As a counsellor, I have sat with many couples over the last 30 years and have observed that successful and life-giving relationships have some key ingredients – self-respect, mutual respect and, of vital importance, trust. Couples need to be able to trust each other’s love and motivations, enabling them to practice vulnerability and balance power within the relationship.
There is an ancient proverb – “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” It may be centuries old, but it still applies today. Behind every dispute between partners, parties and nations are people who have not agreed on the same destination or vision. If there is no mutual respect either, it is hard to imagine a good outcome or a healthy relationship.
Negotiation is not simply something to do over the bargaining table or at that favourite Kiwi pastime, the garage sale. It is, perhaps, the king of the life skills. If you want to build trust and have a successful home and family, it should never be underestimated.
A couple is two people who have agreed to walk together but, if they want to head in different directions with differing priorities, there is going to be real tension. Their clashing agendas will be a recipe for trouble. Psychologists would call this an example of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – two individuals who want to be together but cannot compromise, be vulnerable or share the power in the relationship. When couples are consistently at odds with one another, there is the potential for friction and this can escalate to hurt, anger and a sense of hopelessness.
If I were to say, “People either have the ability to negotiate or they don’t”, you may want to disagree with me. If you presented me with a different opinion, we would be starting to negotiate. This is exactly the ability that many lack – the ability to calmly present a contrasting opinion. Instead, they might erupt in anger or become passive aggressive. They cannot simply keep the conversation going until a satisfactory compromise is found. If this becomes the normal way of interacting, having good, honest conversations becomes very difficult.
If you’re wondering where this kind of relating comes from, it could be that the ability to offer an alternative opinion was never role-modelled well to us as children. Perhaps we were brought up with parents who communicated through verdicts rather than discussion, without any right-of-reply given. In a culture like that, we get used to experiencing repeated disappointment and learn that there is no alternative but to merely comply. Or perhaps we learn a more dangerous lesson – that the power of anger is the most effective way to win an argument or a make a point.
If you and your partner are finding that you are constantly clashing and struggling to be on the same team, it may be a good time to make some changes. You may also need to find healthier ways of weaving good negotiating skills into your interactions – not just for the sake of your relationship but for the well-being of your children too. The phrases, “Well, that’s a good way of thinking about it, but I’d like to explore…” or, “I don’t feel comfortable about that, could we try this instead?”, might seem like strange and unfamiliar phrases to some of us, but they can work very well.
“Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” Let’s add to that question – “How can they be agreed, unless they can negotiate?”
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