There is some competing wisdom for what makes a happy couple. Do birds of a feather flock together? Or do opposites attract? I actually don’t think it matters. Personally, I think compatibility (or lack thereof) is overrated. Couples of all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and creeds have the ability to make it work. But research suggests that the happiest and healthiest couples have a unique ability to create shared meaning.
Couples should start investing early in the process of creating shared meaning, or friendship based on common values, goals, and dreams. Creating shared meaning is the top level of Dr. John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, a model for comprehensive relationship health. The foundation of the house is a strong friendship and a positive perspective which enables the couple to manage conflict. Couples that can effectively manage conflict can help make each other’s life dreams come true.
So how do you go about doing it?
01. Talk about your dreams
Creating shared meaning is about defining your legacy as a couple. It starts with some personal exploration about your life mission, your purpose, and the dream you’re trying to accomplish. Take a minute to jot down some notes about your personal legacy. When you’ve both gathered some thoughts, find some time to share with one another and explore together how you can accomplish your goals as a couple.
It’s important to note that this will go a lot better if you’ve done the foundational work of building your friendship and navigating conflict. Talking about your dreams is risky. It requires creativity and courage, and it’s important that you provide a safe place for one another. A good therapist can help with this, or you can agree to set aside a time for this specific purpose. Agreement is key. And intentionality.
02. Decide to have a "thing"
Do you have a thing? Do you enjoy rock-climbing together? Do you refuse to miss Taco Tuesday? Maybe your thing is a value like generosity or hospitality or adventure. Declaring a “thing” is a first step to creating shared meaning. It can help you establish and define your identity as a couple. Presumably, your partner adds something to your life. And presumably you add something to theirs. In a perfect world that something makes you better people.
Discovering and deciding on your thing can be a creative process. Start by articulating your bucket list—all the things you want to experience, discover or learn before you die. Even for couples who are really different, there are bound to be things that you have in common. Start with the similarities on your list. This is actually an advanced skill for couples trying to manage conflict; by focusing on your common goal, your thing, you can overcome some of the perpetual issues that are bound to creep into your relationship.
03. Create rituals
Another way to create shared meaning is to commit to having a few rituals that belong exclusively to you as a couple. Most often we associate rituals with the holidays and it’s difficult to exclude family and friends from the grand events like Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years Eve. But rituals can, and should, be built into your daily and weekly interactions with your beloved.
Dr. Gottman suggests that couples commit to a magic five hours a week, which includes partings at the beginning of the day and reunions at the end—dedicated time for admiration, appreciation, and affection. Take the time to ask questions and tell stories. And time to process any elephants in the room.
For starters, try to have breakfast together and talk about the day ahead. Commit to reunite at the end of the day and help reduce one another’s stress. Go to bed at the same time. And then on the weekends, introduce some small weekly rituals. Maybe Saturday is the day you go in search of the perfect cup of coffee or work out together.
Creating shared meaning doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be grand. You can create shared meaning with a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And, yes, it’s important to have annual rituals around the holidays and vacation time. But it’s just as important to prioritize monthly and weekly goals. Can you volunteer together every third Saturday? Do you need a weekly game of cribbage? Even daily rituals are essential. I have a friend who knows what day of the week it is based on the style of eggs she makes him for breakfast. I don’t even think I can name seven different styles of eggs, but they’ve done it that way for 35 years. It works for them. It’s their thing.
Start creating shared meaning today. Begin by articulating a dream, however small, and making a plan, however simple. Then stick to it. Creating and pursuing a common goal is an incredible way to build trust and commitment, two essential elements of any partnership and the foundation for a strong relationship house.