Editor's note: This article originally appeared on SmartStepFamilies.com.

This article applies principles from a presentation by Dr. William J. Doherty at the 2000 Denver Smart Marriages conference to stepcouple relationships.  You can view a transcript of his entire presentation at the Smart Marriages website.

Stepfamilies don’t have a family tree—they have a family forest!  And even without trying, your marriage can easily get lost in the forest (or is it “You can’t see the marriage for the trees”?).  So how can you bind together despite the forest’s attempt to pull you apart?  One answer is making intentional use of marital rituals.

In a wonderful presentation on marital rituals, Dr. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota defines what rituals are, why they are significant, and how making use of them can hold your marriage together—even strengthen it over time.  Here is a summary of his presentation:

Rituals are social interactions that are repeated, coordinated, and emotionally significant to the persons involved.  They can be time-intensive behaviors—like one couple’s annual trip on their anniversary to the hotel where they spent their honeymoon—or the simple everyday behaviors that compose our lives—like when I make coffee for my wife in the morning because it “helps her start her day off right.”  Routines are things we do on a regular basis, like dropping off the kids at school and watching CSI on Thursday evenings, but may not necessarily be emotionally significant.  The key to marital rituals is that they are behaviors that bind the couple together, thus having emotional significance. 

Dr. Doherty is correct to point out that rituals of connection bring us together during courtship.  We have romantic dinners, long talks, bicycle riding together, walks, gifts, and special ways of saying goodnight each evening.  Alas, when the marriage is thrust from exclusive dating into the forest of instant stepfamily living, rituals that connect are often lost.  Couples who refuse to get lost in the forest are intentional, conscious, even deliberate about maintaining and sustaining their rituals of connection.  Because, as Dr. Doherty points out, if we are not intentional in marriage, we become an "automatic pilot" couple.  Couples on auto pilot cannot combat the natural tendency for relationships to lose energy and intimacy over time.

So what does being intentional with marital rituals look like?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Pay attention to your rituals of connection at the beginning and end of the day.  Couples often start their marriage with elaborate goodbye/hello kisses and hugs, only to drift into a greeting from across the room that sounds like this: “Hi.  Glad you’re home.  Could you help Patty with her homework, please?” 

At my house, my daily entrance goes something like this: whichever of my three boys who is on the computer near the garage entrance is the first to give me a hug hello.  I then take my coat and briefcase into our bedroom and begin looking for my wife.  I may have to step over two more boys and a dog before finding her slaving over dinner in the kitchen.  I then dismiss any pressing questions from my children in order to warmly hug Nan and practice our “Big Red” kiss (the 30 second kiss they did on the Big Red gum commercials a few years ago).  I then change my clothes and start helping with dinner so we can eat as a family.  If I don’t find and kiss my wife, we both feel like something is wrong.  We feel like something has been lost…and it has.