Alison A. Armstrong, author of The Queen's Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. For her latest installment of her Marriage Bootcamp series, Armstrong explains why the biggest piece of marriage advice you're getting is completely wrong.
Most of us grew up hearing that marriage was all about compromise. But a few years ago, I was leading a workshop on relationships in New York City and I asked a group of men, "What did you have to compromise to be married?" A man in his 40s spoke up. "I don't believe in compromise," he answered. "I want my wife and me to duke it out until we come up with a better solution." Hmm, I wondered, how does that work?
The more men I talked to, the more I began to notice a pattern: Though conventional wisdom says relationships are about compromise, guys kept saying that they didn't want to have to do it, so they avoided those "talks" with their partner. To figure out why compromise was such a dirty word, I went to my favorite resource, the dictionary. It's defined as "a negotiation in which both sides give something up." And "to make a dishonorable or shameful concession."
Suddenly, men's reluctance made sense. They're loath to give up what's important to them — namely, anything they spend time, money, and energy on. To concede their values is to betray themselves. On the other hand, too often I've observed women give up what mattered to them to have a relationship work, myself included. That kind of sacrifice inevitably creates resentment. And since I'm committed to being and staying in love, I had to find a way to avoid compromise but solve the conflicts that arise in daily life together as a couple.
Out of this realization, my version of deal making was born. Here's how it works: You choose an area that is crucial to you, say how you want it to be, then work together to make it as close to that as you can. And you take turns. You don't meet halfway on what matters to each of you; you find out why it matters so much, then keep problem-solving until you come up with a creative solution. So instead of leaving both parties feeling like they surrendered something important to them, deal making is a team effort that leaves everybody happy, a commitment to understanding and honoring your partner's needs and values while staying true to your own.
Before diving into deal making, you need to articulate the values of your partnership. Start by each making a list of five to seven of your individual core values, like creativity, honesty, and thriftiness. Then put your lists side by side. As you see the similarities, it will illuminate why some decisions are easy. The differences will often point to potential or ongoing sources of conflict. (That's useful but not the point here.) Next, from your individual lists, work together to adopt a third set of values specifically for your relationship. Begin with the values that overlap, and then look to each other's list for values that are intriguing. For me and my husband, freedom, self-expression, and transformation were naturals. I was intrigued by family from his list, and so that was adopted. Once your values as a couple are established and you're working toward common goals rather than just trying to "get your way," you can begin making deals. Here's how:
1. Identify the part of your life together that isn't working for either of you.
In other words, what doesn't create or sustain being in love. It could be a daily routine, how you spend your time together, or even your wedding-planning priorities. I recommend starting with something small to learn the skill. And if your partner isn't excited about the task, begin with something that doesn't work for him. After men see that deal making is about getting what matters most to each of you instead of giving it up, they usually get on board.
2. Finish this sentence: "If I had it all my way..."
Whoever feels most passionate about the topic should go first. Here the wording is key because it's been proven to help people express their "heart's desire." In difficult conversations, we tend to play it safe and ask for only the things we believe are available, like choosing from a menu. When we pick from a limited set of options rather than going off menu, we don't get what we truly want. As a heart's desire is expressed, what matters becomes clear and insignificant details fall away. Feeling silly or vulnerable when going through this exercise means you're on the right track. Keep going.
3. Listen with curiosity and patience.
Don't try to solve the problem right off. Focus on understanding what your partner is describing when he says what "all his way" looks like. You'll be amazed at how much you'll learn about each other through this process and how many false assumptions are revealed. "Can you tell me more about that?" is a simple way to offer encouragement.
My husband, Greg, and I went through this many years ago over our dinner routine. I love to cook, but since his nights were unpredictable, I had to stay flexible, and I resented being "on call." When I finally brought the issue up in frustration, I found out he didn't even want dinner on the table when he got home. While I'd felt dominated by his erratic schedule, he'd felt constrained by having a deadline. With "freedom" holding a high value for both us, we were equally unhappy.
4. Find out why he wants it the way he wants it.
Once you've heard what it looks like when your partner gets his way, ask, "What would having it all your way provide?" The focus is still on understanding each other, and when the motivation behind a need is explained, what at first seemed unreasonable can become compelling and fuel creative thinking. Again, be careful not to interject, take guesses, or change the subject, which will muddy up the conversation. Just let him have his say and wait for the moment to have yours. If the conversation grows contentious or one of you starts to get defensive, it's a sign that you're trying to problem-solve prematurely.
5. Find the Win-Win.
When both partners have said their heart's desire, "I like your way better than mine!" is a common reaction. Or you might have a brand-new idea that is even closer to your partnership values. Other couples want to think about it for a few days to let things percolate. Some couples experience immediate clarity — which is how Greg and I ended up with a set dinnertime. He could make a stop on the way home or finish a last task at work, and I could start dinner when I was ready. Because the guesswork was taken out of the equation, we found the freedom we needed; problem solved. (Note: When the circumstances change, you make new deals. I now run my own company and Greg is working part-time, so guess who does the cooking?)
How do you know when you've come up with a great solution? When you both feel like you got a sweet deal and not like you've given up something important by meeting at a middle point where no one is happy. Your new agreement — which you should write down, by the way, or you may forget it and allow old habits to slip back in place — will be sustainable, unlike compromising, which often gets harder to swallow as time passes. It's much more satisfying to give the person you love as close to his way as possible — and have him return the favor.