A Study of Ritual and its Application in Family Therapy

By Joan White

As the millennium draws to a close there seems to be a vast revival in the fashion for lighting candles. They are just everywhere in the shops, scented, coloured, large and small, symbolic of higher things, past times, love, spirituality and homely entertaining. I’m wondering if this cornucopia of candles represents a revitalising of personal ritual creation as the Churches’ and Governments’ rituals fail in their power to inspire us.

Rituals are the process by which many species organise, order and celebrate their connectedness. They are often communal activities, created and maintained only when there is a social consensus. They provide both our most basic and sophisticated means of communication, and are a means of emphasising important events.

Ritual practices are as diverse as the cultures that create them. For an Indian widow, her grief, hopefully historically, might be expressed by throwing herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband. However, closer to home, merely providing ham sandwiches and a few bottles of whiskey might be considered a more suitable initiation of the grieving period.

In this article, firstly, I’m looking forward to focusing on how families use rituals to punctuate the everyday “stuff” of life. Secondly, I hope to briefly describe how family therapists promote ritual activities for families to use in problem solving and for healing past wounds.

Rituals in Families – The Inside Story

What exactly is the character of a family? How does it differ from the family next door? How does it represent itself to its members? A family can define itself quite unconsciously, both internally and externally, through its own unique collection of ritualised patterns.

Everyday activities, such as bed-time rituals, meal-time rituals, and going to Granny’s on Sundays, provide the basic building blocks for a family’s shared sense of identity. These everyday activities are punctuated again by more formalised rituals like birthday parties, holidays, weddings, etc.

In more subtle ways, transgenerational messages are transmitted in the form of family scripts that most of us can bring to consciousness on reflection.

Such family messages can outlive their usefulness and become constricting in the present day. For example, beliefs formed in families in situations of danger and poverty can blight the present generation’s freedom to have fun, or create a sense of unexplained doom when today’s generation attempts to spend money.

Flexibility around rituals in families usually indicates a healthy adaptive approach to the transitions inherent in the family life cycle.

When families are low in ritual observance it can indicate that the process by which families transmit attitudes and inter-generational information has broken down and become too painful. Stress, caused by illness, poverty, alcoholism and even political tyranny can interrupt the process by which a family shares its sense of identity.

I was talking with a friend about my interest in family rituals and she told me how she had reversed her experience of having very little ritual practice in her family of origin.

Her childhood had been affected by her father’s overt and her mother’s covert alcoholism. She sadly observed that her only certainty was un­certainty. Christmas had often been very difficult in her household. She married a man whose family had been particularly rich in observances of ritual – no accident I’m sure. Together they endeavoured to foster new family rituals for their budding family.

One lovely example of this was that each year they bought a Christmas tree decoration that symbolised something important in their family’s current history. A humourous yet evocative symbol for her family is a glass icicle.

In the second year of their marriage they lived in a freezing flat with poor heating. Money was short, but enthusiasm and young passion melted their adversities. They bought the icicle to represent this.

Nowadays, when the family decorates the tree, each item “speaks” of the family’s origins and connects it to the present day. Sometimes newly formed families make a ritual of having no rituals in their efforts to shrug off cons­tricting and suffocating beliefs from their family of origin.

Transitions – They grow up so quickly!

I’m sure we have all heard this lament or said it ourselves, just as we struggle as individuals to avoid changes, families are no less powerful in resisting the transitions of their members. Normal development stages such as birth, adolescence, leaving home and the arrival of grandchildren can provide opportunities for positive changes or sticking points to bog down development.

For example, the adolescent’s turbulent passage from child to adult can become even more difficult if it coincides with the parents’ own mid-life crisis or a trauma like unemployment. The coincidence of a marital separation with, say, the death of a grandparent can-inhibit mourning rituals being enacted by family members in several generations.

Quite often, the symptom being offered by a child in a family referring itself for therapy can represent the loss of much needed expression of such feelings. Therapists, with careful questions can link the symptom to its origin and reframe the symptom as an adaptive process. A suggestion that a symbolic ritual activity might help lay down the past can emerge as a new strategy for the family. Family therapists, having observed how families support their own transitions with normally occurring ritual activities have long been interested in tapping into this resource as a therapeutic tool.

In Search of Candles – Families in Therapy

An exploration of how families have used ritual in the past, and presently, and tracking interruptions at their coincidence with other events in the family’s story can yield many fruits for seeking solutions. Differences in belief systems of families of origin can be very revealing in explaining present day conflicts.

