Culture is not limited to countries or nations. Even two people who share a life together can create their own culture. They can have customs, traditions, stories, and beliefs that bind them and give meaning to their life together.
As researcher John Gottman1 says, "Marriage isn't just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together-a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become."
Shared meaning doesn't mean couples agree word-for-word on a philosophy of life. It means they learn to mesh their lives. They develop a culture that incorporates both of their dreams and goals and that helps them grow together. They talk openly about their convictions and search for common ground on fundamental values.
Some marriages last and work reasonably well without a deep sense of shared meaning. But the more shared meaning you create, the richer, more rewarding, and more enjoyable your relationship will be.
Here are ways to build shared meaning in your marriage and family:
Talk with your spouse about the culture of your family growing up. Sharing this information will help you evaluate your own family culture and think of new traditions you want to build. For example, you might ask each other:
- What do you remember from childhood about holidays and time spent as a family?
- What were some of your family's traditions?
- Which of those traditions have you adopted in your own family?
- Are there any traditions you would like to adopt but haven't?
- Looking back, is there anything you think your family lacked growing up? Is there anything you wish your parents had done differently?
Create family rituals. Below are examples of traditions that many families include in their family culture:
- Meals together, especially dinner.
- Bedtime rituals for children, such as telling stories, praying together, or listening to music.
- Birthday rituals, such as serving breakfast in bed to the birthday person or making his or her favorite meal.
- Holiday traditions, such as making handmade ornaments for Christmas, lighting the menorah together, organizing an Easter egg hunt, having a July 4th barbeque.
- Rituals for keeping in touch, such as sending family letters and holding family reunions.
- Family night ritual, such as designating one night a week for spending a few hours together as a family.
- Volunteering as a family in your community.
Share your personal goals with your spouse. Find a peaceful time when you can both sit down, relax, and talk about the things that are most important to you. What are they? How will you achieve them? What goals do you have in common? How will you support each other in accomplishing goals you may not share?
If you're having a hard time getting started, separately write down your answers to the following questions, then talk about your answers:
- What goals do you have for yourself right now?
- What goals do you have for the next 5 to 10 years?
- What is one dream you would like to fulfill before you die?
- List the five things you value most in life.
- Write a family mission statement. Have each family member contribute ideas about goals, values, and what you stand for as a family. Then write up a short statement that reflects these goals and values. Type or print your mission statement on good paper, frame it, and display it in your home. Make it something your whole family is proud of.
- Collect family stories. Have a family activity where everyone writes down one memory or story about your family. You might want to pick a theme, such as best family vacation, favorite family tradition, funniest incident. If you have small children, have them draw pictures illustrating the theme.
Put all the stories together in a notebook or scrapbook with a title reflecting your theme, such as "Our Best Family Vacation Ever." If your family enjoys this activity, do it as many times as you like using different themes. You could even ask other close relatives to contribute, like grandparents or cousins.
If you have a video camera, you could make videotapes instead of books or in addition to books. For example, you might record each family member telling about his or her favorite family vacation or acting out a scene from that vacation.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Gottman, J. M. (1999) The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.