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Marriage, optimized: SF couples work out their issues with off-sites, performance reviews

San Francisco couples are using tech to level up their love.

Two people are seated at a table with a colorful background, looking at a red phone. The table has a blue teapot, a tray with food, a mug, a laptop, and fruit.
Married couple Hugh McFall and Silvia de Denaro Vieira look through the Coexist app to plan for their week. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Last year, Sami Packard, an Accenture consultant who lives in the Inner Sunset, ran a two-day off-site retreat…for her marriage. She rented an Airbnb in the city, hired babysitters to watch her and husband Ben’s two kids, and drew up a detailed off-site agenda. “The goal is to evolve how our household operates in a way that aligns with our current needs,” she wrote. 

It was an unusual thing to do, she acknowledged, but it felt necessary. For the last year, her marriage had been floundering, with the couple unable to agree on key life issues. They’d tried couples counseling, she said, but they kept going around in circles. “We needed a different approach.”

With more than 20,000 tech layoffs in the Bay Area since January, and ever-increasing costs for everything a family needs to pay for, it’s not easy out there for the average tech couple. Throw in the minutiae of daily organizational tasks, maybe a couple of kids, and everything can start to spiral. 

To combat these crises, couples are turning, where else, but to tech, believing they can optimize their marriage the same way they’ve optimized their work. From marriage off-sites to relationship performance reviews, and mental unloading apps, there’s a growing ecosystem of tech tools to navigate the complexities of relationships in 2024.

A woman in a striped dress stands beside a wall covered with numerous sticky notes and diagrams, actively pointing and discussing the content with an expressive gesture.
Sami Packard, a 39-year-old "change consultant," ran a 2-day off-site retreat for her marriage. | Source: Courtesy Packard

“I didn’t really want to workify my personal life, but there are skills that are helpful and useful,” said Packard. She held dual roles at her marriage off-site last year, that of facilitator and participant. “I reverse-engineered the problem I [was] trying to solve,” she said. 

Packard and her husband were at an impasse in regard to their long-term living situation. She wanted stability, to live somewhere where she could build a network with her neighbors, and her children could make local friends, but Ben found the concept claustrophobic. He wanted them to leave San Francisco, and try out a new city for a year or two. And then somewhere new after that. Something had to give.

The couple documented their process using vision boards, bar charts, and copious Post-it notes. They mapped out objectives and brainstormed ways to achieve their individual goals. They wrote down their shared values, commitments, and approaches to parenting, and discussed creating rituals when they returned home to remind them of their conclusions.

The off-site could have been painful, but instead, it felt progressive, and helped them find common ground, said Packard. Post-retreat, she documented their results in a 19-page Google Slides deck and published her story on LinkedIn. 

“After seven years of marriage, three homes, and two children we are evolving our operating model,” she wrote.

Packard was shocked by how many people commented and reached out, she said. She received a lot of requests to repurpose her marriage off-site for other couples in crisis.

Two people are standing and looking at their phones in a clean kitchen; one leans against a wall, the other stands with one hand on their hip.
Time for dinner? McFall and de Denaro Vieira check their shared to-do list in the Coexist app. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

She received so many requests to host marriage off-sites, that she launched Coupledom, a marriage retreat side hustle, this January. Packages ranged from $500 for a DIY retreat, which includes a customized agenda and worksheets, to a $3,000 two-day in-person package, where she provides “professional facilitation to plan your next 5-10 years.” 

“It’s best for people entering a new stage of life—parenting, moving, retiring…” she said. “It’s not therapy, it’s more strategy.”

‘People seem to be at capacity’

“Using tech tools is ingrained in the culture here,” said Kelsey O’Neil, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist for Open Mind Health, a tele-therapy startup. “[They] can be a helpful and productive way for couples to stay organized.” 

The number one problem for married couples is poor communication, O’Neil said. Many clients tell her they feel overwhelmed, be it with childcare, job stress, or the upcoming election. “People seem to be at capacity emotionally and mentally.”

