Couples should talk, right? We all know that. It’s the most basic tenet of marriage guidance. But face it, the communication gets fragmented in relationships and marriages when the hurly-burly of life and jobs set in, and children’s myriad needs and troubles, and the hundred things that go wrong with day-to-day issues like houses, car, holiday plans, ageing parents and so on. Hence, the fragmented communication needs to be restored by one important annual event – an end of the year couples retreat.
So we spend years in crisis management – fire-fighting, reacting valiantly to events and batting away potential disasters one by one. In this piece, Libby Purves, the author of ‘Nature’s Masterpiece, A Family Survival Book’, shares her couples retreat experience. She calls it the Annual General Meeting walk. Interesting!
I used to have a recurring dream in which I was at the bottom of a pit, like a children’s ball pond, and people kept throwing down plastic balls at me. I had to throw them back before I got buried, and they came bouncing back faster and faster until I woke up in a panic remembering the kitchen drain, the difficult unwritten letter, the school trip money, the dry cleaning…
But as any business guru will tell you, dealing with events day by day is only the half of it. You need some sort of strategy. To manage anything, even a family, you sometimes have to stand back for a moment and see how close you are getting to your mission statement (even though it probably just reads ‘keep going, keep everyone upright and smiling and solvent, that’ll do’).
You almost need to draft an annual report to shareholders, even though the shareholders share a bed.
On the human resources front, you also need to check that management colleagues are all singing from the same hymn sheet, and want the same things.
So let me pass on something my husband, Paul, a radio broadcaster, and I discovered in the busy years when the children were small. We invented, quite deliberately, the Annual General Meeting walk.
Settling the children down with her and the Christmas loot to play with, we put on weather-proof jackets and strode out of the house with a Thermos and sometimes even sandwiches – heading across the country for a really good stretch of a walk, with long views.
Where we lived in Suffolk that was easy, but even in the most urban setting there is bound to be some hill, park or towpath to give a sense of perspective, a metaphor for the journey through life. It had to be just the two of us.
There were other winter holiday walks of course, in gangs with relatives and multiple dogs and scampering or grumbling children, and babies in slings and meetings at a tea shop.
Is the commuting OK – is it worth the train in order to live somewhere nice like this and, if not, how much longer do you think you can bear it?
How’s the money generally? What do we hope for in the next 12 months? And what did we do right and wrong in the past 12 months?
One moves on from basic questions to personal ones. Are you OK, or are you bored with what you do? Are you sharing out the house jobs fairly? And the children – you take them one by one, reflecting on difficult phases, school problems, health worries.
Not the little daily things like colds, but whether they seem fit, happy and active, or whether one or other of you has been noticing something; worrying about it privately without a chance to raise the matter with the other parent because it never seemed the right moment.
What about school, nursery, playgroup – honestly, is it working? Do the kids see enough of their grandparents, or too much of one lot and not enough of the other?
On that subject, are in-laws driving either of you mad?
Or maybe one of you is a bit sad at living so far from siblings or parents, with few trips or visits.
Oh yes, and this business about getting a dog/cat/rabbit/hamster…shall we calmly discuss the pros and cons for once?
Is the children’s desire for another cat going to end as badly as the insane moggie who had to be re-homed due to her incompatibility with every other creature in the household, including Dad?
Too many questions? I sense a certain horror – you may imagine the walk descending into marital mayhem, if not someone getting violently shoved into some stinging nettles, or indeed the canal.
But because it is a walk – and both of you are a little bit short of breath – the replies to hard questions tend to come more slowly than usual, giving vital time for thought.
And because you’re walking side by side, or with one sometimes moving ahead for a few paces on a narrow bit of the path, there’s none of that naturally confrontational attitude you get in a weary late-night face-off across the kitchen table with an imprudent bottle of wine.
Besides, just when you get to the dangerous bit about the posh fridge, potential dog or tricky in-law, one of you may notice a squirrel doing something pleasingly cute with a nut.
And you pause, and gain a moment to think of something conciliatory to say. Or find yet another reason not to have a puppy.
I tell you, it worked for us. Honest. Thirty-five years and counting.
Do you think a couples retreat can work for you too? Start making plans right now or include it in your schedule for next year.
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