In his celebrated bestseller The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman talks about the importance of tradition in building and maintaining a dynamic family culture: creating a set of customs (“like Sunday dinner out”), rituals (“like a champagne toast after the birth of each baby”), and myths (“the stories [family members can] tell themselves… that explain what it means to be a part of their group”).

In developing these traditions and their own micro-culture, families can create shared meaning. By this we mean experiencing a rooted sense of connection through remembering the past while maintaining the flexibility essential to growing together in the future – understanding, appreciating, and encouraging each other in the pursuit of personal and shared dreams.

But how can we gain this understanding and appreciation? 

Dr. Gottman encourages asking open-ended, directive questions when talking about each other’s dreams. In The Relationship Cure, he names one of his favorites: 

“What’s the story behind that?”

Dreams, as Dr. Gottman explains, tend to come with a narrative. A narrative that the dreamer is often more than happy to share if asked nicely by a curious listener! Show interest and you may be rewarded with a great story – and a stronger connection to the storyteller. 

In short, our timing of this post was intentional.

From Hannukah tales to “A Christmas Carol,” the holidays have always been a time for storytelling. Across generations, characters such as Scrooge, the Grinch, Tiny Tim, and Cindy Lou Who have made quite an impression. These characters appeal to our emotions and to our humanity. But beyond eliciting laughter or tears, these characters and the stories that they inhabit also try to define “right” and “wrong” according to their authors’ philosophies and cultural backgrounds.

Family stories often work in the same way, but can have a far more powerful effect! When members of older generations tell their personal stories, they give youngsters a gift: knowledge of their own family’s history and value system (and access to all of those brilliant inside jokes). The family stories that seem to originate in folklore, entirely circumventing the historical, may give newer generations a different kind of knowledge – an understanding of the way their teller sees themselves and their family in relation to the world.

When we share family stories, we are often able to come to a deeper mutual understanding through emotional connection. We learn about the storyteller and about ourselves. We are tied together. 

Whether we are the storyteller or the listener, we often feel that we are being recognized, given attention and affection, accorded respect and appreciation for our role in the family, our identity, and our connection to the clan. 

Make time for storytelling over the hoidays and give each other the best gift possible—the gift of connection to family – a reinforced sense of identity, heritage, and shared meaning.

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Building Family Culture: Holiday Stories That Connect

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.