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.
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.