How to Create Shared Meaning in Marriage

When two unique individuals get married, it creates a union that has not existed before. Although couples may have similar struggles, each relationship looks different, simply because each person brings their own distinct background, experiences, personality, and communication styles into it.

This is why one of the most important principles in building a strong marriage is knowing how to create shared meaning.

For example, for us, one of my most memorable shared experiences was when we got our new investment property, an apartment. A house is a house, right, it’s for utility, a roof over our head. But a house becomes a home when a couple make it into a place to stay in.

When we first bought the property, initially it was just an investment. In Singapore, we have what we call compulsory savings. I didn’t want that money just to sit there in savings, I wanted to use it to pay for something we can own in the long run; most people would do that, buy property, and then rent it out to finance the payments or make money. That was our initial plan, too.

We got the keys on Joy’s birthday, we planned it that way. But before that, she came to me and gave me a list of what the place means to her: it means that it’s a place where we can rest, where we can host people, where we can do coaching. Before that conversation, I admit, I had been a bit stressed out about paying for the new property. That was why it was important that she shared what it meant for her: an opportunity to empower others, while also being an extra space for the family, to swim, to have barbecue parties.

 When we create shared meaning together in something, we can do things because of what we envision for it: what’s our priority? That gives us clarity.     
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Do we want to rent it out? based on the list, which I also agree with, maybe not. We’re trying to create shared meaning together in that apartment. We can do all these things because of what we envision for the house: what’s our priority? That really gave us some clarity, and honestly, it made me feel better paying for it!

How to Create Shared Meaning

So how do you create shared meaning? Dr. John Gottman, who first coined this phrase in his book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, has these suggestions:

1. Create rituals. 

One of the ways to create shared meaning is through rituals and traditions. Something that we’re trying to do every Chinese New Year is to take a family photo together. Joy thinks it’s very stressful, because of the sheer number of people taking photos. (We have six children, ranging from 20 to 5 years old!) I think it means a lot more to the parents now than to the children, but in time I think they will also appreciate it.

When we cross over to a New Year we also try to cultivate thankfulness. We all write thank you cards for each other. Joy jokes that it’s a tradition only for Daniel, as it makes me happy to read these notes of appreciation! But I believe it will be a memorable ritual that we all can look back to many years down the road.

I think it’s important to look at the traditions, what kind of traditions you want to leave behind; otherwise you just live life, and it passes you by.

A ritual that we have as a couple is that we always, always, always go to bed together. Unless I’m traveling—which I haven’t done much of since the pandemic—we always go to bed at the same time. It’s become so much of a habit that I can’t go to bed easily without Joy!

2. Designate roles. 

Another way of creating shared meaning is being clear about what’s expected of one another. For example, in our family, we want dinner to be meaningful so we ask everyone to set aside their phones. We consider every person on the dinner table to be a valuable contributor to conversation!

3. Share goals.   

Before the lockdown, we always used to start the year on a family retreat. It’s a time when we can share our goals for the year, and it’s always something that we all look forward to. Now that we’re mostly home, we need to be intentional at setting aside time to talk about our goals, both as a couple and as a family.

4. Define symbols.

Certain words and symbols can mean different things to different people. The goal is to share the meaning that these symbols may have. For example, you might ask each other:

  • What does “home” mean to you?
  • What does “money” represent to you?
  • What does “play” look like to you?
  • What does “sex” mean to you?

Understanding what these different symbols mean to each of you, and agreeing on your own special definitions, can help strengthen your bond.

Creating Shared Meaning Strengthens Connection

As you work on strengthening your marriage, be intentional about the different ways you can create shared meaning. This also forms a strong foundation for the kind of legacy you want to leave your children.

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