David Hilton of LIFE Marriage Retreats
Anyone who has ever tried to make a decision – small or big – with their partner knows how difficult it is. Why is it so hard? When you are single, your decisions are your own; they only require personal buy-in and typically they have very little impact on other people. (Or at least that’s what you tell yourself!)
When you’re in a committed relationship, on the other hand, decisions require buy-in from both parties, and nearly every decision you make has an impact on your partner.
DECISIONS: SINGLE VS. COUPLE
Once two people enter into a relationship, the number of decisions they should make on their own decreases significantly because their respective decision circles overlap. This is not necessarily because all of these decisions must be made together, but rather because nearly every decision you make individually in a relationship has an impact on the other person. In order to maintain a healthy relationship, each partner must at least consider their spouse when making decisions. Whether you are actively making decisions together or considering one another in your individual decisions, there are relatively few that you should make completely on your own.
However, the degree to which your two decision circles overlap is entirely up to you and your partner, and it is different for every couple. Still, the more decisions a couple can successfully share and/or confidently defer to the others judgement on, the better. If one or both partners are making excessive unilateral decisions, then, sooner or later, the relationship will suffer.
ONE COUPLE’S STRUGGLE WITH DECISION-MAKING
A while ago, I worked with a couple at one of our marriage retreats. It became clear to me early on that they struggled with joint decision-making. When I showed the wife the way decision-making as a couple was so intertwined, she winced. Pointing to the model in which the two circles are separate, she said, “That is my ideal relationship.” Her ideal, though, is not compatible with a committed relationship. So, despite her strong desire to improve the relationship with her husband, she could not let go of her desire for complete freedom, and, ultimately, she chose to end the marriage.
HOW DECISION-MAKING BUILDS CONNECTION AND TRUST
It doesn’t always end this way. I’ve also worked with couples who had been making excessive unilateral decisions but were able to correct their course and save their marriage. One couple, for instance, had been living separately at the time that they came to our retreat. They were hardly considering one another from day to day and only included one another in decision-making when one of them happened to be visiting the other, which wasn’t often. After the retreat, they decided to move back in together. They coordinated their schedules, committed to regular date nights, and checked in with each other multiple times a day. What seemed like a gamble to them at the outset truly paid off and brought their relationship to a higher level.
Both of these examples show us how pivotal decision-making in relationships is for the overall health of the partnership. Each decision you as a couple can successfully make together brings you closer to each other – deepens the connection and increases the level of trust that you are looking out for each other, putting each other’s needs equal to (if not above) your own. When you begin to operate as if your partner’s needs are your own and take full responsibility for their feelings, then you have achieved what Tony refers to as a three-dimensional relationship. This is the most evolved and sustainable level of a relationship, and is where we should strive to be.
THREE PRINCIPLES FOR JOINT DECISION-MAKING
Now you’re ready to make all these decisions as a couple, right? Not so fast. To effectively take action, there are three principles that you must live by as you go through the process:
Communication. Understand one another’s perspective. How do they see things? Let them tell you what they see and what they believe to be true. Make sure they understand that their input is valuable and contributes significantly to the outcome, the final decision.
Respect. When your partner makes his or her own decisions, you must openly and wholeheartedly respect their judgement and allow them the freedom to succeed or fail on their own.
Trustworthiness. When making your own decisions, you must consistently show your partner that you can make good decisions on your own. As Tony often says, It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently that makes a lasting change.
As long as you both communicate with each other, respect one another, and individually make trustworthy decisions, your relationship will grow stronger and flourish.
These principles proved to be both powerful and transformative for one couple, Brian and Samantha, who began our retreat with their relationship at all-time low. A significant breach of trust on Brian’s part led to them separating and living in different states. Samantha felt hopeless, and had essentially given up on the relationship.
Despite their progress at the retreat, the most significant transformation occurred afterward. Before heading home, Samantha refused to commit to anything except for a weekly phone call that was dedicated to their join decision-making. As painstakingly difficult as this was for Brian, her reservations were completely understandable.
Instead of giving up, getting angry, or blaming Samantha, Brian implemented the principles he learned at the retreat.
He respected her boundaries and desire for freedom and autonomy.
He committed to a higher level of communication with her on each of their weekly phone calls.
He made smart decisions that were worthy of Samantha’s trust.
These principles in practice made Samantha feel safe – something she hadn’t felt in some time. Beginning with small commitments, like weekends away and occasional visits, their relationship began to grow. Brian eventually moved back to their home state, and they started their lives anew with the purchase of a brand new home. Years later, Samantha’s trust in Brian had been completely restored.
Decision-making in relationships is a great litmus test for the health of your relationship, and, as demonstrated with Brian and Samantha, can make or a break a couple. Ultimately, the personal decisions we make define who we are. They are the difference between success and failure. It stands to reason that decision-making is equally important in defining who we are within our relationships, and even lead to our relationship successes and failures. We are all bound to experience trying times with our partner – and when that happens, remember this simple mantra: “I respect your decisions, I am trustworthy with my decisions, and I communicate through our decisions.” When the foundation of a relationship is built upon the pillars of communication, respect, and trust, then it is bound to succeed.