A few years ago, my co-worker’s husband bought a new sofa. To his dismay, instead of thanking him for his thoughtful purchase, she was upset. He’d charged it on a high-interest credit card without asking her, which explained her reaction. Unequal decision-making like this can be one of the biggest causes of conflict in a relationship. Sometimes, it goes hand-in-hand with economic, emotional, and other kinds of abuse.

What is unequal decision-making?

Unequal decision-making can come in a range of forms and affect anything from everyday chores to huge life changes. That can make it hard to spot when it’s happening in our relationships. Take a look at the following examples:

  • Jen spends $300 on groceries each week on a joint credit card, but won’t let her husband see the receipts. When he asks her to spend less, she refuses, saying it’s not his concern.
  • Adam accepts a new job that will require him and his wife to move to another city, without talking to her first.
  • Shari comes off birth control without talking it through with her boyfriend.
  • Steve lives with his parents and does all of the cooking. He decides to put them on a special diet, despite the fact this may cause problems for his diabetic father.
  • Laura refuses to let her partner do an evening course, even hiding her bus pass so she can’t go.
  • Lee’s wife refuses to deal with her finances, so he’s ended up in charge. He’s worried that if he doesn’t manage them for her, they’ll both end up in financial trouble.
  • Felicity’s boyfriend is looking for a job. When she suggests he take one at her company, he says he doesn’t want to work there. She thinks it will be good for him, so submits his resume anyway.
  • John’s partner has been prescribed antidepressants, but John disagrees with using them, so he flushes them down the toilet.

Looking at this list, we see how unequal decision-making can affect almost any aspect of our shared lives. Shari and Adam are making life-changing decisions, while Jen’s is more everyday. Steve has taken it upon himself to make a decision on someone else’s behalf, while Lee feels forced to do so. Some, like John and Laura, are behaving in a controlling and abusive way, while others, like Felicity, are probably not.

While these scenarios are all very different, they also have some important features in common. None of these people are showing respect for their partner’s input, needs, desires, or ability to contribute to decision-making. All of these people are causing harm to a greater or lesser degree.

Why do we take over making certain decisions?

How we make decisions in a relationship or household sometimes has to do with deeply-ingrained beliefs. Some of us were raised with cultural or religious ideas that dictate who should make which decisions and why. Others simply grow up seeing a way of doing things modeled to us. Then, we repeat the pattern without considering the benefits of another model. Some examples include:

  • As head of the household, the man makes decisions.
  • Women have domain over all domestic things, like the home and children.
  • Whoever brings home the bacon gets to call the shots.
  • The elders of the family have the final say.

Others of us don’t grow up with strict ideas like this, but carry other core beliefs without realizing. These include “my partner cannot be trusted with this” or “my way is best”. Again, they usually come from things we experienced as children, when we were still learning how the world works.

For example, a neglected boy who was left to his own devices may grow up to be very self-sufficient, refusing to let anybody “help” him. A girl who was stifled as a child may fear continued powerlessness and insist on having her way as an adult. Someone whose father went bankrupt, or whose mother had an affair, may associate men with recklessness, or women with cheating. These kinds of wounds can leave us with fears, trust issues, or an impulse to be in control, leading to unequal decision-making.

How unequal decision-making hurts

Unequal decision-making, when forced on our partner, can harm our relationships. They will likely feel upset, resentful, and bitter about not being heard. In the worst cases, it can cause them to lose all sense of self and autonomy.

If we’re the one calling all the shots, we’re also suffering. We could feel the burden of too much responsibility, and miss out on the benefits and broader perspective that come from shared decision-making. Ultimately, our partner will either stay and resent us, which is not a relationship at all, or leave.

Many of us see “compromise” as a dirty word. We associate it with a loss of identity. But in an equal, loving, healthy partnership, making joint decisions isn’t a loss but a gain. We feel like someone has our back, and vice versa. The best part is how good it feels to serve our teammate, knowing that our kindness will be returned.

