I wanted the multi-colored lights. I didn’t want to discuss it; I just desperately wanted multi-colored lights on the tree. In my family, we always used multi-colored lights. And strung popcorn-cranberry chains. And placed an angel on the top. I couldn’t imagine a Christmas tree without these things, all symbols of my family’s celebration of Christmas.
My husband, in an uncharacteristically unaccommodating move, was pushing for blue and green. Blue and green? Who has blue and green lights on their tree? And no chains? And a star on top? Jeez.
So, on the occasion of our first real Christmas together, we had an argument. We didn’t yell or say mean things or anything like that. At least I don’t remember that we did. We just tried very hard to persuade each other that our idea was the better one. And then we simply, silently didn’t budge from our positions. For days.
It used to be that the only strategies relationship therapists offered were those related to communication. We thought that if couples could just communicate more effectively, they would then be able to go back home, solve their problems and live happily ever after.
But Dr. John Gottman discovered through his extensive research on couples (both those in crisis and those doing well) that there are a few other areas that may need a bit of work when a relationship is going off the tracks. Things like building and maintaining a strong friendship, updating our knowledge of each other, promoting an overall positive perspective, supporting each other’s life goals and creating shared meaning.
It’s that last one that my husband and I were struggling with that Christmas.
What we didn’t quite understand at the time is that a committed partnership is not just about raising children, managing a household, making love and building up a retirement fund. In the most satisfying long-term relationships, it turns out, couples go way beyond achieving those tasks to a place where they are able to create an entirely new culture together, one built on a common understanding of shared goals, values, symbols and rituals of connection.
The creation of and appreciation for this culture, this shared identity, then promotes an understanding of who they are as a family, not just two individuals amicably living their lives alongside each other.
Taking on the task of creating shared meaning doesn’t mean we have to see eye to eye on everything – I will never understand why my husband likes to eat his dinner with a dessert fork, nor will I ever share his affinity for Yankee Candles (he’s completely obsessed with them) – but it does mean we find ways to mesh and merge when we can, while also honoring each other’s individual dreams and values.
As Gottman notes in The 7 Principles For Making Marriage Work, the more shared meaning we can build . . . the richer our relationship, the stronger our friendship, and the deeper our well of positive sentiment (the well we draw from when we are embroiled in conflict up to our eyeballs).
In the end, my husband got his blue and green lights – something about how they reminded him of Christmases with his mom when she was alive (she died when he was 15; I simply couldn’t compete).
But you know what? After almost 30 years of blue and green, I’m glad I compromised. Because the lights are lovely . . . stunning, even.
But there’s also this:
The presence of the blue and green lights on our tree has taken its place as one of the many symbols of our family’s unique celebration of Christmas.
The story of how the blue and green won out, which we tell almost every Christmas, is a story that embodies our shared value of the importance of compromise and sacrifice in relationship.
The act of decorating the tree, and telling the story of the lights (and the story about the preacher ornament that lost his Bible and one of his arms; too long a story to tell here) is a ritual of connection we have with each other and our now adult children and their partners, a connection we strengthen every time we gather to place the ornaments and enjoy eggnog, hot toddies and, of course, all the stories.
The holiday season, regardless of which holiday you celebrate, offers us many opportunities to build shared meaning (aka, many strife-filled situations). My encouragement to you is to use each potential area of conflict – which family to visit and for how long, which lights to string, for whom we buy presents (does the dog get one?) and so on – as a means to solidify the symbols, rituals and values that contribute to your understanding of who you are as a family.
Oh, and, in case you were wondering, I got my angel on top.
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