My partner and I are process nerds. Most projects we’re involved in use Agile, and it’s a set of tools and vocabulary we already share. We thought, why not run it on our relationship?
Scrum is an Agile framework for completing complex projects. Scrum originally was formalized for software development projects, but it works well for any complex, innovative scope of work. — “What is Scrum?”
In Agile Scrum development, a sprint is a set period of time during which specific work is completed and made ready for review. We were inspired by another couple we knew who started running “relationship sprints” because they weren’t sure they wanted to stay together. After each sprint, they assessed if they wanted to continue.
We thought this process could work for our context of a long-term committed relationship as well.
I would argue the most powerful aspect of Agile is continuous improvement, from the Japanese concept of kaizen. Becoming a learning organisation means investing not just in doing work, but improving how you work. Continuous improvement is the aspect that really appealed to us.
In the Scrum process, continuous improvement is mainly achieved through Retrospectives, where the team reviews what happened during the sprint: what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved.
The process we’ve adopted is a very simplified take on Agile Scrum, focused on what we call Relationship Retrospectives.
We have a regular meeting in our calendars on a weekend, once a month. We eliminate distractions, find a quiet and private place, and prepare ourselves to open our minds and hearts. The session lasts about 90 minutes, and follows a set format.
- Review previous actions
Celebrate successes, and notice what wasn’t done. For the incomplete items, decide to drop them, put them back on the list for the upcoming month’s actions, or add them to the agenda for discussion.
2. Review the month
Each person talks through how the last month was for them, naming events, changes, experiences. This can be individual (what’s going on at work, health issues, hobbies) or mutual (we went away for the weekend, we had an argument). Report the facts, and if something needs further discussion, add it to the agenda. The other person practices active listening.
3. Agree the agenda
Surface all the topics that could use discussion. Then pick out a reasonable amount to address in this session. Often it’s not possible to cover everything, and it’s important not to cram too much in or feel overwhelmed. Remember, this is a continuous process, so we don’t need to solve everything right now. If something needs to be addressed that there isn’t time for that day, or it’s a topic outside the intended scope for a relationship retrospective, schedule another time to discuss it.
Talk through the points on the agenda. We focus on enhancing mutual understanding, each person feeling heard, honesty, and constructive communication and problem solving.
Some questions we often ask each other:
- What happened, and how did you feel?
- How was it from your perspective?
- Why was that upsetting for you?
- Is there a bigger issue behind that situation?
- Is there something I could have done differently?
- What can I do to support you?
- How could we create a better dynamic?
- What is the outcome you’d like to achieve?
These discussions are often quite emotional. Sometimes they are challenging and involve conflict and frustration. Sometimes they are sad and involve empathy and support. Sometimes they are happy and involve celebration and congratulations.
We occasionally run specific exercises to address certain issues. For example, recently we did one where we ranked our life priorities, then noticed how we spend our time on average, and discussed if those things were aligned how we wanted. We sometimes employ different communication modes besides dialogue, such as taking time to individually write down our thoughts and then share them.
5. Action points
Capture the commitments each person is making for the following month. Sometimes they are about relationship issues (such as how we act and communicate to each other), and sometimes they are more about individual improvement (because becoming our best selves is key for a good partnership).
The actions are meant to be specific, not vague and abstract. The key word is “actionable”. Most relationship issues are subtle and complex, and aren’t solved by a simple concrete step — the goal is just to name one specific, achievable thing that will take things in a better direction, that the person can agree to do. Continuous improvement is incremental.
The actions are recorded and shared (usually one of us captures the notes and emails them to the other).
6. Appreciation round
It’s very easy to spend most of the time in a Relationship Retrospective focusing on the problems. However, it’s very important to remember all the good things, what is working, and why we value our relationship. After all, it’s these positive things that are the reason why we care about our connection so much, and invest our time and effort to continuously improve.
Each person speaks while the other listens, naming positive things they appreciate about the other person and the relationship, and expressions of gratitude. It can be appreciation for an aspect of the other’s character, recognition for ways we’re lucky, compliments, noticing and saying thank you for specific acts of generosity, appreciation for why our relationship works, or anything positive the person wants to express.
The listener usually simply says things like, “thank you” or “me too”, without responding in much detail. There are often happy tears and hugs at this stage. We always leave Retrospectives on a positive note.
The most common question we get when we tell people about our Relationship Retrospectives (after “Wait, are you serious?”) is “Why?” Why do we feel the need to facilitate such a structured process? Can’t we just discuss things as they come up, like “normal” people?
We do discuss things casually, quite often.
