There’s no magic bullet where every couple who practices it is guaranteed to make it forever. Absolutes when it comes to relationships should usually be looked at skeptically. But one thing many healthy and successful long-term couples share is a commitment to some form of a relationship check-in. They may not use this exact terminology, but keep its essence: structured and intentional time to plan communication about the relationship and maintaining it is a common denominator for many couples who are thriving, long-term.
We say over and over and over again that successful relationships are based on communication – but many of us weren’t given concrete, successful blueprints for what that looks like in practice. When many of us are told to “work on our communication”, we are at a loss for what that actually means. We thought we were communicating but instead are told we are arguing. We want to communicate but aren’t even sure what we want to say. Instituting a relationship check-in can be a helpful way to set up some infrastructure and familiarity around these communication questions so that they become less intimidating, and more of the natural fabric of your relationship. Here are my best tips for making successful relationship check-ins part of your dynamic:
What is a relationship check-in?
Many of us are familiar with the idea of “the talk” in relationships – an intentional conversation, maybe a heavy one, about an issue that one or both partners feel the need to address in their relationship. These can be difficult on everyone even when they go well. A relationship check-in is an intentional conversation designed to provide a platform for, or even prevent, the kind of issues that may lead to “the talk.” It’s designed for you both to be able to ask and answer a few simple questions: how do I feel in this relationship? What are my needs and wants? Are they being met? Is there anything I’d like to see change?
It can be difficult to keep up with the abstract “work” of a relationship in the day-to-day grind; it’s easy to let the kinds of discussions that relationships need to be successful, about small slights or small opportunities for things to be better, fall by the wayside when you’re both busy and stressed. It can also be tough to get the necessary follow-through on ongoing issues or conflicts; we have one or two discussions about something challenging and hope that it was resolved well enough because we don’t have the energy to keep returning to it. This is the kind of challenge that can lead to ongoing resentments which cause real damage to relationships; it’s important to make sure that issues are actually resolved, and both partners feel heard about them, rather than just results for the moment. Relationship check-ins can be a great time to really set aside the time and space to do that work.
All of that sounds a little bit heavy, so it’s important to remember that relationship check-ins, much like your relationship itself, can be fun and sweet – much of the time you and your partner’s relationship is great, and this is a great time to really verbally remind your partner how much you appreciate them and how happy you are.
How do they work in relationships?
Many folks choose – and I support this approach – to make relationship check-ins a regular part of their dynamic, regardless of what is or isn’t going on or whether it feels like there’s something specific that needs to be talked about. Think of it like a one-on-one with the boss at work, but more reciprocal. Knowing that there is a relationship check-in coming up every week, month, or three months takes off the pressure of being vulnerable enough to ask for a conversation when it feels like one is needed. It also motivates you both to remain actively thinking about the state of the relationship, and your and your partner’s wants and needs, even when there isn’t an active conflict.
Ideally, you and your partner would have a regular standing relationship check in at an interval of time that feels good to you – if you’re early in your relationship more often might work better; if you’ve been together for 10 years and feel relatively stable, it might be a different interval. You might also think about setting up relationship check-ins ahead of something major — a scheduled couples therapy session, a long vacation together, or major anniversaries.
How do I make them work for my relationship?
Think about what makes a conversation between you and your partner most likely to be successful. A time when both of you have the day off work, so neither of you has to run to a stressful job immediately afterward? Sometime when the kids are with a friend or a relative so you can think more clearly? It’s best to have these conversations in a neutral physical space, like on a walk or at a coffee shop, if possible, and also a neutral headspace — a harder proposition! We’re always going to have some level of emotion, but if you’ve had a really challenging day or are dealing with some tough emotions that day, it might be good to reschedule.
Think about what your ideal outcome(s) are from this conversation. Do you want to broach a topic with your partner? Ask them to change something? Do you want to hear how your partner is doing? Are you worried about them and want them to understand you’re there for them? Are you feeling anxious about the relationship and want to understand if your fears are justified? How could you frame these things to set you and your partner up for success? Remember that even if you have a specific goal for the conversation, you shouldn’t have a specific goal for your partner – the goal is to directly communicate where you’re at and hear them out, not to persuade or manipulate them.
So for instance, if you’ve been feeling frustrated because it feels like you do all the dishes, a good approach would be to say “I was hoping to talk about the household chore schedule – how are you feeling about it?” and then to do the most important, most challenging part of relationship check-ins: really, truly listen! There may be one — or five — household chores your partner has also been doing all of on their own without you even realizing. If you do need to figure out a better way to approach dishes, remember to approach the issue so that the two of you are solving it as a team, not one of you assigning a solution to the other: while it’s fine to say something like “I feel like I’m loading and unloading the dishwasher every night after dinner; do you think we could make a schedule and take turns?”, it might be even better to ask “I feel like I’m unloading the dishwasher most of the time. Do you notice that? What do you think we could change?” and see if your partner wants to be an active part of the solution. Watch what a difference it makes!