When a new couple enters my office to start therapy, one of the things I always make sure to discuss in their first session is what their goals are — I want to know what each person is hoping to get out of therapy, and I want to hear how similar or dissimilar their goals are from each other. One goal I hear really frequently is that couples want to work on their skills at conflict resolution and finding compromises to the impasses that arise in their lives. They want to get better at finding solutions to their joint problems so that when they get stuck in the process of making a decision, they have tools to use in getting un-stuck.
This is a great goal that I enthusiastically support! In order to do this effectively, I often have some work to do in breaking some bad habits and helping couples heal from damage done by a history of ineffective negotiation skills. So in today’s post, I’m going to highlight some ineffective and even toxic negotiation skills that I see couples using to try to “break a tie” in solving problems together.
Manipulation. This tactic occurs when we unfairly play on our partner’s emotions in order to get what we want. To do so, we often bend the truth with regard to our own emotions or beliefs. For example, if you’ve got your heart set on sending your kids to private school and your partner is invested in sending them to public school, it would be manipulative to say, “If you really loved me, you would let me send them to private school. You know how important this is to me.” Of course we don’t really believe that not going along with our preferences is evidence of a lack of love from our partners; but when we suggest that we feel this way, our partners may feel compelled to give in as a way to provide reassurance that they do love us. At least, this is the implied hope contained in the statement.
- Try this instead: Rather than using emotion to get your way, separate emotional connection and understanding from the problem-solving phase of your conversation. In the first, emotional phase of the conversation, work to understand each other’s feelings and why a specific outcome is important to each. Then, in the rational, problem-solving part of the conversation, try to identify a solution that takes both partners’ feelings into account.
Guilt-Tripping. Employing a guilt-trip is another way that partners sometimes manipulate each other in an effort to get what they want. Guilt is effective when it induces submissiveness; put another way, guilt trips work because they make a person feel bad enough that they give the guilt tripper what they want. Guilt trips create a dynamic in which one person is made to feel responsible for the others negative feelings or suffering, and therefore obligated to do something to minimize them. Over time, this behavior drives a wedge between partners and create conflict “hot spots” where reactivity and bad feelings can fester.
- Try this instead: If a communication dynamic elicits guilt, call it out. Say, “I can see that this issue is really important to you. The way we’re talking about it and your insistence that I do as you wish is starting to make me feel some resentment. It would be easier for me to consider doing things your way if you could ask me for it directly. Could we try that?”
Disingenuous Compliance. This tactic occurs when one partner in a conversation decides to “give up” and give in, but isn’t doing so in an honest way. They might say something like, “FINE! I know you’re just going to do what you want no matter what I say, so I’ll just shut up. Do whatever you want!” As you can imagine, this rarely works out well. Neither partner feels satisfied or at peace with the solution, and the partner who receives this disingenuous message is likely to feel attacked and hurt. If a solution does emerge from this interaction, it’s unlikely to be a lasting one.
- Try this instead: If you have heard words like this from your partner, take some time to think about why s/he might feel unable to be heard in some of your problem-solving dynamics and see what you can do to create a more collaborative conversation. If you’ve heard yourself saying something like this, try sharing a softer emotion with your partner. For example, “When our conversations get to this point, I sometimes feel hopeless that anything I can say will have an impact. I end up wanting to give up, but that doesn’t feel good either. It’s important to me that we are both a part of creating a solution here. Can we work together to make that happen?”
Withdrawal. Another ineffective strategy that some partners employ in negotiation within relationships is withdrawal, which often take the form of silent treatment, slamming one’s way out of the house, or taking on a generally cold approach toward the other person. Many times, a person who withdraws when conflict gets intense exerts more power over time, as the other partner learns to try to avoid the withdrawal by giving in during conflict. This is different than some of the other tactics we’ve discussed, which typically have a more immediate effect. When withdrawal is a habit, the other partner subconsciously learns not to advocate fully for what they want or need in a negotiation in order to avoid the “punishment” of withdrawal.
- Try this instead: If you genuinely need some space to get a handle on your feelings and re-engage in productive communication, you are totally within your rights to ask for that — but please do it in a healthy way. Try saying, “I can feel myself getting upset to the point where this isn’t productive. Can we take a 15-minute break so I can get my head around this?” Then, specify a location where you will reconvene. If you’re not taking space for this healthy reason, but are instead creating space as a way of punishing the other person or manipulating them into doing what you want, remember that you and your ideas are worthy of consideration, and try to stay engaged.
As I tell my couples all the time, disagreements and the need to resolve them are normal in any relationship. In healthy relationships, resolution comes without the use of toxic negotiation tactics, but instead remains focused on respectful, inclusive, and collaborative solution finding that leaves both partners feeling satisfied and confident about the decision they made together. If you’re struggling to employ healthy negotiation and compromise tactics with your partner, consider seeking a qualified couples therapist for help.
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both our Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call or email today to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.