This post concludes my series drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” Today’s installment is:

Principle #7: Create Shared Meaning

If you haven’t read them, you should read the previous four principles I’ve covered in my blog (click on the title to read the post):

This seventh principle is the frosting on the marriage cake. If you’ve ever had a cupcake without frosting, you know they can be quite delicious. But, seriously, a cupcake without frosting is missing something wonderful.

Likewise, a marriage can be stable and happy without creating shared, but there is a rich — spiritual, maybe — dimension to marriage that goes beyond raising kids and following dreams. It is the shared inner life of a couple who have developed a deep, mutual sense of meaning in their lives together as a family. This does not mean that goals have melded or that both partners always agree on what the best child-raising strategies are. It is a culture of marriage that shares the adventure of life, that honors each other’s needs and dreams, and that is flexible enough to change as each partner changes and grows.

Creating shared meaning involves cultivating a shared narrative that includes shared rituals and values. Couples can do this by sharing their life stories and sharing new growth experiences. But the key to creating shared meaning is to share the impact of these stories and experiences on your perceptions, values, etc.

Try these suggestions:

  • Share stories from your family of origin.
    • In what way did your childhood stories impact you?
    • Why are they important (nor not important to you)?
    • What did your family of origin do during your childhood that you want to avoid?
    • Reflect on the interaction between your childhood stories and your adult life together.
  • Read books together.
    • What did you like about that chapter?
    • What did you disagree with?
    • Did anything make you uncomfortable?
  • Talk through family gatherings (like a CIA debriefing session)
    • What was great? Why made it great for you?
    • What should be avoided? Why do you want to avoid that thing? Did it make you uncomfortable? Why?

As you share experiences and their personal impact on you, you and your spouse will build a shared narrative for your life. You will adopt some things from your spouse. Your spouse will adopt some things from you. Your spouse will let go of some things as part of your new family. You will let go of some things that were important to you for the sake of this new family. The two of you will be melding your story and his/her story into our story.

Family rituals also reinforce a sense of shared meaning. When you and your partner intentionally adopt or reject rituals, habits, expectations from your families of origin, you create shared meaning. You build identity into this couple or family by developing the ways that this family does things.

When I was growing up, we celebrated birthdays on the nearest convenient day. Not so for my wife. We have adopted her tradition as the way we do things in our family. We might have a party on the nearest available weekend day but, in our home, we ALWAYS have cake and sing “Happy Birthday” on the person’s actual birthday.

A family ritual is anything you do habitually together. It could be eating dinner together (perhaps on at least Sunday evenings). Rituals can involve:

  • The ways you keep in touch with family and friends.
  • What you do on vacations
  • How you spend Saturday morning
  • What you do on Christmas, when and how you decorate the tree or open presents
  • Having family “business meetings”
  • Bedtime routines
  • It could be anything. You get the idea…

A quick Google search turned up some great resources for creating family rituals:

I confess to you that I am feeling a little inadequate as I complete this series. I’ve seen several ways in which I haven’t done the greatest job. This is especially true with family rituals. I can see how they are important and I can see how our family has very few rituals that identify our family. One of my children has already moved out but I have two left at home. In terms of kids, it’s not too late. And it terms of being a couple, it’s never too late.

The trick to life is not never making mistakes, it’s recognizing them and moving forward. Everybody falls, the successful people are the ones who get up again.

From my Christian perspective, Jesus came full of grace and truth. In this series, you may have been hit by some “truth” that wasn’t so pleasant for you to recognize (as I was with regard to family rituals). If so, be gracious to yourself. Speak to yourself as you would speak to a close friend who has realized some error or inadequacy in his way of living life. Be gracious… then move forward. Don’t just feel bad, do something different. If something pierces your heart, take it to heart. Choose a new road. Will you do it perfectly? Not likely! But get going in the new and better direction you perceived yourself as needing. And keep going.

As with every post in this series, there’s much more in Dr. Gottman’s book, including inventories and exercises to help you grasp the seven principles and put them into action.

Thanks for reading my blog. I hope it is helpful to you.


1Gottman, John; Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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