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The Negotiation Tactic All Married Couples Should Use

Collaboration, not simply cooperation, is key.

Rex Roof/Flickr

A successful marriage requires successful negotiation. This sounds trite, but it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the most crucial aspects of making a modern relationship work. On any given week, there are handfuls of matters that need to be discussed and deliberated. Understanding how to negotiate properly makes life easier.

Now, that’s not to say the process is easy. Negotiation is tricky. It requires effort. And, often, negotiations don’t work out because they inherently become a matter of capitulation versus collaboration. Often a discussion takes place until one partner simply gives in. That’s not necessarily useful. Then, there’s also the fact that compromises are reached based on preconceived notions of gender or household roles. A better option: collaborative negotiation.

“Compromise is not a good concept,” says Catherine Aponte, Psy.D., a family psychologist with more than 30 years of experience and the author of A Marriage of Equals: How to Achieve Balance in a Committed Relationship. “I think collaboration and negotiation are a much better way to address working together when you want to come together to accomplish life goals or marital goals.”

Collaborative negotiation is a type of problem-solving where individual wants, desires, and positions are separated so the two people negotiating can look at things from a place of objectivity. Importantly, it exists on the conceit that a couple’s relationship is an important factor in the decision, which helps steer parties to reach a fair agreement instead of, say, having one party give in to the other to save the relationship. Instead of pitting partners against one another, it combines individual wants into a single problem to be solved by both parties.

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Negotiation in a marriage is, of course, vastly different than negotiating for a used car or an old record player on Craigslist. It’s not like asking “What if I pay cash?” will change things. And walking away from the table isn’t really an option. Well, not in most cases.

Collaborative negotiation allows a couple to negotiate effectively on everything from child-rearing to a weekend away, while existing both as a unit as well as individuals with wants and desires. Preconceived notions are put aside. Wants and desires are presented and articulated. Discussions are had. Decisions are reached.

“It is as if each of you put these wishes on a virtual kitchen table where agreement, differences, and disagreements become apparent,” Aponte wrote about the subject in Psychology Today. “From this perspective, differences and disagreements are on the table between you not exclusively within either of you.” In other words, it’s all about separation.

One of the key things that Aponte wants understood is that collaboration is not capitulating. In a relationship, there can be a fear of surrendering control and giving up autonomy, but in collaborative negotiation, both partners still retain their independence. They simply work together to arrive at an agreement that takes into account all factors.

“A true collaboration really protects individual autonomy,” she explains. “Collaboration does not require that kind of surrender because it is a negotiation.”

Collaboration, Aponte stresses, also does not necessarily mean cooperation. It is built around a couple working together towards a common goal, not simply one person dragging their feet.

“A collaboration is about the process, the dynamic of working together,” Aponte adds, “while cooperation is about the results of working together. For example, I can cooperate with you by stepping aside while you do what you want.”

In order for a couple to successfully negotiate, Aponte says that they must first understand the difference between having a disagreement and engaging in a conflict.

“I think it’s just dreadful that people do not learn to discriminate between having a difference or disagreement and having a conflict,” says Aponte. “It’s all conflated into conflict.”

“In a disagreement, you’re still talking to each other,” she explains. “In a conflict, you’re just characterizing and reacting to each other. It just becomes ‘Who’s the better partner? Who’s the worse partner?’

Such a process simply isn’t effective. Collaborative negotiation, per Aponte, is predicated on the following:

  • Each person understands that their spouse is a valuable person
  • Each person understands their own wants and desires about a certain situation
  • Each person is willing to negotiate their wants and desires
  • Each person can explain what is important about said wants and desires
  • Each person understands that their wants and desires are not privileged based on gender or such roles as “breadwinner”.

These foundational principles are necessary to achieve a true marriage of equals where both partner’s wants and desires are heard, understood, and discussed without the trappings of outdated constructs. It’s about working together and figuring out how to make the best situation possible.

Once these points are understood, Aponte says, couples can begin the process of negotiation, which requires these four steps.

1. Find a Way to Introduce the Subject

Approaching a negotiation is as important as the negotiation itself. Instead of simply launching into a list of what you want and how to get it, Aponte says it’s important to provide your partner a heads up that you’d like to discuss or negotiate something with them. This gives them the time they need to process and prepare.

“In our family, for example,” says Aponte, “One of us may say to the other, ‘I’d like to have a consultation.’ That way you sort of defuse the situation and the challenge that your partner might feel.”

2. Clearly Express Your Wants

Simplicity is key here, as is staying on message. You don’t want to approach a negotiation carrying old baggage or grudges. Think through what you desire from a certain situation and make sure that you don’t let the conversation get bogged down by other issues.

“Be clear about where you are so that you can effectively express the perspective on how you see things,” she says. “You need to explain why you want what you want, and you have to watch for any personal agendas that you might have.”

3. Listen Carefully

It’s important, per Aponte, to take in what a partner is saying during the conversation and honor it. Successful collaborative negotiation is about honoring your commitment to each other and doing whatever you need to make that commitment work.

“I heard this expressed a certain way that I thought was beautiful,” Aponte said. “It was that you have to recognize that every concern of your partners is a concern of mine. And I just think that’s a wonderful way to express that. And you can’t do that unless you come in cleaned up yourself, right?”

When the wants are presented, it’s up to both people to arrive at an arrangement that

4. Make An Action Plan

Any good negotiation requires that both parties take action, then follow through and follow up.  “You both have to agree to do that,” Aponte says. “And I think that, when you go through this process of really negotiating win-win solutions, you gain respect for one another. You gain respect for what the other person thinks and believes and you learn to value it.”

You know how, in Dr. Strange, the Ancient One can punch the spectral image of someone out of their body? Collaborative negotiation is sort of like that. It allows a couple to exist as a unit as well as individuals with separate wants and desires. It makes it possible to work through complex issues without falling back on preconceived notions and roles. Does it take work? Of course. But what in marriage doesn’t?