Have you ever met a person who refused to enter into mutual decision-making on topics small to large? You might ask, “What shall we have for supper?” and the uncooperative response may be, “I don’t care. You decide.” Or you say, “I’m thinking we might take a trip to the coast this year. What do you think?” only to hear, “Does it really matter? We always do what you want to do in the end!” Or you state, “We really should discuss where our investments are headed” and hear a curt, “Look. You take care of your money; I’ll take care of mine.”
Perhaps such people account for their answers as stemming from their personality—“I’m just an independent person,” or maybe their lifestyle—“I’m too busy to discuss every little thing,” or even their beliefs about maturity—“We’re both big people; make your own decision!”
In some sense such people are right. In fact, generally speaking, our culture values self-sufficiency, busyness, and living with the consequences of our own choices. But on the down side, people who routinely refuse to work with their loved ones to solve problems, or choose to avoid planning together, exercise a form of verbal abuse.
Who, me? Abusive? In The Verbally Abusive Relationship author Patricia Evan observes important features of healthy relationships—qualities such as mutuality and partnership. We exercise mutuality when we become sweetly dependent on others, sharing and affirming their experiences, respecting their opinions, and enjoying reciprocal trust. Similarly, partnership means doing life together, joined at the heart, and realizing that we are stronger as a duo than as lone rangers.
When we refuse to enter into decision-making, we fumble miserably at mutuality and partnership, for by doing so we snub each other, and the relationship. Refusing to enter in tells our friends that their ideas or plans or opinions don’t matter, and by extension, that they don’t matter. Refusing to enter in signals that we think our world is more important, and we don’t need them. And every strategy we might use to avoid making decisions together abuses the relationship or our partner. We might refuse to engage by walking away (a tactic called withdrawal), or ignoring our partner (often disguised behind “I didn’t hear you”), or simply shutting them down (what experts call “blocking”). What is our motive here? If it is to manipulate and control our partner, we will likely succeed. But if we seek a genuinely better relationship, these methods only get in the way.
Contract or Covenant?
At a deeper level our willingness to come together to agree on important issues stems from our expectations for relating generally. If we approach friendships or marriage with a contract mentality, we’re bound to crave space and freedom. But if we see our relationships as covenants, we may be more willing to make decisions together.
Contract thinking begins with the self-absorbed idea that life owes us something—happiness, comfort, ease, whatever—and that relationships shouldn’t get in the way of us achieving these. Contractual relaters tend to hold back their emotions and guard their investment in others, for, their thinking goes, to become over-invested, and not paid back, is a bad deal. Good deals, they think, keep investments equal, like a business exchange when we get what we pay for at a yard sale.
By contrast, covenant thinking begins with the other-absorbed idea that we owe God everything, beginning with a thankful heart and an eagerness to work with others, not around them. Covenant relaters don’t begin with “you and me,” but rather “we,” and they build togetherness by promising to be loyal, to work through issues, and perhaps most of all—to make decisions together.
Once you’ve made a decision together, you are both likely to see it to the end—whether that be supper, that vacation, or where you invest. Making decisions together allows us to voice our values and hopes. They cement the relationship, and put us on the same path.
So, shall we agree? It’s beautiful when we do.
Next week's post will note six areas where we can make mutual decisions.
Love is in the air, and on the scales.
No, not the gym scales to see pounds we gain from Valentines chocolate and dinner out. I’m thinking about the survey that indicated 53% of women would end their relationship if they did not get something for Valentine’s Day.
The survey was conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, a company specializing in consumer behavior, and was reported at Statisticbrain.com, a group that believes in the pure beauty of numbers—and that interpretation thereof is up to the reader. You can read more here: http://www.statisticbrain.com/valentines-day-statistics/
For starters, consider that it’s a consumer company that is promoting this finding that half the female population might walk away from their significant other if necklace and flowers aren’t delivered. Not surprising a consumer company is eager to let men know that fact. Nudge, nudge.
But what’s behind the statistic? Maybe contract thinking.
