STATE OF THE UNION MEETING

In the atmosphere of conflict, lack of courtesy and consideration that seems to be championed in the media these days, I have been inspired recently by reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. He writes: "[Benjamin] Franklin ...sought to bring [America] into an Enlightenment era that exalted tolerance, individual merit, civic virtue, good deeds, and rationality."

The recent series of State of the Union and State of the State messages, given by our elected leaders, reminded me that I often recommend couples increase their mutual respect and appreciation by having a regular “State of the Union” meeting. Here are two simple techniques you can use in all kinds of relationships: couples, families, even work partners and friends, to enhance your cooperation, tolerance and rationality, and to defuse conflict as soon as it arises.

State of the union meetings
Whether you are single, dating, married or have a family of your own, having a regular weekly meeting date to discuss the state of the relationship will make a tremendous difference in the emotional tenor of the relationship. If you’re blending a family from previous situations, you’ll find it makes a huge difference in your success.

When you have a regular chance to talk about what’s going on in the relationship, problems, resentment and frustration don’t get a chance to build. If you have children, every member of your family has a right to have his or her opinions respected. You don’t have to agree or go along with what your child or spouse wants, but you should at least know what it is, and your child should know why you’re overriding his or her preferences. Regular couple or family meetings, where everyone including the children expresses feelings, negative and positive, and all of you work together to solve problems, can help a lot.

Begin couple or family meetings as early in the relationship as possible, whether you think you have any issues to discuss or not. If you set a pattern of doing this early in a relationship, it will be easy to expand the group to include children if you have them. For relationships and families that are already established, it might feel a bit awkward to begin the meetings at first, but if you follow the steps below, everyone will soon experience the value of having an appropriate time and place to talk about issues and plans. Once everyone becomes familiar with the process, the formality of the meeting will relax, problems will be minor, and the couple or whole family can use the time for bonding, sharing stories and experiences, and creating quality time together.

Sit down on a weekly basis with your partner or family, and discuss everything about your relationship, positive and problematic, and how it’s going for each of you. If you have small children, include them and get their input, also. Choose a time when everyone can get together weekly, and suggest to everyone that you order pizza, or cook something together.

Begin the session with a brief prayer or blessing, and a round of compliments, where each member gives a complement to every other member—this creates a positive atmosphere. At the meeting, each person present can follow these steps:

1. Gratitude: Each person states a positive thing about each person in the family, preferably something that has happened this week. For example, I really appreciate how much you helped me this week when you knew I had a deadline at work.” Or, “I noticed that you made a big effort to keep the kitchen clean.” Or, “Thank you for your sense of humor. It really helps when you make me laugh when I’m getting too serious.” Be sure to thank the person after praising them. If you follow a religious tradition, you can open the meeting by giving thanks in the manner of your faith.

2. Improvements: Each person then mentions one thing they want to improve, and what they want to do to make it better. Small children will need help until they understand, but they will catch on quickly. Even you and one child can do this. The rule is that, in order to bring up a complaint, you must have a suggestion for a solution, even if you don’t think it’s the best possible solution.

3. Problem Solving: If anyone has a problem to solve, he or she can describes it, and then asks for help from the group to solve it. Everyone can work together to come up with a solution. Be careful not to allow the description of the problem to deteriorate into criticism and complaining. To state a problem use matter-of-fact terms, and use I messages: “I get discouraged and frustrated when the house gets messy.” “We need to come up with some money to fix the car.” “I have a problem at school.” “I need
help figuring out how not to fight with Susie anymore”.

This simple meeting will do more for the state of your intimate or family relationship than you can imagine. If you deal with them early, and approach them with a team spirit of solving them together, most problems can be solved before they become disasters.

These meetings will accomplish a great deal, and can change the nature of what I call your ërelationship reservoir:’ Every relationship (including family, friends and parent/child relationships) has what I call the “relationship reservoir.”

Your relationship reservoir
Every relationship (including those with family, friends and between parents and children) has what I call the "relationship reservoir". Over the course of your relationship, the interaction between you ë every kind or unkind word, every gesture of support or criticism, every honest or dishonest interaction between you, every gesture of affection or coldness, add up over the time you spend together.

If you fill your reservoir with good feelings, forgiveness, support, honesty, appreciation, caring, affection, emotional intimacy (and sexual intimacy where appropriate,) you build up a backlog of good will and affection ë your memories will be warm and mutually admiring. If you fill it with coldness, criticism, ingratitude, dishonesty, demands, and dissatisfaction, you’ll have a reservoir of resentment and disdain.

Each time your relationship makes demands on you as a result of major problems, separations, disagreements, illnesses, and stress, you will draw on your relationship reservoir. If you have built up a supply of good feelings and goodwill with your daily interaction, you’ll cheerfully give what’s asked of you. If not, whatever’s asked will seem like too much to give.

I wish you a reservoir overflowing with warmth and good feelings ñ the true guarantee of a lasting relationship.

Adapted from It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction
© 2004 Tina B. Tessina
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