Dr. Anne Brennan Malec is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of Symmetry Counseling. She works with couples to develop the tools they need to live better lives–together. She's also the author of Marriage in Modern Life, a guidebook to creating and maintaining strong teamwork within your relationship–in a time when teamwork is more necessary than ever. We got to pick Dr. Malec's brain for her best advice on marriage including finance tips and how you can add excitement into your marriage today.
Motherly: What is your number one, most important tip for couples to communicate effectively with one another on a daily basis?
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec: Create the time and space to talk to each other on a daily basis. I call it the daily check-in, whereby couples spend 20 minutes talking about events of the day, how they are doing, sharing concerns about themselves, the relationship, the kids, their home, money, etc. Skipping it every now and then is okay, but do not make it a habit.
If partners know that they have this dedicated time to connect, it leads to a stronger emotional connection. Consider it to be self-care for your relationship.
Of course, in order to maximize the benefit from this time, the couple needs to have agreed upon rules of engagement that create a conversational safety-zone: no talking over each other, fair time management so that each can get (approximate) equal time, no yelling, name-calling, sarcasm, or exasperation (loud exhaling, checking of one's watch or phone, eye-rolling).
If one partner is getting agitated or hot under the collar, one of the partners should suggest that the check-in be rescheduled for when the partner is feeling calmer and more focused. Neither spouse should unilaterally introduce a topic that has a history of creating tension or conflict within the relationship – for these issues, one partner should invite the other to a discussion at an agreed upon time and place. For example, Jane asks John, “are you open for discussing our summer vacation plans tonight"? John should have the right to say no, but he must also propose an alternate time and place.
Motherly: In becoming new parents, many things change—especially dynamics in your relationship. How do you think new parents can stay connected with one another through the first few months of that new-parenthood-chaos?
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec: To help with the transition, new parents need to show each other that they still prioritize the marital relationship. This does not need to be a grand gesture, but a simple commitment to regularly check in with each other and remain aware of how the other person is doing. Establishing this routine early is crucial to maintaining the marital relationship as a priority as children grow older and the parental responsibilities evolve. A simple perspective check can also be helpful for new parents.
Transitioning from a family of two to a family of three often involves a decline in time, energy, and attention to devote to the relationship. Both partners need to remember that this deprivation is temporary, and keep expressing small acts of affection, even if it seems like your partner is not reciprocating equally.
By keeping an open dialogue about relationship needs and committing to actively maintaining a semblance of intimacy, you can ease the transition to parenthood.
This transition to parenthood is all about finding the right level of balance between meeting personal, relational, and familial needs. Partners need to work on becoming aware and communicating when they need some time away from home, to reconnect with friends or simply get a breath of fresh air. Talk prior to the transition about your expectations for how you will spend your time together once the child is born. Coming to an agreement in advance will help life run more smoothly and show your partner that you
prioritize the marital relationship.
Motherly: What's one simple way we could all add a little excitement into our marriages today?
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec: Meet your spouse at the door with a hug and a real kiss that sends a very clear message of your desire for your partner. This requires that both partners be mindful and present during the interaction. Too often, couples fall into auto-mode with their daily routines, including greetings and farewells. Take back the excitement of this moment by actively paying attention and appreciating this time with your partner.
Motherly: Money can be a source of stress in a marriage. What have you found to be a smart way for couples to talk about and handle their finances together?
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec: Simply put, couples need to have more open communication about finances.
Couples should make a routine of having monthly family financial meetings.
For these meetings to be successful, they need to be put in the calendar, have an agenda, and the partners need to prepare all of the necessary documentation from which to make decisions (bank balances, credit card statements, tuition bills, investment account statements). Sometimes, the meetings will only serve as check-ins so both partners can remain up-to-date on the financial situation. Other times, this provides a safe space to discuss new issues or pending decisions.
Both partners should be involved in family financial decisions.
Even if one spouse acts as the “family accountant", the other spouse should be fully informed as to the income, spending, savings, retirement accounts, and family budgets. Having secret credit cards or cash accounts is a form of financial infidelity, which can create significant distrust in the relationship. Open communication and awareness are great deterrents to conflict and distrust.
Budgets should be created together, agreed upon, and revised as needed. Have an agreed upon spending limit above which you will check in with your partner before proceeding with the purchase. To limit potential conflict, some couples set up personal monthly budgets, which are a set amount that each of you gets to spend without judgment or questioning from your partner. If one of you wants to buy a new purse, pay for a fantasy football league, or lunches out, so be it. This provides a healthy balance between dependent and independent financial decisions.
Motherly: What would you say is the most important ingredient in the recipe of a successful marriage?
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec:
Research finds that kindness and generosity are two ingredients that help to maintain a healthy and loving marriage.
If a couple can focus on providing a daily dose of affection, attention, and appreciation, while minimizing criticism, they are fortifying and enhancing their marital foundation which will serve them well over the long run.
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec is the founder and managing partner of Symmetry Counseling, a group counseling, coaching, and psychotherapy practice located in downtown Chicago. She has been instrumental in Symmetry Counseling's growth and success, and what started in 2011 with just six offices and five counselors has expanded to include over 20 professionals and 19 offices in two Chicago locations.
Dr. Malec, who had an earlier career in business, made a significant shift in 2000 when she began her training in the fields of Marriage and Family Therapy and later, Clinical Psychology.