Create Shared Meaning

“We used to have a yuppie marriage,” says Helen. “By that I mean it was very superficial. We got along okay and really loved each other, but I didn’t feel that connected to Kevin. It was like we were roommates who made love.” Helen, who calls herself a “devout feminist,” had always prided herself on her independence.

At first she thought it was great that she and Kevin had their own lives–their own careers, interests, and friends. But the longer they were married, and especially after they had children, the more she felt something was lacking. She didn’t want to give up her strong sense of individual identity, but she wanted more from her marriage. After attending the Gottman workshop, she realized what it was: She wanted to feel more like she and Kevin were a family.

If your marriage adheres to the first six principles, there’s a good chance that your relationship is stable and happy But if you find yourself asking, “Is that all there is?” your situation may be similar to Helen and Kevin’s. What may be missing is a deeper sense of shared meaning. Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together–a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become.

Usually when we think of culture, we think in terms of large ethnic groups or even countries where particular customs and cuisine prevail. But a culture can also be created by just two people who have agreed to share their lives. In essence, each couple and each family create its own micro culture. And like other cultures these small units have their customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of each baby), and myths–the stories the couple tell themselves (whether true, false, or embellished) that explain their sense of what their marriage is like, what it means to be part of their group.

Paula and Doug viewed themselves as the “runts” of their respective families. Both were considered the least intelligent, attractive, or likely to succeed of their siblings. But as it turned out, all of their brothers and sisters ended up unmarried or divorced, while Paula and Doug formed a happy, stable marriage, held steady jobs, and raised great kids in a nice home. Part of their marriage’s culture, the story they tell themselves about themselves, is what a great team they make, how feisty they are, how they thumbed their noses at all the nay-sayers and succeeded against the odds. Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead there is a meshing.

They find a way of honoring each other’s dreams even if they don’t always share them. The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams. And it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is much less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

It is certainly possible to have a stable marriage without sharing a deep sense of what is meaningful about your lives together. Your marriage can “work” even if your dreams aren’t in sync. The last section showed you just how to navigate your way around perpetual problems so that you can live with them rather than ending up gridlocked. It is important to accept that you each will probably have some dreams that the other doesn’t share but can respect. You may, for example, adhere to different religions but have enough respect for each other’s spiritual journey to bridge the differences in your faiths.

But it is also true that a rewarding marriage is about more than sidestepping conflict. The more you can agree about the fundamentals in life, the richer, more meaningful, and in a sense easier your marriage is likely to be. You certainly can’t force yourselves to have the same deeply held views.

But some coming together on these issues is likely to occur naturally if you are open to each other’s perspectives. A crucial goal of any marriage, therefore, is to create an atmosphere that encourages each person to talk honestly about his or her convictions. The more you speak candidly and respectfully with each other, the more likely there is to be a blending of your sense of meaning.

At our workshop Helen and Kevin were able to focus on the spiritual side of their lives together by talking over some of the questions you’ll find later in this chapter. For the first time they spoke earnestly about their own families, their family histories, values, and symbols. When they returned home, Helen took out her family’s old photo album and showed Kevin pictures of her great-grandparents who had come to America from Ireland.

She told him the story she had heard countless times about her great-grandparents’ marriage – how they had become engaged before her great-grandfather left for America. He then remained true and devoted to her great-grandmother during the four long years it took to save up enough money to bring her over, too. The message of this story, she had come to understand, was that loyalty is one of the backbones of marriage and family life. Until now she had never expressed that to Kevin so directly.

He himself reminisced about some of his own family’s tales especially about his grandmother who singlehandedly ran a general store in rural Kansas and almost went broke because she was always giving away free food to poor neighbors during the Depression. The townspeople all knew that she reserved a certain amount of her goods for the town’s needy families, who would come by ever’ Monday night at closing time. “My dad always said that we Monahans tend to be generous to the point of being foolish,” he told Helen. “But he always said it in a way that let you know he was very proud that we were like that.” Kevin told Helen how that perspective had infused his own adulthood–from his insistence that they make large charitable contributions to the size of the Christmas tips he gave out.

That conversation marked a turning point in Kevin and Helen’s marriage. From then on they talked frequently about values like loyalty and generosity that had been instilled in them by hearing family stories as children.

Over time, as they heard each other’s family stories and passed them on to their children, each other’s stories became their stories, too–the stories of the new family that they had created. Helen accepted and incorporated the stories and values of the Mona hans that were important to Kevin into her own life, and he did the same for her heritage.

As I said, the more shared meaning you can find, the deeper, richer, and more rewarding your relationship will be. Along the way you’ll also be strengthening your marital friendship–as emphasized in my first three principles of a happy marriage. This in turn will make it even easier to cope with any conflicts that crop up. That’s the beauty of the Seven Principles. They form a feedback loop that ensures that as you work on each principle, it becomes easier to work on the others.