What If We Treated Our Relationships More Like We Treat Our Careers?
My man's a bit of a workaholic, and since we started dating, I've noticed he uses a lot of business-speak when talking about our relationship. Let's touch base about our date tomorrow, or We really need to do some problem-solving around this issue. We've sat down and "workshopped" our relationship on more than one occasion, and we regularly send each other calendar invites to officially schedule time together, such that our dates appear on my Google Cal right alongside my team's weekly editorial meetings and my check-ins with my boss.
Believe me—I resisted all this stuff for a significant chunk of the beginning of our relationship and have openly teased him about his hilariously bureaucratic ways among our friends. But within a year, I quickly became a believer in our little mini-business.
As silly as it might sound, this communication style has actually really helped us have some clarity about our relationship: What we're doing, what we each want out of our romance, and how we can best accomplish those goals are all constantly laid out on the table, discussed, and nurtured in the right direction.
When you really think about it, building a relationship is a lot like building a business: It requires a ton of investment, constant attention, planning for the future, and even a little strategy. But even more than that, there's a mindset that we bring to our jobs that we just don't really bring to the romantic arena. Something about the weight of monetary consequences mixed with the drive to achieve professional success tends to unearth the most intelligent, creative, hardworking, and committed versions of ourselves. When it comes to our careers, we're taught to value innovative thinking, to be collaborative team members, and to strive for absolute excellence.
That's all pretty far removed from the general squishiness from which the rules of love are typically drawn. In courtship, we're taught to be a little coy and measured about our interest—never too direct or assertive, like you're supposed to be in the workplace. In dating, we make irrational decisions based purely on emotion and make bizarre assumptions about our partner's needs and intentions without really talking about them—as opposed to the way our work projects require logical, crystal-clear planning. In marriage—the metaphorical C-suite of relationships—we strangely can get a little lazy about big-picture relationship maintenance, getting absorbed in the day-to-day and sometimes just taking our partners for granted.
But what if we treated our relationships a little more like we treat our careers?
"In your career, you always think, 'How can I perform better? How can I perform sustainably so I don't burn out?'" psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, tells me. "In our relationship, that's what we should also be sorting out, whether as a couple or on a personal level."
Dr. Neo works with high achievers all the time on personal growth and relationship coaching, so she knows how career-minded folks think, as well as what it takes to build a strong, healthy relationship. I also spoke with David Burns, the founder and head coach of The Business Monk, who helps people take the art of external achievement they've already mastered and apply it to their inner development. Together, we pooled some of the best habits we use in our professional lives and how we can apply them to our love lives.
In many ways, the application of this mindset is an embrace of mindfulness—of learning to be fully present and aware of your own sense and emotions as you're proceeding through your relationship. With that, let's get this workshop started.
1. Set goals and targets.
Just like we have long-term goals for our careers ("In five years, I want to be…") and our business (a certain number of sales, followers, page views, or any other KPIs), Dr. Neo suggests making a concrete list of milestones or qualities you want to be seeing in your love life. She stresses that this process doesn't have to be cold or clinical; it can just be asking yourself honest questions about what you want.
"How do I want to feel in this relationship? For some people, they want a sense of security. Some people want a sense of passion or fun," she says. "How am I going to get there?"
Once you know what emotions you're seeking, you can start to think about the actions and behaviors associated with those feelings and what logical steps you need to take to get there. Ask yourself: How do I know that we're taking care of each other's emotions? How can we ensure we're actually having fun with each other and not just going through the motions?
That process of "goal-setting" can function as a means of creating self-awareness, and when discussed as a couple, it opens up a channel for two partners to be transparent about their needs and desires—and then work toward achieving them together.
2. Hold regular reviews.
Just like your manager might check in to make sure your projects are running smoothly, my partner and I often build out time about once a month to do big-picture "relationship check-ins." For us, that means curling up in bed and having a sort of state-of-the-union conversation, in which we each discuss how we've been feeling about the relationship and about each other. This is our time to bring up any problems that might be bubbling up in the backs of our heads that we haven't really mentioned for whatever reason and also an opportunity for us to see if we're still on the same page, emotionally speaking. If there are any areas for improvement, we come up with a specific "action plan" for how we can address them: Maybe I promise to try to be a little less volatile when expressing my work frustrations, or he might promise to be more attentive to me at parties.
Burns and his wife take these check-ins a step further: They hold rhythmic daily, weekly, and monthly reviews. "The basic idea is just looking at what's working, celebrating what happened, gratitude, [as well as] things to let go of, and things to improve," he explains. The daily version is just 15 minutes, while the weekly and monthly ones are a little longer. They even like to bring a little ceremony to the process, like lighting a candle or some incense.
"Relationships generally, and especially a relationship to one specific person, is a skill," Burns says. "So treating it as a skill [means] it's not a question of whether it's working or if it's broken or it's promising. Having that shift not only allows for improvement over time, but it also takes off a certain amount of pressure. It's also a daily reminder of having a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, you consider yourself to grow over time based on the attention and energy you put into anything."