A framed photo shows a bride and groom embracing outside, with a large statue on a hill in the background. The ornate gold frame surrounds the image.
Vieira keeps a framed wedding photo on her mantel to keep the memory fresh. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Having a clear strategy surrounding chores and regularly checking in are key to a healthy relationship, said Silvia de Denaro Vieira, the founder of Coexist, a home management app designed to help couples share the mental load. 

Vieira, 32, realized the need for this tool when she moved in with her boyfriend (now husband) Hugh McFall, in 2022. “I came in with very high expectations of frequency of cleaning and washing,” said Vieira. She was taken aback by Hugh’s lackadaisical approach to cleaning their Sunset apartment. She didn’t want to resent picking up his slack or his slacks.

They tried fixing their organizational mismatch with the software tools they used effectively at work: Asana, Notion, and Google Docs. Even Post-it notes. Nothing stuck. “They all felt very corporate… and reminded us of our jobs,” she said.

Vieira was frustrated. She’d seen the scary Harvard Business School study, which noted that 25% of divorced couples cited disagreements over housework as the main reason for their breakup. “There was nothing out there [to help]…so I built it myself,” she said. Vieira joined Techstars Oakland and raised $120,000 to build Coexist, a mobile app that exited beta this May.

Priced $6.49 per month, the app has a clean, uncluttered interface and offers shared to-do lists, AI-powered meal planning, grocery lists, and a template section full of actionable documents that range from the mundane to the meta. Alongside travel packing lists and movie night suggestions is a “Discussion” template that encourages couples to map expectations for their shared life: Are they okay with pets in the house? Weapons? Shoes indoors? Sure, this could have come up earlier in the relationship, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget these details when you’re falling in love and your oxytocin levels are high. 

“It sounds cheesy [but] this saved our relationship,” said Vieira. “It’s not like, oh, now it’s you versus me. It’s like you and me versus this thing that we set up together that we agreed to.”

‘I don’t want to over-engineer’

Michael Baker, the Oakland-based cofounder of Tyba, a renewable energy startup, began using Coexist shortly after he moved in with his fiancee. “Our biggest tensions have been around planning,” he said. Whose turn is it to walk Butter, their labrador, who’s going to the store that day, who’s going to change the sheets?

“We track all this type of work in [our] house labor, our home life,” he said. “I don’t want to over-engineer…we are trying to be intentional, so it’s less of a mental load.”  After months of beta testing Coexist, Baker made a small angel investment. He liked how easy the app was to use, and how it had minimal alerts (a design choice, said Vieira, to avoid cortisol spikes).

A hand holds a smartphone displaying a meal planning app. The screen shows recipes and meal plans, listing dishes like mashed potatoes, pork chops, and chocolate cake.
Making dinner is on McFall's to-do list in the Coexist app. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard
A woman washes dishes at a kitchen sink while a man in the background chops vegetables on a counter. The kitchen has white cabinets and a light beige wall.
The couple split that evening's chores. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

As with many apps used in heterosexual households, Vieira said it is common to find the man initiating the sign-up for Coexist. “There are a lot of self-described techie husbands,” she said.

More attention and venture capital is funneling into the marriage optimization space, but the progress is slow enough that any news of these hacks often goes viral. In April, when investor Benjamin Lang posted his marriage-management Notion template to X, it received 4.6 million views and led to a New York Times story. Another San Francisco startup success story is Ali Maggioncalda, who raised $1 million in pre-seed funding to found Lovewick, an app designed to help “couples grow & stay in love, without it feeling like work.” Maggioncalda’s relationship hack TikToks have been liked 6.7 million times.

As for the Packards’ marital problems, after much discussion, Sami and Ben settled on a living agreement that worked for both of them. Ben agreed to live in Inner Sunset for five years, and “whine less about where we live.” Sami agreed that they’d spend two months each summer somewhere new.

“As a result of the marriage retreat, we live here and have a beautiful home,” she said. “Through brainstorming and iteration, we found a solid compromise.”