Creating agreed meaning as a couple

How many serious ruptures does it take before your relationship is beyond repair?
What causes relationship failure?
September 12, 2018
Trust is built over time. Trust involves your own ability to trust, and to discover the trustworthiness of your partner.
How to build trust as a couple?
September 22, 2018

When two people get together as a couple, they bring two completely different ideas of what things mean. Sorting out these meanings takes time. The differences in meanings are about specific words, specific values, the value you place on events such as Christmas, and specific ethics.  How do you create agreed or shared meaning? What do you do you create alchemy as a couple? How do you forge a third thing?

Let’s take a few examples:

Language and words

A magnifying glass is focussed on the word "meaning". And yes, focus on meaning is essential to understand your partner.
                          Does the same word mean the same thing to you both? Have you checked?

Major misunderstandings arise when each assumes that a common word means the same to both of them. A word can carry no baggage for one person but is heavily freighted with negative connotations for the other. Some recent examples are “silly”, which to one partner was a term of endearment, to the other a major put-down. While tone of voice and the context do make a difference, you can see there could be a bit of damage control needed here.

Another example is “crazy”; “you are crazy” might seem like a light-hearted reference to your ability to be funny. But what if “crazy” is a synonym for “mentally ill” in your partner’s world? You are in hot water!

take time to discuss differences in meaning.
Take time, over coffee, or a walk, to discuss and clarify your individual meanings, so you can proceed to a shared meaning.


Just to be clear here; by values I mean the principles and ideals, which help us make judgements of what is important. Values differ from person to person, so are unique.

A couple think they are talking about the same thing when they say they each value loyalty, honesty or faithfulness.  However, if your partner was betrayed by a previous partner, then she is going to have some very specific ideals about loyalty in your relationship. Learn why this is so important to her!

Most people agree that “honesty” is a nice idea, and aspire to it.  But what if you have been consistently lied to either as a child? Or in a previous relationship? Then the value you place on honesty, and what shape this should take, will be very important. This is a hot topic for you to discuss. The book by Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader, “Tell my no Lies” is a useful handbook for you.

If a previous partner was always dishonest about money and spending, then the very word “honesty” sends you into hyper-vigilance. And your bewildered partner, who has always been straight down the line about money, will wonder what the fuss is about.

Get the message? Talk about it! Be curious why these terms might be so loaded.

The meaning of specific events.

Creating agreed or shared meaning  includes deeloping a style around major events and celebrations, such as Christmas and births and deaths. Do you associate special food with these events?

Creating agreed or shared meaning includes developing a style around major events and celebrations, such as Christmas and births and deaths. Do you associate special food with these events?

How was Christmas celebrated in your family of origin? Is this what you value in your coupledom? Or do you want to create some totally different ritual around Christmas? How do you react when you’ve been a big fan of a family Christmas, and your new partner just wants to veg out? What if one partner celebrates the Jewish calendar, and the other is Muslim! Neither needs to change religions, but how are you going to find some agreement about what you celebrate?

What about birthdays? Have you secretly wished that you would be celebrated on your birthday with gifts and cards, and breakfasts and dinners, and the whole shebang? And then your partner tells you flatly that she doesn’t even remember the day!

What about weekends; do you just carry on as if Saturday and Sunday are work as usual? Or do you do something different, and maybe even turn off your mobile phones for a day or two. You have an opportunity as a couple to set the rituals that will satisfy both of you.  In so doing, you create the style and flavour of your relationship and the new family that you are building.

One way to create meaning together as a couple is to make space for depth, for pause, for rest, for reflection, for deep relaxation, for nature, for a spiritual space.  Most of us do not have the structure of a Church or other religious focus to guide us to create a sacred space as part of our relationships.  So its up to you to design your own. Walking in the mountains, or diving deep in a thought-provoking book might do this for you. Or playing with your children and making beautiful food.

The value of shared meaning

By sharing, you discover more about what meaning things have for you. Bt listening, you also discover what things mean for your partner. Most importantly, you discover a third place – a place of shared meaning. When a decades-long relationship breaks down there is a great sadness for the loss of shared meaning.   This is particularly true when one of the partners dies. You grieve the uniqueness you had created together.


Ethics are a system of moral principles, and as such are guidelines for conduct, or how people should treat each other. They determine what is right. On the other hand, values determine what is important and why. Ethics are more or less universally held, so most people agree. However, there is still a lot to disagree about!  For instance, do you think it is quite OK to do whatever you need to do to get ahead in your business, even if other people are disadvantaged by your actions? Perhaps your partner, on the other hand, has scruples about every action they take.  Such as how they do the recycling bins because how their actions affect others is of primary importance to them.

So many couples have so many arguments about how they differ on the use of a word, the celebration of anniversaries, whether trust is a more important value than honesty, etc. Mostly, there is no distinct right or wrong, but there is a lot of difference in what meaning you each bring toward a shared or agreed meaning as a couple.

Shared meaning is a combination of what you each bring, while still retaining your separate individuality. 


A word of caution here: I do not imply that you are going to change each other’s minds on any of the subjects I’ve mentioned, but rather that you will be respectful of your differences. This means that you will understand something of where the other is coming from, and make room for that.

  • Be courageous and express what you think and feel. Another Insight, “Courageous Conversations“, will help you start difficult conversations.
  • Be respectful and REALLY LISTEN to what your partner is saying.  Take it in.  Look at it from all angles. The Insight, “Do you only see what you think is important?“, will help you see beyond your own perspective.
  • If you feel offended, check to make sure that that is what he REALLY said, or even more important, that that is what she INTENDED. The Insight, “What is projection? The smoke and mirrors of relationship” will help you to think twice.
  • Have deep and meaningful discussions on values and ethics. How do you apply your values and ethics in everyday life? Does this differ from you partner?
  • Are you developing a celebration of meaningful events that REALLY suits you both? Can you bend a little either way?
  • Please let me know how this Insight has helped your communication.

1 Comment

  1. says:

    Thanks k another great insight. The misunderstandings we have just from words used as well as ethics.

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