Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Summer 2006

Making Decisions

It is hard enough making decisions as a single person. You already have normal ambivalence and mixed feelings about what job to take, where to live, or what activities to do in your free time. Add a spouse into your life and you add in even more complexity with the normal marital conflict that results when two people with different preferences attempt to make decisions together.

We have gathered a set of techniques that can help your couple decision making. You won't need all of these with each decision but somewhere in this mix you should find something that will lower your conflict level and bring ease to your discussions.

Go Back to Basics

In other newsletters we have written about the importance of articulating your dreams for a great life together so that you have the basis of making the many small decisions that will come your way. Couples who have already written mission and vision statements have removed about 60% of the guess work from the complexity. For example, if one of your dreams is "to have children who excel in every sport imaginable," then when the soccer schedule comes out for the session, it is an easy decision to sign the children up.

You will also sign them up for swim team, baseball, lacrosse, etc. However, if your vision statement is "to have each child exposed to a sport each year," then you will narrow down the many sport options to one sport per child.

Your vision should include elements of all the aspects of your lives such as careers, home, children, friends, spirituality, etc. Your vision should be revisited at least annually if not semi-annually to see how you are doing on it and whether it is still current. Any time a new opportunity comes along, compare it to the vision statement to see how it fits. If it does not, either discard the opportunity or consider revising the vision statement to include it.

Eliminate Power Plays

Some of our client couples have the erroneous idea that every decision that affects both of them has to be made by both spouses. That assumption assures three things: you will have many more conflicts than you need to, you will spend many tedious hours making decisions, and you will often get locked into power standoffs.

Susan worked with a couple who were deadlocked on a decision about buying a camera. The wife wanted to research all the options and never got around to doing so. The husband was heartbroken because they had no remembrances of their children, no baby pictures, no birthday parties, or any photos of their religious ceremonies.

To prevent such power plays, it is easier and more effective to carve out decision making domains that allow for some but not constant communication about each decision. Imagine a piece of paper with five columns representing five domains of who makes the decision. From left to right they are labeled this way: his decision alone, his decision with input/veto from her, both deciding together, her decision with input/veto from him, and her decision alone.

Decide together what decisions fit in each column. There are no right answers to this exercise; it is what the two of you want. Here are some ways we have applied this exercise. Phil picks out the cars for both of us. Susan has some input about color and features but doesn't pay any attention to makes and models. When it comes to travel, Phil appreciates that Susan enjoys researching and suggesting new places to travel. When we remodeled our home this year, we made most big decisions jointly and divided some of the project management into the different domains.

Distribute decisions across the columns using personal expertise or interest to determine the distribution. Don't have too many decisions in the individual or joint columns. Susan suggested the camera couple break the log jam by having the husband buy a disposable camera for their son's eighth grade graduation ceremony so they could get some pictures of that event while the wife continued to research options. At follow-up, they had gone through a series of disposable cameras and the wife was still researching options but at least they had a record of their children's events.

Clarify Values

When you are making joint decisions, you can prevent forcing a decision on your partner if you each pretend to make decisions as though you are making them without your partner. Once you are clear about your individual values and preferences it is easier to negotiate your differences, "What is our ideal; what can we live with; what if money were no object?"

Many couples erroneously believe that compromise is the best way to resolve a conflict when in fact it is one of the worst methods because both people end up with an option they don't like. Instead of splitting the difference by compromising, aim at creative solutions that encompass "both/and" instead of "either/or." For example, while deciding on a restaurant when one of you likes Italian food and the other Mexican, don't pick a Chinese restaurant that neither of you like. Instead, consider trying a Mediterranean restaurant that might meet the needs of both people or dine at the mall food court where you can select two separate cuisines and meet at a table.

Attend to Feelings

When making a decision involving several options, use numeric values (from 1-10)as a way to lay out the attractiveness of several options. For example, "This day camp for our kids would be ok with me, maybe a 3, while I really like this other one, maybe a 10. How do you feel about each?" If you are detail oriented, you can also use negative numbers (-1 to a -10) to convey dislike.Pick an option that both people have the most positive feelings about.

Steps of Decision Making

For difficult and complex decisions use these steps:

  1. Listen and summarize each person's point of view until you develop a common definition of the problem.
  2. Brainstorm as many solutions as possible without critiquing the ideas.
  3. Analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each possible solution.
  4. Select or combine solutions to create an action plan. To prevent misunderstandings, record the plan in a marriage log book.
  5. Execute the action plan.
  6. Evaluate the outcome. Repeat the steps as needed until you reach a solution that you can both live with. Celebrate your success.

Weighted Pros and Cons

When you are evaluating options, list the pros and cons of each option. Rate each option from 1-5 and then add up the scores up. Just counting the number of pros and cons will give you a false sense of what options appear the best.

Pretending to Decide

Another technique is to pretend to pick one of the options for 24 hours to see what comes up for you. Do you feel disappointed about the loss of the discarded options? Do you feel at peace with the decision? Next, try out the other option for 24 hours and then evaluate what you learned.

Researching Options

Sometimes you will have to take a detour in the deciding process to find out more about the options available to reach your goals. Match your research time to the importance of the decision. Study Consumer Reports for a car purchase but not for cereal.


Books by:

Notarius & Markman. We Can Work It Out.

Copyright 2006 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information:

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