“We’re so in love nothing bad can happen to our relationship,” many people think before marrying. So they don’t talk about what’s important to each other and how they will address differences.
Then they get married and real life happens. Expectations that may have been unconscious surface. When they are not met by a partner, the relationship can get stressed to the point where spouses think about ending it, and some do.
It’s important to notice differences early on. Some of them probably attracted you to each other initially. Often, these same qualities will cause conflict. For example, she may have liked his generosity while dating. But after marriage she resents him for “overspending” and accumulating credit card debt instead building up savings.
This is an example of a couple who would benefit from negotiating constructively, so that both will get their needs met sufficiently to feel good about being together.
Negotiation in a healthy relationship involves two people who relate as equals. Here are a few example of topics to discuss proactively, before they might become a source of conflict:
- How will we organize our finances?
- How will we relate to in-laws? How often will we see them and with whom will we spend various holidays? What kinds of boundaries might we want to establish?
- What kind of parents do we want to be? What values do we want to instill, including religious identity? How will we relate to step-children?
- How will we spend our leisure time, together and separately?
- Will the wife keep her “maiden” surname, take her husband’s, or do something else?
- Where do we want to live?
- Shall we agree to have a weekly Marriage Meeting (1) to keep our relationship on track in all the important ways?
In a successful relationship, partners have the goal of creating a solution together that fosters a harmonious relationship that satisfies the needs of both partners.
Some people are afraid to express their true feelings about an issue because they fear that doing so will disappoint their partner or make him or her uncomfortable. But if you hold back, it won’t be good for your relationship.
Rosie (2) is madly in love with Gabe, who has proposed marriage. He wants her to quit her job and move to a distant city with him, where he’s been offered a job. Yes, she says, although it flashes through her mind that she’ll miss being near her close family and friends; and she’ll have to quit a job she likes that pays well. She says nothing about her doubts because she fears upsetting him.
Actually, by expressing her reservations, Rosie would be giving Gabe a gift. She would be allowing him to respond to her sensitively. He can’t read her mind. If she doesn’t share her thoughts and feelings, how can she expect him to consider them?
If Rosie silently goes along with his wishes by moving and is then unhappy, she is likely to feel victimized and resentful, and the relationship will suffer.
What if Rosie were to say to Gabe, “I’m not sure I’m ready to move. I like having my friends and family nearby and I love my job”? If a happy marriage is more important to Gabe than moving to a faraway city with a resentful wife, he might well be willing to either stay put for the time being or to consider alternatives that both would find acceptable. Perhaps Rosie would be willing to move on a trial basis for a year with the understanding that if she or he wants to move back in a year then they will. If he has a job and she does not, perhaps they can agree on how they will handle finances if she is unemployed. Maybe they’ll agree in advance of moving that she’ll fly back to see friends and family for a week or so at least once every few months.
When both people are compatible and respectful, honest about how they feel and what they want, and communicate effectively, they are likely to reach an agreement that satisfies both of them — sometimes called a “win-win” solution. Emotionally healthy partners want each other to be happy.
So tell each other what matter’s to you. Do not expect a spouse to read your mind. By using the positive communication skills described in detail in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, you will foster trust and intimacy. Listen to your partner until he or she has finished speaking and you understand what is being said. Then it’s your turn to speak. Be willing to come up with several ways to resolve an issue, and to then agree to implement one that fits for both of you.
Rabbi Manis Friedman’s view of how negotiation happens in an ideal marriage stresses the need for empathy: The wife likes to sleep with the window open. The husband likes to sleep with the window closed. Here is how they argue: She insists that the window stay closed. He insists that it stay open. Each has empathy for and wants the other to be happy.
Okay, this is a really high level of empathy.
For most of us, a good negotiation includes being able to identify with our partner’s point of view, at least to some degree. It does not mean winning an argument. It is about having a back-and-forth, give-and-take discussion. It shows the value of compromising and creating mutually agreeable, intimacy enhancing solutions.
This lighthearted poem by a friend illustrates premarital negotiation:
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
That should be the marriage vow
It’s much better than “I do”
I’ll promise to love you forever
But I want my own bank account
We do winter holiday at my mom’s
Thanksgiving at yours
No messing around with others
I get to pick the color of the kitchen
You get to pick the car
I’ll do the cooking
You take care of all mechanics
We never hit the children
We go to a girly movie one week
A macho movie the next
And let’s hold a marriage meeting
once a week
to negotiate whatever else
pops up on this “forever” trip
What do you say?
Is it a deal?
Shall we order the wedding cake?
- For step-by-step details for how to hold successful marriage meetings, see Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted by Marcia Naomi Berger (New World Library, 2014).
- Names and identifying details are changed to protect privacy of individuals mentioned in this article.
Couple talking photo available from Shutterstock