Year Two, Skill #40: Create Meaning With Your Partner

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind?…

I can just hear Dionne Warwick singing this song now. These oldie, goldie lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis speak to me. If you are married, or in any kind of long-term committed relationship, have you ever asked yourself, “Is this all there is?” Certainly you can have a stable, possibly satisfying and long-term relationship without ever getting to the highest ideal of creating shared meaning, but as Antoine St. Exupery says, “We live not by things but by the meaning of things.” So what is the shared meaning in your relationship?

We live not by things but by the meaning of things. What is the shared meaning in your relationship?

img_3473-1Creating shared meaning, according to marital researchers & psychologists, John & Julie Gottman, is the loftiest skill couples attain, and it is usually built on the skills below it. When you create shared meaning, your relationship has its own culture… its own rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. Being intentional about the meaning of these rituals and symbols, roles and goals is worth your time if you want to create a highly rewarding relationship.

You might begin by asking yourselves (you and your partner) a few questions:

What is the story of your marriage? Who are the players? What are their roles?  What is the plot? Where are the twists and turns? What are the themes? What is the climax?

Why are you a couple? Is your marriage mostly about children and family? Perhaps it is more about running a business or building wealth? Some couples are together just for the fun of it or for the great sex.  Are you one of those? That’s fine, if you are both in agreement. Of course, when life is no longer fun and the sex is no longer sizzling, the shared meaning for this kind of relationship may dwindle.  Some marriages are about giving back to the world, ministering in some way to others. Perhaps this is yours?

Years ago I attended a workshop run by Bill Doherty, one of the present couples-drinking-coffee“grandfathers” of the family therapy field. Bill told us that every night after dinner, the dishes were cleaned up and then he and his wife had a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. The kids were banished from the kitchen during these 30 minutes. And all talk of the children was banished from their conversation. This was 30 minutes to talk about their own lives, their joys and sorrow, their dreams and accomplishments, their wishes and concerns. This ritual was a part of the family culture that declared marriage a priority. I remember, almost 30 years ago, being impressed with the intention of that ritual.

Juxtapose that example with this story. A friend of mine gave me the great honor of spending a few clinical hours with her then college-aged daughter. The teenager came to Columbia to spend a week here, and I saw her in my office two-hours for each of those days. We were focusing on issues related to her anxiety. But in the course of that conversation, she mentioned that her parents did not celebrate occasions. They didn’t honor their anniversary in any special way, or give each other Christmas gifts. They didn’t often travel together, just the two of them, or do much extracurricular stuff together. This bothered her. On some deep level, she felt their disconnection. And she was right. After many years of marriage, the couple divorced. At best, their shared meaning was too much about the kids. At worst, they had not created shared meaning.

couples-sunriseLook again at the Gottman’s diagram of the Sound Relationship House. You will notice that creating shared meaning is on top of making life dreams come true and managing conflict. Both of these skills, making your life dreams come true and managing conflict, involve the ability to have honest, vulnerable authentic communication.  Creating a safe environment where each person’s deepest longings, most closely held dreams, and strongest convictions can be safely voiced and respected is a “must have” in any fulfilling marriage.  And creating that kind of safe environment takes time and intention, not magic. It is sure easier to turn on the TV than it is to talk deeply about your life’s dreams. There is a cost, though, for not being intentional about those life dreams of yours.  Depression? Depletion? Stagnation? Contempt? Resentment? What cost are you paying?

Creating a safe environment where each person’s deepest longings, most closely held dreams, and strongest convictions can be safely voiced and respected is a “must have” in any fulfilling marriage.

Mom with the four of us in Germany on my sister’s 16th birthday. I was 11 at the time.

Most of you know that my dad died recently, so my sibs and I are in the process of cleaning out the family home and preparing for a memorial service.  I was reminded of a story about my dad’s life dreams. In 1968 my dad got a phone call from an insurance company. Turns out that when he enlisted in the army, his father took out a $5000 life insurance policy on him that came due in 25 years. With that unexpected $5000, my dad took our family to Europe for an entire month. It had been a dream of his to show my mom and us four children his homeland, the village of his birth, and to have us meet the family that stayed behind. So with the book Europe On $5 A Day and a rented VW van, we fulfilled my dad’s lifelong dream. And as we did, he and my mom created more shared meaning in their marriage and in our family. The trip was a symbol on so many levels: family, returning, sharing, heritage, legacy. To this day, almost 50 years later, we tell stories about our month long adventures in Europe.

So what is your relationship all about? What is the culture of your marriage? Do others recognize the roles, goals, rituals, and symbols of your life?  This is a lofty goal, Dear Friends. But it might just be the most marvelous thing you can hope for.


Amy Sander Montanez, D. Min., LPC, LMFT has a private practice of individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling in Columbia, SC. Her book, Moment to Moment: The Transformative Power of Everyday Life, won Spirituality and Health’s top 100 books of the year.  Amy is passionate about many things in life, but especially about psychology, spirituality, dancing, cooking, marriage, family, friends, traveling, and learning.

PS.  THANK YOU THANK YOU for the prayers, notes, cards, phone calls, and love you are pouring over me during this time of deep grief. I feel like I am walking on a cloud somedays. I have felt this before during my life, always during extremely difficult times, and I have come to believe it is the web of prayers from the communion of saints both living and passed on, being offered on my behalf. My words are not complete enough to tell you how much that means to me.

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie                                                                                            I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie

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