts to take hold, and it will if you let it, then embrace it totally. Don't worry if you're becoming one of those sickening couples that is just too cute. That's what's supposed to happen. It's part of what will make you a healthy couple, and isn't that what you want, Snookums?

 What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

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