The Skill of Negotiating

by Steven Kessler

In my 40 years as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have noticed that nearly all the couples who seek my help share one common trait: they do not have a way to negotiate differences and make shared decisions. In other words, they have not developed a way to express to each other what each of them wants, why they want it, and how important it is (or isn’t), and then negotiate with each other some mutually agreeable solution, some way for each of them to get enough of what they want that they both feel good about it.

In every case, their couples therapy has needed to help them develop some method for doing that – for exploring a difference or problem, negotiating with each other, and reaching a mutually agreeable solution. The particular method that they use can vary widely from one couple to another, but as long as they each feel that it works well enough for them personally, it will work for them as a couple.

Some couples do the exploration and negotiation entirely verbally – they sit down and talk it over until they agree on a solution. Some couples do it entirely in writing, by writing letters to each other or by taking turns writing in a shared journal. Often they like having some time to read and consider what the other has written before responding. And some couples don’t use words at all: they communicate with each other entirely through their behaviors. If he has offended her, she might show her upset by disconnecting from him in some way, such as going silent or cold towards him. If he wants to apologize, he might show that by doing something for her, such as washing her car. If she accepts his apology, she resumes her connection with him. The obvious downside of this method is that it is harder for each of them to learn about the other’s inner life: their wants, needs, hopes, and dreams, not to mention old fears left over from childhood traumas. But many couples seem to use this method. Often they learned this method by watching their parents do it and haven’t considered going further.

Some couples narrow the areas of potential dispute by giving each other sovereignty over certain territories. Often she handles the inside of the house (furnishings and decorating), and he handles the yard and the garage (landscaping, mowing the lawn, fixing the cars). When painting is needed, it’s her job if it’s the inside of the house and his job if it’s the outside. If there is a garden, one of them may claim it as their own territory, and the other may be glad to be free of it. Sometimes one of them brings in all the money, and the other takes care of the children, or contributes in some other way. These divisions of labor and responsibility can simplify their lives enormously, simply by reducing the number of shared decisions that they need to make.

So the point here is simply that every couple needs some way to negotiate differences and make shared decisions, including the decisions about who will be responsible for what. As long as their method gives each of them enough of what they want, it will work for them as a couple. The mechanism they use doesn’t really matter, as long as they both find it satisfactory.

In my experience, this is the biggest single factor in determining the couple’s happiness with each other and the likelihood that they will stay together over time. One of the things that makes a ‘healthy couple’ healthy is that they have an agreed upon way to negotiate differences and make decisions together, and one of the things that lands other couples in therapy or divorce is that they don’t. I’m not saying that having such a method is a guarantee of happiness, but I am saying that not having it leads to trouble, because there are always going to be differences that must be negotiated and shared decisions that must be made.

And this skill is needed in many sorts of relationships, not only in romantic ones. It is needed in any relationship that includes shared responsibilities or decisions, such as collaborations, partnerships, and even friendships.

  • Can’t wait for your new book. this skill of negotiation is such an important one to learn. Thank you for all your amazing information.

  • Thank you Steven! I had never thought of the journaling/writing each other. I think that would have been very valuable to me. I froze and thought I didn’t know what I wanted and if I did was afraid to express it, in case my wife would dislike it. In writing I find myself. There is time for reflection for both me and my partner.
    I never saw my parents negotiate.
    We just moved apart and I will suggest this for areas we need to negotiate.

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