Recently, my husband, Marc, and I started testing out a new ritual.
We are habit people and find that when we can put key aspects of our connection on autopilot – that is, we get them to happen without having to think too much about making them happen – we find each other more in the slightly chaotic, sometimes harried, often muddled, basket weave that is life.
For over a decade, we’ve carved the habit of a weekly date night into our family blueprint, amassing a dugout of equally delightful and reliable babysitters and teaching our kids that mom and dad time is the norm, no different than morning breakfast or nightly tuck-ins. It’s just what we do. This is simply how the Manieri family rolls.
Call us overly self-indulgent, but we find that after 13 years of marriage, we’d actually like even more couple time together (gasp!). Sure, we see each other every day, but the bevy of hurried, innocuous, and sometimes snippy interactions Marc and I experience throughout our busy day feel more like baton passes in a relay than anything close to meaningful connection.
So we’ve started the practice of meeting once a week for tea (wine or seltzer works just as well, if that’s your fancy). And rather than let the day’s headlines or our endless checklist guide our conversation (i.e. Did you call the roofer? Should I book the flight before it gets too expensive? Are you going to call the bank about those extra fees?), we anchor our interlude in two questions that have completely changed how we spend those 30 minutes together: “What would you like to be acknowledged for?” and “What would you like me to know about your life?”
Notice that these are different from “How are you?” or “What’s going on?,” which usually elicit fairly standard and bland responses such as “fine” or “not much.” These questions require the responder to actually reflect, step inside themselves, and call something deeper to the surface. And when my husband asks me these two questions, the floodgates of my inner world literally break open.
What would you like to be acknowledged for?
For starters, this question immediately sends the message to me that the often thankless and mostly unnoticed work I do to keep our family and business humming matter to him. Being asked what I would like to be acknowledged for launches an internal inquiry that truly gives me pause. Hmm, what would I like to be acknowledged for? What is something I’ve done lately that deserves a little credit?
It’s not about praise or pats on the back, two things I care little about. In Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, I place “Words of Affirmation” at the very bottom of my list of ways I feel loved. (“Quality Time” and “Acts of Service” are tied for top position for me.) I don’t crave recognition or get a sense of elation when I receive them. But I do want to feel seen. The opportunity to say what I want to be acknowledged for gives me the chance to feel known, noticed, relevant, and appreciated, and that has enormous connective benefits for our relationship.
External appreciation has tremendous value, but here’s the thing: the real juice actually lives in the way that speaking my accomplishment out aloud (no matter how big or small) allows me to acknowledge myself. I get to unearth and underscore my tiny triumphs for the sake of my own recognition and notice. I’ve asked to be acknowledged for big things – like when I was nominated for an award! – and seemingly small things, like how I held my temper with the kids when they couldn’t find their shoes and we were already late. Marc speaks his appreciation for my feats, and then we switch so I can do the same for him.
What would you like me to know about your life?
In my experience, this question has such a different spirit from “What’s going on?” It’s not asking for a laundry list of to-dos. It’s recognizing that even married people, who live their lives in parallel, have their own distinct worlds they move in, and it invites each other into those worlds.
“I want you to know that I’m really worried about my dad, and it’s really hard to see his health fail.”
“I want you to know that I’d like to start spending more time with my friend Erica, and I wondered if it would work for us if she and I met for a walk on Wednesday mornings before the kids go to school.”
“I want you to know that I believe Elizabeth is having a tough time with your travel schedule, and I think it would be really good if you took her out for dinner, just the two of you, this weekend.”
“I want you to know that I’m so looking forward to getting away together next month. I really miss you.”
There’s a level of revealing and disclosure that this question seems to tap into. It offers me the opportunity to search for an answer I probably haven’t been totally present to. It’s amazing how worry or inquiry or concern or anticipation can hum away in the background like radio static. And then we look right at it, actually take stock of our life and all the balls we’ve tossed in the air, and boom, it’s like someone has tuned the dial perfectly.
It’s not always groundbreaking. Sometimes I want him to know that I think the cats have fleas again, that he really needs to move those boxes into the attic, that I’m really tired of how much chicken we eat for dinner, or that I started listening to a new podcast that I think he’d love, too.
Not every conversation is going to have us baring our souls, but some will. The point is the opportunity, the invitation, is there if we choose it. What bubbles or is beckoned to the shallows gives us the chance to reveal a glimpse into our world neither our partner nor even sometimes ourselves knew was incubating.
It all boils down to this: I matter. You matter. And even if we experience feeling truly significant nowhere else in the world but in the company of our spouse, the practice of being seen and known (even just by one single person) can be everything.