Over the past several years, I've written several articles about how to improve your marriage and prevent divorce. However, it struck me recently that all of these articles were missing an essential element of a lasting marriage -- the ability to create shared meaning, a purpose, or a dream with your partner.
Viktor Frankl's award-winning book Man's Search for Inner Meaning, which he wrote in nine days while a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, describes the importance of a purposeful life -- allowing us to transcend the self and the present moment. In fact, Frankl theorized that the pursuit of meaning in life is more important than the pursuit of happiness, because it is more enduring -- connecting us to the present and the future.
Some authors even believe that our focus on couples being compatible may be overvalued. Zach Brittle, a certified Gottman Therapist writes:
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 shows that the happiest and healthiest couples have a unique ability to create shared meaning.
In fact, creating shared meaning is the highest level of Dr. John Gottman's Sound Relationship House, a template on how to have a healthy relationship. It is the attic of the house where people can intentionally create a sense of shared meaning in their life together. Dr. Gottman posits that a healthy relationship involves building a life together that is full of meaning and prioritizing time and resources. It encompasses their legacy -- the stories they tell, beliefs and the culture they create to form a shared meaning system.
Further, the foundation of this house is a strong friendship and a positive mindset which allows a couple to successfully mange conflict. According to renowned relationship expert Dr. Gottman, couples who can deal effectively with conflict are on their way to creating a marriage where dreams are not only visualized but come to fruition.
Certainly a new relationship is often exciting, stimulating, and fun. On the other hand, having a deep, meaningful connection with your partner can infuse your relationship with purpose and meaning over the long run. Author Emily Esfahani Smith writes:
While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as memories do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Four ways couples can build a stronger relationship with shared meaning:
1. Sharing a common dream or vision for life can help you gain a healthy perspective. When couples have that, the inevitable ups and downs of marriage are less bothersome. Creating a larger context of meaning in life, can help couples to avoid focusing on the little stuff that happens and to keep their eyes on the big picture.
2. Talking about your shared vision can foster attunement. Taking time to process your dreams can bring you closer. Couples who practice emotional attunement and "turn toward" one another rather than "turning away" are more likely to be happy and less likely to be headed toward divorce according to Dr. John Gottman.
3. Creating daily or weekly rituals will enable you to spend quality time together. Carve out time to be together so you don't become "two ships passing in the night." Focus on spending time doing enjoyable activities that bring you both pleasure. Dr. John Gottman suggests that couples make a commitment to spend a magic five hours a week together.
4. Implementing your shared goals can help you to be a stronger couple with a purpose. For instance, your goals might include volunteering in the community, raising your children in a positive way or adopting a sustainable lifestyle. Regardless of what your shared vision or goals are, they can strengthen your bond.
Couples who take the time to develop shared meaning and goals are more likely to experience mutual admiration -- a hallmark of mature, lasting love. It is something not simply arrived at by chance, but is deliberately cultivated. It's important to remember that maintaining admiration for your partner does not mean you put him or her on a pedestal. But it does mean that you like and respect who they are and how they conduct themselves in their world.
For instance, Karen and Erik share a common dream of raising their three children in a loving, happy home that is very different from the respective families they were raised in. Karen, age 37, reflects:
I was raised in a dysfunctional home with two parents who argued a lot and Erik's parents divorced when he was two years old and he rarely saw his dad. Our priority is to be on the same page and not let our differences in childrearing come between us like my parents did.
Erik, age 40, is quick to elaborate on Karen's points about having a shared purpose in his marriage. He says:
I respect Karen because she's a hard worker and a kind and loving mom. We try to be patient with each other and show understanding and empathy to our kids. When I get aggravated with Karen, I try to listen and respect her view. I avoid issuing ultimatums, shutting down, or being disrespectful to her.
Author Nathaniel Branden posits that if you admire your partner, not just for how he or she acts with you, but for how they operate in all spheres of their life, it will strengthen your love when it is being tested by adversity and conflicts. In The Psychology of Romantic Love Branden suggests that admiration is the most powerful foundation for a relationship.
What is the secret to increasing shared meaning and admiration between you and your partner? Couples who practice emotional attunement and "turn toward" one another rather than "turning away" are more likely to be satisfied with their marriage according to Dr. Gottman. In his book The Relationship Cure, he writes: "It's not that these couples don't get mad or disagree. It's that when they disagree, they're able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect."
In order for your marriage to thrive, it's important to create daily rituals of spending time together, show fondness and esteem, and learn to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. Shared meaning and friendship are the glue that can hold a marriage together.