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  • Writer's pictureShaun McMahon

State of the Union Meetings: A Cornerstone of Relationship Success

Relationships, like most things in life, require maintenance. Getting together with your partner for a weekly meeting where you discuss the relationship is a cornerstone of relationship success, and something I highly recommend to couples I work with. Dr. John Gottman, psychologist and relationship researcher, calls these meetings a ‘State of the Union’.


At first, the idea of sitting down to discuss the relationship can feel daunting, especially if you have been arguing a lot lately. You might worry about saying or doing the wrong thing and igniting another fight, so wanting to avoid a meeting like this makes sense.


However, I’d like you to keep in mind the old adage that “prevention is better than a cure”. If done consistently, these weekly meetings can help you and your partner not only maintain the relationship, but get ahead of the game when it comes to future problems, mitigating their potential impact on the relationship. 


Creating a Ritual


The first step is to agree on a time and place each week to have your State of the Union meeting. We want to make it feel routine so that you continue to commit to the meeting week after week. Try to pick a time that you will reliably be available each week, and put it into your calendar permanently so that it remains a priority.


You might also find it helpful to ritualize it by having the meeting in the same spot, like on the back porch, or with other additions that make it feel enjoyable and familiar, like having a cheese board and wine to go with it.


It’s also helpful to have some pen and paper on hand to make notes. This can come in handy when you’re trying to understand something difficult your partner is expressing, or if you need to jot down a plan. 


Start with Positivity


Before diving into the hard and difficult things, it’s important to ‘ease into’ the State of the Union by beginning with the positives. Research from the Gottman Institute suggests that there is a ‘golden ratio’ of 5:1 for positive to negative interactions during conflict, and 20:1 outside of conflict. Successful couples curtail the negativity in their relationship and focus on the positives. 


Start by sharing 5 positive things your partner did this week. It’s helpful to connect this to a trait or quality they have. For example, instead of saying:


“Thanks for doing the dishes”


Try


“It meant a lot to me that you did the dishes on Thursday when I was exhausted from work, it made me feel like you’re on my side and looking out for me”


Next, review what went well during the week. We’re often so focused on the problems and issues that we can so easily forget to focus on how your relationship is thriving. It can be helpful at this stage to talk about the ‘we’, rather than the ‘I, me, my’. Instead of “I think I did a great job of keeping us on track this week”, try “we worked really well together as a team when the kids were going nuts on Tuesday morning”.


When being positive, avoid concealing criticism or put-downs in your feedback. This might sound like:


“Well, you finally fixed that shelf in the garage you’ve been saying you’d take care of for months” 


Or


“I’m thankful that you stopped nagging me all week, because when you do that you sound just like your mother”


All this will do is lead to further disconnection and contempt, and set the whole meeting up for failure. 


Discuss Issues or Process Regrettable Incidents


The next step is to review what went wrong during the week. This can be hard for some couples who are new to this process. It’s best done by taking turns in different roles known as Speaker and Listener. The Speaker's job is to express their needs without resorting to blame or criticism. The Listener's job is to meet their partner with an open mind and an attempt to understand, rather than getting defensive. Both roles have a responsibility here to ensure the discussion doesn’t go off the rails into another conflict. Let’s explore some helpful frameworks for each role. 


For Speakers, the secret to being able to bring up problems constructively is in the delivery. Without even thinking about it, most people raise problems by doing what Dr. Gottman calls a ‘harsh start-up’. It sounds a little something like:


“You’ve been so lazy this week. Why can’t you just help me out around the house? I’ve told you time and time again to just pitch in, but nothing ever seems to get through to you”.


The natural, and inevitable response to this, is to meet it with defensiveness. Something like:


“That’s not true at all. I’ve cooked every night this week. But do I get a thank you? No! It’s always something else that I’ve done wrong. Nothing seems to make you happy!”. 


