Couples Therapy: The State of the Union Conversation

Source: Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Once we have been in a romantic relationship for a long time it is easy to fall into a rut or to switch to autopilot. By the time we notice that we have fallen into a routine or begin to stagnate, it can feel incredibly difficult to break out of that pattern. A central theme of my couples work is increasing intentionality and effective, explicit communication between partners. Having proactive communication is essential as it will allow your relationship to keep ahead of issues rather than letting them grow and fester. The first conversation I recommend incorporating with almost all my couples is what is called the State of the Union meeting.

The State of the Union conversation is a brief conversation (typically 5-10 minutes) that romantic partners should have every week. The point of the conversation is for both partners to share genuine feelings and thoughts about the current state of their relationship by answering three questions in order:

  1. What is one thing that is going well in this relationship?
  2. What is one thing that you are struggling with in this relationship?
  3. What is one thing that your partner has done recently that has made you feel loved, connected, or cared for?

You want to answer these questions honestly and as specifically as possible. Let your partner know specific behaviors that are happening rather than relying on generality or focusing on intentions. For example, instead of saying, “I’ve felt closer to you this week than previously,” say “When you surprised me with dinner it reminded me how caring and kind you are.” The more specific you can be, the more your partner will be able to understand you and care for you.

When having this conversation it is essential that you remain focused on just the past week. The purpose of the State of the Union meeting is to increase intentional check-ins with your partner. This is not the time to bring up concerns from the past. Instead, take this opportunity for both you and your partner to normalize that no matter how much you are struggling, there are always things that are going well in your relationship. It is also important to recognize that even in the best relationships there is room for improvement

Oftentimes when people first start having this conversation, they skip one of the three questions. This is especially common in relationships that have high levels of conflict or those in which conflict is carefully avoided. It is key that you go through each of the questions in order. We want to begin creating a pattern where you can bring up issues with your partner and understand each other rather than needing to have an in-depth problem-solving conversation. Sometimes we do not tell our partner something that upsets us because we do not want to make a big deal out of something. This conversation can be a vessel to help you both better understand each other in a safe way.

This dialogue is not about problem-solving. Instead of trying to fix anything that gets brought up, allow yourself to validate your partner and just listen to what they are saying. When we enter problem-solving mode too quickly, we can invalidate the partner’s needs. Instead, simply listen and try to internalize what they are telling you. Put aside any feelings of defensiveness, and if needed ask open-ended questions to help you better understand your partner. If something does come up that we absolutely do need to “solve,” make sure it is a separate conversation as we do not want to turn this short conversation into something bigger. I tend to recommend waiting until the day after the State of the Union to give you each time to collect your thoughts and process as needed.

Often when we are looking for ways to improve our relationship, we try to think of grand gestures we can make or it feels like nothing is big enough to make an impact. This is not the best strategy. Instead, try focusing on improving on small things. Get a better glimpse into your partner’s world. Allow yourself to increase your quality time together. Prioritize each other and your relationship. The State of the Union conversation is a great way to begin improving and strengthening your relationship.