My husband and I were friends before we started dating. At one point, during a retelling of a weekend of weird Match.com coffee dates and awkward singles events, he asked me what I was really looking for in a husband.
I told him that was the problem. I wasn’t looking for a husband; I wanted a partner. We each had a failed marriage behind us, and those initial conversations blossomed into a dating relationship.
After we got married, we had a few ups and downs as we adjusted to this new partnership. We didn’t quite know how to bring up the problems that weren’t in-the-moment fight-worthy, but also not small enough to sweep under the rug, either.
As we were talking about a work problem one day, we came upon the idea of treating our relationship more like a performance contract between partners, one where you can choose to renew, renegotiate, or cancel on an annual basis.
We weren’t sure if we were brilliant or insane.
The idea is simple: On our anniversary, we take turns reviewing the past year. This includes personal and team accomplishments. We give each other a hug. Then we take turns talking about the things we’d like to see improve. This is the tough part, and it can get hairy. At the end, we ask if we want to renew. If the answer is yes, we verbalize the changes we’re each going to make in the next year (and why).
Then we celebrate.
When The Shriver Report asked about our process, I sat down with Warren to interview us both.
How do you prepare for the annual renegotiation?
Warren: A couple of weeks before the planned negotiation I sit down alone with my notebook and a glass of wine. For some reason I find wine helps lubricate the mind to allow the memories to shake out. I reflect back on the previous year and make note of those moment which have made me the happiest and which are clouded in frustration or disappointment. These tend to be the experiences which inform my thoughts leading up to the negotiation.
Betsy: I look back through our blog, our project map (we work together), and even Facebook updates to remind myself what happened in the past year. It helps to remind me of all the great things we’ve accomplished together and separately. Then I think about what bugs me, or what I wish was different. It has to pass the “will this improve my happiness more than it will cost him in happiness to comply?” test to bring it up. Sometimes I don’t know the answer to that, so I have to bring it up anyway.
What is the hardest part for you?
Warren: Remembering all the many details and examples. It is not enough to say that Betsy is too defensive or that I love when she initiates sex. It is only fair that I bring up specific examples so we can talk about the moments and not just the concept.
Betsy: Getting critical feedback from the person you love it not easy. But we’ve learned how to give it with love and hopefully I’m better at receiving it. But still, to be told you’re not measuring up in some way by your lover is tough. But better to hear it now when I can do something about it than later when it has grown too big to manage.
What is the best part for you?
Warren: Reflection on fantastic memories together. I am an unabashedly deeply in love with my wife and having a time in the year I can wallow in that feeling is pretty damn good. After each negotiation I feel closer to her and realize that we can tackle anything…because it is us.
Betsy: The review of our accomplishments is always great. It makes me feel like part of an invincible team. This is also what makes the hard part easier to bear. I’m fighting for something great here!
Are you ever worried you’ll get a cancellation notice?
Warren: WHY? What did you hear? Should I be worried? Seriously though, my biggest fear is that I could be so woefully ignorant that our relationship had reached this point. Could I really miss all the signs? I assume that if I do then I deserve to get cancelled. To this point it has never been a fear. We spend a great deal of time talking about our relationship throughout the year. This annual renewal is an opportunity to mark the end of the year and create a fresh slate for a new turn of the calendar together.
Betsy: No, I think anytime you’re willing to enter into negotiation it means you find value in the relationship. And knowing we have a yearly renewal keeps us both on our toes. There is nothing more frustrating than exchanging vows and then forgetting them. This is an ongoing enterprise, and we want to keep it sustainable.
Name a few positive changes you’ve seen since we started doing this.
Warren: I listen more. My natural tendency is to immediately start thinking up responses the moment that Betsy begins talking. After a few of these I recognized (ok, she pointed it out) the need to stop thinking. Just listen. And through this process I’ve learned to look at situations from her perspective. I’ll admit that I will likely need to work on this every year, but I’m pleased with the progress and more importantly, my awareness of how I can be a better husband.
Betsy: I’m less defensive and have learned to (mostly!) separate my ego from feedback. I don’t take him for granted anymore and think more about how I can make him happy in the relationship than how he should be making me happy in the relationship. And ironically, that’s made me happier.