I remember when I was a kid and my dentist would repeatedly try to convince me to floss my teeth. I thought it was odd that he was trying to convince me to do things that would yield less business for him. After all, if I didn’t floss, I’d be more at risk of getting cavities, and if I needed to have cavities filled, it’d mean he’d earn more money.
Of course, see things differently now. I appreciate that the dentist was doing the right thing by trying to promote healthier behaviors for his patients. And I do the same with my patients.
One thing that I find myself recommending to nearly every couple I work with (and many of the individuals too), is for them to make me obsolete by holding quasi-couples therapy sessions together without me being present. I call these “State of the Union” meetings, as the purpose of these regularly occurring sessions is for the couple to mutually discuss how they feel their relationship is functioning: the state of their union.
Here are some of the guidelines or rules I suggest for State of the Union meetings:
- Formally schedule the meetings, just like how we schedule sessions formally.
- Enter the meetings in both partners’ calendars and set reminders for one day and one hour ahead of time to prevent from forgetting (or avoiding) the meeting.
- Schedule the meetings regularly, just like sessions with me usually are. Often, couples who have kids will need to find a time when their kids are asleep or otherwise occupied, but it’s not a great idea to do this late at night when everyone is exhausted. Instead, Sunday mornings over coffee seem to be a really popular time.
- Agree that it is the responsibility of both parties to make sure the meeting is held as scheduled. If one person flakes and forgets, the other person should take the initiative to get things started.
- If a scheduled meeting has to be skipped, reschedule it, just like you would with me, rather than waiting till the next week, as that meeting might need to be missed too.
- Set reasonable parameters for the meetings and stick to them, just like sessions with me. Set a firm starting time and stopping time …and stop when the meeting is over. If you schedule a 20-minute meeting and then let it run for two hours, neither of you is going to want to have another meeting next week. Instead, stop after 20 minutes (or 45 minutes, or 15 minutes, or whatever the two of you scheduled), and then schedule another meeting later the same day or the next day. It helps to have a timer or clock nearby.
- At the end of the meeting, spend the last minute scheduling or confirming the next meeting, just like we do in my office.
- It’s a good idea to alternate who “leads” or at least who starts the meetings. This way, it truly is a shared responsibility in this joint venture.
- Set some basic ground rules about conduct such as really exerting effort to be respectful, trying to use the time productively rather than destructively, and using tools that we’ve talked about in couples therapy like using time-outs and time-ins and using the active listening exercises we’ve practiced.
Now that some structure is set, you might be growing anxious about what you’re supposed to do with your 30-minute meeting without me guiding you. Again, think about how our sessions have flowed. I typically start with my standard opening question, “what’s on your mind(s)?” and I occasionally remind you that this is not a “throw-away” question, but rather an encouragement for you to pause and focus upon what thoughts and feelings you are experiencing at that moment. If you haven’t been in couples or individual therapy, don’t worry. It’s really not that intimidating of a process; it’s just unfamiliar to you right now. Maybe you can use the first session to talk about goals for these State of the Union meetings. You can discuss what you hope to accomplish, how you’d like for the relationship to be, etc.
These State of the Union meetings prevent people from just letting minor (or not so minor) irritants slide over and over again until they compound into destructive anger, resentment, and over-reactivity to triggers. They also allow people to briefly avoid dealing with the conflict or difficult conversation while also setting a realistic deadline for when that discussion will occur, hopefully when calmer heads prevail.
Give it a shot. Ask your partner to participate in regularly-scheduled State of the Union meetings with you. If the two of you struggle to hold them, or if they end up making matters worse and conflicts don’t resolve, that should serve as a strong indicator that it might be time to return to (or start) couples therapy with a professional …until you’re ready to make that professional obsolete while you do it yourself.