Purpose and meaning. This is that deeper layer in marriage where you get to explore the meaning of having been brought together as a couple. And, how you want to impact the world. How you want to create a legacy: the value that you leave behind as your life comes to a close.
Everyone wants to feel like their life has meaning, and marriage creates a special kind of meaning for couples: shared identity and sense of purpose, and a partner with whom you can impact the world.
Shared purpose starts with finding meaning. Meaning-making is drawn from our individual identities, shaped by nature and nurture. Once we are married and begin to have repeated interactions with our spouse, the interaction formulates a more stable sense of self (of who I am, who you are).
So my relationship to Verlynda, as my spouse, modifies my identity. And then we create this common world together based on our interactions and on the common front we present to the world[i].
Meaning Starts With Your Shared Story
Every couple creates a shared story of their relationship: how they have interpreted the events that led to them coming together and a joint vision for the future. I see this in our lives. Just over a year ago we were preparing to leave on a year-long trip in our travel trailer. Having to create this vision ourselves and then explain it to others confronted us with the need to make meaning or have some sense of shared purpose. Having to explain yourself and rationalize what you’re doing prompts this process.
I think any major life transition for a couple is going to result in this process of creating a vision for yourselves and for others to grab hold of.
But I think particularly at the start of a marriage, in its early stages, couples have to create this shared sense of identity and create a sense of meaning to their relationship. They’re bringing their individuality together, but they are also creating a new, jointly developed meaning. And this helps the couples make sense of their relationship and also it makes the future seem more stable and certain[ii].
So a study my researcher provided looked at the stories that newlywed couples told about how they met and about their experiences dating. The content of these stories and the shared meaning they represented was a strong predictor of marital wellbeing[iii]. Here’s some specific points of interest from this research:
Storytelling Process. Telling the stories in a collaborative way, with high agreement over the details, predicts marital wellbeing as it suggests a strongly held sense of shared meaning to the relationship. Disagreement over the details or conflict during storytelling suggests couples have not formed a strong sense of meaning. This is where we start to see purpose being defined: the couple has a shared, synchronous sense of having been brought together.
Storytelling Style. Telling the story as a narrative, rather than just a list of events, and telling it with a sense of drama are both linked to marital wellbeing as they show that the couple are very invested in their shared history. This animated interest reflects some of the value they place on the process of uniting their lives together.
Story Content: what the couples actually chose to tell in their stories was also significant:
- Attributing tensions or difficulties to factors outside the couple, rather than to yourself or your partner, indicates that the couple have a strong sense of cohesion and was linked to high wellbeing
- Framing the story as a conflict or focusing on barriers that were overcome, such as overcoming past relationships or dealing with disapproval from parents, was linked to lower satisfaction. If the whole “story” of your relationship is defined as one of conflict and turmoil then it will naturally become less stable.
What I take from this is that couples who have some deep sense of destiny or providence or God’s will in bringing them together have a more meaningful story behind why they exist as a couple.
This core identity piece then becomes a platform for how they as a couple now begin to explore how they are going to impact the world together.
So the shared story is a key piece.
Other Factors Affecting Shared Identity
So that’s a key piece but there are also four other factors that we’ll cover briefly.
Family. The extent to which your pre-marriage family is still involved in your married life is linked to marital satisfaction. This means that even as you develop shared meaning in your marriage it is important to remain in touch with your individual identity and history[iv].
What becomes especially critical is having a shared understanding of this. As in, both spouses need to understand the importance of these relationships. I’m not advocating for enmeshment, but rather the healthy and balanced, marriage-cantered approach to family of origin relationships.
Flexibility. Everyone has their own identity and sense of purpose and meaning, as well as expectations about what they want the meaning of their marriage to be. Levels of flexibility are therefore a strong factor in a couple’s ability to create a successfully shared sense of identity[v]. Again, this makes sense: developing this identity has to be collaborative.
Romantic vs Companionate love. Couples whose shared meaning (measured using the stories they tell about each other) were based mostly on positive relationship qualities such as intimacy, satisfaction and commitment were more likely to have satisfying and stable marriages.
This was not true for couples whose identity was based mostly on passion and romance[vi]. Passion alone isn’t enough to create a long-term joint sense of purpose. This is possible because romantic love typically doesn’t last the whole length of the relationship, whereas commitment and intimacy do. Although as we saw in our episode on the neuroscience of love, this doesn’t always have to be the case.
Positive and Negative meanings. Newlywed couples are influenced by each other’s negative views of marriage (things they believe would make a marriage bad), but were not influenced by each other’s positive views[vii].
This suggests that couples come into a marriage with a clear idea of what a shared marriage identity should not be like, but that working out what their shared meaning SHOULD be taking a little longer.
Once again we’ve created a bonus exercise for our much-appreciated supporters who want to get serious about finding purpose in their marriage. Having a purpose, a raison-d’etre as we call it in Canada, just makes life a fuller experience.
