Relationships Are Collaboration, Not Negotiation

I  was talking to two newlywed clients, Tom and Julie.  Tom and Julie had a problem.  You see, Julie had recently decided that she wanted to move to Spain.  She came to Tom one day and said, “This is what I want.”

This was a bit disturbing for Tom, because, for one, he was not fond of sangria.  But in general, it was such a major change from where they were living now that he felt a bit overwhelmed about it.  Julie had told him what part of Spain she wanted to live in, the house she wanted, and even what she wanted to do there all at the same time.

I listened to both of them and then turned to Julie.  “Julie,” I said, “it sounds like you made this decision without really talking to your husband about it, even though it directly affects your relationship.”

“What do you mean?” she said.  “I presented what I wanted.  I told him about it, and we’re talking about it here.  I was hoping you could help Tom figure out what he wants so he can give a counter-proposal.”

“A counter-proposal?” asked Tom.  “What does that mean?”  I was pretty curious myself, but I had an idea of what Julie would say next, because I’m pretty good at guessing.

“Well, the way I see it,” said Julie, “I give a proposal of what I want.  Then Tom gives a counter-proposal, and we find our way to the middle.”

Now, folks, I don’t know if you can see the flaw in this line of thinking, but I could.  “Julie,” I said, “I’m sorry, but that sounds downright stupid.”

“What?” said Julie, shocked.  Tom also looked a little surprised, so I was glad to have both of their full attention so that I could knock some wisdom into them.

“A relationship is not a negotiation,” I said.  “A relationship is a collaboration.  Instead of both of you talking about the issues, and talking your way through the process, you’ve slid an entire package about what you want across the table, a whole life of what you want to Tom.  But from hearing you describe it, it sounds like the contents of the package have been sealed and the origins of the package are unknown.  You’ve wrapped both the issue and the conclusion of how to fix the issue into the same package.”

“That’s exactly what it feels like,” said Tom.

“Tom, just be quiet for a second,” I said, wanting him to shut the heck up lest I lost my train of thought.  I turned back to Julie.  “Sliding an entire package over to Tom sounds like a way to try to control the relationship to me.”

“I’m not trying to control the relationship,” denied Julie.  “I said that I’m completely open to a counter-proposal.  How else will we come to an agreement?”

“Well first, you start by throwing away your proposals and counter-proposals,” I said.  “That’s stupid.  What you’re at least doing is attempting to control the process, which still means that you’re not working with Tom from where your ideas on this originally started.  Had you done that, then the ‘proposal’ you would have ended up with would have been one that you designed together.  If you rely on proposals and counter-proposals, then often you’ll end up with neither of you getting what you want, because you each working as individuals might not find a solution that you would if you collaborated.  You’re not utilizing the greatest tool you have here to find solutions, which is the relationship itself.”

Tom looked like he wanted to agree, so I turned to him before he ran his mouth off.  “Julie’s right about something, Tom.  You do need to find what you want.  I think your struggle is that you’re trying to find a way to give Julie what she wants, and that’s not going to work.”

“What you both have been idiots about is that you both are facing the same issues.  Tom, your life is not working for you in the same way that Julie’s is not working for her.  But, Julie, by proposing only the solution, you both have ended up debating the solution instead of talking about the issues and finding common ground.  You can’t see how perfect you two are as collaborators because you’re focusing on this fantasy that Julie has.”

“It’s not a fantasy,” said Julie immediately.

“Julie, do you speak Spanish?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Well, okay then,” I said. “My suggestion is that you start at the beginning.  Talk to each other about what it is in your life that isn’t working and you would like to see change.  The crazy thing is that the solution the two of you come up with might in fact end up being Spain, but I think you’ll both feel better if you arrive at that conclusion together.  But, for now, don’t worry about the outcome or the solution.  What you need is to open your communication, and the solution will find itself.”

Folks, I sat back and took a deep breath, because that was about the most wisdom I had packed into a single client session.  Seriously, if I charged people by the tidbits of wisdom, then I should have charged Tom and Julie $5,000 for that session.  However, I felt $500 was plenty reasonable.

Just before we ended, something seemed to occur to Tom and he turned to Julie.  “Hey,” he said, “isn’t one of your university professors from Spain?”

That seemed potentially interesting but we were out of time.  However, I have a feeling I’m going to be seeing Tom and Julie again quite soon.

Just My Thoughts,
Dr. Matt*

*Dr. Matt is not a real doctor.

Dr. Matt

Dr. Matt* gives advice on relationships, life, death, half-life, pet ownership, sexuality, asexuality, proto-sexuality, and mustache growing. * Dr. Matt is not a real doctor.

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