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Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love
30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted
By Marcia Naomi Berger
New World Library Copyright © 2014 Marcia Naomi Berger
All rights reserved.
Marriage Meeting Basics
Overview and Techniques
A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.
— Mignon Mclaughlin
Can you imagine your partner and yourself holding weekly formal meetings? The idea might intrigue you, but will the meetings be effective? What if they turn into gripe sessions or a series of demands? Or if you're feeling optimistic, you might want to ask, "How do we get started?"
By reading this book before holding your first meeting, you will gain the confidence and know-how to conduct successful marriage meetings.
The Marriage Meeting's Four-Part Agenda Covers All Bases
During Appreciation, each of you takes an uninterrupted turn to tell the other what you appreciated about him or her during the previous week. By doing this, you create a warm climate and positive energy for the rest of the meeting.
Chores is the business part of the meeting. Each of you says what you think needs to be done. You agree on priorities, timelines, and who will do each task. Teamwork is promoted and jobs get handled.
During the Plan for Good Times part of the meeting, you schedule dates for just the two of you, individual activities, and family recreation. Intimacy and romance are fostered, batteries get recharged, and family harmony is promoted.
In Problems and Challenges, each of you can bring up any concern — money, sex, in-laws, parenting, changing schedules, or something else. As you learn to resolve issues with kindness and respect, your marriage happiness will grow.
Some people ask whether it is all right to break the meeting into two sittings — for example, to conduct part of it before dinner and the rest after. If you do this, you are likely to compromise the meeting's effectiveness. As noted earlier, good momentum is generated by the order of the agenda topics. Picture a roller coaster. The forward motion gained on one part of the track carries the rider along to the next; stopping in the middle jeopardizes a good ride!
By following the guidelines that I offer here, you will prepare for effective marriage meetings.
How Long Does a Marriage Meeting Last?
Once you are routinely holding marriage meetings, you will probably be able to finish most of them within about thirty minutes. When you first start holding the meetings and are getting used to their structure and are developing communication skills, you can expect them to last a bit longer. This is true also for meetings held at any time when a topic calls for more discussion than usual, such as when a difficult challenge is being addressed.
In any case, adhering to a maximum time limit of forty-five minutes will help keep the discussion focused and productive.
Meet in a Private Place
Your marriage meeting is a private event for just the two of you. Ideally, hold your meeting at home. Choose a room where you both feel comfortable and where interruptions and distractions are unlikely to occur.
You may be tempted to hold the meeting at a restaurant while eating, making it part of an evening out. While that might sound like efficient multitasking, there are potential pitfalls to this approach. For example, just when you are on your way to resolving a situation you had to brace yourself to bring up in the first place, a server refills your water glass, or a friend stops by your table. Alas, you have lost your train of thought. Interruptions in a restaurant are likely to interfere with your concentration.
Kathy and Walter, along with other participants who attended the first session of a Marriage Meeting workshop, were told to conduct their first marriage meeting at home, where they could keep distractions to a minimum. During the second session, a week later, this couple reported that they had decided to hold their meeting in a restaurant because they liked the idea of combining it with a date. "We were interrupted too often to stay focused, and it was hard to enjoy the meal," Walter said. "Next time, we'll meet at home." His wife agreed.
Another reason not to meet in a restaurant is that you may experience stress during a marriage meeting, particularly when discussing challenging issues that arouse emotions. This is not a bad thing. Some conflict is normal in marriage. However, for good digestion, a relaxed mood is optimal. So avoid conducting a meeting while eating, even at home.
Do meet at home, at least until you establish a pattern of successful weekly meetings. Exercise self-control to minimize distractions. If your phone rings, let your answering system pick up the call. Resist the temptation to move wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. Meet after the children have gone to sleep or when they are otherwise occupied. If necessary, arrange for someone to supervise them.
Eventually, you may decide to allow an exception to the meet-at-home rule, such as meeting while taking a walk or driving somewhere. If you decide to vary the routine, you will be able to evaluate the pros and cons of doing so.
Meet Every Week
For best results, meet every week. You may be tempted to wait for a reason to schedule a meeting. As in any well-run organization, scheduling time to communicate on a regular basis is the best way to stay on track.
Perhaps you think that meeting regularly sounds cold and unromantic. But does ignoring concerns until they build to a crisis sound like a good way to foster a loving connection? On the other hand, does it make sense to talk to your spouse about issues whenever the spirit moves you, regardless of his or her availability to engage with you at that time?
Weekly meetings promote harmony and a sense of order. They free you from the pressure of too much accumulated mental clutter, because every week you will have a time to discuss your concerns constructively. The meetings prevent grudges from building up because they bring closure to lingering issues. They affirm that both of you value your relationship.
Where Will You Sit?
Where each of you sits affects the tone of a marriage meeting. Sitting next to each other on a couch or at a table fosters a sense of connection, as opposed to sitting across the room or table, which can create a confrontational mood. Marriage meetings are a wonderful way to increase collaboration. So sit close enough to feel like partners handling a project together.
A successful marriage meeting requires both partners to communicate their thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. Physical touch can cause some blurring of boundaries and make it too easy to lose a sense of oneself and one's own priorities in the moment. Touch is wonderful at the right time. But cuddling up together while trying to communicate about your relationship can be a way of ignoring conflicts instead of addressing them constructively.
What to Talk About and in What Order
The four parts of a marriage meeting occur in this sequence:
3. Plan for Good Times
4. Problems and Challenges
Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 explain how to conduct each part of the meeting.
How to Conduct the First Few Meetings
The meeting should have a pleasant, supportive tone. For the first few meetings, it is best to avoid discussing sensitive topics. Do not use the time to make demands or criticize your partner. A good goal for each meeting is that it should inspire you to want to meet again a week later. If you have a big or long-standing issue you want to resolve, set it aside for after you have established a pattern of successful meetings and become comfortable using the positive communication skills, which are explained in chapters 7, 8, and 9.
When Yvette and Hank, a couple in their forties, held their first marriage meeting, all was well during the Appreciation, Chores, and Plan for Good Times segments of the meeting. But during Problems and Challenges, Hank ignored the instruction to start with an easy-to-resolve challenge. He told Yvette, "I don't want you to give me the silent treatment when you get angry. I hate feeling ignored." Yvette was not yet ready to be confronted about this. She felt attacked and refused to participate in future marriage meetings. Had Hank begun with a smaller challenge, like by telling Yvette how hard he was finding it to stick to his diet and asking her to please hide the potato chips she buys so he wouldn't be tempted to eat them, she probably would have gladly complied and looked forward to future meetings.
If you keep your early marriage meetings light and enjoyable, both of you are likely to value them as a way of reconnecting and building trust for dealing with more serious concerns in later meetings.
Why Won't He (or She) Initiate a Marriage Meeting?
"I'll always have to initiate the meeting; otherwise it won't happen," wives say more often than husbands. This probably happens because female brains are typically wired for more sensitivity to relationships and verbal expression than males are. Don't worry about who initiates your meetings. The main thing is to make them happen.
People have other reasons to avoid scheduling meetings. Perhaps you have become comfortable with a less straightforward way of relating. Unhealthy patterns become entrenched over time and are difficult to reverse. But if allowed to continue, they can result in loneliness, emotional estrangement, depression, and resentment. More extreme difficulties that sometimes result from not taking corrective action when problems occur include domestic violence, alcohol or other substance abuse, medical issues, and even psychosis.
It is well worth the effort to adopt a new routine that can keep your relationship on track. Be optimistic and willing to experiment.
How to Overcome Reluctance to Schedule a Marriage Meeting
You may be thinking things like "We're too busy to meet" or "There's no one to watch the children, and after they go to bed we're exhausted."
Ask yourself, "Do I dislike the idea of meetings in general?" If holding one with your spouse sounds too much like work, think of it as investing energy in your marriage to keep it working well. Surely, you can make a plan for child care or for an activity that keeps the children busy behind a closed door for less than an hour. Are there other ways to alter your routine to make time for a marriage meeting? Perhaps an earlier bedtime for the children? Or a restorative nap or other relaxing activity for you before meeting if you are "running on empty."
Other factors that may prevent you from scheduling a marriage meeting:
You fear that your spouse will criticize you and demand that you change.
You are holding on to one of the marriage myths that will be debunked in chapter 2.
Your spouse refuses to hold a marriage meeting.
Do not let any of these concerns interfere with scheduling marriage meetings or using the recommended communication techniques for them. After finishing this book, you will know how to conduct effective, respectful meetings. Even if one partner will not participate in the formal meeting, you can still use marriage meeting techniques effectively. A wife reported that after she and her husband learned how to conduct marriage meetings at a workshop, he refused to hold them. She adopted what she had gleaned from the Appreciation teaching, making sure to compliment him every day. She reported that both felt better about their relationship as a result. He became more relaxed, fun to be with, and supportive. When one of you changes, your marriage can benefit.
Retraining Your Brain For Successful Communicating
Change takes time and practice. If you practice using the skills described in this book, they will come naturally to you in time. It takes time to change any habit, including how we communicate. To recognize the power of habits, try this: Clasp your hands so that your fingers interlace. Look at them, then separate your hands and interlace your fingers again, but the opposite way, with your other thumb on top. Which way feels more natural? Does the "different" way feel awkward, strange, or wrong?
Similarly, parts of marriage meetings may feel unnatural at first. But if you persist, your relationship is likely to benefit. Isn't that worth about thirty minutes a week? Meet at a time that works well for both of you. Remember to stick to a time limit of forty-five minutes at most. Doing so will help maintain a positive focus and prevent fatigue.
Don't Stand On Ceremony
You may agree to meet every Monday at 8 PM. But if your schedule, like mine, changes somewhat from week to week, you can vary the day and time you meet. I might ask my husband, "Would you rather meet Wednesday or Thursday evening next week?" I don't mind being the usual initiator, because our meetings bring clarity and good feelings to both of us.
By keeping an upbeat tone during the early meetings, you can reduce possible resistance from your partner or yourself, even if you have to "fake it before you make it." Agree to start light. Focus on the positives. In the Problems and Challenges segment, remember during initial meetings to bring up only issues that are easy to resolve. Concentrate on fostering harmony and goodwill. Eventually you will feel ready to tackle heavier matters. Equip yourselves with communication skills — which you will read about in chapters 7, 8, and 9 — before holding your first meeting.
Tips for Long-Term Success
You can plan in advance or wing it. If you choose to plan ahead, you can use the Marriage Meeting Agenda summary in Appendix A as a guide (see page 179). Write down the specifics you want to discuss during the meeting, including unfinished topics of discussion from a previous meeting. You can decide whether or not to communicate your personal agenda to your spouse before a meeting, either verbally or by sharing your notes. Some people do fine with a more spontaneous approach, writing little or nothing in advance of the meeting. It is fine to experiment. Do what works for each of you.
Bring your appointment book, notepad, and electronic or other organizing system. During the Chores part of the meeting, you may agree to buy lightbulbs, call a plumber, or clear out some clutter from the garage. During the Plan for Good Times part of the meeting, you might offer to make reservations for dinner or a play. Writing down what you agree to do will help you remember and keep your commitments.
You can decide informally who speaks first. Whenever possible, let the less verbal partner speak first regarding topics covered in your marriage meetings. This helps her or him to share ownership of the meeting with the more verbal one. Reflect back what you hear your partner saying when appropriate, using the active listening communication skill (discussed in chapter 9). Both partners' contributions to the meeting should be acknowledged.
Consider, if relevant to your situation, that it might be time to seek outside help. Take an honest look at your relationship. If you know that issues are present that prevent you from creating the climate of safety and trust that is necessary for an effective marriage meeting, consider consulting a professional who is skilled in assisting with relationship issues. Such a person can help you move past obstacles and toward healthy, positive ways of communicating.
Be willing to dive in if your relationship is basically healthy. If you are uncertain about whether you and your partner are ready for marriage meetings, try holding one after finishing this book. If you can follow the guidelines for meetings and use the techniques for positive communication, continue to hold weekly meetings. With practice, you are likely to do fine.
Stick with the program and meet every week. In any relationship, there is always room for growth. If a relationship is not growing, the opposite is happening. When you conduct effective marriage meetings every week, your communication will continue to get better and better. After holding one or two meetings, you may feel tempted to skip one, or to wait for a reason to schedule a meeting. But missing a meeting can easily lead to missing another, and so on, until you have lost the drive to meet at all. Figure 2 (see page 14) shows the cyclical nature of the marriage meeting process, which is most effective if you meet every week.
A Final Note About Guidelines
Adhere to the guidelines in this chapter for conducting marriage meetings, at least for your first few meetings. If you find that a particular rule doesn't work well for you, talk about it and suggest a possible modification.
For example, the rule about not eating while conducting a marriage meeting fits for my husband and me. We also have held family meetings, and the rule about not eating applies for them too. However, when our son was an active teenager he objected to having to hang around after dinner for a meeting. He suggested this compromise: my husband and I would eat dinner without him, after which he would join us at the table and eat during the meeting. For this situation, we allowed eating while meeting.
Excerpted from Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love by Marcia Naomi Berger. Copyright © 2014 Marcia Naomi Berger. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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