“The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.” —Tony Robbins
By Cat Saunders
In today’s world of multitasking madness, relationships suffer. People in primary relationships say they don’t have time to connect with their partner in a meaningful way each day. And people who aren’t in primary relationships may avoid intimacy because they think relationships take too much time.
Somewhere between too little time and too much time lies the truth. The truth is that good relationships take some time to keep them running smoothly.
In the late 1980s, I developed a simple practice called “Quality Time” (or “QT”) Dates. Couples can use this practice on a daily basis to help them stay connected.
QT Dates are easy to learn and easy to use. You can use them to nurture any relationship. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus on primary or “significant other” relationships (e.g., partner or spouse).
QT Dates take only 15 minutes a day, although you can take more time if both parties are up for it. In general, especially when you first start, I recommend keeping your dates in the 15-minute range.
In many relationships, one person may be more talkative than the other. Make your QT Dates long enough to get the job done, but short enough so the quieter person doesn’t get overloaded. If it helps, you can even set a timer for 15 minutes to stay on track. With QT Dates, it’s better to err on the side of too short versus too long.
Although 15 minutes isn’t a huge chunk of time, some people say they can’t even do that. However, if you and your partner make your QT Dates a priority, they may actually save you time. Why? Because they can help you stay up-to-date with each other. This in turn can help you avoid some of the conflicts that arise simply because you’re out of touch.
If you decide to experiment with QT Dates, allow a generous amount of time to give them a chance to work. You’ve probably heard of the farmer who keeps pulling up his newly planted sprouts to see if they’re growing? Don’t be like him!
Figure out what amount of time you and your partner are willing to give your initial experiment with QT Dates. Begin there. If you aren’t willing to use them daily for at least a few months, don’t bother starting. Years ago, some habit-change experts began telling people that it takes about three weeks to change a behavior. However, recent research indicates that it takes much longer than that to integrate and maintain behavioral change.
It would be great if you can give your dates a minimum three-month trial period before deciding whether or not they help. During this period, regard your dates with an open mind and an open heart. Just do them as a practice without focusing on results.
Let me pause here to say a word about one of the main purposes of QT Dates. They are designed to keep you and your partner up-to-date with each other on a daily maintenance basis. They are NOT designed for relationship overhaul work!
In other words, QT Dates are NOT designed to be two-way conversations or processing sessions. If something comes up that warrants further discussion, make a date—with each other and/or with a counselor—to handle the issue on another day. If you let your QT dates devolve into long, drawn-out discussions, you’re missing the whole point!
Below are the four basic components of a QT Date:
1) Mad/Sad/Glad/Scared Feelings
2) Mutual Appreciation
4) Three Nice Things
For the first step, each partner takes a turn doing a series of structured “Mad/Sad/Glad/Scared” statements. This four-statement model was originally developed by the late Eric Berne, M.D., who was famous for his work with Transactional Analysis.
Apparently, Berne wanted to find a way for people to communicate feelings that was so simple even children could do it. Although there are many ways to express feelings, I like Berne’s model because it’s so simple. I also like it because it helps people identify and “bottom-line” their feelings. And it helps people express their feelings in responsible, first-person “I” statements.
In the first portion of your QT Date, one person takes a few minutes to express his or her feelings using the Mad/Sad/Glad/Scared model. During this part of the date, the other person simply listens. Then you switch roles.
Before I give you the four statements to practice with, I’d like to mention a couple of important things about listening.
Listening means that you give the other person your full attention without chiming in, criticizing, adding your two cents’ worth, or “swiping the focus.” It’s important to “be with” your partner’s feelings without commenting and without trying to change or “fix” them in any way.
Being heard is one of the most precious gifts you can give anyone. Unfortunately, some people like to be the focus of attention even when they’re (supposedly) listening. They’re always looking for ways to interrupt, add a story of their own, or offer unsolicited advice. Needless to say, poor listening skills can lead to chronic communication problems in relationships.
The Mad/Sad/Glad/Scared model works like this:
Let’s say you’re starting this part of the date and your partner is listening. You might say:
I’m mad that a man at the grocery store swore at me today when I accidentally bumped into him with my cart.
I’m sad that I need another gold crown.
I’m glad that I got a bunch of good mail today.
I’m scared that the rainforests are disappearing.
As you can see from these examples, you can talk about anything you want during this part of the date. It can be personal, interpersonal, or global. It can be superficial or deep, or it can be related to the past, present, or future. This is your time to express your feelings about anything. Go for it!
Just be sure you communicate responsibly. Make sure your statements are about YOU and YOUR feelings, as opposed to blaming someone or something else for how you feel. For example, consider the following two statements:
I’m mad that there was toothpaste all over the sink this morning when I went in the bathroom to brush my teeth.
I’m mad that you always leave big messes in the bathroom and expect me to clean up after you!
Which statement sounds more responsible to you?
After you cycle through a few rounds of Mad/Sad/Glad/Scared statements, switch roles with your partner. Remember, when you’re the listener, you only listen. It’s okay to say “thanks” or “thanks for telling me that” after your partner is completely done with his or her round of Mad/Sad/Glad/Scared statements. Other than that, though, your job is to listen.
For this first part of your QT Date, aim for 3-4 minutes per person to express feelings. That might not seem like much. But you can actually cover a lot of ground in a few minutes if you stick with the structured statements. Don’t digress into long-winded stories.
By the way, you don’t need to get obsessive about time-keeping. Just do your best to stay on track, and err on the side of brevity. The practice of expressing your feelings briefly and responsibly is as important as the content of your words.