We don’t have a rule that we can’t bring up relationship issues outside Retrospectives, or anything like that (after all, responding to emergent needs over following rules is at the heart of the Agile Manifesto). But we’ve noticed that “normal” people often experience stress or miscommunication in their relationships (as we have ourselves), and we’re interested in hacking the problem. We’re not traditional people, and we’re up for experimenting with new ways of relating. Knowing a Retro is coming up means we sometimes save relationship discussions for that time, and spend other time just having fun together, confident that we’ll have the chance to get our issue addressed soon.
One key reason we do this could seem counter-intuitive, since the process might appear to be quite controlled: we’re very emotional, sensitive people. We feel things very strongly, value honesty and self-expression highly, and desire genuine depth in our interpersonal connections. A designed communication and problem-solving process helps us create a “safe space”. Far from suppressing emotional expression, for us this process invites it explicitly. We show up ready and willing to witness and hold the other person in their honesty and vulnerability. (If we’re not in a good place, because we’re tired or feeling negative, etc, we’ll reschedule the session).
Investing our time and energy
Both of us have very busy and demanding jobs, requiring us to show up with our whole selves. Our work is connected deeply to impact and purpose, and that’s the investment it takes. We make this choice consciously, and are committed to it, but it can be draining. We run Relationship Retrospectives to ensure we make time and space to spend emotional and intellectual capacity on our romantic connection.
Meeting in the middle
We come from different cultures and, like all couples, are different people. Whereas I tend to be very effusive and verbal, focused on processing emotionally, he’s more analytical and chooses his words carefully. I love gushing compliments and being showered with them, but he values accurate authenticity, and giving and receiving compliments can overwhelm him. I show care through emphasizing what’s working, while he shows it through problem-solving. The Retrospective process helps us meet in the middle.
In past relationships, we’ve each experienced discontent festering, and issues never being addressed directly or really solved. Problematic dynamics would become self-reinforcing. Having regular Retrospectives means issues get brought up and talked about, instead of bottled up. The longest we let something go without addressing it is a month. That doesn’t mean we can solve all our problems in that time frame, but we’re at least talking about it.
Playing the Long Game
The biggest reason we do Relationship Retrospectives is that we’re in this for the long term. No relationship is perfect, and nothing is ever “solved”, because humans are dynamic creatures in a changing world. All we can do is practice continuous improvement, consistently investing time and attention on communicating and working through issues together.
I often say to my partner, “I don’t need this to be fixed immediately, as long as we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
We’ve been doing Relationship Retrospectives for a couple years now. I don’t want to share all our private details, but here are a few outcomes that have emerged for us.
- We decided to get married. Of course, we didn’t get engaged during a Retrospective (ugh, we’re not quite that nerdy), but we were able to constructively discuss where we saw our futures, what such a commitment would mean to us, and agree we wanted it to happen. (If you’re wondering, we actually got engaged at a gorgeous spot overlooking the ocean, by writing each other proposal letters and reading them aloud).
- We decided to do couples counseling. While we were solving a lot of issues on our own, and we both feel overall very positive about our relationship, we found there were a few issues that kept coming up that we didn’t seem to be able to successfully shift. We didn’t want to be that couple having the same argument for 20 years. So we decided to engage some outside help to get somewhere we couldn’t go on our own. So far it’s been really helpful.
- We’ve learned how to support one another. For example, I struggle with some chronic health issues, and tend to be bad at asking for help. Through Retrospectives, we’ve been able to clarify how I can signal my needs effectively, and I’ve been reassured about what my partner is happy to do, without it feeling like an unfair burden on him. And he’s taught me how to gently encourage him toward self-improvement, without impinging on his independence.
- We’ve learned about our individual wellbeing. Turns out, we’re pretty different in certain ways. For example, my partner gets his batteries recharged by spending quality time socializing with friends, while I recharge by spending quiet time on my own at home. We’ve learned to identify each other’s stress responses, and act accordingly. He’ll tell me to chill and relax at home, while I’ll gently push him to see if friends want to go out.
- We agreed how to split household chores. This was a sticking point between us for ages, as it is with many couples. After several different iterations, we finally hit on a system that seems to work for us and we both think is fair. We got here by trying several experiments and assessing them frankly, and creating space to discuss the real issues underneath fights about doing the dishes.
- Some more specific examples….
- Go to bed earlier
- Make more time to Skype family members overseas
- Leaving work on time and no working weekends
- Set up a joint savings account
So, maybe we’re weirdos. Or maybe we’re onto something. Probably both? Relationship Retrospectives are working for us so far. We’re continuing to do them every month, and I feel like every month things get a little bit better.
Update: 2 years later
So much has changed since I first wrote this article — we got married, bought our first house, and had a baby daughter! But something that hasn’t changed for us are Relationship Retros. Through so many big life steps, the same format and approach has continued to help us stay strong as a team. We still do Retros every month!