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How We Work On Our Marriage: The Check-In

February 7, 2021

Filed in: Marriage

Time to read: 12 minutes

If there is anything in my life that I am really proud of, it is my marriage to Michael. I didn’t believe relationships like ours could exist – I thought that I would have to settle somewhere, that there would be unspoken tensions or that things would seem to be a certain way publicly but behind closed doors they were not that way at all.

I can honestly say that I haven’t settled in a single area. Together we laugh often. We prioritize connection. We have a fulfilling and adventurous sex life. We have lots of conflicts and work through them quickly. We don’t sweep anything under the rug. We respect each other as individuals and continue to choose each other and our relationship daily.

None of this happened by accident or coincidence. Michael and I are not special in some way that makes the success in our relationship unattainable. We didn’t meet and naturally wind up here – we had to work for it. We continue to work for it. I use the word “work” intentionally here because it requires effort – together we decided the kind of relationship we wanted to have and now we dedicate our physical and mental energy to achieve that outcome.

Growing up I thought that you only needed to “work” on your relationship when something was wrong with it. I thought successful relationships didn’t have major problems, were filled with spontaneous arousal (meaning you just randomly want to jump your partners bones all the time) and a partner should be able to satisfy all my needs. Then I met Michael.

Michael and I hiking in Southern Utah, Summer 2015 just after we met.

When Michael was 17 he went to rehab for drug addiction in Southern Utah and began his journey to sobriety from opiates. I met him after years of AA meetings and therapy (individual, family and group) and I was in awe of the man he was. What attracted me to him most was his integrity – something I wouldn’t fully understand until years later but felt immediately – he really tried to be the man he said he was. I wanted to be like him and as we got to know each other he attributed much of his way of being to rehab and therapy. I thought to myself “do I need to go through heroin addiction in order to get the benefits he has gotten?” my answer was a loud and resounding “no”.

My belief system around relationships and even personal growth was something like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. All of a sudden that story was being challenged. I started asking myself things like:

  • Can we be proactive and prevent a relationship from breaking?
  • Does therapy and intentional communication only benefit us when something is wrong?
  • What would relationships be like if we took the time to talk about our feelings long before they fester and turn into something bigger?
  • How often are our feelings rooted in a misunderstanding?

I realized after meeting Michael and through our years of marriage that the way I viewed relationships needed a major upgrade – I went from “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” to “the best time to fix a leaky roof is when it’s not raining”. In other words, there is never a better time to work on yourself or your relationship than when things are going well. Think about it: when you are hurt or challenged by conflict, emotions are high. You most likely lean towards protecting your point of view and can easily get defensive in discussions. When things are going well, you are more open minded, can stay regulated, are more willing to see where you can improve or areas you can take accountability. Both are important but the latter is not encouraged or talked about in general society. 

For some reason or another the message I received from the world was that therapy or things of the sort were things we don’t talk about openly or are meant for when we have big problems. It’s the kind of thing that makes you start whispering in the middle of a conversation, “my husband and I started therapy this week” said in hush tones so no one else can hear.

I decided that was not a story I wanted to adopt for myself. Instead I wanted to replace it with something more empowering – something like:

  • Therapy is cool
  • Talking about your feelings is important and can help you live a better life
  • Being vulnerable with others makes you stronger, more connected and happier
  • Your level of success goes hand in hand with your own personal development

What happened next is one of those moments where I stopped and really considered if somewhere out there, the Universe is looking out for me. 

Around 3 months into our relationship – deep in the phase where you can’t keep your hands off one another and are completely blind to each other’s flaws – I got on a call with a potential business coach. I was referred to this coach by a successful entrepreneur after I specifically asked for a female. As the call begins and small talk is out of the way the woman on the other end, her name is Annie Lalla, asks me “what is stopping you from being in the most beautiful relationship of your life?” A mixture of emotions came over me. First, this is an inappropriate question for a business coach to ask and second, I am in the most beautiful relationship of my life. Clearly there was a miscommunication somewhere. I explain my confusion to Annie and she quickly lets me know that she is not a business coach, her expertise is in love and relationships. Instead of getting off the call Annie says “Well, I have the hour blocked off if you want to talk anyway.”

Already in the headspace of “therapy is cool” I decided to take Annie up on the free hour and we began to talk about my relationship. At this point Michael and I are so new and early in our connection that I couldn’t imagine her pointing out anything for us to work on, but I was very wrong. Within the hour my mind was blown. Annie helped me see clear areas where I wasn’t showing up and opportunities for growth. Because we were in such a great place (nothing was “wrong” per-say) I was not only able to hear what she was saying but I was excited for the opportunity to implement the suggested strategies.

I remember hanging up the phone, going to Michael right away and saying “you have got to call her!” Five years later we still work with Annie on a regular basis. I have no idea how the wires got crossed leading me onto that call with her but I will be forever indebted to that entrepreneur because of it. 

