Creating shared meaning
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Last week I was musing about how nice it would be to put the Christmas tree up on Saturday (the 11th of December if you're interested). I started fantasizing about putting The Snowman on the telly, maybe making some Christmas biscuits, decorating the tree with my son and then writing his letter to Father Christmas illuminated only by the flickering of fairy lights. As is often the case, my thoughts were interrupted by my Argentine mother-in-law. She was calling to remind me that in Argentina the tree goes up on el día de la virgen (the 8th of December), that it's bad luck to put it up later and that I should stop whatever I was doing and put the tree up immediately or something terrible would happen. I was furious.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will already be aware that I'm an avid follower of John Gottman and his incredible body of research into couples therapy, and, after doing some angry cleaning, I recognized that I was experiencing a crisis on the top floor of Gottman's sound relationship house. Gottman proposes that healthy relationships have certain characteristics which he expresses using the metaphor of a house with solid floors and walls. The top floor is entitled 'create shared meaning' and refers to the rituals, beliefs and habits that all families and couples have, and it's no coincidence that, in my opinion, it's the trickiest of them all for us multicultural couples.
Why? Because when we share a culture with our partner from birth or early childhood we probably already have a body of meaning that is shared with them. Most people from the UK would at least know about the rituals of singing carols, having a tree and believing in Father Christmas even if they don't participate in these practices themselves. Multicultural couples on the other hand usually have two distinct sets of cultural meaning and a lot of work to do!
First we must find out about our partner's beliefs, rituals and habits. Sometimes they can seem deceptively similar and we might be tricked into thinking that there is nothing to find out. This is how my Christmas tree problem began of course. Next begins the negotiation! How can we make these different beliefs, rituals and habits coexist when they're so different and often conflicting? After speaking with my mother in law I was tempted to dig my heels in but the idea of something bad happening to my family had been sown and I begrudgingly started looking for the tree.
After a few minutes of decorating with my ecstatic son I realized that I was having fun. We could do the tree today and make the biscuits and write to Father Christmas on Saturday I reasoned. My partner came in with a bag of churros and put How the Grinch Stole Christmas on the telly. And just like that, new, shared meaning was born.