key to a healthy relationship

Key to a Healthy Relationship: Save It for the Summit

My husband, Paul, and I have a pretty healthy relationship. In fact, I would say that we are soulmates.  However, we also have each had numerous romance fails in the past. So we expend every effort to insure that our current relationship does not start to slide. Generally this is pretty easy. We agree on most things, work pretty easily together, and generally pick up the slack for each other’s weak spots.

However, into every relationship a little friction will come. When you spend 24/7 alongside another person (we work, live, and play together), sand will sometimes grind the gears. Despite being generally reasonable people, we both get a bit irrational when steamed. Each of us has resorted to, shall we say, less than ideal methods of communication when angry.

Paul can perseverate and become focused on making sure I understand exactly what I have done wrong. This generally makes me want to scream “Can I just opt for the water boarding, if you’ll shut up?!” I, in turn, sometimes cut and run to avoid conflict. In mid-sentence I might flee upstairs, grab my car keys and head for the nearest state line, or just yell “Stop Talking!”. As you might imagine, none of this goes over well. Clearly, if we treated each other this way all the time, it would lead to relationship problems.

Paul and I are also very aware that if we want our dream trip to be a relationship building experience, we need to optimize our communication skills with each other. Especially if we do decide to spend that year travelling the country in an RV. The last thing we need is for our dream journey to lead to a complete marriage fail. We are going to have to spend time working to maintain our healthy relationship throughout that year together.

key to a healthy relationship


Summit For a Healthy Relationship

As it so happens, Paul and I both trained as clinical psychologists long before we met. I abandoned that career path after deciding that people give me panic attacks. Paul did the same once he realized how little patience he had for people talking about their problems. Neither of us was what you’d call an ideal candidate for therapist of the year. But our training at least gave both of us solid technical tools for sanding down a relationship’s rough spots. Not so you could tell in the middle of the Great President’s Day Blowup of 2015. However, we think that we have figured out the trick to better living through pop psychology: The Summit.

I have to give Paul the credit here, as he is the one who first suggested The Summit. We spend an hour every weekend reviewing the week, talking about troubles that arose, and coming up with ways to avoid future friction. The genius of the idea (and the part that makes it work) is that during the week any gripe that doesn’t need to be dealt with urgently is “saved for The Summit.”

So, if Paul thinks that I should keep my comments about his food intake to myself, or if I have a quibble with his inability to put down the iPhone when we’re watching The Handmaid’s Tale, we save it to talk about at The Summit. We do not, under any circumstances, get in a big fight at that moment. Even when I just want to watch my damn show without seeing that little cell phone light pop on 47 times. It’s not important enough to discuss when we are both irritated and not particularly receptive to hearing “feedback.”

So we wait.

The Summit’s secret sauce is in giving ourselves permission to air our grievances. If you don’t, that volcano is eventually going to blow. At the same time, we maintain the self-control to wait a couple of days to discuss the issues. By then the initial irritation has faded, and we are less likely to overreact due to exhaustion, work stress, or psychoglycemia (psychosis brought on by extreme hunger).

Often by the time we get to The Summit we realize that our irritation was just a momentary reaction. Paul likes to quote one of his favorite existential philosophers, Mellencamp, in this regard: “Nothing matters and what if it did.” Sometimes those things that seem so critical at the moment fade in importance with time and perspective.

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When there are real issues getting under our skin, The Summit helps us bring our good respectful selves to bear. We are also more likely to accept our own mistakes at The Summit. We then work together to find a plan to correct them.

Sometimes when we reflect on the fact that we actually do The Summit, we roll our eyes and feel very touchy-feely woo woo about it all. The Taylor-Burton conflict style better suits our natural selves. But we’ve both done those relationships, and we’re tired of them. We just want to get through our work day and find ways to have fun together. Bickering about stupid stuff is a huge waste of our remaining years together.

