Compromise, as a tool for a happy marriage, is overrated— it’s actually negotiation you need to master. Here’s how to do it for maximum wedded bliss. And some of what you read here, will also be useful at work.
This article by redbookmag.com, where it appeared on 11 January 2018.is originally from the
If you’re like most married couples, you probably have fallen into a pattern of who does which household task—one of you does the laundry, the other shops for groceries. This almost always leaves at least one of you miserable: Hey, how’d I get stuck with the litter box?
You could turn your decisions over to strangers, which is actually not as crazy as it sounds. Classic evidence shows that compared with dating couples, people who just met negotiate deals that are better for both sides. People in love are more likely to rush into a compromise that leaves nobody with what they want; strangers take the time to learn about each other’s interests and work together to create mutually beneficial agreements. As a married couple, we think it’s a shame that so many negotiations turn out poorly. So what if we told you that you could negotiate better with the person you love (instead of grabbing strangers off the street to choose who should stop for milk)? One of us happens to be a negotiation professor and the other has to negotiate with him. So we’ve spent the past 13 years trying to figure out if it’s possible to negotiate with your beloved without ruining your marriage. Here’s what we’ve learned.
1. Throw Out an Anchor
If you think your partner has terrible taste, you want to make sure you win. Maybe you’re picking out the couch, the location for your next vacation, or—if you’re us—a baby name…
Allison: I’ve always loved “Gertrude.” Adam: That was ancient in 1842.
Allison: “Gertie” is cute. “Gertrude” can be the formal name.
Allison: Okaaaay…how about “Natalie”?
Adam: Now we’re talking.
Allison knew Adam would never agree to “Gertrude”—she was using it as an anchor. Anchoring is when you make a first offer that sets the tone on your terms. If you were selling your house, studies suggest that listing it, say, $1,000 higher will land you about $500 more in the final sale. People are often afraid of anchoring too high, but it gives you more flexibility to make concessions, while still tilting the outcome in your favor. Allison knew Adam hated antique names, but wanted to make sure his awful taste didn’t stand in the way of some classics. Even if Adam didn’t love the name “Natalie,” it sure would look good next to “Gertie.” Of course, anchoring works only if the first offer is within reason. If Allison had opened with a name like “Hephzibah” or “Philadelphia,” we would have been too far apart to even begin a discussion. Adam would have walked away seriously questioning her sanity, not to mention what century she thought she was living in. (Allison says “Gertie” will make a comeback. You heard it here first.)
2. Play the Ultimatum Game
Sometimes the stakes are so low that couples end up negotiating just to get out of making a decision. For us, that’s dinner. About once a week, we feed the kids early and order grown-up food. The problem is that neither of us wants to pick the restaurant.
We finally realized that there was an easy solution, what social scientists call the ultimatum game, and it turns out that even chimps instinctively know how to play it. It’s the grown-up version of telling your kids, “You can cut the cake, but your brother gets to choose his slice.” One of us generates the restaurant options, and the other picks. Then, the next time we order, we switch roles. With movies, Adam knows that if he proposes the fifth, sixth, and seventh installments in the X-Men series, when it’s Allison’s turn, he’ll be forced to watch a Wes Anderson movie. We both have an incentive to suggest choices that won’t make the other miserable. This logic applies to basically everything you do together. Going on vacation? One of you gets to pick the destination, the other plans the activities. Remodeling the kitchen? One chooses the style, the other the appliances. Starting your own island nation in the middle of the Pacific? One designs your coat of arms, the other decides on your national bird.
3. « Bundle » the Not-So-Fun Stuff
This is tougher when you have opposite preferences. You want to live in the country, he wants the big city. You want four kids, he wants two (or none at all). It happens with small stuff too. You go to bed early, she stays up late. You both hate to cook, but would prefer not to starve. Splitting the difference doesn’t cut it—you end up living on a potato farm in Tulsa, with three kids who eat every meal at McDonald’s. No one’s happy.
Adam is a former diver, and when we bought our house, he desperately wanted a pool. Allison…didn’t. She’s not a swimmer and was worried about safety with the kids. We both felt strongly, and we were struggling to find a solution. If we’d tried to deal with this issue on its own, the best we could have done was compromise, and that’s what usually leaves both parties dissatisfied or one in a bad spot. Similarly, it’s a mistake to take turns making choices, like if you divvy up tasks by having one of you sign up to walk the dog, the other claim cooking dinner, going back and forth until everything is covered. It’s much more effective to propose a bundle: I’ll walk the dog and change the light bulbs if you catch spiders and cook dinners.
4. Let Each Person Win Something
There are times you might need a next-level negotiation technique, though, as we did with our pool situation. We suggest linking separate issues together: Figure out what else is important to your partner, bring in a second negotiation where you also have opposite preferences, and let each person win on the issue that matters more. So if your partner really hates spiders, you could volunteer for that job in exchange for never, ever having to call the cable company.
For us, that meant Adam would get a pool if Allison got the rights to name our firstborn son. Allison cared more about giving our son a distinguished name than having a pool-free home, and Adam cared more about giving our son a place to swim than protecting him from a childhood of name-calling. We submitted our conditions—extra safety measures for the pool, no names that peaked in the 19th century—and the rest is history. Adam has been swimming laps for eight years in a fenced-in pool with an alarm and a safety cover. And, in 2013, we welcomed a beautiful baby boy, not named “Ulysses Sweet Grant.”