The Holidays: A Time for Creating Shared Meaning

by Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities

The Thanksgiving meal, decorating the Christmas tree, the Nativity creche, lighting the menorah candles, the exchange of gifts, the meals, worship, gatherings of family and friends, New Year’s Eve traditions, etc.: the holiday season is rich in symbols, rituals, and meaning that are both universal and particular to each marriage and family. These symbols and rituals are part and parcel of the shared meaning of a marriage and family. Creating shared meaning is the attic of a sound relationship where our important dreams, narratives, myths, and metaphors about our relationship and family find a home.

John Gottman, Ph.D., the pre-eminent researcher on relationship stability and divorce prediction in our times, has identified Create Shared Meaning as the last of his “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and as the attic of the Sound Relationship House, a theory and model for making marriage work based on his over 40 years of multi-dimensional and extensive research with over 3000 couples. The Sound Relationship House begins with friendship and moves through managing conflict to the higher goals of making each other’s life dreams come true and creating shared meaning. The supporting walls of the House are Trust and Commitment.

According to Gottman, marriage has a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together:

• “Marriage isn’t about just 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 of your roles and goals that link you, that you to understand what it means to be part of the family you have become.” (Gottman & Silver, 1999).

How do we create shared meaning in a marriage and family? The “Masters of Relationship,” who John Gottman identified as two people who stay together, who report high relational satisfaction and who like and enjoy one another, create shared meaning by intentionally talking about:

1. Rituals of Connection (formal and informal),
2. Shared goals,
3. Supporting each other’s life roles, and
4. Agreeing about basic symbols, such as what a home means (Gottman & Schwartz Gottman, 2013).

Rituals of Connection include how we eat together, how we part at the beginning of the day and how we greet each other at the end of the day, how we say goodnight, how we spend our weekends and vacations, how we celebrate holidays, etc. Shared goals include our goals as a couple and a family. Our life roles include our roles as husband and wife, father and mother, professional roles, etc. Our basic symbols include photographs or objects that show who we are as a family, our family histories, the meaning of a home, and objects and activities that symbolize our philosophy of life.

We are each philosophers trying to make some sense out of this brief journey through life and every committed relationship is a cross-cultural experience in which we blend together each partner’s legacy, culture, values, and beliefs to entirely new culture (Gottman & Schwartz Gottman, 2013). This holiday season, take time to create shared meaning in your relationship and family by celebrating and talking about the symbols and rituals in your marriage and family.

References

Gottman, J., & Schwartz Gottman, J. (2013). The Art & Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute.

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Three Rivers.

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