Relationship Meetings: good idea or bad idea or terrible awful idea?
February 5, 2014 7:45 AM   Subscribe

I have scheduled a relationship check-in with my long-term partner (a State of the Union, as per Pervocracy) only now I'm worried that it's just going to make things worse.

I love my partner dearly -- we've been together for almost 10 years. We live together. We're very happy. We agree on the major things (kids, religion, finances, etc). But we don't really communicate well about serious things. He tends to shut down when I bring up anything he doesn't want to talk about (admittedly, this is probably my bad as well, since I can come off as critical. I am working on this).

The problem is that we don't have sex nearly as often as I'd like, and I've been trying to work up the nerve to bring this up for almost a year. So, after reading Pervocracy's post on relationship negotiation, I foolishly blurted out a "let's a have a check-in!". Then I put it in the calendar to solidify the date.

Only now I'm worried. Really, the only big issue for me is the sex issue. What if he doesn't have anything to bring to the table? What if it's awkward and useless? What if he shuts me out, as usual, and then I have to accept that this is how things are gonna be forever?

Has anyone had this kind of thing before -- a scheduled relationship meeting, with a motive going in? Has it worked out? Any tips?

I offered to send him some things to think about, some jumping points for conversation. But I can't think of any! Help, please.

Should I just call the whole thing off?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

No, go through with it. You're nervous about talking to him because he shuts down, but you have the right to talk about stuff. Who knows, maybe the advance warning helps him gather himself. If he has nothing to talk about then that's fine.

For me, the SOTU talks happen organically. I wait for an opening, when we're relaxed or the topic has come up naturally and then express my thoughts. Or if it's not coming up then I say, you know this has been on my mind lately, when would be good to talk about it? Or have you noticed that....

By the way this stuff is about deepening intimacy, which can be tricky for any couple. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:52 AM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Of course you're nervous! You're bringing up an issue that's important to you and you're not sure how it's going to go, but it's absolutely worth addressing.

In terms of tips, I would suggest having something on which to focus that isn't just The Talking, like a pot of tea or something so if one of you needs a moment to think you can pour and sip some tea or whatever instead of just sitting there.

It also sounds like, since you only have one big issue, this can be an opportunity to establish how these conversations go and you can make it sound like a good thing, like "I think things are generally going well and there's only really one thing I wanted to check in about..." which could make him a bit more open to the conversation.

Know the outcome you want -- I assume that is "have more sex" and figure out some ways it could happen that feel non-confrontational. Why is it you don't have as much as you want? Is his sex drive lower than yours? Are you both just too busy and tired? How can you structure your lives so that this need is met?

Very very good luck to both of you. You've got ten years together and wanting more sex at that juncture is super, super reasonable. You will both be fine!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:00 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sex is an awkward subject, but if you want to discuss it, you should be able to WITH THE PERSON YOU'RE HAVING SEX WITH!

Be nice, non-confrontational and ask for what you want. It's not so hard.

"I love you so much and I'd love it if we could increase the frequency of sexytimes in our house. What do you think?"

Also, interesting that you think he won't have anything to bring up.

Here's a list of things you can send him:

1. Anything I'm doing you want me not to do.

2. Anything I'm not doing that you'd like me to do.

3. Sex, love, vacations, money, etc.

That's it.

A lot of us handle this at the dinner table, but to each his own.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:01 AM on February 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Should I just call the whole thing off?

No! I think this is a lovely idea that more couples should employ. Do it!

I offered to send him some things to think about, some jumping points for conversation. But I can't think of any! Help, please.

I would bring both negatives (the sex issue) and positives to the meeting. Be ready to thank him for X and Y, which make you feel loved/supported. Ask what you can do to be a better partner (per Ruthless Bunny), and then bring up the items that you think need improvement.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:09 AM on February 5, 2014 [10 favorites]

If you can't talk about it with him, nothing will ever get better and things can only get worse.

But don't make it all about the negative. Talk up the positive things he is to you, too. But note that he's been uncomfortable with this type of discussion before and tell him how that makes you feel.

You have needs. You should have them met. It's up to you to decide if more sex is a need or a want. If it's a need and he can't meet it, then you need to either leave or find a way within the framework of the relationship to have those needs met. This is why some people sit down with their SO and discuss sleeping with other people.
posted by inturnaround at 8:11 AM on February 5, 2014

What if he shuts me out, as usual, and then I have to accept that this is how things are gonna be forever?