When you’re doing this part of the date, you may notice that sometimes you aren’t aware of a particular emotion. If this happens, give the feeling a chance to come up by saying the lead-in phrase for that feeling as described above. If nothing comes up, don’t worry. Just notice this and acknowledge that you don’t have anything to say about that particular feeling. Then move on to the next one.
You may notice that you repeatedly draw a blank for the same feeling. If this happens, you may want to explore this on your own or with a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor.
For instance, one of my clients noticed that he almost always forgot to include “I’m scared that” statements. In fact, he didn’t even remember to say the lead-in phrase for the “scared” portion of the four-part feeling statements.
Men in our culture are conditioned never to show fear—much less feel and acknowledge it. So his omission didn’t surprise me. However, it took him a long time before he was able to access this feeling. It took even longer before he was able to express even minor fears out loud to his partner.
After you and your partner have each had a turn doing feelings, move to the second portion of the date. This part is about Mutual Appreciation. You’ll use the same general format, in terms of making first-person statements with one person speaking and the other listening. The difference is that you’ll use only one lead-in phrase—“I appreciate that.” For this part, you will specifically focus on things you appreciate about each other.
When you express things you value about your partner, be specific. Mention all the little things that touch your heart. Talk about the big things, too. Say out loud how much you appreciate your partner’s kindness, integrity, or sense of humor.
You can give specific examples from that same day or from days gone by. It’s definitely okay to appreciate the same things again (and again) on different days. I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind hearing what someone likes about me even if I’ve heard it many times before!
If by chance you’re mad at each other on a particular day, it’s even more important to do the appreciation section of your date. When you’re angry, it may seem difficult to come up with something you like about your partner. Most of us were conditioned to believe that love and anger are mutually exclusive. That’s not true at all! In fact, it’s not uncommon to feel the most angry toward the person you love most.
Part of being responsible in a relationship means staying in touch with love even in the midst of anger. Don’t withhold appreciation in order to “punish” your partner. During times of conflict, most people need more—not less—assurances of love. Don’t be stingy with appreciation when you’re mad. Maybe the only thing you can think to appreciate is that your partner is willing to put up with you when you’re mad!
After the appreciation portion of the date comes Prayers/Intentions. For this part, I like to say a one-sentence prayer out loud with my partner. The prayer comes from a chapter called “The Resolution Prayer” in Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide to Being Human. It goes like this:
“Anything unresolved in my life now resolves itself gently, easily, and completely for the good of all.”
You and your partner are certainly welcome to use the Resolution Prayer if it appeals to you (the book provides more details about this prayer and how to use it). Or you can make up your own prayer for this part of the date.
If the word “prayer” puts you off, you can substitute whatever word fits your style better. Look for a term you like that shows a positive focus, intention, or goal. In addition, feel free to change or revise your prayer or intention over time as needed. The point is to come up with something that feels good to both people.
After you say your prayer or intention out loud together, complete your QT Date by sharing “Three Nice Things” that happened to each of you that day. The structure for this part of the date is the same as before, with each person having a chance to speak as well as listen.
For example, I might say:
One nice thing that happened today was that the neighbor’s cat came over to visit me while I was gardening.
Another nice thing is that I got a letter from my longtime hero, Andrew Vachss.
Another nice thing that happened today is that I felt really good about my work with clients.
After you each have a turn recalling three nice things, cap off your date by thanking each other and then you’re done.
I want to offer two addition tips to help your QT Dates get off the ground. One involves how to initiate the date.
In many relationships, one person tends to be “the initator” most of the time. Some couples are fine with this, while other couples want to create more balance and mutual responsibility around initiating.
If you’re in the latter category, remember that QT Dates aren’t designed for processing anything. So if you want to improve your relationship’s balance around initiating, make time to do that together later.
Whether or not you want to work on this issue at a deeper level, here’s what I recommend you do to initiate your QT Dates. Take turns! One week, it will be your turn to initiate your daily date, and the next week it will be your partner’s turn.
Okay, you say, but what if your partner forgets it’s his week and therefore forgets to initiate? Please don’t waste time and energy getting all bent out of shape about it. Instead, you can offer a gentle reminder question: “Is it your week or my week?”
Sure, you could then get upset about having to do anything to help get your date off the ground. But hey, the initiator-follower pattern is a system, and the shadow side of the initiator role is the desire to be in control all the time.
So own your part in that system and work on your underlying need for control. Don’t blame your partner for your part in the dance. After all, one reason you two got together in the first place may be because you could get away with taking charge most of the time!
Aside from these deeper issues, remember that the purpose of QT Dates is to connect. So if you want to use your dates to make your partner wrong, please go back to Square One and make an attitude adjustment!
The truth is, it doesn’t really matter what you and your partner do to make your QT Dates happen every day. The point is to do them! If it helps to use a simple reminder (“Is it your week or my week?”) to stimulate one of you to ask for the date, then let that be okay. The point is to do the date, not to engage in silly power struggles about who initiates and who doesn’t.
The final tip I’d like to give you is to consider doing your QT Dates on a walk together, instead of sitting around staring into each other’s eyes. There’s something both physically and metaphorically wonderful about moving forward together, looking in the same direction as a couple.
In addition, walking encourages fuller breathing, which is always good for the body, mind, and spirit. Walking also puts you in contact with the environment around you. This encourages interesting experiences and fun surprises that would never happen if you stay inside.
Now that you know how to do my version of QT Dates, perhaps you and your partner can give them a try. Feel free to customize your QT Dates in whatever way you like. Whatever you do, have a good time together!
This article was originally published by L.A. Resources (Summer 1991) and updated in April 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).