Over the weekend, I swung by a party attended by lots of the people who were at the Labor Day wedding I went to. As we were all reminiscing about the high points of the weekend, somebody mentioned that she'd received the best relationship advice of her life from one of the groom's best friends. He'd told her: "Every week, my wife and I set aside some time to talk about how the relationship is going. We follow two simple rules: We're each allowed to bring up three things that are on our minds, and the other person can't respond until the first is done talking through whatever point she has brought up. Even if there's nothing much either one of us wants to discuss, we keep the 'appointment' every week."
I thought this was just about the smartest thing I'd heard in a long time myself. Setting aside 15 or 30 minutes every week so that two partners can air their grievances before little pet peeves become enormously infuriating problems? Very wise. And as someone who is more than a little neurotic, I would feel very comforted by the idea that if there was anything I was doing that was really grating on my partner's nerves, he'd be obliged to tell me about it before any longer than a week went by. Allowing your partner to complain about something to his heart's content (within reason, of course) before you respond to it is also quite sage: Interrupting someone who is trying to explain a habit or situation that is bothering him adds insult to injury. Limiting the discussion to three issues per person is also a great idea; any more than that and a person could easily become overwhelmed by criticism. What's more, simply agreeing to have a relatively serious chat each week is a way of acknowledging that problems can arise even in the best relationships — happy couples are not the ones who never have problems as much as they are the ones who deal with them best.
What do all you smart and savvy readers think about this? What rules would you add to make the ritual even more helpful and productive?
Here's what I propose the rules should be for a Weekly Relationship Workshop:
1. Each person gets to raise three issues he or she would like to talk about (as stated above).
2. The other person cannot respond to a complaint until the first person feels he or she has been able to satisfactorily explain what's bothering him or her (ditto).
3. Both people need to come to the meeting with the understanding that the other person is "complaining" only because he or she cares about the relationship and wants to make it stronger — not because he or she wants to attack the other.
4. Try not to be defensive. Do your best to put yourself in the other person's shoes and to comprehend why some behavior has bothered him or her.
5. Neither person should feel obligated to raise issues if he or she doesn't feel there's anything important to discuss. But the couple should also be careful not to go too many weeks without having a meaningful discussion, for fear the Relationship Workshop will actually turn into a passive-aggressive time when both people feel like they can't complain about anything, since they've been so polite for so long.
6. Discussion of each issue should involve figuring out some way to resolve the issue. And the following week, it is fair to expect some kind of follow-up talk about whether or not the resolution has been satisfactorily carried out.
7. Set a time limit — maybe 30 minutes, maybe an hour — for your chat. That will help keep each person from babbling, or talking just to talk, which will in turn keep the Weekly Relationship Workshop from becoming an annoyance in itself.
8. End each chat with a hug. Or a bit more.
Yes? No? What's missing? What's wrongheaded?