Then... at least you'll have that information? Which is surely better than looking back on this 10 years down the line and thinking "yeah, I wish I'd worked that out sooner"?

Pervocracy's relationship-talk model wouldn't work for me, honestly. It's just one way to talk about serious relationship stuff, it's not going to suit everybody. But you still need to have some way to talk to your partner about serious relationship stuff, and it sounds like you don't right now. So, I'd say go ahead with this meeting, scary though it feels. Can't hurt, might help.
posted by Catseye at 8:12 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Open, frank communication is good for a relationship, but it's not comfortable for most people. But a good majority of the things we, as people, need to do to make sure we're living a good, healthy life are discomforting. Going to the doctor for a physical, sitting through a job interview is awkward, and having serious discussions about your relationship and sex life can all fall under the "awkward" category, but that alone is not a good enough reason to not go through with it.

If he doesn't bring something to do table, get some firm reactions/responses (e.g. not "mhmm" or "okay" or "yes" but actual thoughts and feelings expressed in sentences) from him as to what you're bringing. If he's the silent type, it might help for him to concentrate on you rather than himself and work your way to his end from there.

You're going to have to take the brunt of the work on making this not useless. It's not fair, certainly, but everyone has flaws and if being bad at having conversations like this is one of his, you have to work a little harder to get what you need out of it. And what you need is for him to understand that a) some sort of resolution to whatever you're discussing is important to you and b) the general idea of him pulling his weight in a discussion like this is important to you. Make it really, really clear that your happiness with him and with the relationship is, at the moment of the conversation, dependent on his equal share of the conversation.

If he doesn't want to talk, well, too fucking bad, that's exactly why this is a scheduled event the first place. Remind him of that, that he agreed to talk with you and not sit through you talking.
posted by griphus at 8:15 AM on February 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

(NB: I haven't a clue about Pervocracy's particular concepts and methods about sitting down and talking about this stuff.)
posted by griphus at 8:18 AM on February 5, 2014

There's nothing less sexy to me than someone saying "let's have a relationship check-in meeting like they talk about on Pervocracy" {{shudder}}. The fact that the tips are informed by the gross deliberateness and cheesy openness of the poly community just makes my skin crawl.

That wouldn't do anything for me. That is the most uptight, weird, horrible kind of relationship discussion I could imagine.

And sending him talking points ... Just, no.
posted by jayder at 8:28 AM on February 5, 2014 [15 favorites]

we don't really communicate well about serious things. He tends to shut down when I bring up anything he doesn't want to talk about (admittedly, this is probably my bad as well, since I can come off as critical. I am working on this).

Actually, I'd suggest that you put this topic front and center. Do some meta-discussion about how to problem-solve better. Plan to practice on something a little less intense than sex to cement that everyone is operating in good faith. Put sex on the docket for the next meeting, a couple of weeks from now.
posted by Sublimity at 8:28 AM on February 5, 2014 [11 favorites]

That is the most uptight, weird, horrible kind of relationship discussion I could imagine.

OP, this is exactly the sort of thing you're going to have to bust through with your "get over it and talk to me" to get what you want out of this, so heads up.
posted by griphus at 8:31 AM on February 5, 2014 [13 favorites]

I'm not good at these conversations, but in my opinion, they are best held on a walk somewhere, i.e. while doing something else that allows for pauses and thoughts, and is not physically entangled with the issues at hand.
posted by idb at 8:52 AM on February 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I would not send talking points ahead of time. They'll either be so vague as to be useless, or they'll be specific enough that they really need immediate discussion... not to sit in your partner's inbox festering and inciting unpredictable emotions.
posted by telegraph at 8:53 AM on February 5, 2014

I think the less you handle this like a business meeting (or showdown at the OK Corral) and more like an intimate conversation, the better it will go. It's not parent-teacher night. Pay attention to the lighting, the setting, what you're wearing--maybe have some wine or his favorite snacks/drinks. A walk might be good, as well. My husband would be distressed to have to discuss this at dinner.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:00 AM on February 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

When I first saw your question, I thought you were going to say you wanted to schedule a SOTU to ask your 3-month boyfriend "where are we going?," which I do think is silly and arbitrary.

But, no, this conversation is not silly and arbitrary at all.

