For thirty years, I've watched couples struggle with tough decisions, where compromise just isn't possible. Here's what works and what doesn't.
Marnie and Tom live in a nice suburb in the Midwest with their two young children. Marnie’s mother, Elaine, lives about an hour away.
When the kids were babies, Marnie's mother used to drive to Marnie and Tom's every day to see her grandkids and help out. But lately, Marnie's mother's health has been declining, so she can’t drive over anymore.
One day Marnie gets an idea: What if she and Tom sell their house and move closer to her mother? Then the kids would be able to see their grandmother more often. Plus, Marnie would be able to keep a closer eye on her mother in case her health gets worse. Seems like a perfect solution.
There’s only one problem—Tom doesn’t want to move. Tom likes the neighborhood they’re in. He thinks he and Marnie paid too much for their house, but other than that he’s very comfortable.
Tom says no.
Tough decisions and zero-sum situations
Faced with big decisions like this, a couple will ordinarily try to compromise. But in this case, there’s really no half-way. Economists call this kind of thing a zero-sum situation. Someone’s going to win, and someone’s going to lose.
For over thirty years, I’ve watched couples struggle with zero-sum problems. Some more successfully, and some less so.
Some classic zero-sum problems for couples involve whether or not to move—often for one partner’s career—and whether or not to have another child. But there are lots of others.
For thirty years, I’ve watched couples struggle with zero-sum problems. Some more successfully, and some less so. Today, we’re going to talk about what works, and what doesn’t, when you’re faced with one of these situations.
Three ways not to make tough decisions as a couple
First, let’s talk first about what doesn’t work. There are three main approaches that don’t work. Unfortunately, most couples try all three:
Mistake #1 - Trying to convince your partner they'll be better off
The first mistake is to try to convince your partner that they’ll be much happier if they do things your way. In Marnie’s case, this might involve demonstrating to Tom all the wonderful things about the neighborhood she'd like to move to. Wouldn't Tom be better off there?
No one likes to be told they’ll be happier if they just do things your way.
Here’s the problem: No one likes to be told they’ll be happier if they just do things your way. It's better to assume each person has good reasons for feeling the way they do. And that those reasons aren’t likely to change. In couples therapy, we call this "staying in your own lane."
Mistake #2 - Suggesting there's something wrong with your parnter for disagreeing
The second thing that doesn’t work is to suggest there’s something wrong with your partner. Otherwise, they'd see it your way. If only they were less anxious, less obsessive-compulsive, less oppositional, less stuck in their ways, or less damaged by unresolved childhood trauma. Then they’d surely agree with you!
A lot of people get sent to my office for therapy by their spouses for just this reason. Believe me when I tell you, it doesn’t work.
A lot of people get sent to my office for therapy by their spouses for just this reason. Believe me when I tell you, it doesn’t work. It usually just leads to a lot of bad feeling.
Mistake #3 - Appealing to your partner's love
The third thing that doesn’t work is to appeal to your partner’s love and insist that if they really love you as much as they say they do, they’ll give you what you want. Almost every couple tries this.
Marnie is no exception.
“Tom,” she says, one night as they're getting ready for bed, “Don’t you see how I can’t sleep at night worrying about my mother? I can't stop thinking about how she’s missing out on so much of our kids’ lives. Can’t you see what this is doing to me? Don’t you love me?”
“The answer’s still no,” says Tom. “And it has nothing to do with whether I love you or not.”
I'd be inclined to agree. Just because you love someone, that doesn't mean you're responsible for giving them everything they want.
A better way to make tough decisions as a couple
The good news is there’s a much better method. There are three steps involved.
Step One: Let’s make a deal
In business, this would be a no-brainer, right? You’d never ask someone to give you something you want for free. Instead, you’d find out what their price is.
In marriage, it’s the same thing. The main question is: What’s going to motivate the other person to do a deal?
Let’s see what happens when Marnie tries this approach.
One night in bed, just before they turn off the lights, Marnie turns over to face Tom.
“Tom, what can I give you to make you agree to move?” she asks.
Tom is silent.
“A promise to never complain ever again about you watching TV?”
Tom smiles. “It’s going to cost a lot more than that,” he says.
Marnie thinks some more. “How about if I agree to spend every Thanksgiving and Christmas with your family?”
Tom shakes his head. But now Marnie has the idea. She’s not asking for favors anymore. She just wants to do this deal.
“I'll do all the cooking and cleanup three times a week,” she says. "And we spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with your family."
Tom raises an eyebrow. Now he knows she's serious. "Let me think about it,” he says, and turns off the light.
Time for Step Two.
Step Two: The $64,000 Question
The following night, Tom is sitting at his laptop paying bills. Suddenly it hits him. “Marnie,” he says, “I think I see a way to do this. If we’re going to move, let’s get a smaller house and start saving money again. What do you think?” Marnie’s actually been hoping for a bigger house. It’s painful to hear that this is what Tom wants. But hey, now he’s named his price. That means he’s in the game.
To me, this looks promising. Marnie gets something she wants very much. And she pays for it, fair and square. Same thing on Tom’s side.
Marnie thinks for a minute.
“Let’s see what we can find,” she says.
Step Three: The Price is Right
Now comes the fun part.
The following Sunday, Marnie and Tom drop the kids off with her mother and start house-hunting in earnest. After a few weekends, they find a house they both like well enough. It breaks Marnie’s heart to be downsizing, but it was the only way to make things work. And it helps that once they find a place Tom likes, Marnie gets him to agree to new cabinets and closets.
Decision making builds strong relationships
A good deal will have both of your dreams in it. That’s important, because it means you’re both fully in. You never know how a move like this is going to work out. If it goes well, you both share the satisfaction. If not, you share the blame.
A good deal will have both of your dreams in it.
One sign of a good deal is that in the end, neither of you got everything you wanted. The final result didn’t look exactly like what either of you originally had in mind.
But hey, isn’t that the case with anything creative? Eventually you have to face reality. And in a couple’s relationship, reality often takes the form of the person next to you in bed.
Sometimes life brings you to a fork in the road, where no compromise is possible. When that happens, assume you’ll need to do some serious deal-making—as if your relationship depended on it. Which in fact, it will.
Eventually, you have to face reality. And in a couple’s relationship, reality often takes the form of the person next to you in bed.
As Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
In the long run, how you settle the issue may matter more than which fork you take.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.