Evening it up: how to get better at making decisions as a team

Change your thinking

Learning to share decision-making often means un-learning beliefs that we’ve held since early childhood. It helps to recognize when these beliefs come from imperfect sources. For example, we may have misunderstood the Bible’s teachings on gender roles. Or maybe we picked up a “my way or the highway” attitude from a poor role model.

Ask yourself whether those beliefs are helping your relationships, or harming them. Couples consistently report better satisfaction with their marriage when it is more egalitarian in nature. Instead of resigning yourself to the role of caretaker, troubled leader, or rival, try re-casting yourself as your partner’s teammate.

We can also challenge how we think about the differences between us and our partner. When we recognize the benefits of each partner’s diverse skills, it encourages us to commit to making decisions together, even if that means more work. Different ways of seeing and doing things is a strength, not a weakness.

Develop acceptance

We all have to live with the decisions we make. It can be especially difficult to do this when one half of the decision-making equation – our loved one – is outside of our control. Below are some important truths to accept and keep in mind:

  • Life is full of difficult decisions.
  • There’s very rarely a correct or perfect decision.
  • Each partner has equally valid opinions, needs, and concerns.
  • Often, we want something completely different from our partner, and that’s ok.
  • We can’t always get our way – and it won’t be the end of the world.
  • Each partner is often affected by the other’s decisions.
  • We are only in control of ourselves, not our partner – which is why making decisions for them will never work in the long run.

Going through a decision-making process with our teammate and committing to a win-win choice feels good. Even if the decision wasn’t our first choice, the process of listening, caring, and showing respect creates closer intimacy. The key is to redefine a win as achieving a mutually satisfactory outcome rather than getting our way.

Build a strong decision-making process

Central to shared decision-making is open, honest, and respectful communication. This allows us to express how we feel, which is essential if both partners are to feel respected, heard, and satisfied with the outcome. Here are some tips:

  • Take time to hear each other’s thoughts, feelings, concerns, desires, and opinions, without interrupting.
  • Find out how important the decision is to your partner, and ask the same of yourself. If it matters a lot to one and not so much to the other, then it’s a really good time to give in. Hopefully, the goodwill will be returned later on an issue that is important to you.
  • Let your partner know if you start to feel anxious, frustrated, or angry about the discussion. Take a time-out if necessary to allow your emotions to settle.
  • Once all the cards are on the table, begin to brainstorm options and negotiate a solution that best meets both of your needs.
  • Allow yourself to change your mind. If you don’t change mind occasionally, you’re not listening, learning, or growing.

If a decision is particularly important or difficult, consider the following tactics:

  • Do your research and make an informed decision. When we differ strongly in opinion, looking deeper into the pros and cons can break the stalemate. Facts and evidence matter.
  • Get some perspective from other people you trust, such as a close friend, family member, counselor, or pastor.
  • Give it time and have regular check-ins on big decisions, such as moving to a different home or having children. Often we’ll have different perspectives as time passes.
  • Trust your gut. If, as you look at it in all honesty and good faith, you still don’t agree with your partner or feel good about the decision, you shouldn’t go through with it.

Divide and conquer

Not every decision has to be made by a committee. Sometimes, executive actions make more sense. It’s ok, and often better, to divvy up decision-making according to our interests and abilities. A baseball team has different players for the same reason!

I offer my opinion on home décor, but my wife Lynn and I both know she’s the better interior designer and has creative control. She sometimes makes suggestions about the yard, but leaves the final decisions up to me. Her idea of a perfect vacation is one that I’ve planned. My idea of a perfect Christmas is one where she chooses all the family’s gifts for the both of us.

The two caveats are this: first, it doesn’t work for big life decisions, so don’t try. Second, it only works if you and your partner have decided and agreed which decisions this applies to!

Faith note

The Bible says we are all different but equal. We each bring different skills, interests, and strengths to the table, but we all have the same value in God’s eyes. Because of this, God says two people are better than one. He created us to be in relationships with each other.

God also provided a model of teamwork to follow: each partner should try to out-serve the other. When both commit to this kind of service, we create a wonderful, powerful relationship. Don’t pass up on the benefits of making joint decisions and sharing burdens as equal partners – it’s worth it.

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