Meaning In Marriage
Our guide this week contains a fun review of how you came together but then it goes deep with working through joint life goals and getting those aligned, and more. Downloading this will definitely help you take this part of your marriage much deeper and work on creating a united sense of meaning. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Impacting the World Together
We’ve seen some of the factors that can influence a joint sense of purpose. Now we’re going to turn to creating this sense of purpose for yourself and your marriage. One of the more prominent ways that we see couples living out shared purpose is through joint ventures. This podcast is one example of a joint venture like that.
When it is business based, research reports that the love bond between couples grows stronger over time as they are involved in joint business ventures[viii]. For these co-entrepreneurial couples, part of the basis of this is that they are creating shared experiences, which increases intimacy. There may be complex combinations of work and family roles and dynamics[ix] involved, as the couple find their own way of balancing work and family life, but these couples typically show the following qualities:
- Strong family values
- High levels of mutual trust and confidence in each other’s abilities
- Strong commitment to equality in the marriage[x]
Of course, the ‘joint’ part of the venture doesn’t need to look like each spouse taking on half of the business responsibilities. Sometimes one spouse is running the business and the other is contributing in other ways such as household management, network or making connections for the business, or providing spousal leadership for the business, acting in an advisory role or keeping the other spouse grounded[xi].
Of course, this isn’t the only way to create purpose in your marriage but it is one way that you can. I typically see this type of joint venture as either having meaning intrinsically: it is helping the couple create the lifestyle they want for themselves and their family, and/or extrinsically as a venture that has a social impact on the world around. Our podcast would fit into the latter category in helping thousands of marriage every week.
But I would also challenge couples who are listening today to think about joint ventures that do not have a commercial side, even.
This could look like involvement in your local church and serving the church itself or the community through the church. It could be a direct involvement in community activities. It can also be just being involved in local community boards, like a school committee or involved in 4H where you’re having a positive influence on the lives of others. There are so many possibilities.
Sometimes that joint purpose is going to look like you both sharing equally in the activity. Other times it’s going to look like one spouse taking care of the home/kids once a week so that he can free his wife up to do something purposeful. Even though they are going to be separated that evening, that is still an activity with shared purpose and meaning because they are both investing in it.
For those who are able to have children, raising a family is one of the most significant ways a couple can find meaning together and leave a lasting impact on the world.
As we have seen in earlier episodes on parenting, raising a family has both positive and negative effects on life satisfaction[xii]. Parenting can actually decrease day-to-day satisfaction, especially when children are young, due to restrictions on freedom and increased pressures and demands.
However, levels of life-meaning, that more long-term sense that your life is making an impact, are much higher for those with children than those without. And couples with grown-up children living away from home have both high day to day satisfaction and high life-meaning. Obviously raising kids is tough, but I’m sure most parents would agree there are few things more meaningful you can undertake.
Marriage itself also helps people feel more like their life has meaning generally, as well as offering ways of finding shared meaning. Levels of intimacy are often found to be the highest predictor of satisfaction and life meaning[xiii].
Marriages are a source of intimacy, passion and contentment, and these forms of positive affect all cause people to rate the meaning of their lives more highly on a day to day basis[xiv].
So a happy marriage helps you feel like your life has purpose and meaning, and can also help you feel like your actions have meaning even when things are difficult, like when caring for young children[xv].
This really goes a long way towards reinforcing the importance of investing in one’s marriage. When you create a safe, secure, loving relationship this becomes a safe harbor from which you can explore different ways of making meaning and purpose in the world around you.
On the other hand, when things in your marriage are not going well, you have so much energy directed toward this that it is much more difficult to create a legacy around you. Although, in some cases, the pursuit of outside ventures can serve as a distraction from the realities of what is not going well in your marriage. But even in this situation, think of how much more impactful you could be on the world around you if your marriage was a safe, secure place.
[i] Lopata, “Self-Identity in Marriage and Widowhood.”
[ii] Orbuch, Veroff, and Holmberg, “Becoming a Married Couple.”
[iv] Wamboldt and Reiss, “Defining a Family Heritage and a New Relationship Identity.”
[v] Levine and Busby, “Co-Creating Shared Realities with Couples.”
[vi] Timmer and Orbuch, “The Links Between Premarital Parenthood, Meanings of Marriage, and Marital Outcomes*.”
[viii] Marshack, “Coentrepreneurial Couples.”
[ix] John Blenkinsopp and Gill Owens, “At the Heart of Things.”
[x] Marshack, “Coentrepreneurial Couples.”
[xi] John Blenkinsopp and Gill Owens, “At the Heart of Things.”
[xii] UMBERSON and GOVE, “Parenthood and Psychological Well-Being.”
[xiii] Cummins, “The Domains of Life Satisfaction.”
[xiv] King et al., “Positive Affect and the Experience of Meaning in Life.”
[xv] Pines et al., “Job Burnout and Couple Burnout in Dual-Earner Couples in the Sandwiched Generation.”
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