Tools for Couples Happiness — 10 November 2003
How to make good decisions as a couple

Many couples come to therapy frustrated about their decision making
process, which leads them to ongoing fights and hurt feelings. There are
ways to alleviate this problem through adoption of several principles
and employing an agreed upon process.

Making decisions as a couple is a difficult task. Individual decisions
are hard enough for many people, let alone the additional concerns,

opinions and preferences of a mate. Some people are comfortable with
decision making, even about important issues. More people state that
they feel ill at ease with the responsibility of choice making.

People who struggle with decision-making explain their hardship in
several ways. Among them are: the fear of being wrong, worries about not
pleasing others, being overwhelmed about seeking the needed information,
feeling inadequate about assessing all the data, feeling pressure to
decide, and being baffled by the priority of each of the options.

Not uncommonly, these people s upbringing reinforced their natural
aversion to being decisive. Some come from homes where criticism was
prevalent. Others experienced shame, blame, or even ridicule about their
thoughts and preferences. For some decisions were only made by adults.
Most people have had less than ideal guidance about the process of
making choices and even less support for doing so. It is no wonder that
some individuals resist, avoid, or abdicate the responsibility of
decision making.

Couples often develop a non-stated process for decision making. Some
will assign the person who is more comfortable with taking
responsibility for choices- to be the “decider”. Other couples divide
the areas of expertise between them and allow the “expert” in each
domain to exercise his or her options for the couple. For certain mates
decisions happen by default. And of course, there are partners who make
mutual decisions about all matters of concern.

Any arrangement partners use is acceptable – provided that neither mate
ends up feeling a power imbalance. Anytime a person feels that he or she
has lost a vote on an important matter, the power balance has been
tipped. The non-consulted partner may feel similar disempowerment as he
or she felt in childhood, which is not conducive to a healthy relationship.

Even people, who agree to designate their mate as the decider, are
likely to develop discomfort about it sooner or later. When we give up
the right to participate in making couple choices, we help create a
parent-child interaction. This formula interferes with intimacy and
needs to be avoided. It is wise for both express their opinion about the
matter, even if one of them feels less strongly about the content of the

Couples who share decision – making may also find it hard to do. How do > you decide between two reasonable stances that are in opposition to each
other? What if you do not consider your mate s recommendation to be a
valid option? How do you know what is a fair and decent compromise? When
do you elect to defer to your mate s position? When do you decide not to

There are five principles that may make it easier for couples to
undertake mutually agreed upon decisions.

1. The Equality Principle: Each partner has a valid point of view to be
respected by the other partner.
2. The Fact/Feeling Principle: Facts will be separated from emotions but
both will be considered in the final decision.
3. The Need Principle: Each partner s strongest need (wish, concern or
desire) about the decision will be heard.
4. The Intensity Principle: The emotional intensity each partner feels
about the options will be respected.
5. The Comfort Principle: Both partners comfort with the final choice
is essential. Though it may not be either mate s optimal selection, it
is one that both can accept.

Once these principles are agreed upon, couples may begin the process of
decision making.

  • Define the issue to be decided. For example, a recreational activity
    for the day.
  • Express the need about your general preferences. For example, partner
    A. wants to go to the beach. The need is for being in the sun, near
    water and feeling carefree. Partner B. would like to go to the
    mountains. The need is for boating, being in nature around trees, and
    having a quiet serene atmosphere.
  • Get information about both choices.
  • Decide to take turns, (this weekend go to the beach, next weekend to
    the mountains or vice versa) or elect a trip to a third destination
    (Like a lake) that fulfills most of both partner s needs.
  • Check with yourself that the compromise option is made in the spirit
    of co-operation, with no residual resentments.
  • Once the decision is agreed upon it becomes a “we” decision with no
    recourse for complaints about one s own original first choice not having
    been granted.

This simple example did not address the intensity of emotion, which many
other decisions may evoke. The partner who feels strongly against a
choice should prevail. If the other partner feels equally pro that
choice, the decision still has to accommodate the partner who is the
least comfortable. Often the intense objection may involve fear, threat,
or anticipation of an extreme discomfort. These feelings may not be
explainable or even knowable to the objecting party, but the deep
resistance is to be honored.

Couples must make sure that this is not a pattern where one of them
consistently feels strong objections and is regularly deferred to. If
the objecting mate can voice his or her concerns, efforts may be made to
modify the choice to reduce the objectionable aspects. The decision
process has to be done with respect and concern for each mate s
discomfort level and intensity of preference.

Partners who comfortably make mutual decisions speak of “getting along
really well”. A hard task can be made easier with attitudes of respect
and love for each other s needs and wishes.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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