I grew up with two married parents, whose relationship swung like a pendulum between loving and dysfunctional. I remember the good times, when my parents were kind and affectionate with each other, but I also remember the tears and screaming matches. Through much of my childhood, my siblings and I secretly wished for my parents to get divorced, which they eventually did in my early twenties. Because of this, I didn’t feel completely prepared for marriage.
Before I got married, I tried to learn as much as I could about how to have a happy marriage. Sure, my husband and I had done lots of talking, but I didn’t feel like we had day-to-day instructions on how to do the work of marriage. And as much as our society pushes marriage as the preferred relationship status for everyone, there is a surprising lack of detailed training out there. I was confident that I did not want a marriage like my parents—who spent twenty years fighting—and that I wanted to start our marriage with a good foundation. So I asked the married folks I knew, I asked my social media buddies, I asked family and even coworkers for their words of wisdom. I got a lot of advice like “don’t go to bed angry” or “happy wife, happy life” but not a lot of advice on how the day to day of married life should go. Sure “happy wife, happy life” makes for a clever saying that you can stitch onto a needlepoint pillow, but it’s pretty useless as a blueprint for how to run your marriage day-to-day. You’ll get advice that you need to communicate with each other, but no one ever tells you how to communicate, or when, or how often, or what things you should share.
The Standing Sunday (Laundry Folding) Meeting
My husband William and I are both scientists, who have spent years in companies of various sizes learning logical problem solving, processes, and corporate norms. We’ve learned how to keep your manager in the loop on your projects, give and receive feedback, and to navigate the dreaded review cycle. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but slowly work behaviors started working their way into our marriage. It started with the status meetings, which are normally a time to meet with your boss and give an update or ask questions. It seemed logical to me that we should do something similar, but without all the formality. At work I schedule time with my manager (or we have a standing meeting) and I come with a detailed list of projects, their status, and any questions I have. With William, things are much less formal. Generally we have our catch-up talk on Sunday, while we do our other chores like laundry. We have a chat about what’s on our schedules for the upcoming week, along with tasks we need to complete or topics we need to discuss.
Leading up to our first anniversary, I suggested that we should give each other performance reviews on our first year of marriage. I was joking, but he looked at me and declared it a genius move. We’ve already borrowed corporate norms and tailored them to our marriage, why not do a performance review? In the office, a performance review highlights your accomplishments from the past year, as well as your strengths and opportunities for improvement. This is valuable information for a spouse to have, right? And this is the kind of stuff that people probably don’t reflect on in their marriage, but they should.
Before the reviews, we set some ground rules and logistics. We agreed to start with each person writing their accomplishments, strengths, and areas of improvement, and then giving that to the other person. The other person would then use that information to write a review and determine a score on a 1 to 3 scale, with a 3 being the best. We also agreed to give them to each other on our anniversary. In hindsight, that could have been a bad decision, but instinctively we knew that we weren’t going to give each other bad reviews. And beyond the celebrating and romance, I really wanted to hear how William thought I did as a spouse, and I wanted to tell him just how much of an awesome spouse he’s been through our first year of marriage.
Performance Review Year One: Exceeds Expectations
The review gave me an opportunity to think hard about my marriage, the role I play in it, and what I expect from my husband. I replayed the previous year in my head, and thought about how I could have done things differently or the things that I did well. As I wrote my husband’s review, I realized how much he’d exceeded my expectations as a husband—partially because I had few expectations to begin with, but also because we do a good job of staying connected and responding to each other’s feedback. At our anniversary dinner, we both presented each other with our reviews, and we both rated the other as “exceeds expectations.”
We relied on our corporate experiences in crafting and delivering our reviews. In most offices, performance reviews typically cover an entire year, highlighting accomplishments and areas to improve for the next year. Many companies stress that a performance review should reflect feedback given throughout the course of the year, and not be a surprise to the recipient. William and I used these norms as the foundation of our performance reviews for each other. The goal wasn’t to nitpick over who leaves the cap off the toothpaste, or to vent about a recent frustration between us, but to look at the big picture of our roles as spouses and figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
The feedback in our reviews was very consistent to the feedback that we share with each other all year long, and we used the reviews as a time to praise each other, instead of focusing on negatives. But it wasn’t a praisefest either, there was plenty of constructive feedback. I learned that it really bothers my husband when he makes a suggestion on a plan of action for our family, and I discount it in favor of my own opinion. I didn’t get defensive because I know it’s something I’ve done in the past. Because of the ground rules we’d set, and knowing that my husband gave me feedback with the goal of getting better, I was receptive to the criticism and worked with him to find a resolution. I explained my viewpoint but reassured my husband that I agree with his decisions, and I’d do better in the future.
Even In The Tough Years
It turns out, the advice we received to figure out what works for us in our marriage was the best advice of all. My husband and I relied on what we knew and cobbled together a business-influenced communication and feedback style. Adapting corporate behaviors in the office led us to interact with each other the same way we interact with our office colleagues—with respect, less emotion, and a desire to see both parties succeed. As emotional as marriages can be, sometimes it’s necessary to operate in an objective manner, and corporate norms provided the framework we needed to achieve objectivity.
The ability to communicate and provide feedback in an objective manner are tools we’re going to need in the future, because every year of our marriage won’t be so easy and blissful. Marriage is going to get harder, as we add kids and other changes into our lives, and those moments will be the true test of our system. Those tough years will make for tough performance reviews—it’s easy to give a performance review to a person who is killing it, but it’s difficult when the review highlights areas that need to improve. Those reviews will be hard to take, but knowing that the process will make me a better partner makes it all worth it.