I once heard that the best way to keep your car running well for years is to have the oil changed regularly.

I ignored that advice when I was younger and always wondered why my cars wore out so quickly. But I’ve taken my last two cars in for regular maintenance, and they both lasted over a decade and kept going strong. The mechanics do a “100-point inspection” each time the car is in for an oil change and let me know what’s working well and what needs attention. It’s not always cheap or convenient, but it’s worth the investment.

Your marriage is a lot more valuable than your car; doesn’t it deserve regular maintenance, too?

My wife, Diane, and I started doing annual “marriage maintenance” several years ago. It has taken a lot of different forms, but the purpose is always the same: to stop, look under the hood, see what’s working well, what needs attention and what changes are necessary. Life can create a lot of wear and tear on a relationship, so taking time to get your marriage back to peak condition is critical.

A maintenance retreat

We realised early that it was tough to do marriage maintenance at home. There were just too many distractions. It would be like having your mechanic work on your car while you were running errands. We needed to get away and make our marriage maintenance time special, so we rented an inexpensive hotel room by the beach. That gave us the chance to take long walks along the sand, talk, go out for coffee and enjoy being together.

My wife planned our first getaway. I thought it would just be a weekend away, and maybe we’d talk about our marriage over dinner one night. When we got there, she had prepared a printed agenda covering multiple areas of life — mental, physical, social, spiritual and financial. I wasn’t ready for that, but we trudged through it. It was a rough attempt at maintenance, but at least we connected.

Now we still prepare an agenda, but it’s woven throughout a weekend of casual, relaxing activities. We leave our computers at home, turn off our phones and leave the TV off. We’ve talked ahead of time about what we’d each like to do and build that in as much as possible. Our mission is simple: enjoy each other and talk about how we can enjoy each other more in the year ahead. If we achieve that goal, all the other details tend to fall in place.

Making a list of topics and thinking of things to say about each one can be tough. We’ve discovered that the marriage maintenance weekend is easier if we each come up with questions in advance, combine them and print them out. We do this a week or so ahead of time so we can think through our responses and jot them down before our time away. We don’t discuss them until the weekend begins.

Once we arrive at our destination and settle in, we read our first question — and we both give our initial response. Then we’ll take a walk and keep the discussion going. Our goal is to hear each other’s heart and look through each other’s eyes — not to defend our position. After each discussion, we might cover one more question — then we take a break and do something different to clear our minds.

Ground rules

Before the retreat, it’s good to agree on some basic communication rules. Those could include things like:

  • Listen completely without responding in defense.
  • Only ask questions to clarify what they said, not to manipulate the discussion.
  • Finish by asking the other person if they feel understood.
  • Acknowledge emotion as it comes up (“I’m feeling frustrated when I hear that.”) instead of making accusations (“How could you feel that way?”)
  • Repeat the goal often during your weekend: Getting an honest look at your relationship and coming up with a plan to make it better in the next year.
  • Remember: It’s about working together for a better relationship, not deciding who’s right and who’s wrong.

Your 10-point inspection

Here are 10 questions you can use to build your weekend. Use them as a template or replace any of them with your own relevant questions. Don’t feel you have to get through all 10. It’s not a school assignment; it’s a structure to work together on your relationship. If one or two questions take your entire marriage maintenance weekend, that’s OK. You can always plan another weekend a few months later if needed.

Start with these questions and rearrange them in the best order for you:

  • What do you think is going right in our relationship?
  • What do you want our relationship to look like a year from now?
  • Are you happy? What does that look like?
  • What’s one thing I could do differently to be a better spouse?
  • Are you proud of us? Why?
  • Do you feel respected by me?
  • What do you need from me that I’m not giving you?
  • What’s your dream — if money, time or circumstances weren’t an issue?
  • What’s my blind spot?
  • What do I do that makes you feel the most loved?

The prescription

You’ve spent the weekend diagnosing and celebrating your relationship. Wrap it up by prescribing three things you’ll focus on and exactly what action steps you’ll take. Instead of saying, “We’ll spend more time together,” say, “We’ll go out for dinner every Friday evening and review the best parts of our week together.” Keep your goal simple and make midcourse corrections as needed.

Is it worth it? It has been for us. After 43 years, our relationship is stronger than ever. It’s not always easy, but regular marriage maintenance has resulted in this: We still like each other.

Time for an oil change? Put it on your calendar; you’ll never regret it!

© 2020 Mike Bechtle. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

Mike Bechtle

Dr. Mike Bechtle is a sought-after speaker and the author of "People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys," "I Wish He Had Come With Instructions" and "Dealing With the Elephant in the Room: Moving from tough conversations to healthy communication."

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