Evan-Imber Black’s book, “Rituals in Families and Family Therapy”, repres­ents an excellent description of current knowledge of ritual in the field today. It is very practical and broad in its perspective, providing a bulging cornu­copia of detail on what ritual is and how it can be applied therapeutically. She acknowledges the families’ own contribution in the creation of healing rituals and has promoted the shift from prescribing ritual by the therapist, to co-creating them by engaging the families’ help.

When working with people who are attempting to let go of old pain and move to new places within their life’s journey, it is important that the therapist helps the system to define for itself when past events have been sufficiently acknowledged. To “impose” a ritual on a family which it has not fully understood, and has not agreed to what exactly it is relinquishing, would be, at best unhelpful and at worst, harmful. Fortunately, we all have a healthy aversion to participation in any ritual we perceive is hollow.

Healing rituals in a family setting should be created with sensitive regard for each member of the family system. Rituals may have different meanings for each person in a group, but if there is understanding and agreement about these differences, they can still hold enormous power to support change, or to mark stability.

Attention to gender issues is important when new rituals are being created, with lots of room being made to encourage flexibility in traditional roles in our changing society.

I’m remembering one couple who incorporated the purchase of a dish­washer in a renegotiation of their family script – ” a woman’s place is in the home”. On the day it was delivered, they ritualised the occasion by having a romantic dinner for two. The dinner was a ritual occasion that celebrated:

1. The end of months of conflict.

2. The husband’s support of his wife’s career, also symbolised by the purchase of the dishwasher.

3. The return to courtship-style pleasures enabled by the purchase of a labour-saving dishwasher.

The couple did not avoid their conflicts by using the ritual, rather, they symbolised its resolution and encouraged the success of the new phase of their partnership.

This story of easily recognisable family life also reminds me that many marginalised groups have normative rituals denied them by societal prejudice. Single or separated parents, gay or lesbian couples and immigrant families, often suffer attacks from the rest of society, which as the majority group, firmly resists change. Much work needs to be done to help such groups create healing rituals that encourage them to reject views that stigmatise themselves as “odd-ball” or deviant, to reframe themselves as groups that society has not yet found ways of accepting. It can be helpful for such groups to devise new rituals or accept old ones, to honour their own exist­ence, until society catches up!

I’m going to offer now a condensed version of a case example by Evan Imber Black to illustrate a healing separation ritual.1

The House-Cooling Party

Candice had previously attended for therapy with her husband and they had separated abruptly after a few sessions – Brent moving out, leaving a note and asking for a divorce, as he was seeing another woman.

Her therapy centred on her feelings about separation, her sense of loss of their future together and loss of her connection with his family and mutual friends, her main metaphor for these losses centred on the house. Since. Brent had gone she had not invited company. She was unsure of whether people would be supportive of her. She felt easier when she met friends on neutral territory. Her attitude was; “I’m not locked in but other people are locked out.”

Black invited her, after a period of months of holding on to and letting go of memories, to devise a ritual that would allow her to open up her home again.

She came up with the idea of having a house-cooling party to announce her new life and she invited people to “bring her gifts” appropriate to the lovely home of a single woman. The party announced her new identity and furthered the healing process. She redesigned the established ritual of house-warming to meet her situation. She also changed her front door lock, symbolising a new opening to her friends and family.

As in this case great attention must be given to the timing of therapeutic rituals. At the right time they can create that great moment of Joy that is liberating. At the wrong time, they can sabotage a client’s process.

This is an illustration of how therapist and client can pool their skills and knowledge to co-create a new ritual that is a metaphor for hope and change. The passage between pain, darkness and Joy is beautifully bridged by ritual action. Simple activity, when charged with ritual meaning can evoke power­ful changes. Memories of such transformations can enlighten future difficulties by a simple repetition or revision of ritual acts, like candles in the darkness.

The burning questions to consider before we light a candle that might lead to bringing Joy are: Who is it for? What is it about? and Who is represented in the action? If all perspectives are not included, the candle might just end up blowing in the wind!

The power and excitement of ritual action is beautifully described by Joan Laird. She said: “Ritual, like myths is what anthropologists term a “packed” social category, or mode of action, because it operates on so many levels at once. They operate on both conscious levels with their multiple layers of symbolic richness and often actions, catching us up in them and pulling us along, structuring the very ways we think about and walk through our lives.”2


  1. Imber-Black, E. Roberts, J. & Whiting R. “Rituals in Families and Family Therapy”, Norton NY, 1988
  2. Laird, J. “Enactments of Power Through Ritual” In T.J. Goodrick   – “Women & Power”, (pp. 123-147) Norton NY, 1991.

Joan White is a Family therapist and also works with the Rape Crisis Centre in Dublin.