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Striving for harmony in our marriage
Q: What practices help strengthen your relationship?
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We celebrated our sixth marriage anniversary last weekend and the day was spent attending a school picnic, shuttling little A to other activities and hosting guests. In the middle of that day I found myself feeling a bit sad that I had not received an anniversary card which is a specific request I had made - gifts not required but I would like a card with a personal message. I was equally to blame - it had been on my mind to get him a card but in the chaos of a busy week, hosting cousins from India - our relationship had taken a back seat. Which is what I think often happens. We prioritize our kids, jobs, family obligations, housework over our relationship, knowing well that the relationship is the foundation that everything else is built on.
Every marriage or relationship needs its own balance to reach a harmonious and stable ground. Getting to as stable a ground as possible is even more important to us these days as we plan to welcome baby #2 in a couple months. Those early months post-baby can be exhausting and lack of sleep means we’ll be running on empty. Those are the times when emotions run high and miscommunication can occur.
My husband is an introvert and I am an extrovert which means we recharge in different ways. If we don’t acknowledge the impact this has on our day to day lives it can lead to tension. Recently, after two weekends of back to back social activities, my husband asked that we slow down. He suggested having one weekend day of planned social activities and saving one day for downtime in the house. As an extrovert this seemed limiting at first but I have now really started to enjoy those down days and am thankful that we put that in place.
“The art of marriage is really the art of keeping up to date with your partner, of staying on track with your own and each other’s life goals as they emerge, exist, and change. It is about supporting each other and staying connected emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually.”
- Brett and Kate McKay, Artofmanliness.com
Over the years we've experimented with several different practices and tools. Here are some that we are implementing this year -
1) Marriage meeting - We have a weekly 30 minute “marriage” meeting on Mondays and run it like a work meeting, capturing notes and action items, broken into four different areas (read this article if you plan to adopt this)
Areas of appreciation: we start the meeting sharing something specific about each other to create a feeling of openness and warmth. We take turns with our compliments and are still working on thinking about what we want to say ahead of time.
Chores: We talk about what's coming up and what needs to be done during the week for little A and our house. It helps to get on the same page ahead of time and gain an understanding of what each person is signing up for.
Plan for the good times ahead: This is where we talk about making fun plans - date nights, individual time, time with friends, family time, vacations etc. It's important for me to feel connected to my partner and unless we plan for time together it just doesn't happen. It also makes each one of us think about what we are prioritizing for our own individual needs that week.
Problems/Challenges: This is the area where we bring up any problems/concerns around the relationship, family, parenting, work etc. As an example this week I brought up what we should do about little A's school in the fall since she got into TK (transitional kindergarten). We are leaning towards keeping her in her current pre-school which we love but given the financial impact it's something we still needed to discuss.
2) Couples counseling - Earlier this year we decided to see a couples therapist because there were some things we needed to work through. I was expecting it to be warm and smooth sailing given my experience with how supportive individual therapy can be. I was in for a surprise. There were moments where I found myself getting defensive, feeling the therapist was on his side. However, taking a step back I saw what the therapist was pointing out - the things that I needed to own. The most important thing that couples therapy provided was a space for us to come together for an hour a week and focus on our relationship and get help in seeing each other's point of views.
3) Family annual plan - One new thing we’re planning to try for 2024 is to carve out time in December to discuss our individual and shared goals. By creating a high level family plan, I’m hoping it will help us set our priorities for the new year. Here are some of the things that we plan to cover:
Family Mission Statement
Business/Career Goals for each person
Personal Goals for each person
Home Improvements - anything major that needs planning and committing resources
Travel - what mini and major vacations do we want to plan for?
Parenting - any big changes coming up? things our kids need?
These methods are intended to bring about harmony and peace in our family life and to maintain balance in our relationship. We are still early in our experimentations and I expect things will continue to evolve once we become a family of four.
Four years after we had our second kid, I started to notice that as busy working parents, we had fallen into instinctively splitting responsibilities and tasks based on our strengths. By not discussing the division of labor explicitly, were we missing out on an opportunity to bond as a couple and appreciate each other’s contributions to the family?
My partner was doing his fair share of tasks for the family but as a mother, I also was starting to take on some “invisible cognitive labor” for our children. What is unspoken can often go unnoticed and lead to a buildup of resentment. Were we starting to take each other for granted?
So seven years ago I started to institute “connection time” as a couple - fifteen minutes four times a week. This was time to discuss the various family to-dos, bring awareness to what each of us was doing and provide space for us to make requests of each other.
Over the years this has led to many learnings on what works and doesn't work for us as a family. The concept of a “family contract” is something I have used to codify practices that help our family function as a unit. It has also allowed each of us the freedom to do things without feeling any guilt.
Below are some of the things we discussed as being important to our family -
Away time - We discussed what made sense for our family in terms of trips without the kids. We recognized the need to take time to recharge and step away from our day to day responsibilities. For us that is one weekend a quarter (since neither of us needs to travel for work) to go on trips with friends, solo retreats, college reunions, etc.
Alone time - Once I became a mother, I started to drop some of my other identities. But they were very much a part of me. In an effort to bring back those identities, we talked about giving each other one night a week to do what we wanted to do without our partner. That means no responsibility for dinner or family time in the evenings. I have used it to reconnect with college friends over dinner, watch shows or take a class that intrigues me.
Couple time - There was a time when I resented my partner for making plans to hang with his friends on a Friday evening assuming that I would be home to watch the kids. As my kids got older, they didn't need much of my attention which meant I was often left to myself. It bothered me as in my mind I thought all couples were spending time with their partners on a Friday evening and I felt alone. I brought it up in our “connection time”. One rule that eventually came out of these discussions was that Friday evenings would be our couple time. If my partner needed to make plans with friends for that evening, we would do lunch on Fridays so we still got our couple time.
Family time - During the pandemic we got into a ritual of doing picnics every Sunday that we were in town. It was a simple routine of loading the car with our camping chairs and picnic stuff, ordering takeout from our favorite Pakistani restaurant, driving to the same park and setting up a picnic under the trees. The two hours that we spent out in the open, with the boys playing games, became such a tradition that to this day my boys insist that we do it. So we try to make sure that on Sunday we spend lunch time together - either going back to our favorite park or doing a fun family activity.
These practices are still works in progress. Each year we find that as the kids grow older, there are new things we need to account for. But “connection time” where we discuss our changing priorities has been a steadfast presence in our relationship. How do you engage with your partner to discuss priorities for your family and share responsibilities?
We would love to engage our readers in dialogue on this topic. Reach out if you are willing to have a conversation with us for our Disco Chats podcast.