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Negotiate, Don’t Compromise

When you have a disagreement, negotiating a solution works best.

Many marital conflicts can be resolved through the process of negotiation. We’re talking about using the same kinds of quid pro quo arrangements that take place whenever two parties, regardless of venue, are at odds over an issue. Negotiating may seem odd when talking about an intimate relationship, but it actually fits quite well. In fact, couples in happy marriages do a lot of negotiating with each other. A husband might trade off sex for housework, or both partners might agree to take turns doing what the other wants. If done correctly, what makes negotiation so effective for dealing with marital problems is that it allows both partners to have their needs addressed.

To be clear, negotiation is not compromise. In a negotiation, each person gets something in exchange for giving something their partner wants. In compromise, neither partner actually gets what they want. They often settle on some middle ground between two ends of an issue, with the result that neither is satisfied with the solution. Suppose two people were planning to go to out for dinner and one wanted Middle Eastern and the other seafood. After much discussion, their compromise is to have pizza delivered. In other words, neither was forced to do something they didn’t want to do, but neither got what they wanted, so they can’t be completely satisfied with the solution. In a negotiated solution, one partner would pick the restaurant this time and the other the next.

Negotiated solutions work much better than compromises on a lot of levels. Each partner gets something they really want in exchange for giving something their partner really wants. Each person can believe they have an equal say in the relationship and aren’t being deprived or cheated. They also get an opportunity to feel like they are giving something to the relationship, and that makes them feel more committed to their partner. And because each partner also feels better about each other, they tend to treat each other better and feel better about their relationship.

Effective negotiation requires that both partners know their agenda. You have to know what you’re negotiating for and not be sidetracked by incidental issues. We all have an agenda, that is, a set of things we want and need from a relationship and a partner. Understanding our agenda and using that as a framework when we negotiate simply means we’re operating with our own best interests in mind. Unless we’re fully in touch with our own needs and desires, we cannot negotiate successfully.

Effective negotiation also requires that we make every effort to state our issue in a clear and precise way. If it’s about something that we’d like our partner to change, it’s best to frame problems in terms of what our partner does (behavior) and not who they are (personality). For example, you can negotiate about how money is spent, but you cannot negotiate about your partner being careless about money any more than you can negotiate their height or age. Besides, stating a problem in terms of personality can be taken as an attack on our partner’s character, and that can lead them to retaliate by taking shots at our character.

When presenting a problem, limit the conversation to the issue at hand. Couples will sometimes use one conflict as an opportunity to express their frustration and dissatisfaction with their relationship in general. It is as if all the unresolved issues are carried around in a big bag. When a problem comes up, the entire contents of the bag are dumped onto the floor and on each other. For instance, suppose a couple has two dinner invitations for a Saturday night. In trying to decide which one to accept, the discussion becomes heated and one person says to the other, “You always insist on having things your way. You’re stubborn, just like your mother.”

There is no appropriate response to this accusation. If you’re stubborn, not much can be done at that moment to fix that, and whether or not you learned this behavior from your mother is irrelevant, and that kind of comment only fuels anger. Importantly, the discussion has moved off target, and it’s not possible to negotiate because you’re no longer talking about the original issue.

Negotiations are most effective when they have a quid pro quo component. If you have something you want from your partner, there’s a good chance your partner also wants something from you. It’s easier to come to a solution if you come up with a few things you’d like to receive and a few things you’re willing to give in return. Keep in mind that the overriding principle in a negotiated solution is that we obtain something that meets our needs, and at the same time we give something that meets the needs of our partner.

Both partners must also feel the solution is fair and was arrived at together, with full consideration of each other’s thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and values. Each partner has to believe the decision was not forced upon them. Intimidating a partner into agreement or giving in without being truly comfortable will not solve the problem. The fact is a truly negotiated solution will make an issue go away. Sometimes we might think we have reached a negotiated solution, only to find that the same issue surfaces later on. Typically that means one or the other partner has not found the final decision to be completely acceptable. When you and your partner are satisfied with the outcome, you can avoid facing the same problems over and over.

The negotiation process requires that you keep an open mind and be willing to listen to your partner’s point of view. They may have legitimate reasons for what they are doing or saying that you find unacceptable, and you have to acknowledge such if you are going to move the relationship in the right direction. Partners should respect the fact that each has a different and viable opinion about the issue. Respect is important, because without it you won’t communicate on an equal footing or take your partner’s point of view seriously. It’s also best not to try to negotiate when you are upset (e.g., anxious, angry, etc.). When emotions run high, we don’t think as clearly as we should and we tend to be more reactive, so it is best to wait until everyone involved calmed down before you begin the process.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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