Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who
can’t sleep with the window shut, and a woman
who can’t sleep with the window open.
— George Bernard Shaw
Frustrating, isn’t it?
You ask your partner for something and the answer is no.
Yet, you still want it. It’s important. So you ask again, this time hoping the answer will be yes.
But what if it’s not? What’s your plan B?
While most of us know that we can’t have everything go our way (though, in all honesty, we may only give lip service to the idea) that doesn’t mean we know what to do when our preferences aren’t easily reconciled— or, more challenging still, when they’re completely at odds.
Difference is inevitable. When I vote one way and you vote another and we can’t break the tie, one of the most advised strategies for dealing with it is compromise. We’re told to hear each others’ preference and then, somehow, meet halfway. You don’t feel like cooking and I want to stay home. How about ordering takeout?
Sounds simple enough? Well, not quite.
Compromise might work when deciding where to have dinner, but it’s sorely inadequate when couples are faced with higher stakes issues. Say I want to live in New York and my husband wants to stay here in California. How wise would it be for us to choose some mid-point and end up moving to Kansas City just to put the issue to rest?
Temping and seemingly useful as it is, compromise often leads to a solution where neither person gets the thing that they want. People frequently end up settling for less and then trying to assuage their disappointment by telling themselves they’ve at least done what’s fair.
Another common fallback strategy is for couples to drop the heated discussion entirely, claiming that they “politely agree to disagree.” Others give up working towards a solution and end up simply “doing their own thing.”
When couples can’t easily find common ground, when what one partner prefers runs head-on into the preference of the other, they too often back away from the tension of their differences, rather than hanging in there, despite their discomfort. It takes time—and fortitude— to reach a solution that ultimately feels satisfying to both partners. And the hard work this entails will pay off in the end.
There are, after all, times when there can be only one outcome, when despite how far apart you stand on an issue you must come to one yes.
You can’t agree to disagree about whether you send your children to public school or private school, whether to have a third child or move out of the city or have sex with the lights on. There’s no room for compromise when the issue at hand is whether to file for bankruptcy or commit to being monogamous.
Couples need the ability to clearly advocate for their interests, to be flexible without caving, to effectively influence and be able to be influenced by the other. Without these skills, when at an impasse, people may be forced to fall back on more coercive strategies in order to have things go their way. By doing so they may get what they want in the short run, but seriously undermine their relationship in the long run.
Here are some of the most common unhealthy tie-breaking strategies couples employ:
1. Manipulation: If you really loved me you would… take out the trash, not raise your voice, stop drinking.
2. Score Keeping: You owe it to me because I did it your way last time, because I’m such a good mother to your children, because I never ask for anything.
3. Belittle Your Partner’s Preference: Do you know how silly that is? (Substitute immature, unreasonable, irresponsible, weird, unnecessary, disgusting…)
4. Character Assassination: What kind of a person would ask for that? Obviously you’re selfish. You’re stingy. You’re crazy.
5. Guilt Tripping: Isn’t the fact that I said no enough to make you stop asking? How could you deny my request, now that you know how badly I want it?
6. Self-flagellation: I am so dumb. I should have seen this coming. I’m sorry I even asked. I should never have married you.
7. Heartbreak/Victim: Cry, plead, pout, talk about how you can’t live without the thing you want or how horrible or traumatic it would be for you to agree to your partner’s request or be denied yours.
8. Intimidation: Blow up, start yelling, make it so miserable for the other that they stop asking for what they want or they just succumb and agree to do it your way.
8. Threats and Ultimatums: I won’t live in a marriage with someone who works all the time/is such a penny pincher/wants sex every morning. If you don’t give me what I want I’m moving into the guest room, I’m calling a divorce attorney. I’ve seen some people take this one step further, into blackmail: Do what I want or I’ll tell your mother/the kids/your best friend what you said at the Christmas party. I’ll post it on Facebook.
10. Stonewalling: Giving your partner the silent treatment, refusing to discuss the issue, attempting to take it off the table.
11. When-hell-freezes-over: I think of this as a step beyond stonewalling, where a couple is at a big-time stalemate or standoff. The strategy: take a position and flat-out refuse to be influenced. No matter what. No matter when. It’s dead in the water.
The alternative? Breaking a 1-1 tie calls for generosity and a willingness to be uncomfortable, to tolerate disappointment, to see the validity of the others’ request even if it’s not your preferred way. It also requires that you not compromise your core values or make peace for its own sake.