As you can see, this will just spiral into an argument and the whole meeting will have been for naught. Instead, we want to try to use what Dr. Gottman calls a ‘gentle start-up’. This simple framework can dramatically alter the way a conversation flows, and all it takes is rearranging the problem into 3 components:


  1. “I feel…” - Begin by talking about how you’re feeling about the problem or situation. Angry, upset, frustrated, annoyed, confused, exhausted. Nothing fancy, just a simple word of emotion will suffice.

  2. “About…” - Follow up with a description of the problem. The phrasing here is key. Rather than making it an attack on your partner, try to talk about yourself, or the objective situation.

  3. “I need…” - Finish with expressing what you need from your partner. It’s vital that this need is both positive and actionable. “Stop being so lazy” is neither positive, nor actionable, as nobody actually knows what being ‘less lazy’ looks like. Instead, it might be “give me a hand with the kids when I’m cooking dinner”.


Putting this all together might look something like:


“Janet, I feel overwhelmed when the kitchen gets really messy. I need you to give me a hand to clean up after dinner”.


Keep in mind this isn’t a foolproof, perfect approach, and it still might be hard for your partner to hear. Our objective is to avoid triggering an immediate argument, and instead have a conversation about the problem. The Gentle Start-Up is also an incredible way to speak to deeper, more intimate problems in the relationship, such as:


“Steve, I feel really lonely when work gets in the way of us spending time together. I’d really love for us to cuddle together on the couch with a movie tonight”. 


Listeners meanwhile can take advantage of a framework Dr. Gottman calls ATTUNE, which stands for:


  • Awareness – being aware of your partners experience

  • Tolerance – tolerating that your partner is having a different experience than you

  • Turning Toward – turning towards what your partner needs from you, rather than turning away

  • Understanding – make an effort to understand where your partner is coming from

  • Non-defensive Listening – focus on listening in a constructive way, rather than being defensive or playing the victim

  • Empathy – meet your partner with empathy for their experience by trying to understand how they feel


Your main objective here is to reach a stage where you’re able to summarize your partner's point of view back to them, and hear a resounding ‘yes’, meaning you’ve understood their point of view. You should always strive to reach this point before doing any problem solving. 


Setting Up The Week Ahead


The final step in the State of the Union is to ask your partner a simple question:


“What is one thing I can do this week to make you feel more loved?”


This is an opportunity for you to share what you want to have happen in the coming week. As much as we’d like our partner to be able to read our mind and know exactly what we need, this expectation is often unrealistic. Therefore it’s important to be direct and clear about what you need from your partner. Once again, be careful to not use this as an opportunity to sneak in negativity and criticism. Remember, pick something that is positive and actionable. So, instead of:


“Don’t invite your mother over for dinner on Friday night”


Try


“I’d love for you to take me out on a date this week”. 


Putting It All Together


Here’s a quick recap of the State of the Union meeting:


  1. Share 5 positive things your partner did in the last week

  2. Review what went well during the week, focusing on the ‘we’

  3. Discuss issues or regrettable incidents in a Speaker/Listener set-up, implementing the Gentle Start-Up and ATTUNE frameworks

  4. Ask each other “What is one thing I can do this week to make you feel more loved?”


It might seem like a lot, however it will get easier over time and become more natural. If you believe you’ll struggle to get through it without starting a conflict, I’d recommend you just begin with steps 1 and 2 for the first 4 weeks. Injecting some positivity into your relationship on a weekly basis can only work wonders for you both if you’re having a lot of difficulty. 


Once you get the hang of it, I encourage you to adapt the structure over time to better suit your needs. For example, you might like to include the PePPeR framework if you and your partner need to prepare for an upcoming challenge or problem you expect to face. The more you can make this process your own and get to the heart of what’s really important in your relationship, the more it will flourish.


Need some help getting through the State of the Union meeting? Click below to download a free one pager to have on hand in case you get stuck. There's also a print friendly version if you'd like to have a physical copy.

State of the Union
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State of the Union (Print Friendly)
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Download PDF • 40KB

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