The Marriage Retrospective
In popular culture and societal norms there is little space within romantic relationships to air your grievances about your partner. Or, if you do have a “safe” space to share things with your partner about the relationship — that you need couples counseling or a referee. But I’d argue that Agile methodology — that most versatile framework for product development — can even help when it comes to marital happiness.
For nearly a year now my wife and I have been doing “Life Dinners”. It’s a monthly date night, of a sort, where we exchange small gifts, have a nice meal, and discuss how the relationship has been progressing for the last thirty days. It’s a nice monthly level set where we can discuss the relationship openly and realistically — and talk about the next months goals.
The Life Dinner, on its own, is an awesome concept and I’d highly recommend it for anyone with a significant other that they intend on keeping around. But, like all good things, the Life Dinner concept was lacking a simple way to iterate upon the previous months shortcomings.
Enter our hero: Agile methodology. In agile software development, every two weeks the team comes together for a Sprint Retrospective. It’s one of the four hallmark “ceremonies” that build up the agile framework — the others including Sprint Planning, Daily Standups, and Backlog Refinement. The retrospective is unique within these ceremonies because it’s intent is reflection and improvement, it’s the wellspring from which teams learn to better themselves. Furthermore it encourages celebration and taking note of the team’s victories and overcome hurdles for the previous sprint.
Retrospectives encourage three topics of conversation in a specific order:
- What went well.
- What didn’t go so well.
- What we can improve.
The order is important because it helps enforce positivity at the end, while also setting good intentions moving forward. The order is much like the ubiquitous and tired “feedback sandwich” but, ya know, actually effective.
It’s with this format in mind, that you can create a safe place within your romantic partnership to air your dirty laundry and iterate on the previous month.
My wife and I have been using the retrospective to give us an open forum in which we discuss where we personally fell short of being the best partner to one another, and where we can individually make requests for different behavior from each other. We also get to talk about what we did well, as a couple, over the last month — and it’s a great way to kick off your first round of appetizers.
When discussing what went well it’s important to keep it brief in statement and not deliberate over details. If you successfully “adulted” the heck out of something — keep it at that, no need to dive into the laborious minutiae that you faced when you went through that process. Just delight in the knowing that you, together, rocked it at a particular task. Or maybe your “went well” is less task oriented, maybe it’s about attending to one another’s Love Languages or to how you felt particularly supported by your partner. All such things are worth recognizing, reminiscing over, and celebrating.
But when you move on to “what didn’t go so well” how you contextualize your retrospective is very important. Let this not be misunderstood: when reviewing “what didn’t go so well” be mindful that it’s not the time to tell your partner what they personally didn’t do well over the past month. On the contrary it’s a perfect platform to call out your own shortcomings and misfires over the last month.
Typically for my wife and I — we find that any shortcomings that we call out for ourselves are felt by the other. And instead of the conversation careening into the tense and uncomfortable territory of blaming, criticism, and contentious topics — it usually becomes a collaborative discussion over how one of us can improve, with the benefit of getting insight from both parties.
In any instance in which a course correction is needed it should come about in a very civil and meaningful way. And in our case it typically does, when things are done together with the end goal being an improved relationship: things seem to fall naturally into place.
When you move into your improvement phase, you should take into consideration the places that you didn’t meet up to your personal expectation — or those of your partner. Think about the context of the conversation you just had, and how you’d like to polish and buff some of the rough edges you uncovered. If you have deep, unspoken, grievances — best to let those rest until you have a deeper discussion. When you’re talking about ways you want to improve be sure that it’s ways that you, yourself or “you” as “us”, want to improve. You’re not conscripting your partner to change, you’re talking about yourself and “you” as the establishment of your relationship.
This practice has been of immense benefit to myself and Alex, I actively look forward with excitement to our Life Dinners. Furthermore I look forward to the change that I undergo in the process.
Much like in the workplace, upon the completion of a sprint, unless we take note of our shortcomings or plan a path forward we’re not serving ourselves, our clients, or one another.