I’ve been very happily married – to the same man, no less! – for twelve and a half years now. If you count the time we dated before marriage, I’m perilously close to having been with my beloved husband for as much time as I was alive prior to meeting him. In that dozen plus years, we have developed something of a tradition that I have found extremely useful and – as it is topical – I thought I would share our “State of the Union” dinner with you.
Adam and I communicate well with each other. We both understand the other’s preferred form of communication and know how to adapt our language to reach each other. In addition to talking well when we’re together, we’ve developed a family toolset for managing the logistics of a two kid, two job family: the sacred Google calendar, the text messages and the emailed reminders. Basically – we have no problems with tactical communication. But just as in a company or a career, it’s not enough to be tactical in your relationship. You need to be strategic too. Otherwise, you drift and find five years later that both of you were doing something because you thought it was important to the other person… and neither of you actually wanted to be doing it at all. Drifting is no better in marriages than it is in other endeavors.
So every year, after Christmas is accomplished, we go out to a very fancy dinner at our favorite restaurant. We dress up. We hire a babysitter. And we have our State of the Union dinner. This started around the time our youngest was born, when the opportunities for casual deep conversation became more limited, and we found ourselves practically bullet-pointing conversations to get all the critical information out. We were in crunch, and it was very difficult to step back. There’s nothing like Melissa’s lamb shanks to help you take a long look at life.
Whether you have a fancy dinner together, take a long weekend, or just catch up over breakfast – the things we talk about are worth conversing with your partner with on a regular basis. You might find that even more often than annually is fruitful.
I’m the keeper of the book in our family. I’ve made sure to document things so that if I was unable to advise Adam, he’d know where everything is. But as a family gets more busy and division of labor gets more critical, we can’t duplicate the job of bookkeeping. But it is critical for the health of a family to know how things stand in the moolah department. Some years I’ve actually generated a full report of where we stood: assets, liability, concerns, run rates etc. Other years, I just give him a high level overview. Some questions to discuss on finances are:
– Are we cashflow positive or negative (eg. are we getting into debt, getting out of debt or building on our savings)?
– If we are cashflow negative, why, and what can we do to stop it?
– If we are cashflow positive, how are we allocating our funds? Are they going to the things that are our top priorities?
– Do we anticipate any major changes in the money situation? Eg. do we think we might have a change in job, huge expenditure, inheritance or other looming event that is going to change the way things are?
That leads to the next conversation….
Does your boss know more about your career objectives than your spouse? Are you angling for a particular promotion? Are you becoming increasingly unhappy and daydreaming about a career change? Is your company facing shaky finances, or opening a new headquarters? We often talk to our spouses about day to day events, but it’s even more important to understand the larger context of your employment together. Adam and I talk about our relative happiness with our jobs and careers (two differently things, by the way), what we might need to do to fulfill our next-step ambitions, whether we need training, education or a new opportunity, etc. This has the advantage of causing us to pause for reflection about what it is we want – together – in our careers. It also means that shifts in employment are not the first you hear about a possible issue.
We talk about our kids a lot. All the time, in fact. But this is a good chance to compare notes on how we think the boys are doing, whether they’re getting the things they need or if we need to adjust our parenting strategies. This year, I raised ideas like sending Grey to an overnight summer camp, to see what Adam thought. We probably need a check in less for kids than other topics, but it would be hard to imagine a serious discussion about our lives not including them.
This is also a great time to talk about whether your family has the desired number of children. You might discover that since your last heartfelt discussion, your partner has been taken with baby fever. Or it might be the impetus to schedule that surgery that indicates your family is complete as-is. Or, perhaps, you collectively decide not to make any decisions yet.
By the time you’re cleaning your plate, it’s a good time to figure out whether you’re still living in the right place. Is your house still the right size, with the right number of rooms? Is your commute killing you? And assuming you’re not inclined to move, then what sort of home improvements – if any – would you want to prioritize for the coming year? How will you pay for them? What’s bothering you about your living situation?
Finally, you get to the dessert topic of the dinner…
It was at one of these dinners that we conceived the plan to go to Istanbul for our 10th anniversary. It was – obviously – the sort of thing that required months advanced planning. But it was a memory for a life time. Many of these kind of memories require advanced planning. If you sit around and wait for vacations to happen, well, you end the year with two weeks paid leave and a bad case of burnout. This is the time to figure out what you (collectively) want, and what it would take to make that thing happen. Bonus: I can usually send my boss my entire year’s vacation schedule in February.
As we linger over the last cup of coffee, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes, we went through every single recurring event on our shared weekly calendar to make sure it still deserved its place. Is the weekly gaming just a habit, or is it a meaningful event in our life? Does Aikido still fill the need it was meant to fill? Does our worship life at church reflect our call to serve God? Are guitar lessons still gusting me? We didn’t end up changing any of our recurring events, but it was really liberating to consider our days as completely free – to be filled with the things we most value. This exercise affirmed our choices, and made them choice instead of tradition.
You might think this sounds incredibly unromatic. In fact, it might sound a bit like a running a family as a business. I mean, a meeting agenda for a romantic dinner? Really? Has it come to that?
In the history of marriage, the institution has never been JUST about love. Love plays a tremendous role as initiator, motivator and facilitator within marriage. But marriage has also been the way we organize the work of our days (especially for women), decide where to live, how to spend our time, organize our money, and raise our children. I think it’s much easier to enjoy your shared love when you also have a clear vision of what your spouse hopes for, what’s bothering them, and what they’re thinking about. When the participants in marriage have clear, shared goals for their lives, it cuts down tremendously on uncertainty and conflict and increases joy.
So that’s part of how my family deals with the complexities of being a family in the 21st century. (I must admit, I’m tempted by the Agile/Scrum family meeting concept in the article above!) How does your family make big decisions, and talk about big issues?