Dylan, a computer programmer from Sacramento, once asked me, “Is saying yes all the time the best way to a peaceful marriage?”
He came to me some time ago because of the problems that have been brewing in his relationship. During one of our meetings, Dylan described in detail the kinds of arguments he had with his wife Sarah – arguments which he felt would only be diffused after he started agreeing with her (even if he truly didn’t!).
He told me, “There was one time Sarah and I were bickering over attending a PTA (parent-teacher association) meeting at our son’s school. I was adamant over not going with her because I was already tired from work on that particular day.”
In the interest of keeping the peace, Dylan eventually took the usual route of complying with Sarah’s wishes - even though he had a very different opinion about being part of the PTA to begin with.
Compliance Is Not The Answer
“No Dylan, blindly saying ‘yes’ all the time won’t help your marriage in the long run,” was my flat-out answer.
“Eventually, you’ll resent her – and yourself - for agreeing so quickly just to get out of an argument,” I added.
In many ways, agreeing at the drop of a hat is refusing to engage with the issues chipping away at your marriage. On a larger scale, it’s also refusing to engage with your marriage as a whole.
This is a dangerous mindset to adopt because you should be working on nurturing the friendship you share with your spouse. Agreeing without really addressing the matter today will only fuel arguments about the same issue tomorrow.
I continued with Dylan: “I don’t think anyone would want to have a partner who acted like a doormat all the time.”
Should I Say “NO” More Often, Then?
Well, no. Giving out a “NO” as soon as your spouse opens up about something isn’t going to work either.
The extreme opposite, saying “no way” right off the bat, is just as counterproductive as saying “yes”.
Dr. John Gottman, the author of “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, says that it’s a matter of willing to be influenced.
A common problem with a lot of couples is that they treat it like they’re each standing on opposite sides of the spectrum, doomed to never agree on anything. The issues you deal with don’t have to be as polarizing as you might think.
What needs to be done instead is to reinvent the concept of agreeing and arguing with your spouse.
It’s better to look at it as a process of talking about what you don’t agree on; then, you move towards finding a common ground to stand on.
Don’t take the single-minded approach of trying to change the other person’s mind. This is something many couples are used to doing, and many times it’s an exercise in futility.
In fact, Dr. Gottman points out that most marital arguments can never be resolved.
We all have deep-seated personalities created by our individual backgrounds; this is where our values and principles come from.
More often than not, these things are non-negotiable and key decisions we make are based on this inner core. And sometimes this clashes directly against our partner’s perspective.
Most of the time, trying to change these aspects in your spouse is like changing their DNA code – it just can’t be done!
Turning The Tides
Since saying “yes” all the time isn’t the answer - and reactively saying “no” right away won’t help either - what should you do?
It’s all about the willingness to consider your spouse’s side even if their take on things might not mesh with yours. According to Dr. Gottman, agreeing with each other should be treated as an active process of finding common ground.
This is a sounder attitude than setting out to turn around your partner’s opinion (which is often next to impossible!).
In Dylan’s case, saying “yes” right away won’t help him - and neither will it help you!
He saw compliance as a “less confrontational” alternative to what he really wanted: to make Sarah agree with him that PTA meetings eat up their free time and add to their stress levels.
This is the wrong way to handle things. To better understand the roots of the issue, I asked Dylan to describe Sarah’s general personality.
According to him, she’s “a socially butterfly, with a warm and radiant aura.” He explained that being outgoing is just who Sarah is.
It then occurred to me that this is probably why being part of the PTA was so important to Sarah. She’s naturally extroverted and flourishes in situations which require social interaction.
In other words, it was an extension of Sarah’s personal traits.
In this scenario, Dylan couldn’t just make Sarah do a complete turnaround – but he could very well express his side and get her to meet him halfway.
And this is why reaching a compromise starts with an agreeable mindset; but this shouldn’t be confused with being a “yes man”. As we covered earlier, it doesn’t do the relationship any good by agreeing without thinking it through.
You can be a good example by expressing an openness to see what your partner is saying. This puts you in a good position to add your two cents to the matter.
It’s a lot easier for your partner to hear you out when you construct your statements along the lines of “Well, that’s an interesting idea, but this was also what I had in mind…”
So taking the initiative to say, “Why not?” to their side of the issue is creating an invitation for your partner to meet you halfway.
This is a great starting point for a healthy discussion about your wishes while considering your spouse’s own feelings in the process.
Agreeing to Disagree
So what if you don’t agree on everything you put on the table? What matters more is that you both went through the motions of putting the issue on the table in the first place - that's the breakthrough that you need to make.
This is an awesome approach because somewhere down the line, you’ll eventually hash out the common aspects you can agree upon. Don’t be discouraged that you and your spouse won't see eye-to-eye on everything under the sun – it's impossible to expect that from any couple.
With an approach and mindset based on agreeability, you’ll be left with a larger feeling of satisfaction…even if neither of you totally changed your minds about a certain issue.
And remember, this wouldn’t have been possible if you had simply just said “yes” without even trying to find any middle ground at all. Saying “yes” in this context is a cop-out.
(Nor would you make any progress with a flat-out “NO”.)
I drove this point home with Dylan, and he took my advice into serious consideration for later use in future discussions with his wife.
When we met again a month and a half later, he was happy to report that Sarah no longer made him come to every single PTA meeting that was scheduled at their son’s school.
Ultimately, they agreed on Sarah going to some meetings alone and together with Dylan during the others.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Dylan said. “I’d still rather stay at home and put on a DVD after work and Sarah is still passionate as before about making a difference at our kid’s school.”
“But after we talked about it a few times, we made some major progress and we’re no longer butting our heads over it,” he cheerfully added.
Dylan agreed to go to some of the PTA meetings when he wasn’t feeling too drained from the work day. He told Sarah that he understood how important being part of the PTA is to her, and that he’d like to support her even if he doesn’t see it the same way.
On the other hand, Sarah appreciated Dylan’s earnestness. She reciprocated by acknowledging that Dylan’s work is stressful during certain days of the week so he can’t be there during every single PTA meeting.
In the end, they still saw PTA participation from different perspectives, but a middle ground was forged in time.
I know that going through a similar exercise with your partner won’t always happen smoothly, especially if you’ve just started adopting this into your relationship. However, you will benefit greatly by putting your relationship’s interests ahead of the initial discomfort of finding middle ground.
In my next entry, I’ll talk about how you can make your marriage an easier place for reaching a compromise even if things may get heated, so stay tuned for that.