How can couples make decisions better?
Being in a supportive relationship where you can rely on each other is one of the biggest predictors of your future happiness. And yet, too many relationships don’t feel like that.
My friend Ben and his girlfriend Ellie are always breaking up and getting back together again. Typically, something small will happen and will slowly escalate over a few hours until one of them storms off, threatening the end of the relationship. I learnt from this the importance of being able to solve problems effectively with a partner. These days if I am thinking about the criteria for a couple that will last a long time and be happy together, I look for how they bring out the best in each other and how they solve problems together.
How can couples make decisions together?
This topic of how couples should solve problems and make decisions together is a gaping hole in the literature of decision-making. Nearly all the work that’s been done focuses on how individuals make decisions. A few studies look at how groups of people, for example at work, make decisions. But given that many of the biggest decisions we make in life are taken in conjunction with our partner – for example where to live, career decisions, family and health decision.
So, just what are the strategies for making good decisions and solving problems when there are two of you?
Counselling plus science
X or Y’s approach to this is to explore the work on couples counselling (which tends to be not very scientific, but at least practical), and marry this with the literature on decision-making. Are there overlaps between the counsellor and the scientist which combine to give us good strategies?
Six strategies to choose from
We have developed the following principles which should be read and tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of your decision-making style and process as a couple.
- Appreciative inquiry. This process is where two people can get side by side and try to explore the truth of a situation together in a positive way. Rather than a tug of war or argument about positions we try and remove the personal, the “I this” and You that” and stay focused on the issue.
- Stay on track. Once you’ve defined the underlying issue that needs to be addressed, or the decision that needs to be made, try to gently keep on track. Any additional concerns should be briefly referred to, but parked for later. Don’t go down too many tangents, otherwise frustration will creep in when one party goes off on a path that the other doesn’t believe is as important.
- Stay out of the way. You don’t both have to be involved in every decision. When one party cares more than the other about the decision, they should get to make the decision. So, at a wedding, one could say, “I’ll stay out of the music and leave it to you, if you stay out of the table arrangements and leave them to me.”
- Be open to being wrong. Many couples have debates that turn into “I’m 100% right and you’re 100% wrong” in which the debate slowly escalates and each attempt to add to the conversation steers us away from compromise. This virtually never works. In practice, the idea of admitting the other party might be right is very powerful. And although it is human nature to stick to our beliefs and dig in, if you can move beyond this and consider that you might be wrong, you will find life a lot easier.
- Admit you’re a jerk. Often, if you’ve had an argument and done something you regret, you will furiously try and justify it, mentally contorting the situation to interpret it in a way that justifies your position; that you are right. Instead of this, maybe just admit you were a jerk and didn’t live up to your own best self.
- Ideal self. If you’re finding yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself “what would my ideal self do in this situation?” This is a really handy and quick shortcut to sticking with your values and being your best self. I think it’s true to say that no one is perfect all of the time, BUT we know what our best self looks like and what s/he would do in any given situation. So just by asking yourself this it can diffuse your frustration and help you behave well.
The research into how your relationship is such a big driver of long term happiness also reveals that having a relationship you’re satisfied with at age 50 is a big predictor of your bodily health and your mental health at age 80.
So, it might just be worth trying out some of the strategies above, your 80 year old self might thank you for it.
Written by Rob Pyne