Drs. John and Julie Gottman discuss the idea of shared meaning in a marriage. Shared meaning is what a couple creates together, and like all meaning, it relies on symbols. Examples of symbols include home, tradition, and dinner, and the meaning of a useful symbol can be discovered with the question, “What does a home really mean to you?” Of course, a home is much more than the walls and roof of a house; a home contains and nurtures all of our hopes for connection, safety, security, and love. It is also the hub of activity for a family, whether a couple or a family with children.
Attaching different meaning to important symbols can create conflict and misunderstanding in a marriage, especially since its meaning is often not known or expressed. Consider the husband who grew up in an inner city apartment as the only child of a single mother. Home for him was mainly a place to sleep, shower, and change clothes, and most social and family activities, including eating and homework, happened outside the home. This man marries a wife who grew up in a large family who had all evening meals together at home, often followed with a card game or a lively discussion about events of the day. When they marry, one of the first problems they encounter is their differing desire to stay at home in the evenings.
An example: Taking a walk
Taking a walk is something I have always loved. I especially love walking late at night, when there are no cars speeding along our busy street, and I don’t have to dodge dogs being walked or neighbors wanting to chat. I am not antisocial, but enjoy walking as my quiet time for reflection. To me, the intimacy of darkness and quiet is a powerful invitation to reconnect with myself. My husband, on the other hand, is an extrovert who doesn’t enjoy self-reflection and who finds walking too slow. He hates to walk!
Early in our marriage I found myself angry and bitter that he wouldn’t walk with me. When I was able to guilt him into walking with me, the experience wasn’t pleasant because he didn’t want to be there and our walks often turned into arguments. I decided that it wasn’t fair to ask him to walk with me, and stopped doing so. I also examined why his walking with me was so important. I discovered that sharing that little slice of intimate time and space at the end of our days was an important symbol for me—a symbol of connection. When my husband chose not to walk with me, I interpreted it as a rejection of connection to me, and it made me angry. Once I figured out that his lack of desire to walk with me had nothing to do with a rejection of me or our marriage, I settled into my solitary walks.
Funnily enough, now that I no longer push him, my husband joins me most evenings on a walk. For him, it represents exercise and a chance to brainstorm with me, but for me, it answers my longing to connect with my husband. Since we have discussed it, we’ve created a new, shared meaning for our walks—a time when we know we can count on each other to be attentive, supportive, and “there” for each other.
Couples must explore the meaning behind their symbols with a few simple questions: “What is the story on why this is so important? What role did this play in your growing-up years?” What is your deepest desire for this?” Using the couples dialog, couples can learn more about each other and how to meet each other’s needs. This tool is so helpful in restoring a sense of friendship and “we-ness,” which is the very foundation of a strong marriage.