This was the spark that ignited us actively “working” on our relationship. It is has been easy for us after years of being together to get into a rhythm and get comfortable. To get complacent. What we have found is that on one end, with that comfort comes deep safety and connection but on the other end we can take each other for granted, get bored or develop tensions and resentments. Combining two lives is hard, and our story is not without its challenges and roadblocks. 

Through this work one of the major themes has been that we need to treat our relationship like it’s own “person” or “entity” with its own wants and needs that require attention, love and care. What has been challenging and interesting is that the needs of the relationship are separate and sometimes in conflict with my own needs or Michaels. This is why we take time out of our lives to focus on it, dream about it and intentionally plan its future.

Our Relationship Check-In

One of our most impactful habits/rituals in our relationship is our weekly check-in. On our schedule, once a week (usually on Sunday) we have a time carved out to focus all our attention on our relationship. We have gone through many iterations of this process and I am sure we will continue to go through many more. For now after a few years of weekly check-ins we have come to a version we are happy with and is effective.

Before I get into how we set things up I want to talk about the intention and purpose. It’s important to mention this because it is what paints the whole experience. We know that any time we check in it is our intention to connect with each other, clear any tensions or frustrations, ask for any support and remember just how much our relationship matters and our love for one another. This is sacred and leads us to treat the whole check in that way. We are not in a rush, we don’t have something else to do and we get genuinely excited about the process.

However, it needs to be said that this is not all rainbows and butterflies. These check ins can get sticky and challenging – which is what we want. We want these moments to be where we are honest with each other about our lives and our needs – no matter how scary – so we can move forward as a stronger unit. The check in is a huge part of the “work” we do on our relationship and sometimes that work sucks which is why the set up is essential.

How do we set it up?

First, we create a safe container.

The word container is meant to describe a separation or protection of the conversation. Once the check in begins we are inside the container and everything has its own rules separate from the rest of our lives. When we do it right, this allows us to be really vulnerable with each other and feel free to be clear and honest. Our container has a number of “rules” that we have committed to. Each one is meant to keep the space clear of tension and full of respect for each other. 

You might be wondering why we make the set up and rules such a big deal. The reason is because it IS a big deal. Checking in on our relationship this way often brings up a lot of big feelings – most often they are incredible feelings, and other times more challenging. Without these boundaries things can escalate, emotions can run hot and one of us may react in a way we regret. Without taking this part seriously we run the risk of leaving our check in angry with each other or something even worse – which is the exact opposite of our intention. These rules set us up for success.

Our Ground Rules

#1 Don’t get defensive

This is a very important rule. The fastest way for either of us to completely withdraw from a check in is when one of us gets defensive – this often looks like raising voices, getting angry or short with each other. Immediately our safe little bubble is popped and whatever was trying to be communicated is lost. We try our absolute best to honor this rule and of course, sometimes we are just human so we also give each other grace.

We make a commitment to stay present, remember our intentions, give the other the benefit of the doubt and stay centered in the fact that we are rooting for each other to be the best version of ourselves. We know big emotions may come up – good and bad – we focus on regulating our nervous system so that we can both communicate effectively and hear what the other person has to say.

#2 Make an appointment

Although I absolutely love our check-ins they are not something I want sprung upon me without notice. We are most successful if we “make an appointment” with each other so that the time and space is set aside and clear. For us, this looks like putting it on our shared google calendar and if we need to move it we ask the other person and find another time that works for the both of us.

The appointment creates some anticipation and excitement for me. Where if Michael just came out of the blue and asked me to check-in, I may be on my way to doing something else, focused on finishing the dishes or tending to Shai’s needs. These check-ins are sacred and being clear about when they start treats it as such.

#3 Take it seriously

Whether we are praising one another, asking for support, sharing a frustration, or asking the other to change their behavior we do not leave anything out, we search in every nook and cranny of our brains to find anything we might be missing. It took us some time to really be able to do this and slowly slowly over time I built trust in Michael’s ability to receive feedback, hold space for my feelings and stay connected with me even when I stumbled through emotions I wasn’t even sure I could describe. 

If we hold back, we lose. The whole point of this process is to really peel back the layers and make sure we are not holding onto anything – even the small things – because we are building the foundation of our marriage. Each and every check in is adding strength to our connection and allowing us to more deeply understand each other, our own individual needs and that of the relationship.

#4 Honor a “no”

If we ask to check-in and the other says no, we respect that.

If we ask to talk about a particular subject and the other says no, we respect that.

If we need to reschedule the check-in all together, we respect that.

We trust that “no”s are only used with protecting the relationship in mind – meaning that if we did not say no our relationship would be worse off. For instance, if I am overwhelmed or stressed and not in the right headspace to take our check in seriously, I say no. If I did not, I would run the risk of ending up in conflict with Michael.

No’s are not used often which adds to our trust that it is for the best.

