Four Pillars for a Lasting Marriage

How do you keep the song in your relationship? It seems as if most couples drift apart over time. They get married, build careers, raise the children and then wake up one morning and wonder who the other is. While each person in a marriage is an individual, once you are married you become a team. How you keep the team together is everything. Marriage expert, John Gottman puts it this way:

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together--a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you and that lead you to understand who you are as a family (p. 261)

This is Gottman’s seventh principle. He calls it Create Shared Meaning. Before we look at the last of the seven principles, let’s remember the first six with a brief paraphrase in parentheses:

  1. Enhance Your Love Maps (never stop getting to know each other)
  2. Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration (stay positive)
  3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away (seek re-connection)
  4. Let Your Partner Influence You (appreciate one another’s strengths)
  5. Solve Your Solvable Problems (fix what you can fix)
  6. Overcome Gridlock (learn to live with lifelong differences)

Create Shared Meaning

In this seventh principle, Gottman is moving in the direction of a deeper spiritual foundation that all marriages need to thrive. Marriage can’t just be limited to two human beings forming a deep friendship. As important as that is, there must be something transcendent. Something bigger than the marriage that gives it meaning outside of the relationship. He calls this the “Four Pillars of Shared Meaning.”

Pillar One: Rituals of Connection

Gottman says that “creating rituals in your marriage (and with your children) can be a powerful antidote to the tendency to disconnect” (p. 263). What does he mean by ritual?

A ritual is a structured event or routine that you each enjoy and depend on and that both reflects and reinforces your sense of togetherness. Most of us are familiar with rituals from childhood, whether going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, lighting Kwanzaa candles or the menorah, sharing pumpkin pie at Grandma’s Thanksgiving, attending family reunions, etc. However, it’s common for people not to discuss what these traditions symbolize to them. In his book The Intentional Family, sociologist William Doherty highlighted the importance of couples creating rituals that are intentional and meaningful. By recognizing the ongoing value and significance of the rituals you each bring to your relationship, and the new ones you create together, you further your identity as a family. (p. 264)

Pillar Two: Support For Each Other’s Roles

The more a couple shares a similar vision of the role they play in the marriage, the deeper the connection. This is not only connected to how husband and wife view their roles with each other, it also is connected to what they value in terms of parenting and what they want to pass along to their children. Gottman is clear to say that this does not mean complete agreement on every matter. Instead, he emphasizes that there should be enough cohesion between husband and wife that they work alongside one another as a team.

Pillar Three: Shared Goals

A common vision for accomplishing deep and meaningful goals creates a deep bond between husband and wife. Raising children with specific beliefs and convictions, giving generously of time and money to special projects that serve the community, or caring for extended family as they age are all examples of significant shared goals.

Pillar Four: Shared Values and Symbols

These values and symbols are often associated with fundamental beliefs that arise out of one’s religious beliefs and commitments.

Values and beliefs form the final pillar of shared meaning in a marriage. These are philosophical tenets that guide how you wish to conduct your lives. For some people, values are deeply rooted in religious conviction. (p. 270)

In his book, Gottman provides helpful questions for a couple to determine where they need to grow according to each of these four pillars. What is most helpful is how practical the questions and exercises are. Most couples can grasp the big concepts, it's knowing how to specifically implement them that is the challenge.

Gottman and The Gospel

In this final section, Gottman is attempting to tether couples to something transcendent; something bigger than their own marriage. I find this immensely important because this is exactly what Scripture does with much greater clarity. The Apostle Paul connects the covenant of marriage to the bigger covenant relationship that each spouse has with the true and living God. He also says that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with his people. Hear Paul’s familiar words in Ephesians 5:31-33:

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Notice how Paul goes back and forth between the marriage between spouses and God’s relationship to his people. Paul understands the priorities of the vertical and horizontal dimensions in a lasting marriage.

The overall strength of John Gottman’s work is the insight he has gained through hours of observation, research and reflection. He has picked up on the contours for what makes relationships work. The micro-moments of interaction between spouses is critical to the health and well-being of a marriage. This insight alone is worth pondering and acting upon.

This is where we can most learn from Gottman. It may be tempting to casually dismiss his findings and argue that the Bible has already captured what Gottman has observed. But what I have found in my own marriage and in those whom I have helped, is how easy it is to overlook the obvious. We can articulate the grand themes of Scripture and talk about a I Corinthians 13 kind of love, but most of us don’t know what that looks like in our daily interactions.

Any thoughtful Christian can see where the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection intersect and add beautiful and substantive depth to what Gottman observes and offers at the level of attitudes, emotions and behaviors. We can also thank God for John Gottman for his research, insights and commitment to marriage.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane


Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.