Jim wants to have a larger family. Denise feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising the two children they already have.
Allison has been offered a lucrative promotion if she'll relocate to the Southwest. Frank likes his job in the Midwest and wants to stay close to his aging parents.
Dennis has his heart set on a new sports utility vehicle. Cindy, the frugal partner, can't stand the idea of buying a new car that will depreciate the moment they drive it off the lot. She wants to buy a used mini-van that her father will sell them below market price.
Most couples easily negotiate the give-and-take required for everyday matters, but what should you do on the rare occasion when you disagree on a major decision? Here are ten suggestions for working your way through a significant impasse.
- Be allies, not adversaries.
Rather than using your life experience, intelligence and personality to sway the decision in your favor, combine forces to arrive at the best solution. The result you reach by cooperating will be better than anything either of you could come up with on your own.
- Seek a win-win solution.
Anything less than a mutual victory will prove hollow in the long run because it's human nature to resent solutions that are imposed on you. In the vast majority of cases, a win-win solution is achievable. If that seems unattainable, first seek input from an outside source of counsel. A mentor or counselor may suggest a solution you haven't considered. If necessary, settle for a solution in which the cost to one spouse or the other is minimized as much as possible.
- Listen more than you talk.
The book of James advises us to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." Listen to your spouse's feelings, dreams and goals. Good listening may lead you to modify your own position as you appreciate the "why" behind what he or she desires. Your genuine empathy may even elicit a reciprocal response.
- Solve the problem; don't conquer your spouse.
The goal is not to emerge as the dominant partner; the goal is to solve a disagreement together and emerge as co-victors. Remember, your spouse is not the problem; the problem is the problem.
- Get some perspective.
When emotions are running high, it's helpful to step back and ask, "Five years from now, how important will the outcome of this decision be?" If the answer is "Not very," then it makes sense not to invest too much emotional and relational capital in the issue. If your answer is "Major impact," then give the decision the time and attention it merits.
- Define the core issue.
It's easy to get bogged down in a swamp of side issues. So try to reduce the dilemma to its basic core. If the question is whether to take an elderly parent into your home, the real issue may not be "Do we have the room?" or "Can we get along?" but rather "How will this affect our relationship, and what can we do to protect and maintain our marriage if we go ahead?"
- Make observations, not accusations.
As you both attempt to break the impasse, avoid reading sinister motives into your spouse's words or behavior. Attempt a fair summary of your spouse's convictions or feelings regarding the decision while avoiding adding your own interpretation. Don't say, "There goes your old defense mechanisms again, trying to stall as long as you can." Instead, try, "Based on your comments, is it fair to say you want more time to make this decision?"
- The more important the decision, the more time you may need.
While some major decisions must be decided immediately or the opportunity will be forever lost, most big decisions aren't that frenzied. If you feel a sense of urgency, it could be a product of your own emotions and imagination. Take the time you need; time has a way of revealing truths and overriding impulsiveness. But if tomorrow is the deadline to say yes to a new job and you still can't agree, then let it go. It's dangerous for one partner to make a decision committing a significant portion of the couple's time, money or energy without the enthusiastic consent of his or her spouse.
- Get some advice.
Seek the counsel of a person or couple you both respect. Proverbs encourages us to seek sound and wise advice from several people before launching out on a major undertaking (15:22; 20:18). The perspective and insight from others may allow both of you to arrive at a common solution.
- Pray about it.
Only God can see the end from the beginning of each decision you face. Only he knows the true impact your choices will have on your future. He promises, "Call unto me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know" (Jer. 33:3).
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.