How Agile is Your Relationship?

Let’s face it: we are all creatures of habit. Habits of mind — patterned ways we interpret events and predict what’s coming — can stall a relationship. Often, partners become entrenched in opposing stories about what is going wrong between them. Repeated interactions that don’t go well can put us on high alert for “more of the same,” so we react reflexively instead of with present-moment awareness.

A wife (let’s call her Lynn) might see her husband spending money lavishly and without regard for her goals of saving money. As time goes by, she may come to believe “he doesn’t care,” or “I have no say in this marriage.” The husband (“Tom") may be completely unaware of what is happening in his wife’s thoughts and feelings, only hearing her distress during an angry tirade. So Tom doubles down on his spending, feeling entitled to do so and coming to see his wife as unhinged or unreasonable. And in turn, Lynn feels even more discounted and minimized in the marriage.

This sort of disconnect becomes the norm, and both partners feel increasingly hopeless. As a couples’ therapist, I see variations on this theme often. I love finding ways to address the impasse and to convey the value of orienting to “here and now” rather than “there and then” so couples can solve problems together — unencumbered, as best they can, by the narrative of hurt and blame their minds have embellished.

I recently learned about theories of Agile leadership and implementation in business settings, and I was delighted. The Agile theories mesh well with family systems theory, and may even point toward a path forward for clients like our fictional Tom and Lynn. The core idea is to shift the focus of interactions to adaptability and response, rather than auto-pilot analysis (based on the past), prediction, and reaction. I am grateful to Len Lagestee for presenting these concepts in user-friendly terms. So let’s assign Tom and Lynn the position of co-senior leaders of their marriage. The desired “product” is maintaining a stable and satisfying relationship. An Agile approach begins with creating a vision: what kind of marriage does each of them desire? How will they know they are on track? “Building blocks” for partners often include intimacy, connection, trust, and commitment, promises we make on our wedding day, but lose sight of later.

In business terms, Agile means close collaboration and continuous delivery of “product” (according to Wikipedia). This is accomplished by leadership that is attuned and encouraging, plus an overall commitment to adaptation as the need for change or reassessment arise. These systemic principles of organizational dynamics are very similar to well-established guidelines for couples, emphasizing appreciation, collaboration, flexibility and attunement.

Agile leadership is “stubborn on vision and flexible on details,” according to Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Len Lagestee notes that beginning with a shared vision orients teams toward working as collaborative partners. A guiding principle, “failure is an option,” allows for freedom to experiment and allow for do-overs, rather than inflexibly insisting on perfection. The Agile model values continuous feedback and interaction. It pays attention to barriers to progress, and prioritizes their removal.

So Lynn and Tom might “Agile” their marriage by defining a vision based on honesty and collaborative goals for spending and saving. They might experiment with sitting down together monthly to review finances, or seek outside assistance. As co-collaborators, both can take responsibility for bringing an attitude of encouragement and appreciation to the project.

Tough problems will still need to be solved, and two more Agile principles are relevant here: “staying in discovery,” meaning being alert for ways in which change is occurring or how new information informs the project. So if Tom gets a big year-end bonus, or if they encounter a financial setback, their commitment to a vision and their skill at working together should help minimize overreactions either way.

The second principle is philosophical rather than tactical. Lagestee offers a quote from Denma Translation of the Art of War: “This is not simply about bringing the other person over to your side, but bringing him or her to something larger than either side.” A sound practice for business teams, and an excellent model for marriage! An Agile approach for couples avoids blame and keeps the big picture in mind.

Repairing and restoring a disconnected relationship is never easy. But an Agile-like process may help you sustain hope and create a context of civility and respect moment to moment and interaction to interaction, while delivering the goods that your relationship deserves.

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