Shared Meaning

How to Create Shared Meaning as Newlyweds or Newly Engaged

Dr. Dana McNeil

This piece was originally published on Gottman.com and is republished here with permission from the Gottman Institute.

The wonders of the holidays feel special for those who are newly engaged or celebrating for the first time as newlyweds. Couples can feel happy and potentially anxious about how to use them as a springboard to make meaningful memories and celebrate them in a way that uniquely defines them as a couple.

TRADITIONS: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE

Many of us grew up celebrating holidays with our parents or grandparents. They set the tone for behaviors or rituals of connection during this special time of year. Traditions like decorating the tree on Christmas Eve or leaving cookies out for Santa developed as a custom. Usually, they are rooted in the family of origin’s values and beliefs. They are symbols of what they wanted the holidays to signify.

Now, you and your partner are in the family of your choice versus the one you were born into. What traditions or events will represent who the two of you are and what you want to symbolize moving forward?

Sometimes anxiety happens for couples when they feel pressure to do what was expected of them when they were single. Newly engaged or married couples often have to give themselves permission to make some changes in traditions this year so as to allow space for new traditions to develop that include building new shared meanings about the holidays.

This may cause discomfort for parents or extended family members who will be disappointed and have expected their holiday traditions with you to be around forever. However, healthy couples can tolerate their families’ disappointment and will commit to setting boundaries around the needs of their new relationship. The things you did when you were single and the ways you identified with holiday customs created in your original family may need to look different once you commit to another person.

COMPROMISE AND CREATING SOMETHING NEW

You and your partner will need to find areas of agreement about what traditions you want to incorporate into your holidays as a couple. These negotiations should involve checking in with each other to find out what your dream holiday looks like and what it means to you if you didn’t honor that dream.

Find ways to compromise on showing the world how your new family celebrates the holidays. For example, if one of you rings in the new year with meditation and quiet reflection and the other partner thinks having a snow-filled adventure is important, then find ways to blend the two. The compromise might be that the two of you rent a cabin where you get away from it all but still go skiing during the day. Another example is that maybe one of you grew up with fresh-cut trees each year and the other grew up with artificial ones.  How about taking turns alternating between fresh and artificial trees—or have one of each.

The point of this spirit of compromise is to find something that combines the personalities and values of each of you to create new symbols of the holiday.

This doesn’t mean you have to reject your extended family celebrations. Introducing your partner to beloved family traditions from your past is part of building love maps together. You just don’t want to go on auto-pilot expecting your new partner to fall in line with the way you’ve always done things.

Acknowledging the changes in your family status means incorporating the desires for both of you to feel comfortable and represented.

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