The Summit in Practice

We’ve been summitting (we even created the verb form) for about three years now and it has been amazingly productive. The Summit has grown from a simple place to reduce relationship friction to a weekly check-in. We now use The Summit to discuss our various self-driven goals and aspirations for the future. It is a time that we both look forward to, and it often rolls on long beyond the hour that we have set aside for it.

How does it work? Well, we have a set of ground rules that we have set up to ensure that the summit goes smoothly.

Laying the Groundwork  

  • Save it for The Summit. Unless absolutely necessary, save issues that arise during the week to discuss at The Summit. The key to using The Summit to maintain a healthy relationship is to find a way to skirt the minor arguments. Rather you want to decide whether that irritation you feel is simply situation-based, or whether it represents a larger relationship issue that you would like to solve.
  • If it’s over, drop it. If an issue drove you crazy Tuesday night, but has become a non-issue by the time you summit on Saturday – drop it. It clearly is not important enough to spend your time discussing.
  • Set a regular schedule. We like to sit down on Sunday mornings ourselves. Find a time that you and your partner are regularly available without distractions. Of course, if competing commitments arise, be flexible and reschedule The Summit for a time that works better.
  • Meet every week. Meet during your scheduled Summit time whether any relationship issues arise that week or not. Use the time to support each other and reinforce the strength of your relationship. A well-placed “I really appreciated how you cleaned the kitchen this week” can do wonders for your long-term relationship health.
  • Create a calm, relaxing environment. Put those phones away. Turn off the radio. Make sure that the kids are occupied to avoid interruption. Maybe light a candle to go for that hygge feeling as you sit to work our your problems of the week.

Careful Communication

  • Focus on your partnership. Always keep in mind that you are working together to solve a shared problem to help improve your relationship and reduce irritations.
  • Start positive. Start by pointing out something that each of you appreciated about the other in the preceding week. It will help to remind you of your good interactions and your investment in each other and your relationship.
  • Use “I” statements and focus on how the situation affects you. Don’t say “You never listen to me.” Rather “I feel sad when it doesn’t seem like you hear me.”
  • Never say never. The words “always” and “never” are particularly dangerous ones. No words in the English language are more likely to derail a productive discussion than these two. If you tell your partner that she “always” leaves the front door unlocked, rather than address your concern, she will point out the four times she locked the door just last week.
  • Be concrete. Make sure that your description of the situation is, well, descriptive. A vague “I don’t like it when you play on your phone” isn’t going to move the ball forward. While a clear definitive statement like “I feel lonely when you read your phone in the middle of dinner” gives you something to work with.
  • Be an attentive active listener. You each will want to work to keep your defenses down to hear what your partner is saying. Don’t interrupt. Don’t argue. Rather focus your eyes on your partner, nod to acknowledge you hear them and, when possible, repeat their statement in a reflective way so that they know you are listening (“I hear you saying that you don’t like it when I check my phone at the dinner table”).

Relationship Problem Solving

  • Your goal is to solve a problem. Never forget that the purpose of The Summit is to come together to solve a shared relationship problem. So drop the defensiveness and help your partner figure out how you can both work toward a relationship that works for you.
  • Create a concrete action plan. Once you have identified the problem, you will want to create a plan to address it. We recommend approaching this action plan the same way you would set SMART goals. You want to make a plan that is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Results-Focused, and Time-Bound.
  • Check in. Revisit each week any active action plans created in previous weeks in order to see how they are working and tweak if necessary. Sometimes your final solution will be achieved by adjusting and iterating your initial plan.
  • Summarize. Summarize your plan (or plans) for the week and make a commitment to each other to do your best to achieve them.
  • End on a positive note. Be sure to end each session with something positive. This is particularly important if the heat started to rise during The Summit. Remind each other of your love and your shared commitment to a healthy, happy, relationship.

We have found The Summit to be incredibly helpful in maintaining a positive relationship, and we hope that you will as well.  We are able to gloss over minor incidents, and during the week, whenever the temperature rises, you will hear one of us whisper “Save it for The Summit!”

And miraculously we do.


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