In what ways is a romantic relationship like a business?

A relationship is a fragile emotional bond. Things can go wrong at any time, and wreck the bond for good.

But in addition to an emotional bond, a long term committed relationship is also a business-like bond. The problem is, most couples don’t think of themselves as running a business-like organization. It’s not very romantic.

And like a business, a couple relationship can fail when its members don’t meet regularly. Most clinical couples I work with don’t schedule:

  • Hang out meetings just for fun
  • Division of labor meetings about does what when
  • Meetings about financial goals or financial chores
  • State of the relationship meetings.

They don’t see themselves as the Co-CEO’s of the [their last name] organization. It’s as if when they got together, they said to themselves: “Now that we live together or got married, we don’t need to meet anymore”.

I get it, many of the couples I work with don’t meet because when they try to get together to discuss things, they end up polarized, hurt, or disappointed.  Their meetings don’t go very well, and the problems don’t get solved. Over time, they stop meeting.  But that means that they don’t have a process for solving problems.

Whenever I introduce these concepts, it makes sense to most couples, but it takes time for them to figure out how to do these business-like meetings successfully.

This is part of the work of couples therapy. A couples therapy session is a kind of “state of the relationship” meeting. When they practice in session, sometimes they are able to start doing this on their own.

I’ve tried to figure out over the years why it is that these meetings don’t go well, and I’ve come to the realization that the meetings don’t go well for two main reasons.

  1. The meetings don’t have a clear agenda
  2. The agenda for the meetings get commingled with the agenda for another meeting.

I see first hand how that happens. A couple comes in for a session, and they start talking. Pretty soon, it becomes unclear:

  • Whatthey are trying to accomplish with what they are talking about
  • What they are even talking about
  • Who’s talking about what
  • Who wants what
  • Who said what

No wonder they get demoralized. And sometimes, we, the therapists, get sucked into the confusion, and get demoralized too.

I’ve come up with a way to help couples in a session have a “state of the relationship meeting” in a session.

First, I ask couples to stop commingling a hangout meeting (be it a sexual encounter or a dinner at a restaurant) with other kinds of meetings.  One of the reasons partners bring up heavy topics during a hang out meeting is because they tend not to have other opportunities to discuss things. So as soon as they are out having dinner, they may start a fight.

When couples know that they’ll have an opportunity to have a successful, problem-solving conversation at another time, they are more likely to stop trying to fit everything in the hangout meeting, for example.

Second, I help each member of the couple separately become clear about the agenda for the session. I do that by asking each member of the couple:

  • What do you want to talk about today? This is easier said than done because many couples find it difficult to reveal their own wishes without the fear of interfering with the wishes of their partners.
  • What would you like to accomplish with what you are talking about? To be heard, to vent, to problem solve, to hear myself talk out loud about this issue? This is a question that confuses many couples. They are not used to thinking that when they talk to their partners, they need to be clear about their end goal and reveal it to their partners.
  • Who is going to go first? This is important because there isn’t always time to get to both agendas in one session and they need to know, and become comfortable, with that.

When couples begin to have a clear agenda and when they stop commingling the agendas of the different kinds of meetings, they become more organized, more transparent and, eventually, better partners.  Help couples get clear about what they want to get out of a conversation, and have them take turns talking, even if you don’t get to both members of the couple in a single session.