The Value of Routines in a Marriage

I have been a husband for a long time now and I have learned something about being married.  At the very least, I have learned something about being a husband in the kind of marriage I want to have.  Just to head off some easy objections, I am not claiming that the kind of marriage I like (and that I have) is better than other kinds.  Without question, there are horrible marriages that demean and impoverish the husband or the wife or both.  Let’s grant that and move on.  There are also many kinds of marriages that are not at all like mine, but that suit the husband and wife perfectly—it is the kind they chose; the kind they have achieved; the kind they like best.  I’m happy for all such people.[1]

I am saying exactly that about the kind of marriage I now have.  Though the social scientist in me wants to be sure to say that there are many good kinds, the husband in me wants to say that this kind—the kind I am going to be writing about—is the kind I like best.[2]

And for today, I want to think about one part of this kind of marriage.  I call this part “routines.”[3]  You could call them “set pieces” or “practices”[4] or any one of a number of things.  You will know what I am talking about by my description.  I’m still looking for a good name for the category.

Routines are little habits that are put into the marriage or that just show up and one routines 4day you recognize that they have been there for a good while.  Let’s take the car door routine as the example for today.  When we are going to go somewhere in the car, I open Bette’s door and “help her” into her seat.  When we get there, I go around and “help her” out of the car.[5]  That’s the whole thing.  At least, it is the whole thing you would see if you were watching.

Of course, to us, there is more.  For one thing, the kind of marriage we have tops the cake of equality with the icing of asymmetry.  Neither of us has any interest in a “head of the household” status.  Neither of us thinks one of us is more important than the other.  We believe in equality as a matter of social theory and, because of our prior marriages, also as a matter of chastened experience. 

I called that the “cake” mostly so I could spend some time on the icing.  If the cake is our equality, the icing is a joyful appreciation of our different roles.  It isn’t, for instance, that I open her car door for her and, in turn, she opens my door for me.  There’s no asymmetry there.  For us, the exchange is that I open the door for her and she expresses her appreciation to me.  She likes having the door opened and I like doing something she appreciates.

It isn’t very complicated.  It is simply an exchange of gifts.  I give her something she likes and she responds by giving me something I like.  If we had a devicroutines 5e that opened the door remotely, she would hand me the device and I would open the door remotely and help her into her seat.  It isn’t practical at all.  It’s just a routine that reminds us of the cake and the icing and how much each of us likes icing.  You could almost call it chivalry, except that chivalry had a very practical aspect as well, protecting maidens from dragons and all that.

Of the other things I could say in praise of marriage routines, let me choose just one more.  This one is a little more complicated, but it isn’t more complicated than the average teen romance novel, so I am going to chance it.  Bette and I have cultivated a practice of “rich communication.”  We called it “rich language” at first, before we understood how many times we would use it with no words being spoken at all.  Rich communication is simply adding into a routine, some words or gestures of affirmation and appreciation.  It doesn’t change the routine at all, to look at it, but it transforms the routine entirely to the people who enrich and who are enriched by it.

Pretty simple so far.  The next step is less so.  What does “rich” mean?  It means whatever the person who is to be affirmed means by it.  The language Bette is speaking when she enriches a routine, it is my language, not hers.  Imagine a couple where the husband was comfortable only in his native German and the wife comfortable only in her native French.  When he holds the door for her, she thanks him in German.  It means more to him and that’s why she learned how to say it in German.[6]

routines 3If I am going to enrich a routine, I am going to have to do it in a way Bette will recognize as intended to convey warmth and regard and that actually does convey warmth and regard.  I don’t need to know why that particular language means so much to her.  It may seem rather odd to me.  All I need to know is what language it is and how to speak enough of it to make her glow.

OK, that was the complicated part.  Now here is what the routine does.  On a given day, I might help Bette into and out of the car, half a dozen times.  There is no need for her to do anything unusual on any of those times.  “Usual” is just fine.  But let’s say that we have been having a conversation in the car and that it meant a lot to her.  When I helped her out of the car that time, she would do something—I can think offhand of a dozen things she has done at one time or another—to sweeten the gesture; something to make it richer; emotionally warmer; more personal; more loving.

If she knows the language, and she does, she can do it any time she feels like it.  She can do it when she feels moved to.  She can do it when she thinks I need it.  The occasion is there many times a day and it will be there whenever she decides to use it.  And that is what is so great about a routine.  It doesn’t cost anything.  It doesn’t go away.  It is a frequently repeated action that could at any time be used to give a truly wonderful gift. 

Imagine, by contrast, that there is a time when Bette is feeling extraordinarily loving toroutines 1 me.  She wants to make a small speech saying how happy she is to be married to me and what a wonderful husband I am and how happy she is and so on.  If you are married, you can fill in whatever content would mean most to you in a speech like that.  If she has to look for a place to deliver such a speech or just the right occasion or just the right setting, it isn’t going to happen very often.  Those considerations make it bulky or clunky.  Or imagine that she takes her seat in the car and tells me these wonderful things before I close the door.  Imagine further that it is really cold or really raining or that the wind is blowing really hard.  I like what she is saying, but I am getting colder and wetter by the microsecond, so my feelings are ambivalent at best.

Now imagine, by contrast, that she can “say” all those things by the way she takes my hand and by the way she looks at me before I close the door.  This takes about three of the microseconds I referred to and I am happy to get colder and wetter for that long.  This is especially true when I take into account how I am going to feel afterwards.  I almost hate to say this about such a wonderful act of affirmation, but the truth is, it is efficient.

I love to see effective routines in a marriage.  Building them takes careful work by both partners.  Learning just what the other understands as “richer” takes some work.  But when those are in place, the routine just sits there.  Either of us can use it anytime we choose.  The effects dramatically outpace the cost of the actions.  And for husbands or wives who would like to be loved a lot more frequently than they now are, it’s something to think about.


[1] I’m going to be talking about marriages because it is the context where I have learned about this.  There is nothing in the nature of a routine that requires marriage at all (it works for “significant others”) or heterosexual marriage (it works the same way for gay and lesbian partners).  It’s just a human thing.

[2] I have fallen back on “kind of marriage” because I don’t really have a name for it.  I’ve experimented with a few but I haven’t found one that Bette and I like and that usefully describes what we are doing.

[3] This might be the time to confess that Bette doesn’t like the term “routines” either.  It has negative connotations.  Yes, it does, or at the very least, it is emotionally flat.  But I like the neutrality of the term.  A routine is just a vehicle for other things and it is the other things I like.

[4] Though not in Alisdair Macintyre’s sense of the term in After Virtue.  That sense of “practice” is very useful and widely used, but it is not what I am talking about here.

[5] The expression “help her” is in quotes because she actually doesn’t need the kind of help I am giving.  She is perfectly capable of getting into and out of the car herself.  On the other hand, I was once married to a woman who actually did need help getting in and out of the car and she chose to treat it as an act of chivalry on my part.  That was pretty wonderful.

[6] This might be the time to cite Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages.  I can be critical of the book for some purposes, but I don’t know any book that does a better job of establishing that if you want to convey your love and appreciation to your partner, it is wise to use the language that means the most to him or her.  Bette and I have substantially different “language” preferences, and when it is important that I understand what she is saying to me, she says it in the language that matters most to me.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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