Since you haven't had good luck talking before, I think it's a good idea to try a different approach. However, I don't think there is anything magical or inherently effective about this approach -it's not at all how I have relationship discussions- so I think you still need to think about why your communication has failed in the past, and what your shared communication style is like with your boyfriend.

Does he shut down because he feels you springs topics on him and want an immediate answer? Then tell him way ahead of your meeting what you're planning to discuss.

Does he hate talking right before work/after work/right before bed? Schedule it at a better time.

Do you have zero idea why he shuts down? Then maybe you should use this meeting to talk about that, instead, before you bring up this subject.

posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 9:01 AM on February 5, 2014

There's an exercise for discussions like this along the lines that Ruthless Bunny suggests. Each person lists three things:

1) something they want the other to start doing,
2) something they want the other to stop doing, and
3) something they want the other to keep doing.

If you google start stop keep, you'll find some discussion of it (with varying orders!). Maybe framing your meeting around that would make it the discussion you want rather than the confrontation you are worried about.
posted by Sock Ray Blue at 9:01 AM on February 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

What if he shuts me out, as usual, and then I have to accept that this is how things are gonna be forever?

Ok so I'm assuming the solution isn't DTMFA like some people are hinting- you love him & have kids together.
You've also mentioned that you give off a critical vibe.
And he's a man of little words.

I actually see this as a very solvable problem. There is lots of stuff you can do, and it all centres around backing off, listening, allowing. Some shy people just need space to breathe, you know? They need to feel safe & accepted.

- This isn't a 'meeting' with 'talking points' it's just step one of a series of chats.
- Acknowledge that you have a critical vibe and you're working on it. Apologize for shutting him down.
- Make "I" statements... I would like... I was wondering... I'm interested in... I'm worried that...
- He might say nothing this time around. If you've been a little critical for 10 years, then trust ain't built over night.
- listen to what he says. Refresh yourself on what true listening really is. Don't jump in with your rationalizations, excuses or diminishments. STFU and listen. (This is hard for anyone!)
- whatever he says is OK. Don't make a big deal of it, don't jump in there, remember your boundaries and all, just listen. Even if it's small. This is a judgment-free zone here.
- if you're anxious don't be so quick to jump to changing either. He might not want to say anything because you'll make it 'a thing'. So just listen.
- watch his body language! men of little words communicate by physically tensing up, or by suddenly acting less like themselves. I can always tell if something is bugging my partner because his body language changes and I ask him what's up and then emotionally give him tons of space to say whatever. Sometimes it's big, sometimes it's rinky dinky small (in my opinion) but the important part is that he has space to say whatever without me getting my panties in a bunch about it.
- don't poke poke poke... ask one question and back off, listen, respond. Don't let anxiety get the better of you.
- and if he says nothing, leave it be. You've 'cleaned the air' so next time just bring stuff up in the moment - if he looks tense or upset just break that 4th wall and ask 'hey are you ok?' Personally I've found this kind of 'in the moment calling it out' to be the best kind of intimate relationship building stuff.

As you can see there is lots of stuff you can do to change this dynamic... none of it is changing HIM it is all just changing how you respond and the vibe you give out. This will change a lot of things. Trust takes time to build up so don't have tons of expectations and don't get easily discouraged. Just let it grow.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:07 AM on February 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

I just want to say that you should go through with it. It seems like you have wanted to raise the topic of more sex at least over the last year, maybe even longer, but this topic seems not to come up organically for you guys. That's a long time to carry problems around, unshered with ones partner. Good you're making an effort to improve things!

As for advice, try to stay open. If he wants to sit back-to-back because he can not look you in the eye, so be it. If he wants to conduct this talk in writing, okay. Take it slow. When you reach a point where you can have genuine open and honest discussions with your partner, you will realize that this bit of nervousness and potential awkwardness was worth it.

Good luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 10:50 AM on February 5, 2014

Oh, if you feel weird about sending him a memo with talking points, how about an article or two that is a nice read but raises different relationship relevant topics. He can take from it what he wants if he needs inspiration, or not.
posted by travelwithcats at 10:55 AM on February 5, 2014

Instead of articles or a bulletted list, how about a gentle non-committal conversation in which you give him a general idea of what you're hoping to talk about, and in which you convincingly let him know that you're most interested in _listening_ to what he wants to say. Tell him at this time that he doesn't have to say anything right now, and the meeting isn't some kind of deadline -- you're always willing to listen -- but that you wanted to make sure there was a dedicated time when you both would focus on listening to each other and maybe exploring some ideas.

