Anyone who tells you marriage “shouldn’t be a lot of work” is wrong. Period.
I’m not saying that marriage isn’t also glorious and fun and breath-taking and deeply meaningful… but, it is also always requiring work of the people who are in it. Always.
About 15 years ago my husband and I got a smidge more intentional about what some of that work looked like. This is what has (mostly) worked for us – it’s not for everyone, of course – but I’ve had multiple requests from friends and clients alike for an explanation of what exactly we do each year. So, here you go… a DIY marriage retreat!
(Oh, first, you should probably know, my husband and I are complete opposites. Totally. Like everything. Our personalities occupy the opposite ends of whatever spectrum you are talking about. Introvert/Extrovert. Scheduled/Spontaneous. Focus/Attention-Deficit Monster. Quiet intellectualizer/Out-loud, brainstorming collaborator. Prefers to sail, invisible, under the radar/Thrives on having center stage. I could go on and on… you get the idea. My point is that when it came time for us to come up with some kind of regular marriage summit, it felt like a tall order. If you and yours are more alike, this might be a little easier.)
In keeping with our personality differences, we have settled on a blend of structure and fluidity which usually looks like, first, finding some removed location for a weekend escape.
I’m not talking about requiring a long weekend in Maui here. (Though, that would be pretty great.) You don’t need to break the bank. We’ve stayed in a secluded, rustic cabin several times. A couple of occasions early on in our marriage, when we couldn’t seem to make the overnight part work out like we wanted, we took a drive and spent a whole day at a park or campground. We’ve talked through things in swanky hotel lobbies and at funky, fun patio bars and around expertly-built campfires. We’ve also holed up for weekends in luxurious suites and fabulous (borrowed) lake houses. Once we were in London. It doesn’t really matter as long as it feels different from your “regular life.” Away from chores and responsibilities. Away from all the things that might distract from just being present with each other.
(And since we have had kids, it is definitely a kid-free weekend. Another thing that is critical to maintaining the couple relationship over the parent relationship is periodic kid-free time. It’s hard, I know. Family isn’t always an option. Nannies can be expensive. Maybe trade-off with another family? Strategically schedule sleep-overs? Get creative… but, figure it out. It is important.)
Once you’ve settled on where and when, you want to spend a little time thinking about your agenda and important topics. This can obviously vary from year to year, but we do have some recurring topics that we try to revisit each time.
This is the general outline (in bold) of annual elements we use and we add in relevant issues as they come up. For instance, in the years in which I was pregnant we had a “baby prep” topic and in the years we were moving, we had big discussions related to finances and planning, etc. But the following things generally get thought about and talked over each year:
1. Big-Picture Vision (5 years, 10 years, 20 years)
Five years from now: 2022, Ages: 50 & 49; Kids 16, 13
Ten years from now: 2027, Ages: 55 & 54; Kids 21, 18
Twenty years from now: 2037, Ages: 65 & 64; Kids 31, 28
This is a chance to sit back and dream a little… what do we wish for? When we imagine our future and what it would be like to feel content and fulfilled, what does that look like? What might our kids be doing? How will we spend our time? What will our careers look like? Where will we live? What will our hobbies be? What legacy are we building? Drs. John and Julie Gottman have extensive research on the most important principles present in successful, long-term relationships and “shared vision & meaning” and “making life dreams come true” are critical parts of the puzzle. This piece of the conversation gives a chance to document that… to track the accomplishments, the changes in direction… to laugh at previous naïveté and, best of all, celebrate successes.
We have been doing this long enough now, I can look back and see what we predicted for 5 and 10 years into the future because we are there now. It is pretty cool to say, “Hey! We did that!” And also, “Oh my goodness, why on earth did we think that sounded like a good idea?!” This is where you make space to talk about things you might not have the space to talk about in the everyday grind of work, laundry, sports, kids, meetings, church, etc. If you don’t often sit back and dream about your family goals, career aspirations, bucket lists, or visions of the future, you might be surprised what you discover. Over the years, this portion of the retreat has contained silliness like: let’s sell everything and travel the world and homeschool… I really want to retire to a sailboat so our kids can never find us… maybe we should buy land and get off the grid before we retire… if Whitman travels the world instead of going to college, will we go with him? But it has also contained more surprising conversations like: I think I’m letting go of that dream because I feel like I’ve outgrown it… I feel really called to open our home to foster children, can we talk about that?… Please go back to school already… and also I’m going to shut down the non-profit and I feel awful about it…, etc.
As a therapist, I have heard way too many people say, “I just never thought about it, we never talked about it and now it’s too late.” This part of the conversation feels like my attempt at avoiding that, I think.
2. NOW Goals – what’s next?
Section 2 is about immediate goals in the coming 12 months. What needs to happen or change in the next 12 months? It is a chance to share personal goals and ask for support and also to collaborate on shared goals. I happen to be married to someone who does not really talk a lot about his job. I mean, I generally know what he does. I know one or two of the people with whom he works but, mostly, his work life is very separate from his home life. That’s how he likes it. So, I like having this time to get “caught up” on his big-picture career and he likes limiting how often he talks about work. 🙂
We also talk about immediate parent adjustments here – what’s working? What’s not? What are we worried about? What needs to change? How can we have more fun? Some really great moments and relief and ideas have come from this part of our annual conversation. For me, as the parent who is at home with the kids slightly more than he is, parenting often gets relegated to feeling like just “the grind” part. I can easily get bogged down in the homework/bedtime/mealtime/laundry routines and lose sight of the bigger picture. This piece always feels like my chance to really pull back and take in the immensity of what we are doing – raising humans – and regain a little perspective on what is most important.
