December 19, 2019
Dating is something I emphasize greatly with couples. It is something that should be done weekly, maintained through engagement and needs to be a priority after the wedding. Dating is the glue of relationships. When a couple envisions being together, this is the picture they most often see. But as much as I recommend dating, it is not a cure all. There needs to be another weekly component. There should be a structure for communication and for conflict resolution. The balanced couple has two things. First, they have a date night. They spend time together on a regular basis enjoying each other, having fun and working on their relationship. Second, they need a set time for conversation and conflict resolution (or prevention).
If you only do one of these, the relationship is unbalanced. If the couple only dates and has fun, these relationships usually last for about 6 months. You will hear them say, "We are having a good time." But once someone brings up a serious issue, the relationship usually falls apart. Then there are other couples who have long forgotten dating or the reason they got together. They are always working on the household or get locked in unresolved conflict. They have balanced their budget, but that isn’t what they got married for. So, we need both.
Maybe we should schedule our conflict?
One of the issues that comes with conflict resolution is that no one knows it is coming. No one plans for an argument this evening after dinner. But maybe we should. I do recommend the idea of scheduling it. Not necessarily scheduling a fight but having a set time to talk. Making an appointment or setting a business meeting.
The idea of scheduling might seem strange to a couple. “You want me to make an appointment with my spouse?” I know that doesn’t sound like fun. But this works in other areas of life. People make appointments for many things both personally and professionally. A business is usually dysfunctional when there is a lack of structure. I may not like the weekly staff meeting, but I know it is coming. It isn’t a surprise. No one wants an employer that always bursts into an office unannounced. The idea of the appointment gives the couple a chance to prepare for a conversation both mentally and emotionally.
Now the term “Business Meeting” doesn’t show up in many wedding ceremonies. Our relationship is about love, friendship, intimacy and fun right? Agreed, but there is a business dynamic to your relationship. Every couple is really the merger of two companies. We have budgets, operating procedures, schedules and goals. We have debts and assets. We have these as individuals and one of the goals of marriage is to merge those into one.
The harsh reality of many couples is this, as close as you think you are, there is only one person thinking about what you are thinking about. And that is you. It might be frustrating that your partner is not thinking about the same things, but it is true. Only you know what’s on your mind. And when you bring up a topic, we are sometimes upset that the other person is surprised by what you want to talk about.
Pick a topic… Money, holidays, kids, work, schedules, choirs. There is usually one person who is very interested in discussing the topic, and the other partner is not. And that is ok. It’s normal. In fact, this dynamic exists in most relationships. It is called Pursue and Distance. Or some call it "Cat and Mouse." One person wants to discuss something, the other person is simply not ready or interested in the topic. The importance of the topic is based on the immediate interest. “Pursue” wants to talk now, “Distance” wants to put it off until later. If “Pursue” can’t talk about it immediately, they believe the topic is not being valued. We need to understand there is usually one ready to talk and the other is not.
There is an assumption that many couples make. Because we are married, I can talk to you about anything I want, any-time I want. Only the first part of that is true.
There is an assumption that many couples make. Because we are married, I can talk to you about anything I want, any-time I want. Only the first part is true. Obviously, a healthy couple is open, transparent with no topics being off limits. But it is the any time part that trips people up. Though married, we still have boundaries. I cannot bring stuff up at any time. I am trespassing, even though we are married. Because of the any time issue, we stumble into arguments, no one expects them to happen. Sells and Yarhouse observe, “Conflicts usually begin with an accidental encounter; they are seldom planned.” Using battle or war imagery they continue, “Couples don’t anticipate having a fight next Tuesday at 7 p.m. Rather, they stumble into conflict while on routine patrol (p. 38).” But it is the contention here that couples should be able to look ahead and know there is going to be a meeting, with the potential for conflict, coming up.
This is why an Appointment or Business Meeting is so important. There needs to be a regularly scheduled time for the couple to discuss things. The business meeting cannot be an everyday event, it needs to be planned. While the topic might feel urgent, we need to make sure both people have some space to think. Can this discussion be postponed until both are ready? This is a learned skill and it takes some work. While every topic is import, not every topic carries immediate importance.
A successful appointment has important elements. The first is a time limit; the meeting has a beginning and an ending. The couple agrees that after 30 minutes or an hour, the discussion stops regardless of resolution. What I have found is that the conversation usually only takes a few minutes because they have both prepared for it. If another meeting is needed, then schedule it. But the couple needs to make the commitment to not discuss it outside of the meeting structure.
Secondly, the meeting has to be handled with good communication skills. Just because you have an appointment, does not mean the couple will behave well. The meeting topic needs to be focused. This is the time for something, not everything. Don’t get gridlocked or sidetracked on other topics. Listen to each other’s ideas and positions and work for compromise.
Couples are encouraged to keep a notebook; this helps manage the perpetual issues. The hardcopy is important. On a business level, these are “minutes.” If there is a question or a lingering problem, you can go back to minutes (“This is what we agreed to weeks ago, etc.”). But the minutes also serve as a therapeutic tool. Writing stuff down helps couples “see” what they really want to say in the meeting. A characteristic of “distance” is saying anything to get out of the conflict. The meeting structure stops this bad habit. The journal can also keep track of perpetual issues. What are the things we keep talking about?
The business meeting or appointment teaches basic skills and promotes active listening. Active listening is true listening. Passive listening happens when we just wait our turn with an answer when the other person is still talking. When we practice passive listening, we leave the other person feeling unheard. If you struggle with active listening, try repeating back a summary of what you heard. Ask clarifying questions.
By setting regular appointments, the couple is building a healthy environment for their relationship to grow. If the couple decides to deal with issues only during set times, then the evenings move into a “No Conflict Zone.” If we have a meeting every Sunday evening, then that means we are NOT having a meeting Monday, Tuesday and so on. Now there is no guarantee that conflict will not arise, but the goal is to plant the idea that any time is not the right time for conflict. With a business meeting the couple can develop communication skills that are functional, and you can actually create new healthy habits.
Enjoy Date Night this week but also plan your first meeting!
Sells, James Nathan and Mark A. Yarhouse. Counseling Couples in Conflict : a Relational Restoration Model. Downers Grove, Ill. :IVP Academic, 2011.