Letting him know what you plan to ask him ahead of time gives him a chance to mull over his response. It also will let him know that this isn't any kind of ultimatum meeting, and that you're not just there to tell your thoughts but to listen to his thoughts.

Doing this in an informal conversational way will make the whole thing feel less pressured -- which you probably really want.
posted by amtho at 11:15 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

A negotiation meeting without a 3rd party arbiter sounds a bit like a power play for the person calling the meeting. Would you think it was a good idea if your husband came up with the relationship meeting first?
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:24 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone's relationship and communication styles are different but I have a few suggestions:

1. Say nothing more or less than what you really mean, then give him a chance to digest and respond.

2. It might take a while for him to think on the conversation and get back to you, don't expect this to be magically resolved during or after one conversation. Give him a timeline as to when you would like a response (take 24-48 hours and get back to me with your thoughts if you feel more comfortable).

3. Don't pressure him and stay away from "When you x, I y" statements. Just tell him how you feel and discuss both of your expectations.

4. It's a lot easier to talk about what you like and could have more of at specific frequency intervals to give him a general understanding of what you're really looking for.

5. Be conversational. You've been with him this long, you should communicate in a way that makes him comfortable, i.e. non-confrontational. Also, keep the conversation going by re-visiting it casually in less tense situations.

Great for you to be discussing this, as it is clearly vitally important and integral for longevity in the relationship. Don't be nervous/anxious, you sound a bit like you're afraid of talking to a wall, i.e. him shutting down. Well, give him time to say what he needs, but ask open-ended questions. When you see his eyes glazing over, hold his hand and tell him you love him. That you appreciate his willingness to understand your needs and that you're grateful to have a partner like him. Especially if everything else in your relationship is peachy keen. I suggest going for a walk and understanding his perspective. Maybe he prefers you to initiate or a specific time of day, etc. Good luck.
posted by lunastellasol at 3:40 PM on February 5, 2014

Though I've never heard of Pervocracy, Wifey and I have been doing SOTU talks for years now. We write topics on slips of paper, fold them, and stir them into a bowl, then take turns picking one. Whoever picks starts the conversation about that issue, and we talk about it until we feel it's been covered adequately. Then the other person picks something. Lather, rinse, repeat.

We do it annually, usually around this time of year. Sometimes we only get through one or two topics on a given evening; other times, we blaze through a handful of them. But we've never completed an entire SOTU in one sitting, and we rarely use up an entire date night *just* talking about SOTU stuff. We usually manage to approach the entire process with a "same team" attitude, though for sure the thorny issues can lead to tougher discussions.

I think the randomization helps defuse the more difficult topics, because it doesn't come across as "I'm dissatisfied with our sex life (dun-dun-DUNH)" that way. It's also good because it ensures that everything gets talked about - my pet issue AND your different pet issue, not to mention that thing we both thought was no big deal but actually needs some attention.

Here's a partial list, from memory, of what is written on our slips of paper:
- Sex
- Health
- Money
- Career
- Friends
- Parenting
- Free time
- Homeschooling
- Household division of labor
- Family
- Vacations
Oh, and anybody can suggest new topics to add to the papers if they want to.

Getting back to your question... I know some people who think this sort of structured relationship maintenance feels too much like therapy, but it's worked well for us. Obviously, it's no substitute from bringing things up as needed in daily life, but there's something powerful about making sure you hit everything at least once a year. I say give it a try, and if you both hate it, well, don't do it again next year.

And I'd suggest that you work together to draw up a format and list of topics together, so it doesn't feel like something you're forcing on your partner but rather something you're creating together.

Good luck to you! I hope it goes well.
posted by richyoung at 3:45 PM on February 5, 2014 [16 favorites]

Also, e-mail or google doc? Sometimes it's nice to write down what you have to say because you were able to articulate it clearly with time. Then it takes a bit of the pressure off.
posted by lunastellasol at 3:57 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Big deal "where is our life going" type talks work best for my husband and me when we are super relaxed, not sitting opposite each other at a table, and have something else to pay attention to in the silences. He's the sort who otherwise walks away from complicated conversations before I feel like we've resolved anything.

