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HHH Blog

42. Shared Meaning

PUBLISHED 29th November , 2016

If you have paid careful attention to Blog Posts 27-30 you might have noticed that I never gave you John Gottman’s seventh principle for making romantic relationships last. Since a romantic partnership can bring such buzzing happiness, I guess it is always a good time to consider advice from the international expert on marriage and relationships.

Gottman’s seventh principle for a happy and lasting relationship is to have shared meaning. He notes that a relationship that incorporates the other six principles is likely to be stable and happy. (The other six principles are: 1. Detailed love maps; 2. Fondness and admiration between partners; 3. The turning to each other and not away; 4. Allowing oneself to be influenced; 5. Solving solvable problems; and 6. Overcoming gridlock on unsolved problems).1 However, shared meaning is somewhat the icing on the cake. Partners who have a lot of shared history, rituals and dreams are more deeply connected. They tend to have a vision for their shared lives. They often understand each other’s philosophies and convictions and are able to mesh them together in a way that reinforces the importance of their relationship.

I know one married couple who have been together for close to half a century. Both were educators in orphanages, and upon marrying, they decided not to have their own children. Rather, they adopted four children from the orphanage and gave them a happy and stable home. Other parentless children also took part in their family life. Holding together their family is this couple’s shared vision, which continues to this day; perhaps more intently so since the going has not always been easy.

And yet, in view of the separations taking place, it appears that ‘keeping the family together’ does not automatically translate into sufficient shared meaning to keep a partnership going. Perhaps it does for those couples who have many of the other six principles covered. However, whilst having children with a partner may not translate into enough shared meaning, it is certainly a motivation for developing or deepening shared meaning.

So how do we boost shared meaning? Firstly, Gottman advises, we have to create an atmosphere in which both partners can openly speak about their convictions and values. Then partners need to consider and discuss the rituals they value and which connect them. Do you eat together at the table? Do you celebrate Christmas and Easter in a particular way? Do you have a going-to-bed ritual, or a unique good morning greeting? How do you celebrate birthdays, achievements and reunions? Do you have special places where you perform specific actions? Sunday morning habits that support you as a couple?2

I have friends from Northern Europe who are very happily married. They love Australia and visit every December. When they arrive they firstly check into a hotel and then wind down on the balcony/porch to enjoy the warm weather. They count the days on which they swim in the ocean, collect fridge magnets from places they visit, and have a habit of making a simple barbecue a joyful, party-like affair. On their last day of their Australian holiday they ritually go to a beach and are quiet and inward, gathering courage for the 11 months of hard work ahead. Their last Aussie dinner is always at a favourite restaurant. Back home, they find many ways to savour their trip, which includes putting together a power point presentation of their travel photos teamed with an Australian music score. This they watch with friends sipping Australian wine. Australia is only one ritual they share. They are true experts at making ordinary life special.

After our rituals, Gottman advises us to consider our roles. In particular, we should review the values we have for these including the role of father, mother, husband, wife, and good friend. What role does work, the balance of work and family, extended family, and your mission play in your lives? Review your goals and which ones you share, whether you value each other’s accomplishments and individual goals, whether your financial goals are alike, and which of your hopes and aspirations for your life together align. Do you know and honour each other’s life dreams?3

Gottman then recommends reviewing our symbols, our associated meanings which we value, such as ‘what home means’. What does ‘family’ mean? Sex? Marriage? Money? Education? Fun? Play? Adventure? Freedom? Trust? Independence? Sharing? We/us? Material possessions? What are we sentimental about, what do we enjoy about being in nature, what do we hope for in our retirement?4 Try to talk to each other about all of these aspects of your life and what they mean to you. Look for where you mesh well, and note the meanings valued by your partner, which you previously overlooked or didn’t give enough significance to.

If we don’t have authentic connection rituals in our relationship, Gottman advises us to create them. Talk about the way in which you can add meaning to your shared waking up, eating, holidaying, celebrating, chilling out, making love, de-briefing, cleaning up, caring for each other when one is sick, and going to sleep.5 I once had a partner who always brought me a cup of tea first thing in the morning. That simple gesture carried one single meaning for me: that he loved me. Friends of mine have a ‘shared song’. Another couple I know is connected by their mission to help people in need. Try to make your life together ‘pregnant with meaning’.

For those who are bored by this blog, primarily because they are single, consider it in view of being your own partner. Review, create and deepen your life rituals, your vision and goals. Know what you aspire to and make it more than finding or having the right partner. What can you give to the world? What do you want to do now, in five years, in your retirement? Do you have an affinity with objects, places, or certain people? What are these based on? What does this human journey mean to you? What do you do to make life meaningful? I mean, how are you going to proclaim your values to a future partner if you don’t know them? And surely you will be a more understanding future partner if you understand yourself? It has been my experience that by endeavouring to make my life meaningful, the absence of a partner has become quite easy to bear.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016


  1. John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
  2. Gottman and Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
  3. Gottman and Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
  4. Gottman and Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
  5. Gottman and Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.


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