Create Shared Meaning

A man and woman holding hands while standing next to each other.

Zach Brittle, LMHC  // July 1, 2015

When you get married, you create something that has never existed before. No matter how much you and your partner have in common. No matter how long you’ve been together. Whenever two people choose to “become one,” that one thing is perfectly unique. Not only that, but the act of being in a long-term committed relationship actually changes you through the many sacrifices and compromises it requires. Plus, don’t we all know couples that have been married so long they somehow look like each other?

If I’ve learned anything at all in my years as a couples therapist, it’s that no two marriages are even kind of the same. People come together in the strangest and most wonderful of ways. They may have the same kinds of struggles, but they’ll have them in different kinds of ways. When couples are thriving, they’re thriving in different ways as well. Each friendship looks different. Each couple has different strategies for managing conflict. And each couple dreams differently about the future. But the couples that are the most fun to work with are the ones who are able and eager to Create Shared Meaning.

Ask any artist. They will tell you that the creative process is awesome, messy, agonizing, joyous, elusive, fun, risky, maddening, invigorating, mysterious, and all of these at once. It’s not really that different in a relationship. You’ll have to imagine and invent and fail and reimagine and reinvent countless times as you move through your life together. But there are some guideposts to help you create shared meaning along the way.

Dr. John Gottman suggests that couples create shared meaning through the use of rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. As you begin your life together, it will be important — and fun — to establish these things as a way to give purpose and meaning to your relationship.

My first date with my wife was January 11th, 1996. Because I am a creative genius, we went to dinner and a movie. And because I’m a big spender, we went to the Olive Garden. After enjoying never ending breadsticks and a Tour of Italy, we went to see The American President. Because I am a hopeless romantic, I proposed exactly one year later in a grocery store parking lot. Later that night we went to dinner at the Olive Garden and watched The American President on VHS. Because I’m a sucker for ritual, we’ve repeated that tradition each of the last 19 years.

In our relationship, January 11th is a more important day than our anniversary. That one ritual has sustained a sense of romance and permanence that we vigorously protect and cherish. We have gotten more than a few free Italian-ish desserts and have pretty much memorized the movie. (Sidebar about The American President: It’s actually pretty great and I urge you to put it on your list. Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox are all fully formed characters and Annette Benning is at her Annette Benningest. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is imminently quotable. And the political themes of the movie are surprisingly relevant still today. Lucky for us it’s also about the power of love. End of sidebar.)

I urge you to build rituals into your relationship. Twyla Tharp, one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the modern era, famously champions ritual as part of the creative process.

I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron Gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

Your rituals help you on the long road of relationship. It can be an annual ritual or something more frequent. Dr. Gottman recommends rituals of connection to begin and end each day. You might also have weekly rituals like a Saturday hike or a Wednesday lunch. Building these in early will habitualize your connection and tether you to one another and the relationship.

In addition to establishing rituals, pre-married and newlywed couples have an opportunity to explore roles, goals, and symbols together. Start with a conversation about the meanings of the words “husband” and “wife,” and ask each other:

  • What do these roles mean?

  • What did they mean in your house growing up?

  • What assumptions do you have about each of those roles?

  • What is similar?

  • What is different?

Have that same conversation about what it means to be a parent, a friend, an employee. When it comes to goals and symbols, ask each other:

  • What does “home” mean?

  • What does “sex” mean?

  • What does “money” mean?

  • What does “play” mean?

Each of these words is a symbol for some broader idea. What kinds of goals do you have for these ideas? You may not even know until you start the conversation.

Creating shared meaning is one of the most rewarding facets of a marriage. It can be awesome, messy, agonizing, joyous, elusive, fun, risky, maddening, invigorating, mysterious, and all of these at once. If you start your relationship off by ensuring that it’s meaningful, you can save yourself a lot of pain and heartache down the road.

A man with glasses smiling for the camera.

Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.