The Exercise that Completely Strengthened (and Possibly Saved) My Marriage

Start Thinking Like A We

When you start writing about money and relationships, people reach out. Strangers and friends share amazing stories and confidences.

(I LOVE and LIVE FOR these conversations, and reflect on them all the time. Keep ’em coming.)

Last week, I heard from a bunch of people having a hard time understanding how their priorities align with their partner’s priorities. They were mostly really hard situations and big choices.

But they all beg the question: how do you go from being irritated your partner didn’t pick up the milk to being furious that they never go grocery shopping? What happens when someone feels so off-course that it feels like it might all fall apart?

A couple of years ago, insanely busy with two kids and more commitments than I care to count, I asked my husband to take a day off work to help me get our collective shit together. I felt like we were in the weeds. I told him he didn’t need to do anything, that I would create a matrix (a wha?) that would help us figure everything out. He looked at me skeptically.

So about two weeks later, I’m sure he was terrified and/or dying of curiosity as we sat in my basement office and I proceeded to whiteboard a matrix. I made it up as I went along.

Columns: Me, You, Us (2 aka the couple) and Us (4, the family). I’m thinking, I need my own identity here, you need yours, and lets make sure who we are as a couple is not consumed by our individual needs and who we want to be as a family.

Rows: Health, Home, Decisions of Economic Consequence, Social/Hobbies, Time, Travel (not to be confused with time travel). Honestly, we ended up with the list of things that is most important to us. I’m sure some people would have religion and sports here. This is totally personal, but anything that either person cares about should be here.

I suppose in the back of my mind, I held on to some advice given to us by friends with older kids: to make it a point to spend time in every configuration of your family.

Here’s where we landed.

home whiteboard circa 2014

Highlights of insights discovered:

  • We each wanted support finding time to exercise and to get enough sleep, to eat healthy. We also wanted to be active as a couple (including sex!) and as a family. We all know that exercise is an easy thing to put off when super busy. Here we were able to commit to make time for one another to do something we consider important. We made a similar commitment to our kids, in terms of how we prioritize our time as a family.
  • We both find home management a total time suck. So we split the load on some things, and decided to work together on others. Also in home we talked about how we wanted our kids to treat our home, the type of place we wanted it to be.
  • Decisions of economic consequence. I guess some people call these goals. ‘Don’t clip my wings’ is an important shorthand in our family. These are the investments in things that are truly important for us to do as human beings, the things that we would have a hard time sacrificing, but that require financial commitments. Its so important to have your partner’s support on these (we didn’t one time, and that was hard, maybe we’ll get to that story another time).
  • My husband has WAY HIGHER social needs than I do. I’m perfectly happy considering the volunteer work I do with our communities (work and school and neighborhood) as my social time. I also tend to dislike most conferences and like to go out no more than 2 nights a week (I will not under any circumstances go out more than 3 nights a week). He hadn’t realized I was happy to be at home alone, if he had somewhere he had to be (see caring for your introvert). This was a really important conversation!
  • I really wanted my mornings clear because I tend to be more focused in the mornings. He really needed to not have to worry about school pick-ups ever. Easy swap. We also really care about having family dinner at least two nights a week.

I totally get that this feels super simple, but know that it was like stumbling into a miracle. NO ONE makes time to do this. Sure we have small conversations that are pieces of this, but putting every priority out there and looking at it from each perspective was transformative. It took an hour and we left feeling happy and supported.

In explicitly laying out our most important needs, we created a priority structure that helped us to understand our limits (in these various configurations). We clarified how we spend our time and money. We aligned our priorities, which not only helped us individually, it helped us understand explicitly how we needed to support one another. In an hour.

I call this idea of seeing yourself in the context of your most important relationships Think Like a We.

The goal is to see yourself within the bigger picture. To do this, you need to know yourself. If you’re doing it with someone else, you need to be open to hearing what they need, and talking through your shared ambitions collaboratively.

This exercise totally changed our lives.

I recommend it especially if you:

  • feel out of sync with your partner or spouse
  • feel like you’ve lost sight of why you spend your time the way you do
  • wonder if you are contributing to your family in a way that feels fair to you
  • have stopped taking care of yourself because you are too busy taking care of everyone else

This is a great exercise to do BEFORE talking about any big financial decision. There is something really powerful — especially if you are really busy or under financial duress — about making time for yourself and your needs as a human being (and supporting your loved ones doing the same!).

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