We've had a number of good Serious Talks sitting on our verandah watching the sun set, with a cocktail in the hand. Or on long walks in a pretty location. Even in the car driving somewhere, although I think that's non-ideal for the concentration of the driver. It's important that he doesn't have anything scheduled for right afterwards so he isn't able to just wait out the clock, or have a reason to cut the talk short.

For me, having actual talking points planned in advance, or having paper and pen involved or anything structured like that would be very off-putting, but your mileage may vary.
posted by lollusc at 6:08 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

PSA: "taking points" are not points you talk about. They are not an agenda. They are themes that allied parties echo in communication with people outside their circle. Unless you have already come to an agreement on an issue, or agreed to let someone else dictate what you say, you cannot have taking points.

On your actual question, it may well go how you fear. You may want to go in with a backup plan for how you handle it when that happens. The strategy might include trying to calmly draw him out, non critically noting what you feel and notice about the conversation, or even being prepared to suggest maybe continuing the conversation with a therapist. Sorry if that sounds alarmist, but it seems like you're having some trouble deepening your conversations. Sometimes an uninvolved third party can be very helpful in drawing out those who shut down because they won't be growing increasingly frustrated by it (the way you might).
posted by salvia at 6:27 PM on February 5, 2014

PSA: "taking points" are not points you talk about.

Yes, thanks, but the meaning is clear here.
posted by jayder at 7:23 PM on February 5, 2014

but the meaning is clear here

Not really. I was confused and scrolled up to figure out what I'd missed.
posted by salvia at 9:24 PM on February 5, 2014

You say you're happy, but you can't seem to communicate about the things that matter pertaining to the private depths of your relationship. The fact that you've scheduled a 'meeting' like this and are so anxious about it speaks to the lack of communication skills the two of you have developed (or failed to develop) as a couple. Your fear at this point about what might happen during said 'meeting' indicates that you're either worried you'll be stonewalled as usual or that he might actually tell you what he's unhappy with, in which case you'd have to face his complaints and they might hurt. Either way I think your focus needs to be on sorting out a way to effectively communicate with this man. You're probably right about his shutting down because you have a history of going on the attack and nagging him. So you need to show him that you aren't going to turn into a shrew and that you are welcoming his expressions calmly this time around because you really want to connect with him.

Some things that may be effecting his sexual desires include:

-Age could be a factor in his loss of sexual interest. Men experience a dip in testosterone as they age, and some of them struggle with impotence and choose to ignore it (sometimes to the detriment of their heart health), and some just simply aren't as sexually interested and become comfortable with that.

-His disinterest in frequent sexual activity could also have to do with his level of sexual attraction to you. You need to prepare yourself for this on the off chance that it has something to do with your problem. People change over the course of a decade and usually they don't become more attractive. My ex's biggest complaint about his previous relationship was that his ex had gained enough weight to make him lose interest in her sexually, and she had no idea it was even an issue. He also complained that facially she'd changed and her 'sense of style' hadn't 'kept up with the times' and it was difficult for him to take her seriously. Hence no sexual chemistry. I remember cringing when he told me this and I vowed to always keep an open line of communication going with any future lover. I never want to be that woman.
posted by OneHermit at 11:09 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

We've had similar challenges in our relationship. What helped a lot was a) mutually agreeing that we sucked at having Serious Talks about things, b) coming up with a mutually agreeable system for talking about them, and c) actually doing it when necessary (hard, but doable). We accomplished this at first by seeing a counselor for a couple of sessions, and he basically gave us a list of hard crappy things to talk about and we practiced doing that and came up with a system and set of ground rules that worked for us. It sort of softened the terror and got us in the habit of bringing up things we didn't want to talk about and handling them.

Set some ground rules for the conversation, don't expect to fix everything in one talk, don't do it hungry or tired or in bed or about to go somewhere. If you're worried about veering off topic when you get nervous or emotional, write yourself a sticky note to reference. Be ready to hear things you don't want to hear, and try not to lash out.

There's lots of resources out there about how to have difficult conversations with a partner. A lot of it boils down to finding a quiet space to say, "When X happens, I feel Y and that is a problem for me. I would like to Z. What do you think?" It helps if you have some ideas about how to handle the situation, but give him a chance to think/respond before peppering him with them.

Good luck!
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:42 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

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