Consider bringing up the idea of check-ins or reviews with your partner. Ask each other: How are you doing? What's working, and what's not working? What new ideas or practices can you introduce to address some of the problems?
3. Make time for brainstorming fresh ideas.
Innovation is an expectation and necessity when it comes to running a business, and the same ought to be true for your relationship. The internet is littered with advice columns for what to do when your relationship gets stale and how to rekindle that spark, but what if we made a point to make sure brainstorming was a regular part of the programming?
"Relationships are living, breathing organisms. Just because you've got a ring on your finger doesn't mean that a relationship doesn't evolve," Dr. Neo says. "It's OK to know that you want to innovate, [that] you want to make change, without feeling bad about it."
During our reviews, my partner and I frequently note when we've been spending too much of our hangout time watching TV shows, for example. When we notice we've fallen into that pattern, we immediately make plans for a date night out on the town, for a Saturday at a coffee shop to write together, or for attending a unique class or event. Diversifying our experiences as a couple is an important part of our routine. The added bonus here is that it's never awkward for either one of us to bring up a new thing we want to try or a change we want to make in our weekly rhythm.
4. Follow up.
Anyone who has ever been in the midst of a serious job search has probably been slapped over the head with these two words over and over: Follow up. After any interview—or big client call or mentoring session, anything—you're supposed to touch base afterward to confirm what you discussed and what the next steps are. It's sort of a beautiful concept when you really think about it.
Couples can sometimes fall into the trap of having huge arguments, resolving them, and then never speaking of it ever again. Part of the draw is wanting to put the past in the past, but sometimes this can create more areas for tension to build up if the conversation was too hastily closed. A wonderful example: I had still been involved with my ex when my current partner and I started dating, which obviously caused a lot of emotional turmoil for us all. After I successfully extricated myself from that past relationship, my partner made a point of asking me about how my heart was doing with moving on every few months for the following year. This made me feel immensely seen and cared for, and it gave me a chance to bring up my struggles without feeling like I was unhelpfully picking at our old, already-closed wounds.
And following up doesn't only have to apply to fights. It can also apply to the kindnesses your partner shows you or the warm ways they make you feel on a particular day. Follow up a little later: Say "thank you," often.
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5. Set up uninterrupted time containers.
"If you're in a classical 9-to-5, then generally you work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and you try not to take your concerns from the day into the evening," Burns explains. "In the same way, you get that deep presence and nourishment in the context of a relationship with a similar set time containment."
Just like you might say to yourself, OK, I'm going to check emails for the next half-hour, try setting aside dedicated time like that to be with your partner. Put the kids in bed and put the phones away so that you really have no other distractions.
"It just means blocking off set periods of time when the only thing that you're doing is being together," Burns says. "My wife and I have a tea ceremony that we have every day where we sit together in silence."
6. Take vacations.
On the flip side, just as it's important to spend mindful time together, it's just as important to schedule in some necessary alone time. Your workplace expects you to take a few days off for vacations throughout the year, in addition to your weekends and sick days, to rest and rejuvenate.
"In a way, what helps you perform well during the 9-to-5 is that you get a break from it," Burns says.
Both Burns and Dr. Neo always encourage members of a couple to make sure to have individual time to bond with their own friends and pursue their own hobbies. My partner and I consciously build time away from each other in our schedules—if we've been spending too many nights together in a row, we make sure to balance it for the next few days with several nights apart so we can collect our heads and recharge.
7. Go all-in.
One of the biggest indicators of a strong team member is earnest passion and dedication to the work. Entrepreneurs usually need to fully commit to their new business if they want it to succeed past inception. Even on the broadest level, the reason the full-time employment setup is so universally accepted as the most effective way to staff your business is because employers want their teams' undivided time, energy, focus, and creative output.
In comparison, dating culture today dictates an extended period of remaining "casual" and keeping our options open before fully diving into a new relationship. But our own hesitancy to really commit to a budding connection in the name of "playing it cool" or "protecting ourselves" actually puts us in a Catch-22 situation, Burns explains, "When there's a tendency to waffle and not go all-in on the relationship with the one person because you're not totally sure if it's going to work out or if it's the right person, you guarantee that it's not going to work out because you're not going all-in on it."
How could it work, when you're not investing?
At the end of the day, it's just a mindset shift.
Success is a mindset. It's a product of how much time you spend developing skills (specifically mindfulness), paying attention, and putting in energy. The tools and systems and investments needed to make our businesses function and to excel at our jobs have been carefully developed, well-documented, and well-taught to us as we embarked on careers early in our lives. There's no reason we shouldn't transfer all of that well-established wisdom into other areas of our life, particularly our relationships.
None of this is to say we need to abandon all forms of spontaneity and surprise in favor of a rigid relational process; couples can and should still embrace that playfulness. These strategies just serve to simultaneously create stability and ensure the relationship's long-term health by making us more open, more direct, and more committed to growth and change. For my partner and me, they've ensured there's always clarity and direction for the two of us on our journey together. Our mindfulness within our relationship has never been stronger.
You'll be surprised how much a simple calendar invite can transform your love life.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter