More Tips from Dr. Heitler: Shared decision making as a Couple

Marriage partners are in a sense yoked together. Couples, therefore, need skills for shared decision making and communication. Many couples mistakenly believe that each decision must end in one of them “winning their way.” While this may get things done, it leads to resentment and negativity in the relationship. If they can choose together when to turn left and when to turn right, neither of them will feel compromised, dominated, or controlled by the other. Instead, each shared decision just enhances their loving partnership.

Shared decision making necessitates that couples look deep into why each wants what they do. Often we get stuck on the way Use shared decision making to avoid fightssomething is to be done–this is only the surface level of the decision. As soon as couples see themselves preferring different plans of action, they switch from launching a tug of war over their preferred solutions to exploring the concerns that underlie each of their preferences. As they come to understand their own and their partner’s underlying concerns, then they can look for a solution. They can then use shared decision making to form a plan of action responsive to all the concerns of both of them.

Let’s take an example:

Louise and Chad, who are recently engaged, are discussing where they want to live after marrying. Louise wants to move to Montana; Chad likes living in Arkansas, where they both live now. Chad, on realizing they were beginning to argue over the issue,  switched into “win-win” mode. He asked Louise what about Montana appealed to her. This question switched the discussion from a struggle over who would get their way to an exploration of both of their underlying concerns. Louise explained that she loves the wide open spaces of Montana and wants some day to live on a small ranch. Chad’s concern was whether he would be able to find work outside of the state where he had always lived. Their solution was to agree that Chad would explore job openings in Montana. If a job there looked possible, then he’d be glad to move. A month of monitoring job postings in his field and there it was–a perfect job for Chad, and a move to the state she loved for Louise.

In Power of Two and my marriage help books, we call this shared decision making process the “Win-win Waltz” and it is very much like a dance with each partner giving, taking, and ultimately working in unison. Also like a dance, it requires patience and practice to learn. Next time you find yourself butting heads with your spouse, try taking a first step and delving deeper into their underlying concerns. This is also a very useful tool for shared decision making outside of your marriage. Try it at work, with your friends, and with other family members!