Finding the Magic: State of the Union Meeting

In “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver wrote that couples who rate themselves “happy” consistently spend time together to strengthen their marriage.  At the time of publication, Gottman’s group had identified how an investment of just five hours per week was linked to increased marital satisfaction.  These “5 Magic Hours” as they came to be known consisted of a series of daily connection points and a weekly date night.

In the nearly 20 years since the book’s publication, our culture has changed dramatically.  Many of these changes can be tied to inventions of technology and an increase of two-income households. These changes lead Gottman to reexamine his 5 Magic Hours and add one more hour of time. This sixth hour is set aside for “State of the Union” meetings.

State of the Union meetings are opportunities for couples to sit down together each week and communicate specifically on issues that affect their relationship. As one couple said, these meetings are a way to keep their marriage on track.

Now I have to make a confession.  When I read about the new “6 Magic Hours”, I thought it was a little overboard. I already felt as though my marriage was strong. We were already following Gottman’s other suggestions and often have long discussions while on our weekly date night. I didn’t see the benefit or feel that we had the time for an additional hour of effort each week. Still, I decided to challenge my opinion and researched the benefits of these meetings.  I can now honestly say that I am excited to have “State of our Union” meetings with my wonderful partner.

Through my research, I learned of Marcia Berger who literally wrote the book on marriage meetings. Berger suggests that meetings should be broken into four parts: Appreciation, Chores, Planning for the Good Times, and Problems/Challenges. These four parts combined together will renew your romance, solidify your friendship, stop potential conflicts before they begin, and help you smoothly run your household economy.

Appreciation: Berger suggests all marriage meetings should begin with exchanges of gratitude. This was a new idea for me, but I decided to try it in my marriage. Spending a few minutes expressing gratitude for each other brings closeness and opens up your hearts to love and listen to each other. Making this a habit also means your mind focuses on what you are grateful for throughout the week. I caught myself thinking “Oh I want to remember to tell him how much I appreciate that.”

If showing appreciation seems hard at first, try to focus on specific actions. One example might be, “I appreciate how you put away my laundry for me. It was so nice to open my drawer and find just what I needed.” This statement is more personal than “Thank you for doing the laundry.”

Whatever you share keep it positive. This is not the time to discuss disappointments.

Chores: Berger refers to this time as the “business of the meeting.” This is the time for each of you to talk about things that need to be completed, share calendar items, and discuss assignments. In our family my husband is the list maker, and capturing these details is his time to shine.

Once the list is arranged by priority, take the time to make assignments on who will accomplish each task. Think of this time as a time to brainstorm the best possible solutions. If you drive by the dry cleaner on your way to work, perhaps it would be easier for you to stop by and pick up some items.  Sometimes it may be appropriate to assign one of the tasks to one of the children.

Remember that chores are not meant to be split 50-50. Marriage has no place for keeping score. Instead think of this as a time to serve each other and the family. If you both give your all, what needs to be accomplished will get done and you can both celebrate together.

Lastly, this section of the meeting can be used to talk about finances. In our family, we have decided to follow the advice of Dave Ramsey and limit the budget talks to 15 minutes. My husband is the genius behind the budget while I admit to being the primary spender, therefore he presents the budget at our meeting and it is my job to change at least one thing. This shows I am actually paying attention and making an investment in our financial future.

Planning for the Good Times: After all of the hard chores are over comes the fun stuff. Planning for the good times means you discuss upcoming events, dates and vacations. You make plans for when these items will happen and you make decisions about saving together. One fun idea is to discuss a dream vacation you would like to take together. Plan the trip, look at the cost, and think about the things you would need in order to accomplish your goal.  One option is to create a chart to track your savings. Place this chart somewhere you can see it and each week at your meetings enjoy discussing your progress towards your goal.

Another idea for this time period is to plan upcoming date nights. Discuss restaurants you would like to try or activities you might enjoy.  Put these ideas on the calendar.  When you take time to make a plan you show each other and yourself that your relationship is important.

Problems/ Challenges: This section comes at the end of the meeting because couples need to feel connected and invested in your relationship before treading these waters. Each partner is now given a chance to bring up a concern they are having. This is not a time for dumping on each other. Individuals should bring up no more than two grievances.

Think of this as a time to brainstorm ideas. If it helps, set a timer to make sure problems are not harped upon until one partner feels the need to shut down or become defensive. Keep in mind that 70% of marriage problems are never solved and that is okay.  When there is communication and a real desire to work together, couples usually see that the positive qualities in their relationship outweigh the negative qualities.

Few couples actually take the time to discuss relationship concerns. Instead, comments are made in passing and “bombs” are dropped at times when there isn’t time to really listen or discuss them. Having a weekly meeting can have a huge impact on the marriage relationship. One study even suggested a 20% to 80% increase in marital happiness when couples start to regularly hold these meetings.

Clearly, Gottman knew what he was doing when he added the State of the Union Meetings to his list of Magic Hours.  And couples will the beneficiaries of that change for many years to come.

For more ideas on weekly State of the Union meetings check out “The Power of a Weekly Marriage Meeting,” but Brent and Katie McKay.

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