The Art of Negotiating with Your Spouse 3 ways to find common ground respectfully and peacefully after a fight. BY SHARON M. RIVKIN, MA, MFT
Negotiating with your spouse is a skill that you both need to work on, it's not a winner-take-all exchange.
“ …it’s your signal to not react and just state the facts without judgment or blame, and affirm to yourself that these are just differences and not crimes against each other.”
"You’re driving me crazy with the mess you made in the kitchen!" screams Brandon.
Angrily, Nicole responds, "I can never please you. You’re just a neat freak, and it’s not that messy anyway!" And so on it goes.
This scenario is all too common with couples, and there’s just no good outcome unless you have learned good negotiating skills. What does that mean? It’s the ability for each partner, even with diametrically opposing positions, to discuss their points of view and just state the facts, without any emotional charge. Any topic should be okay to talk about, even if you disagree. But the kicker is how you present your feelings so that your partner can hear you and not get defensive.
In short, the goal is for each partner to be able to put their "cards on the table," without incurring judgments, criticisms, or put-downs from the other, and vice-versa. Once this happens, you can then begin to negotiate.
From the example above, what should Brandon and Nicole do to successfully negotiate their differences about cleanliness?
1. Be aware that they’re triggered/reacting. It’s not okay for Brandon to yell at Nicole, and for Nicole to yell at Brandon. Before they can even begin to negotiate, they need to learn how to adjust their behavior toward each other by learning to not react, defusing emotional charges, and eliminating mean and nasty criticisms and judgments. This takes self-control, discipline, a mutual desire to have a healthier relationship…and….practice, practice, practice.
2. Just state the facts; don’t react. Once Brandon and Nicole learn to not react in an angry manner, they need to talk about their differences in a rational way by simply stating the facts and begin to accept each other while suspending judgments. For instance, the facts are that he’s neat, and she’s not, and nobody’s better or worse than the other…just different.
3. Living together with differences. Brandon and Nicole still have opposing positions, so how do they live together with their differences? They start throwing ideas around until they mutually agree upon a solution. For instance, Brandon might say, "I really know you’re not as messy as I make you out to be, and I’m sorry I was so mean about it. If you could be aware of being neater, I’d be willing to do the finishing touches to satisfy my standards." Nicole could respond by saying, "I really do understand that you’d like the kitchen to be neat, and I will do my best to be aware of that. And thank you for offering to do the finishing touches, because I may never meet up to your standards."
There it is. That’s the basic formula for negotiating the differences with your spouse. Be aware that when you’re starting to boil up inside, it’s your signal to not react and just state the facts without judgment or blame, and affirm to yourself that these are just differences and not crimes against each other. Repeat this to yourself as many times as needed to calm yourself down and to defuse the situation and put it in its proper perspective. Once you’re calm and the situation is defused, you’ve now opened up your marriage to negotiating to make it a win-win situation for the both of you.
Please note, if you find yourself in a relationship where your differences are so great and you can’t get past the shaming and blaming, these negotiating tools may not work. Sometimes, we are so disjointed and so much resentment has built up in the relationship that we simply cannot resolve our differences. If that’s the case, you may need to seek professional help to determine if your differences are truly insurmountable.
Also known as the "last ditch effort therapist," Sharon M. Rivkin, therapist and conflict resolution/affairs expert, is the author of "Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy" and developer of the First Argument Technique, a 3-step system that helps couples fix their relationships and understand why they fight. Her work has been featured in Oprah Magazine, Reader's Digest, Time.com, Yahoo!News.com, WebMD.com, and DrLaura.com. Sharon has appeared on TV, was quoted on The Insider TV show, and makes regular radio appearances nationwide. She has also appeared on Martha Stewart Whole Living Radio and is the "Resident Shrink" on Coach Ron Tunick's radio show, The Business of Life, on KKZZ 1400AM. For more information, please visit her website at www.sharonrivkin.com.