We live in a big ol’ fun fixer-upper (that I dream of Chip and Jojo coming to finish for us!) and so there is always a list of things that need to be taken care of and budgeted for. This year we mapped out the back patio remodel and decided to redo all the siding and paint the exterior. Last year we were dealing with some repairs, a new roof and new garage doors. You get the idea.
And lastly in the NOW Goals is the part that feels the most like “resolutions,” I think. This is the part where we decide to go paleo again…or go back to signing up for races…or keep doing what we are doing, but with less sugar. 😉 We also decide to leave and join churches, decide on LifeGroups and mission trips and how to incorporate family meditation time. It is ultimately an opportunity to reflect on the overall health of our wellness and spirituality, brainstorm and tend to the parts that need it…and share those things so we can have support.
3. Money – Priorities and Plan
This might be the part of the retreat where you break out the cocktails, if you haven’t already. Early in our marriage we fought about finances a lot and subsequently got in a bad habit of not really talking about them very often in order to avoid the conflict. In our relationship, I’m the CFO and as long as everything is humming along, we usually opt not to talk about money. So, this is our chance to make adjustments, alter the budget, change investment choices, make saving goals for vacations or projects, etc. and get as much of it out of the way in one swoop as possible. We have some brief financial check-ins through the year, but the bulk of our discussions, the tedium of budget adjustments, tax decisions, and big picture changes happen here. (If you are one of the 27% of couples who do NOT argue about finances – maybe you get to skip this one altogether!)
4. Relationship Stuff
That’s a very technical term there – “relationship stuff.” Again, my therapist experience informs this section as well. I continue to be surprised when people sit in my office and say, “I never knew she felt that way” or “I am totally blindsided by this.” Part of me gets it – with jobs and kids and crazy schedules it is easy to get disconnected and be so busy and distracted that you never make the time to talk about it… so: THIS is that time. A chance to ask “do we like each other these days?” “What’s really working? What’s not?” “How can it be better? More fun?” (The “more fun” questions are always his.)
Ideally, this section of the retreat is a chance to really connect and feel reaffirmed in the relationship…a way to take advantage of a slower pace and remember some of the things that brought you together in the first place. I know that most couples don’t always say all the things on their minds in the day-to-day interactions of everyday life…this is that opportunity. In past years we have used some of Gottman’s relationship tools for this (like this Love Map 20-Question game) and also had conversations about our Strengthsfinder results and Myers-Briggs. I know, dorky therapist fun…but, you have to keep learning about each other!
For the “Keepin’ It Real” file: This section has also shut down our retreat on more than one occasion. One of those bumpy years we literally spent this whole agenda item figuring out how to get a divorce. (We didn’t.) But I say that to simply warn: Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be years that are just harder than others and that’s OK. If this section feels overwhelming or devastating… use that as your indication it might be time to get some help. We’ve been in therapy twice in our 26 years together… so, get support if you need it.
5. Action Items
This section is totally just for me. I like to make lists. Lots of lists. I just needed a place in the agenda to make a list. So here’s where I gather up all the great things we just decided to do… and put them in a big, beautiful list. (And I might print it out once we get home and tape it to the bathroom mirror. Maybe.)
6. Bucket Fillers
Any heavy lifting should be done by this time, so refresh your drinks and make way for more light and fun. There may have been some tough conversations on this day. Or not. You might really need this good note to finish on. Or not. Regardless, what we know from research is that it is important to maintain a healthy positivity ratio in our primary relationships. One way to work on that ratio is to use “bucket-fillers” made famous in several books in the 2000s. What might you take for granted and not compliment often enough? Now’s your chance to speak up and fix that. What thing do you appreciate or always notice about your partner but never say anything about? From the silly to the serious, the importance of this part of the retreat can’t be understated. I still remember, word for word, some of the things we’ve said due to this prompt. Even now, as I think about them, I know there was a time early in our relationship when I couldn’t have dreamed we’d ever get so busy or disconnected that we wouldn’t say those things to one another anymore – but it happens. We’ve detailed for one another what makes the other the absolute best parent for our kids…talked through the things we are most proud of about each other… recalled favorite gifts or special occasions… shared gratitude for extended family and in-laws… complimented cooking and handyman abilities, among other kinds of skills 😉 … and praised some of the day-in-day-out-grind endurance that often gets overlooked. And a million other little things that somehow feel much bigger when it’s just the two of you, sitting around a fire, basking in an intentional positivity celebration.
And then toast yourselves for making your relationship a priority and giving it the attention it deserves! I promise, you won’t regret it. (And don’t forget to save your notes so you can look back and celebrate success, feel proud of growth and laugh at yourselves, too.)
Here’s some additional resources for those of you who are going to try it for yourselves:
- RetreatOutline.doc This should be the blank retreat outline form (if I did it right!)
- One of Gottman’s questionnaires about shared meaning, goals, and rituals – a good starting point for many conversations.
- Love Maps explanation and exercise (also from Gottman)
*final disclaimer…. if your relationship is in serious distress – maybe there is already talk of separating or worse, or there is no talk at all – I do NOT recommend trying a structured DIY retreat as a solution. These retreats are meant to be preventative and growth-focused, rather than a crisis-response. If your relationship really needs support – get it. Find a facilitated retreat or a therapist or a support group… no need to DIY. Ask for help.