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How Much Slack Do You Have in Your System of Marriage?

habits priorities space stress May 13, 2024


The management scientist Edward Deming once said, "Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets."

Now, Deming was talking about large organizations and companies. But his insight applies perfectly to relationships for two reasons.

First, his words offer an important reminder. The results you and your partner are getting -- both good and bad -- aren't happening by random chance. They're created by an underlying system of habits, perfectly designed to give you those results.

This means that the feelings of loneliness, the late night conflicts, or the difficulty you have connecting -- these results aren't random. They're the outcomes of your system of habits.

Second, Deming's words clarify something essential in relationships. If our relationship is a system, then this system, like any complex arrangement, needs some amount of slack to function.

This may sound obvious. But most modern couples undervalue having slack in their system. They instead fill the system that is their relationship to max capacity at all times, lining every waking hour with as many work commitments, play dates, podcasts, and to-dos as is humanly possible.

What's the problem with not having slack in the system? 

Life happens. Your kid has a snow day or your parent ends up in the ER or you ding the rear bumper of your car in the parking lot at Costco. And when life happens with no slack, your system melts down, which often amplifies the level of conflict and resentment between you and your partner. 

So how can you add slack to your system?




1. Revisit your priorities.

Steven Covey once noted that "most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important."

Sound familiar? 

This urgency bias is really just a priorities problem. Instead of creating our own agenda for our life, we're allowing the random requests, texts, emails, and invitations from others to create it for us.

To overcome this trap, consider doing The Life Report Card exercise with your partner (Chapter 10 of The 80/80 Marriage) or just have a conversation together about where you want to place your time and energy.


2. Create space.

Building slack into your system requires doing something radical, something utterly counter to our current obsession with doing. It requires creating space.

We have seen couples achieve this counter-cultural feat in a variety of ways. One couple we talked to sets aside Fridays as a day free from work meetings, a day to catch up with work and with each other.

Others carve out an hour or two each morning that's unscheduled. Still others have created new professional arrangements where one partner works 80 percent or even 50 percent to create slack in the system for when life goes haywire.


3. Turn to the village.

It takes a village to raise a child. And it turns out that this village of extended family, grandparents, friends, and caregivers can also help you build slack in the system.

We all know this to be true. And yet sometimes we overlook this community of support. We want to do it all ourselves or feel uncomfortable asking others to help us.

So next time you experience the chaos of a full-scale life meltdown, see what happens when you ask for help.

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