Joint decisions are part and parcel of parenting. Hell, the journey often kicks off with the joint decision to start a family. From there, couples face a steady march of choices What should we name our baby? Should we move closer to family? Do we have another child? What color do we paint the nursery? What show do we watch in the one hour of silence we have before we both conk out?
The questions march onwards from there. But making decisions together as parents can be difficult. The sheer number of choices that need to be made and the stakes involved in each can overwhelm. The turbulence of the last few years hasn’t made it any easier — doctors are sounding the horn about “decision fatigue”, where near-constant risk assessment affects people’s ability to make choices.
“Difficult decisions already put people in a vulnerable place, and they’re more difficult to make during times of stress,” says Silva Depanian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified anger management counselor in the Los Angeles area. “When we’re generally stressed, we’re in survival mode, so we’re more defensive and panicky.”
In survival mode, a person’s approach to problems can become more individualized, she adds. They think, How will I survive? rather than operating as a unit and prioritizing what’s best for the relationship.
However, even before the COVID pandemic, changes in relationship dynamics and gender role expectations made decision-making for couples increasingly complex, concluded the authors of a European study published in 2018. As the roles of caregiver and wage earner in partnerships blur and blend, roles might be renegotiated daily, they wrote. A 2020 study noted that couples tended to revert to more traditional notions of gender expectations —which can affect perceptions of whose opinions hold more weight in decision-making — due to pandemic-related effects in the labor market.
Still, research shows that couples tend to become more traditional in their attitudes toward gender roles after becoming parents, says Nikki Lively, LCSW, certified emotionally focused therapist and clinical director of the Transitions to Parenthood program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
Lively noted that, in particular, gender roles involving power and influence can often become issues for parents. “Sometimes women don’t have as much power outside the home so in the home, they want to feel heard. Or sometimes men don’t recognize how they use their power at home,” she says.
So, this is all to say that making decisions as a couple is hard. A harmonious and equitable approach to joint decision-making takes skill – but it can be learned, our experts say. Here’s how couples can make the process as smooth as possible.
1. Consider The Source
Decisions tend to be based on the ideas and values people are exposed to growing up. Many people never challenge these because our brains naturally look for evidence that we’re right, not evidence that disproves our version of reality, Depanian says.
Each partner, therefore, enters a relationship with a different ability to share power and compromise.
“Those raised in homes with permissive parents are used to doing as they please, and they bring that strong will into their marriage,” says Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, Colorado. “If you were raised as an only child, you don’t have much experience having to share or compromise. [And] if you were raised with an authoritarian parent where you had no voice, you may give in too easily as an adult.”
People might feel strongly about certain aspects of parenting that relate to things they experienced (good or bad) when they were children.
“In those moments related to parenting, people can get defensive and critical because the stakes feel so high,” says Lively. “Everyone wants to be a good parent and wants what’s best for their child.”
Cultivating an awareness of how you and your partner approach joint decisions can help you make changes to unhelpful patterns.
2. Learn To Listen Better
When parents don’t see eye to eye on an issue, it helps to slow down, be curious, and ask questions. But poor listening skills can derail that agenda.
People typically think they’re listening to another person when what they’re really doing is hearing their partner’s words while thinking about all the reasons their own view is the correct one, as well as when it will be their turn to say so.
“People get defensive when they feel unheard,” Depanian says. “And they typically feel unheard when their emotions are brushed aside.”
A lot of people don’t understand that listening means hearing the other person out and trying to understand their perspective, says Jenny Yip, Psy.D., board-certified clinical psychologist, adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the USC Keck School of Medicine, and executive director of the Little Thinkers Center in Los Angeles.
When you’re talking about a big decision, try to slow down and pause after your partner has finished speaking. This allows both of you an opportunity to reflect on what was said, and for your partner to elaborate if they want to.
3. Start With A Spitball Session
If you have the time, simply sit down and talk about your feelings without feeling pressured to make a decision quickly. There’s therapeutic value in taking time to get to know where each person is coming from before you get down to brass tacks.
“Not that the things we say aren’t meaningful, but sometimes the first five things we say aren’t really what we mean,” says Lively. The therapist tactic of responding, “Tell me more,” can be helpful for laypeople, too.
“I try to get people to see it’s never a dead-end if you safely stay with an idea or feeling for long enough,” she says. “But people usually won’t do that if they feel criticized. Feeling safe and invited to open up, on the other hand, fosters growth.”
3. Put It In Writing
Even though it might sound like homework, Lively says it can be enormously helpful to write the decision you’re facing at the top of a piece of paper. Identifying the problem is an important first step that can be less obvious than couples might think. Many couples Lively sees in therapy are surprised to discover that initially, they weren’t even in agreement about what the problem was.
“Stressed people might see their partners as the problem, but the problem is the problem,” she says. “It’s important to clearly identify the end goal you’re both trying to work toward.”
Another tactic recommended by Yip: Writing out why decisions might be valuable and meaningful to you. This can also help pinpoint the issues at hand. Each partner should write a list of pros and cons about how to target the problem, she says, and then compare their lists.
4. Do Some Research
Good decisions aren’t based on beliefs without additional data or information. If, for example, your 8-year-old wants to go to a sleepaway summer camp – and one of you thinks 8 is a perfectly fine age, but the other thinks it’s too young – talk to other parents, do some research, or even talk to a child psychologist about it before making a decision.
“I do this with my children, too,” says Yip. “If they ask me if they can do something, I might say, ‘Let me think about it and do some research, then we can talk more about it.’”
Well, sort of. “Compromise,” per Yip, is a subjective term loaded with unrealistic expectations and that there’s no wrong way to compromise.
When people say compromise, they usually mean to meet in the middle. “But,” adds Depanian, “in my mind, sometimes compromise refers to which topic you will cede to the other person and which will be ceded to you.”
A compromising tool Fisher recommends to couples is called “Bounce the Ball.” It works like this: Partner A shares their opinion on a topic and the value behind their position. Then they bounce the ball by saying “What do you think?” Next, partner B shares their opinion on the topic and the value behind it and then they bounce the ball by saying “What do you think?” Next, partner A must take a few steps toward partner B’s position and suggest the compromise, then ask the same question. Partner B does the same until they reach a solution.
“If both partners believe in the value of sharing power and having an equal voice, then this is highly effective,” says Fisher.
Put another way, the goal is enthusiastic agreement, not just agreement.
“Agreement means we agreed, but one of us may have just given in, and now there’s resentment,” Fisher says. “Enthusiastic agreement means we’ve reached a compromise we both feel good about.”
Couples who think of themselves as a team with a philosophy of “If they’re happy, I’m happy,” tend to have an easier time making joint decisions, Lively says. Decisions that favor one partner’s wishes more than the other’s in a particular case shouldn’t devolve into scorekeeping and resentment. Scorekeeping only tends to crop up if someone’s needs aren’t being met.
It sounds trite, Lively says, but caring about your partner’s happiness is the foundation of joint decision-making.
“I often ask couples I work with: ‘Do you think about your partner’s happiness? Is that part of what motivates your behavior?’” she says. “If you’re feeling supported, you don’t need to keep score.”
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