I am asked on a nearly constant basis if certain behaviors in a relationship are healthy. The answer to that question is very unique for each couple and depends on a number of factors. However, there is one thing that I encourage all of my couples to do once per week (both the ones I see in my practice, and my friends/family).
It’s called The State of the Union, and I find this conversation ESSENTIALfor long-term relationship success.
Now, every couple ends up taking their own spin on this conversation, but the general rule of thumb here is that you are regularly (about once per week) having a discussion about the health of your relationship. You are talking about and appreciating what is going well while also repairing from those things that were hurtful. The reason that I find this essential for long-term relationship success is because many times we find ourselves sailing through life (or stumbling, tripping, or otherwise stuttering through, depending on the week!), and we don’t think about our relationships. Although that’s normal to a degree, what can very often happen is, when we get a free moment, we take a look at our relationship and realize it’s not what we wanted it to be. If you are not actively assessing your relationship and communicating how you feel about the direction it is taking to your partner, you run the significant risk of growing apart – creating that distance between you that is so often described as “two ships passing in the night.”
As I mentioned, every couple personalizes the nature and frequency of this dialogue, but healthy couples ALL do this in SOME way. Since I believe very passionately that fostering healthy relationships creates happy people, happy children, and a generally happy society, I wanted to share with you how I teach couples to start doing this.
There are a few basic steps that go as follows:
First, set a day and time.
I usually tell my couples, at least to start, to set a specific day of the week and a specific time (or moment in the routine) that the conversation will occur and repeat on a weekly basis (e.g., Wednesday night after we both get home from work, during dinner, or after the kids go to sleep). Committing to a specific day and time that will repeat increases the likelihood that you will follow through. As you make it a habit to have this conversation, and you feel more comfortable with it, you will then be able to modify it in content and frequency to match your lifestyle and your relationship needs best.
Once you’ve sat down to talk, follow this agenda:
- Give Appreciations
A basic tenant of psychology is that any behavior that you want to see repeated has to be reinforced. If your partner did something for you that you appreciated, or you just generally were glad that they were in your presence, you should let them know. Even if it is small, you can always find something to appreciate your partner for. Open up this conversation with 3-5 things that you noticed that you were grateful to your partner for. That being said, there are no upper limits. Make praises rain – genuinepraises of your partner are limitless in value.
- What has gone right in our relationship this week?
This often goes hand-in-hand with appreciations, but sometimes is its own separate category. I tend to think of this as an appreciation for your shared efforts as a couple. Did you do an activity or a date together that you really enjoyed? Did you do something with the kids that felt really nurturing? Much like appreciations, highlighting what is working has limitless value, so there is no harm in highlighting any little thing that worked for you to feel more secure in the relationship, no matter how small.
- Synch your calendars, including agreeing upon the date and time of the next State of the Union.
This might seem like the less “sexy” nuts-and-bolts of the conversation, but I assure you that there are a lot of hidden gems in this step. When you are preparing your partner for what is coming up in your week (both collectively and for you personally), you now have several opportunities to connect over those things in the coming week. For example, if you know your partner is going into work early next Tuesday for a meeting that they are dreading, now you have an opportunity to ask your partner how it went and to provide them with some support on something that you knew would be difficult for them – that makes them not only feel as if you care, but that follow through makes you both feel more connected. This part of the conversation might seem a bit dry, but the potential for you to follow-through with information you get from your partner in this step is massive if you choose to use it.
- Deal with any current conflict, or Aftermath if a regrettable incident has happened.
Do you know that feeling you sometimes get when you’re not sure if you should say that something your partner did bothered you? Sometimes the answer is “no” (after all, not every battle is worth fighting). However, sometimes not saying something can lead one to feel resentment that never gets addressed, then potentially grows into something bigger. I tend to find it’s best to manage conflict soon after it happens rather than waiting too long. Give your partner a chance to repair any damage they may have done (no matter how minor or massive, no matter how seemingly insignificant, no matter how intentional or inadvertent). When you make it a habit of managing conflict head-on, you stand less of a chance of having resentment carry on for years and adding to potential distance between you.
- As your partner, “What can I do next week to make you feel more loved?”
This is a question that you might feel you know the answer to, but I encourage you to ask it anyway. That’s because we often feel we know our partners sometimes better than they know themselves (and to be fair, that is true many times). However, sometimes that action that we have in our mind that our partner needs from us is either missing the mark or is incomplete. I see it in sessions all the time when I facilitate this conversation – one partner answers this question, and the other simply responds with, “that’s all you want?” We, a lot of the time, overestimate the power of very small actions. Many of the times we think our partner needs us to go to the moon for them, when in reality, all they really need to feel loved from you this week is for you to sit and look at the starts with them.
To be fair, this might feel kind of awkward to do at first. In reality, you are giving your partner very direct feedback about their behavior towards you and the relationship itself. If you’ve not done so before (or if you’ve not done it in this way), this might not feel natural, and could feel a little scary. Good news is, that’s normal. Even better news is that the scariness feeling goes away. Through repeating this conversation, you start to learn repeatedly that both you and your partner do things that make each other feel loved, and also do things that can be hurtful – you also learn in talking through those things that you love each other anyway, and you appreciate effort over success. This not only increases security in your relationship, but also helps you to learn how you can be the best partner you can be (and to teach your partner to do the same).
Knowing that reality does not always allow for weekly dates or romantic passion, this is a conversation I tell everyone I know that is in a relationship to prioritize. You have to help your partner learn how to love you best, while also being receptive to doing the same. This conversation is worth staying up the extra 30-45 minutes.
Make the time – trust me. IT’S WORTH IT.