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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