In economic terms the contract model aims to keep rewards (things you get out of the relationship) and investments (things you lose) about even. And generally this is worth pursuing. We know that couples who experience equity are more committed and report higher relational satisfaction than people who don’t.
But we also know that keeping track of who’s done what for whom and who owes the other a perk can be difficult and nit-picky. A study on dorm roommates found that students with this orientation rated their roomie relationship below average.
We can also consider relationships where keeping things even or “fair” just isn’t possible. Consider:
Contract relating is also the algorithm in dating relationships as people look for good deals hoping to maximize their happiness and minimize their pain. And, because dating is so fluid, so exploratory, it doesn’t take much to tip the scales to figure out an investment isn’t worth it. So people bolt. Maybe that’s what’s behind the 53% statistic.
But over 4,000 people took the survey, and presumably a good cross-section too.
Perhaps more likely contract thinking continues past our dating years. The common-law relationship banks on it—we can live together until this is no longer working. And the prenup marriage too—we will make this work, but if it doesn’t, I’m going to get my share of the assets.
To think contractually means we likely value our personal happiness, believe relationships deliver happiness, and that if we aren’t happy we have sufficient reason to leave.
Being happy is not a dishonorable goal, but when we make it the primary aim of relating we are doomed to fail, for no one can meet all of our needs, nor can we meet all of theirs.
I wish you a memorable Valentine’s Day with those you love. Perhaps your investment of time or affection will be sufficient expressions of your commitment. (But, for the record, I love chocolate.)
I glanced around the room to see pockets of young adults chatting amiably with snacks in hand. Four sat by the fireplace, three played pool, and others hung around the woman and man for whom this engagement party had been thrown.
The groom-to-be was our son, and in the crowd of twenty or so I recognized his high school buddies, long-term college friends, and people with whom he worked up north. Spirited laughter filled the room. Close friends.
Weeks before, in a different place, I had opportunity to speak with a man who described his life as troubled. He was separated from his wife and suffered from depression, anxiety, and spiritual confusion.
“Do you have any friends who can support you during this time?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “I have no friends.”
I have no friends! No wonder he had opened up to me, a stranger. As we talked I learned that he interacts with adults regularly—his psychiatrist, counselor, social worker and a disinterested sister. But no friends.
We all need one or two confidants with whom we can share anything and be understood and accepted. We call these relationships close for reason of their social and proximal intimacy. But they are more than that.
What is a close relationship? How might its features help us understand the party-goers and the desperately lonely man?
In close relationships we depend on each other to negotiate life. We get up in the morning knowing a flesh-and-blood person will be a part of our world in a meaningful way.
In close relationships we enjoy mutual influence, that ability to speak into someone’s life, and they into ours, with respect and dignity. We need to feel like our ideas and plans matter to someone.
People who are close hang out a lot talking, eating, playing and crying. If you and I cut out regular communication, we don’t have close relating. In fact, if we eliminate communication altogether, we snuff out the relationship.
But if we talk, and talk a lot, we develop unique patterns that build meaningful bonds. It’s the little things like pet names or favorite drinks or who sits where in the car that make us unique. These rituals give us comfort knowing we live in sync with another human being.
But perhaps more than these features, the litmus test for close relationships also includes experiencing strong emotions, especially of attachment. Closeness means we feel head-on love, trust, and admiration, and at other times, robust frustration, disdain and disgust. Feeling emotionally engaged tells us each other matter; feeling flat might signal drift.
When we’re close we know important needs are being met, things such as intimacy, security, and intellectual stimulation. We know we’re close when we seek to serve each other without thought for our gain. In fact to only take for our own needs indicates a lack of mutuality and maturity. When we’re close we are eager to help, serve, and support.
Finally, close relating gives the true sense that our friend or partner is irreplaceable. Life would be irreversibly changed if this person were not in our world.
The party goers and lonely man seemed at opposite poles of the closeness continuum. Where do you see your relationships on that line? What events and people have led to where your relationships are today? What choices have you made along the way?
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.