Given that there is no rule book, no set of official set of tie breakers, no trump cards to pull, how have you learned to successfully negotiate the hard-to-agree-upon issues in your marriage?
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Great. Works in friendships also.
Yes. Good point.
A lot of what I talk about under the heading of marriage applies to any relationship involving people who have an emotional investment.
A very lucid and realistic examination of profoundly difficult issues in relationships. Love how you tackled this, Winifred, without rose coloured glasses.
Though sobering, another winner.
Under pressure people will do whatever it takes to have things go their way. Not always pretty.
Reblogged this on More Than Words and commented:
Spotlights on Speaking of Marriage with Winifred Reilly today. Make sure to check out many of her other outstanding post they’re great and certainly beneficial for the soul!
Another awesome Winifred! and for me they are in due season. Just what I needed and that’s why I am sharing because someone else may need to hear these tips too. The spotlight is on you today Winifred as I reblog this post over at Simple Life.
Thanks LaTrice. It means a lot to me.
A lot of great information here. We used to do a lot of those things you listed, back in the day, but now compromise works great for us. We just don’t argue over things like we used to. Sometimes we do it my way and sometimes we do it his way. This way we are both getting our needs met. If something is important to him, I do it. If something is important to me, he does it. It’s just that simple, after a lot of practice, that is. Great post. Thanks for sharing.
Yes- many of us have found ourselves resorting to all sorts of problematic behaviors when we can’t get our way. Nice that there are alternatives!!
Thanks for adding your voice.
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Just finished your wonderful book, Winifred….and I understand that we DO have choices,and that one must work on how I (not we) react/respond/express needs in a relationship. I went to counseling alone 3x over 26 years of marriage…..Wish the two of us could have met you together, to try to work out the underlying «Big Picture Issues» for why 2 basically good and loving people spent so many years lonely and unhappy together….and my handsome husband refused to touch or have sex or barely even talk over the last 8 years of the marriage! We finally divorced…after I had a short affair. How very sad to tear a family apart that way. But the tragedy is, 10 years later, that I STILL don’t understand WHY we had gotten to that cold, ugly point after such a happy, hopeful beginning, Winifred….and I need to learn because I don’t want to make the same mistakes as I begin a relationship with a new man in my life. Do you have any suggestions?
Good question. And not easy to answer.
I think you can start by looking at actions or behaviors of yours that came from clarity and strength and those that came from anxiety, wobbliness, unfinished business from your childhood, ways in which you were reactive, etc. Were you a blamer or a withdrawer, a pouter, a sniper, chilly, or too quick to flare? We’re you silent when you needed to speak up? Were you open to new ways of doing things or did you insist you were right?
We don’t have to be perfect partners, we just have to be open to learning about ourselves and aim to grow.
Hope this helps.
Ps- thanks for the kind words about my book. 😊
Wow, I’m reading the list of 11 unhealthy tie-breaking techniques and 1-10 have been used against me. 😦 I’ve resorted to just saying, “Stop it” when the techniques start coming at me as they are sometimes all used in one argument. My wife now thinks she has Asperger’s and that’s why she has difficulty with relationships. I think it’s more of a personality disorder like Narcissistic or Borderline, but I’m not a doctor. All I know is I wish for healing and peace in her heart.
Borderline and narcissistic personality traits come from being invalidated, shunned and invoking a sense of alienation. If your wife is feeling these things, they are genuinely FELT. Perhaps trying to understand her motives for wanting what she wants and explaining your thoughts differing will help each of you to get closer to a common ground of mutual understanding and creative problem solving?
Question: my mother was a huge source of trauma for me in my childhood and I said “no” clearly to the option of living with her. After much manipulation and promising that we could “move out anytime”… I caved. Needless to say it’s caused HUGE strife between us and affected us all (children included) terribly. I am wrong in asking my children’s father to move out of my mothers once and for all and stop bringing my children over to my mother’s home without me if he wants a healthy relationship with me?
I’m confused. Are you married or divorced? And you lived with your mother as a family and then moved out?
Thank you for your reply! We were never officially married, but had been together for 6 years when we moved in with her, then ended up separating with him insisting on living with mom and my relocating 3 years ago. I moved out and we decided last year to reconcile and get a home together. He never committed to moving out and the house ended up in my name and I carry the full burden of costs for a home we were supposed to buy together. Every time we argue it’s about my mother’s involvement and he runs back there. He’ll stay with me most nights, but then randomly decides to go over there with our children when he barely even talks to his parents and sees them around 3-5/year max (they only live an hour away). Sorry if verbose…