Learning how not to sweat (but to quickly and easily negotiate) the small stuff in your marriage is a darn good idea. I wrote about that last week in How To Negotiate The Small Stuff.
This week, what about the big stuff?
Well, what IS the big stuff?
At some level I want to say the big stuff includes things like:
- where to live
- if and when to start a family
- whether to buy or rent your home
- budgeting the big ticket items
- where your kids go to school
- where and how to spend the important holidays
- whether and where to worship.
However, from years in the trenches helping couples navigate some stormy waters, I’ve come to see the definition of “big stuff” differently.
For most of us, the big stuff we have to negotiate in our long term relationships gets defined by what matters to us as individuals that we disagree about as a couple.
That could look like the list above, for sure.
But what if you and your partner both feel similarly about these things?
Then those things – like buying a house and whether to have kids – become the small stuff because the process of negotiating the hows and whys and whens are non-issues. You both agree. No problem!
But, what if you disagree about one of those, or even;
- how to fold the towels
- whether to join a Bank or a Credit Union
- whether it’s funny or rude when the kids burp at the table
- whether to clear the table completely each meal or leave mats out and salt & pepper in place (don’t laugh that’s me!)
- and a host of other things that you and your partner might disagree about, whether they seem objectively large or small?
These then become the “big stuff.”
The rather well-worn old Chinese-character-for-crisis metaphor works well here.
Areas of disagreement are both a danger and an opportunity.
The dangers include ~
- having a win-loose or right/wrong mentality
- losing sight of the long-term benefits of cultivating a great relationship over achieving the short-term benefits of “winning” an argument
- doing damage by the way you go about negotiating for what you want.
The opportunities include ~
- getting to clarify what really matters to each of you, and why
- getting to expand your thinking
- getting to build your creativity as a couple as the two of you co-create a both/and solution that brings you closer, inspires cooperation and confirms your mutual respect.
So, here’s the “How-To-Negotiate-The-BIG-Stuff” method I recommend.
In blue type is an example of what by any “normal” standards would be a “small stuff” item. But see how it became a “Big Stuff” for one couple.
#1 Describe The Problem
Usually “Big Stuff” only becomes “Big Stuff” after a few rounds of unsuccessful negotiations. Two people won’t know what they disagree about until they disagree. So, after a few rough and unsuccessful attempts to have things go as you wish, you might decide you want to have a real conversation to sort things out. A real negotiation to put this issue to rest. Not by “winning” I hasten to add. But by coming together as fellow explorers, fellow solution-seekers, to see what you can both learn about one another and discover about how to move beyond whatever the gridlock is.
For couple Frank and Heidi their differences regarding how to treat their dining room table after meals went from “cute” to “amusing” to “touchy” to “frosty” to “All-out-hostile” over the course of a few years.
Heidi loved a “Zen” space. She wanted the dining room table cleared off after each meal. She needed the salt and pepper or sugar put away; the mats shaken and taken off the table and the table wiped down.
Frank hated having to put out for every meal what should have been out since the last meal. He loved having the salt, pepper, ketchup, sugar, mats and even extra cutlery out and on the table. Why create work?
At first they found it sort of quaint that they felt so differently about this. They initially did what the other wanted. Frank would put stuff away while singing a song about the department of redundancy department. Heidi would leave stuff out – but way too much stuff… things that might go off like cream, mill and OJ.
But after a couple of years the battle lines were drawn. Frank never put anything away at the end of a meal. Heidi put everything away at the end of a meal. Someone was always unhappy.
#2 Get curious about why this bothers you.
Here are some questions to guide your curiosity.
- What precisely is this flare of disagreement about for you?
- What do you wish your partner would do instead of what they actually do?
- What value of yours seems to be compromised by the actions of your partner?
- What story do you tell yourself about your partner when things don’t go as you wish?
- As FRANK thought about what pissed him off it was the inefficiency.
- He wished Heidi would see things from his point of view and leave the meal-time-necessities there on the table.
- He valued investing his precious life-energy in things that had immediate and observable feedback – which mico-managing the salt and pepper did not! He valued efficiency – yes!
- He told himself that Heidi was wasting his time over nothing.
- HEIDI was on overwhelm. She was super busy. Frank was beyond busy. It was as if their lives were about to fly off the handle and unravel totally. What she needed was some small ritual that demonstrated they were OK.
- She wished Frank would simply take the 3 minutes it took to clear the table at the end of a meal.
- Her values for calm and beauty were being massively stomped on.
- Heidi told herself that a messy table meant they were heading downhill as a couple. They were loosing the battle for the things that mattered – which was home and family.
#3 Get curious about why this might bother your partner.
Even though your partner might well be doing what you’ve just done – getting curious about him or her self – it can help to imagine how they might answer this. Knowing what you know about your partner, what might be happening as they appear to resist your request for how to handle this situation?
- What might your partner wish you’d do in the face of this situation?
- Do you have any feel for what story your partner might be telling him or her self about you and your actions over this issue?
- What value might your partner have that could be compromised by what you are doing?
Frank thought long a hard. What might Heidi want? He knew she wished he’d clear the table – but he really was not about to concede his valid point. Yet. He figured her clean-table thing had to do with, humm, . . what? Third-grade rules? He could see no value to her request and felt angry and clueless.