The Agenda:

Below I am going to share our agenda that we follow. We use the topics as a guide for our conversation and remain flexible so we can focus on what wants to come up or feels important. The order of the conversation topics is really important – we start with schedule since it is a bit more “dry” and move on to sex and date night which gets us in a more connected state, then onto anything unsaid which is mostly where the potential challenging moments come through, finishing with praises so we end on a high note.

Schedule

Here we go over our personal schedules for the week so we are aware of how much the other has on their plate. We also use this as an opportunity to ask for support with certain things like taking care of Shai, cooking, cleaning, work etc.

Sex

Sex is really important in our relationship and talking about it each week allows us to ensure we prioritize it. Here we chat about what we want sex to look like, anything new we want to try, how we will make it work with childcare and anything else around the topic. If we need to schedule it in, this is when we do that. 

If you want to read more about how we handled sex postpartum I wrote a whole article on that HERE.

Date Night

Our date night is every Tuesday night. In our check in we talk about what we want to do, child care or any other details. Sometimes one person commits to taking the lead and planning something special or a surprise. Our goal is to do something a little out of the ordinary and connect with each other. I wrote a blog post all about date night ideas HERE.

Anything Unsaid

This is where things could get challenging which is exactly why we put it in the middle of the check in. At this stage each one of us asks the other “is there anything unsaid?” Immediately the person who is answering gets quiet and takes some time to search for shares. Some weeks there are many things, others very few. The things said here are not always challenging; they can also be joyful or centered in gratitude. The key is that we are sharing things we kept to ourselves when our relationship would benefit from them being made explicit.

I will give you some examples of things that have come up for us in an attempt to really make clear what this can look like. Below are some categories that come up and an example of each:

  • Frustrations.
    • Michael shared with me that I have a tendency to try and “act cool” when I am meeting new people. I might slip in a “name drop” here and there or behave in a way that is not truly myself to make an attempt at being liked – I don’t want to act this way. This is something I didn’t even notice I was doing and leaves him feeling uncomfortable. In a check in he pointed it out and it gave me an opportunity to see it and work on it moving forward.
  • Personal Struggles
    • Our day to day lives are pretty jam packed. From work, to exercise, to taking care of Shai there are not a lot of spare moments and sometimes internal struggles can get brushed aside. I use “anything unsaid” as a space to share with Michael anything I might be going through that he can’t see; issues in certain relationships, stress, overwhelm, sleep deprivation. I may not even be asking for support but just sharing it with him so he is aware and it gets off my chest.
  • Asking for Support
    • Asking for help is not something that comes naturally to me. I pride myself on my work capacity and organization so when I need help it can sometimes feel like a failure. In our check-ins I talk to Michael about areas that I might need him to step up and help me. This has been especially helpful when navigating the extra responsibilities since Shai was born. I wrote a lot about that HERE.
  • Appreciations and Acknowledgements
    • We also use this part of our check in to point out areas of growth in the other or thank them for something that they did. After years of being together it is so easy to take a lot of the things we do for each other for granted. From something as little as Michael emptying the dishwasher to as big as taking the night shift with Shai when he notices I am tired – this is a great opportunity to share appreciation that I was giving Michael in my head and hoping he could read my mind.
  • Any feelings at all
    • Sometimes I feel a tension that I can’t quite describe where it is coming from or why it is there. It all feels a little messy and confusing but it is definitely impacting how I relate to Michael and my day to day life. Because our check-ins feel so safe I bring it up. Something along the lines of – “I am feeling disconnected/annoyed/tension for some reason. I am not sure why, where it is coming from or what it is about but I know it’s there.” Then together we might just acknowledge it or work on figuring it out. It often feels better even just from revealing it.
  • Mistakes
    • Sometimes I mess something up and I am scared to tell Michael about it. It can be forgetting to do something he explicitly asked me to. These check-ins are a chance to come clean in a space where we have committed to being present, connected and regulated.

Praise for self and the other

At this point we are through the majority of the check in and we want to end on a high note. “Anything unsaid” may have brought up some big emotions and now we want to remember that we are awesome, doing the best we can and love each other. We finish out the check-in with one praise for ourselves and one for the other (sometimes I ask for more than one hehe).

Both of us are absolute praise junkies. It is Michael’s #1 love language and my #2 so ending here is a reward for getting through the rest. The thing I love about giving praise the most is that after a few weeks we get creative. We have gone through the most obvious choices and start to really search for praises that might surprise and delight the other person. Plus, I absolutely love hearing Michael praise himself – something that he doesn’t do often.

On average a full check-in takes 30 to 45 minutes. If we feel like we don’t have that much time we pull out the most important pieces for us in the moment and focus there. What can we be 100% present for and what will leave us closer to our purpose and intention: connect with each other, clear any tensions or frustrations, ask for any support and remember just how much our relationship matters and our love for one another. The only piece we don’t often skip is “anything unsaid.”

I can only speak for myself, when we are working on our relationship life is good. I feel confident, my trust in our relationship grows, I feel lighter and can remain present to everything that we have to be grateful for.

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