The Fine Art of Deciding Together
Have you ever met a person who refuses to make decisions together? 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. Our culture values self-sufficiency, busyness, and living with the consequences of our 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. Verbal abuse? How?
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 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 together, we fumble miserably at mutuality and partnership, for by doing so we snub each other, and the relationship. Refusing to enter in tells our partner 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. 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 things. 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.
By contrast, covenantal thinking begins with the idea that we owe God everything, beginning with a thankful heart and an eagerness to work with others, not around them. Covenantal 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 allow us to voice our values and hopes. Decisions made together cement the relationship and put us on the same path. One relational expert dubs mutually agreed-upon decisions “redemptive pacts” because they renew our commitment to each other and to where we’re headed.
Everyday redemptive pacts
When my wife and I were first married and earning entry-level wages, we sat down and made up a budget for spending, saving, and giving. One general rule we agreed on was that we consult each other regarding purchases over fifty dollars. Today that limit is higher, but the principle is the same—we ought not purchase big ticket items without the other person in the know.
What practical areas might you agree on with those you love? Some research indicates at least six areas:
1. Agreements about practical living, for example who washes dishes, cleans the house, pays bills, and maintains the lawn. Families who agree on these roles can avoid conflict before it happens.
2. Agreements about communication and relational health, such as being open, addressing conflict, supporting one another and sexual expectations. People who were raised in “open and touchy” families may need to listen well to understand others raised in “guarded and distant” homes.
3. Agreements about money, as in who manages the budget, the percent to save, where you invest, and the value of gifts you expect.
4. Agreements about involvement with extended family and other friends, such as visiting in-laws, going out, recreation, and handling difficult people. Will you tend to be homebodies or socialites? Will you get your exercise by walking together or moving to opposite corners of the gym?
5. Agreements about spiritual commitments, such as praying together, attending church and ministering to others. My wife and I gain much satisfaction entertaining guests in our home—an activity that requires planning together.
6. Agreements about the future, for example job and career plans, having kids, vacationing, and going back to school.
Coming to agree on these types of issues shows more than skill at conversation, it also tells of our heart’s condition. Having an opinion about supper speaks of equality—that both our ideas count. Discussing where you want to vacation speaks of goodwill—that we assume the best of, and act the best toward, each other.
Investing time in a conversation about where we put our money speaks of trust—that we have faith in our loved ones. And perhaps most of all, entering into joint decision-making signals the covenantal themes of partnership and mutuality—that we travel life’s road together, helping and being helped by others along the way.
So, shall we agree? It’s beautiful when we do.