Heidi thought about Frank, and his life and how full each day was and she figured he was going for efficiency. She knew he wished she’d just let this bone drop…. But she had standards, after all.
#4 Ask for some time to talk about the issue.
Engage the old grey-matter here.
If you launch into your partner with some hot-blooded diatribe like
- “You’re such a [insert personal attack here. “Slob” says Heidi / “Neat freak” says Frank]
- You always [insert globalizing accusation here “Create a mess” says Heidi / “Make unnecessary work” says Frank]
- I wish you’d just [Insert one-sided demand here “Take 5 minutes and clean” says Heidi / “Relax, sit a talk to me for 5 minutes” says Frank]
- Or I’ll [insert ultimatum here “Eat alone without you” says Heidi / “Eat at work without you” says Frank.]
These do not work – right?
So before you launch the one-sided attack, followed by the global accusation, followed by the one-sided demand, followed by the ultimatum, simply say:
“I’ve noticed we have this on-going issue about the dining room table. Would you be willing to set aside some time for us to resolve it?”
#5 Share what you’ve been thinking
Tell your partner about your inner homework. Share what you’ve noticed about your values.
“You know Heidi, I’ve been thinking. I’m so full-on at work, I’m really about eliminating anything that does not feel vital. For me, clearing the table of things we’ll only use again in a few hours seems like madness.”
“You know Frank, I feel I want to take one small stand against all the busy-ness we are both in the midst of and for me, that is symbolized by the small effort it takes to clear up after a meal.”
#6 Invite your partner to share what they have been thinking.
- “Heidi, tell me more about what you’ve been thinking.”
- “Frank, tell me more about what you’ve been thinking.”
#7 Zero-in on the values
Just that. The “Big Stuff” is always about core values. Get curious. What is underneath this stand your partner is taking?
“Oh” says Frank. “For you Heidi you have a value around not acting as if we are so full tilt busy that we can’t even clean up after a meal? You value not letting this sort of small ritual fall away even though we are moving so fast?”
“Humm”, says Heidi. “Frank, given how fast your days are you have come to value being super efficient, and it makes no sense for you to move stuff on and off the table when it seems not to matter at all that stuff stays in place?”
#8 Brainstorm some solutions
Just this. How might the two of you honor one another’s values but do something different?
“OK Heidi. I get that. We both are moving way faster than we ever have and we’re both maxed out. But for you, this small thing (not that it always feels small to me mind you) about having a clean table, makes you feel calmer? How about this idea? Since you really value it clean between meals, you go ahead and clear the table and leave it empty and clean. That honors your values of zen and high standards, right? And since I like having stuff around me while I’m eating so I’m not jumping up and down fetching things all the time, I’ll stop grumbling about putting things out before a meal and just do it?”
“Yes, that could work Frank. But on weekends, or when we have friends over and there’s lots of stuff out at the end of a meal, I’d appreciate your help then. And, you know, could we make gathering all the meal-time-stuff up easier? Maybe a tray or caddy for salt, pepper, sugar, and another one for fridge stuff?”
And so they are off. Each now informed about why this matters to one another. Now they can negotiate respectfully towards a win-win, instead of the old win/loose.
It’s not always this simple or this easy obviously. But the thing to remember about “Big Stuff” is that what makes it Big is not the objective assessment of the money or effort involved. What makes an issue big between people is the issue’s connection to competing core values. Frank’s value of efficiency clashed with Heidi’s value of calm and clean. Unless you get to the root of these deeper issues, you’ll never find peace.
And if negotiations don’t go so well? If some of those less-wise words slip out – like the attacking, accusing, demanding and ultimatum-type language? Do what you can always do when things aren’t going well ~
- Comment on the fact that neither one of you is up for the conversation right now ( in ohter words, don’t blame anyone).
- Suggest you take a break.
- When you are ready, say sorry for your part in the melt down.
- Try again.
- Remember – keep your eyes on the prize: a long term happy relationship where each of you continues to learn about what matters to one another and to seek to honor those things that each of you values.
FIRST TIME HERE?
This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”
If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.
SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING
SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”
SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.
- Report The News – Don’t Act it Out
- Happy Families
- Self Leadership
- When Does A Relationship Need Help?
SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity
- 5 Non verbal Cues You Need To Know
- How To Change Someone Else
- 2 Magic Ratios for Great relationships
- Is Understanding Overrated?
SKILLS FOR CONNECTING
SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation
- Five Conversations
- How To Never Be Boring
- The 5 Principles For Great Conversation
- The 7 Deadliest Fights & How To Fight Fair
SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self
- 5 Ways To Be A Better Listener
- Listening To Yourself
- Who’s Listening
- Beyond Emotion Coaching – Listening For Your Child’s Needs
SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut
- Thriving Through Tough Times
- Teaching Empathy to Adults
- Teaching Empathy to Children
- Living Empathically
SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness
- Kindness Is Key
- Cultivating Kindness
- Can We Ever Be Too Kind?
- Independence, Co-dependence and Interdependence
- One Small Step Toward Self Compassion
SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality