The beginning of a new year can be a testy time for couples. She’s on a new diet; he’s polishing off leftover holiday cookies and eyeing the Valentine’s chocolates. She’s waiting for the New Year’s sales; he’s shredding credit cards after opening the bills from their holiday purchases.

Counsellors – and our own experience – say much marital conflict stems from competing expectations and priorities. Though often unspoken, expectations drive each spouse’s agenda, leading to a wreck when they aren’t aligned.

Start the year off right

Get the year off to a good start by taking a retreat together. We started retreating eight years ago; now we depend on it. Our partnership deepens each year as we re-evaluate priorities and dream together about God’s plan for our lives in the year ahead.

For several years, we went to a family-owned cottage on a lake. Other times, we’ve hired a babysitter and gone to a coffee shop for several hours. The important thing is getting uninterrupted time – as a couple – to focus on shared expectations and priorities for the year.

Partnership and priorities

That first retreat, we tackled really big plans, including building a house and getting pregnant. Fulfilling those dreams motivated us to dream more – till we found ourselves making long lists of resolutions that proved tough to keep.

An insight we read from C.S. Lewis challenged our approach. When it comes to prioritising, he wrote that there are only three things to be done:

  1. the ought-to-dos
  2. the have-to-dos; and
  3. the like-to-dos

Now we use Lewis’ categories to guide our priorities. For ought-to-dos, we ask, "What has God commanded us to do? What is He leading us to do?" Our answers have included praying and studying Scripture daily, spiritually training our kids, volunteering at church, eating less and exercising more.

Next we consider have-to-dos – everything from organising paperwork for taxes to handling house and car maintenance. We write these down to ensure they get done.

The joy is moving to like-to-dos. We ask, "What do we love to do together?" We enjoy reading, having friends over for dinner parties and going to the symphony orchestra. We also consider our family time. Going on hikes, playing games, visiting the apple orchard, taking swimming lessons – these top the list.

Once you make your own list of things you should do, have to do and like to do, then guard them. Put them on your to-do list and calendar first, before less important things crowd them out.

The power of routine

For all the power of partnership and priorities, your efforts to dream up a new year together will be short-lived if they don’t become part of your routine. This goes for date nights, family game nights, quiet time, exercise time, car and house maintenance, everything. If you stick with it, your priorities will become habits and your goals will become reality.

Next year, that power of routine may motivate you to head off again to review the past year – and dream up another year together.

From the February 2006 Focus on the Family magazine. © 2006 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Steve Watters

Steve Watters is the vice president of communications at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is also a student. Steve and his wife, Candice, were the founders of Boundless, and Steve served as the director of young adults at Focus on the Family for several years before leaving for seminary.

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