In this series of columns, we discuss how a mother and father can be a strong team in the great — and sometimes amazingly difficult! — undertaking of raising a family. The results include consistent parenting, a fair sharing of the load, and fewer quarrels.

Through our professional experiences and personal lessons, we’ve found that a cooperative parental partnership has three key qualities: communication, negotiation, and effective problem-solving.

Past columns have explored communication, including civil and empathic ways of speaking, how to give emotional support, and being open and direct. In the next few columns, we will present effective ways to bridge disagreements, create workable compromises, establish accountability, and follow through on promises — in short, how two parents can negotiate well with each other.

The Bad News

Parents need to learn how to negotiate for a simple reason: The average couple has eight times as many arguments after children arrive. As the conflicts and disappointments mount up, trust is replaced by doubt and guardedness. You once stood at the altar thinking you could place your life in your partner’s hands. Now you can find yourself eyeing him or her as an unreliable character who must be cajoled or corralled into reasonable and helpful behavior. And there’s a fair chance that’s how your partner is looking at you.

Issues related to parenting last as long as kids do, so if they are not resolved, the same quarrel happens over and over, and the issue becomes sensitized. It’s like running your fingernail over the same spot on the back of your hand: the first twenty times do not make much difference, but by the hundredth, there’s a red welt and you want to jerk your hand away when the fingernail approaches. Relatively minor provocations then trigger major reactions, like a light bump to your hand that now really hurts.

Over time, positions harden. Since our partner is more defended, we figure we better bring the heavy artillery, which leads to thicker walls. Mistrust grows in vicious cycles. The fights get even worse.

The Good News

Happily, there are many effective ways to work out disagreements with your partner. In sum, here are nine effective steps:

  1. Know what is wanted.
  2. Be realistic.
  3. Establish a favorable foundation.
  4. Communicate wants.
  5. Respect feelings.
  6. Negotiate details.
  7. Make commitments.
  8. Address departures from your plan.
  9. Revise as needed.

Many excellent books have been written about negotiating in general (ie. Getting to Yes by Ury and Fisher) or for parents in particular (ie. Why Parents Disgree and What You Can Do About It by Taffel). In this limited space, we can best offer a brief summary.

Know What Is Wanted

All negotiating is about wants — the territory of desires, goals, wishes, aims, purposes, values.

In order to get what you want, you need to know what it is. In order to support your partner, you need to know what he or she wants
Our wants are usually layered, like a parfait, with less important and fleeting desires on top and vital and enduring ones underneath. The deeper down you and your partner can get, the more satisfying and stable the resolution of your discussions will be.

We often have conflicting wants. Ambivalence is the normal state of affairs. We must balance our wants, and thus must think about how much we care about one desire compared to another.

It is very helpful to give specific examples of how things will be if you get what you want. Your partner now knows concretely what to do, and you will know if it gets done.

Have a fall-back position: what will you do if the other person does not do what you want or agree to some reasonable compromise?

Be Realistic

The deepest wants sometimes arise from a very young place within us, and are unfortunately unattainable today. We should be compassionate toward them, but realistic.

Is a want really attainable? Even if it could be fulfilled, is that wise? What will it take, what are the costs to fulfill it? Will fulfilling it lead to any negative consequences?

Establish a Favorable Foundation

If possible, try to create a context of mutual rapport, empathy, and good wishes before communicating any wants.

Choose a good time and place for the communication and negotiation of your wants. Be prepared to take the time necessary, rather than tossing off requests or demands as you rush on by.

Ask for your partner’s time and attention: ‘knock before entering.’ Remember how you feel when people barge in and start telling you what they want.

If their attention seems to wander, ask what can be done to keep the focus on your conversation. If necessary, agree on a later time to talk, and stick to it.

Communicate Wants

Allow your wants to be known openly and explicitly. Many of us feel it is dangerous or pushy for others to know what we really want, or that they should figure it out on their own. Or we think that they already know what we want so it is not necessary to actually say it point-blank. Certainly it is not necessary to spell out every tiny detail like a legal contract. Yet if you do not clearly and verbally tell the other person what you want, how can you expect them reliably to fulfill their part?

Everything does not need to be crystal clear before discussing what you want. It’s alright to say something like: ‘I think we ought to do this but I’m not 100% convinced; what do you think?’ Or: ‘I feel like we need to go in this direction but I’m not sure how to get there; do you have any ideas?’

Be emotionally authentic. If you are nervous or irritated, it is usually best to find some appropriate way to communicate that because the other person will probably sense that something unsaid is going on. For example: ‘I’m a little nervous about bringing this up, but I don’t think our childcare is working out.’ Or: ‘I’m getting frustrated that you still have not gotten those boxes out of the family room.’

Double-check: What does your partner think you want? What do you think your partner wants?

Identify any differences between the wants of you and your partner. Differences can be scary, and we often try to sweep them under the rug in the hope that they will go away. Yet they rarely do. Try to get things out into the open and ask questions you might be afraid to ask.

Respect Feelings

Communicating wants often brings up feelings, some of which can go all the way back to our childhood. If these feelings are not acknowledged, at least to yourself, they will muddy the waters.

Positive emotions are good, but authenticity is (usually) better. If we feel angry or scared inside, but are wearing a happy face, that is a mixed message which feels bad to us and probably confuses the other person.

Negotiate Details

Exchanges are at the heart of all relationships. People contribute to us because they care, but they continue to care about us because we continue to contribute to them.

Sometimes people think that if they make exchanges explicit, that takes out the magic: ‘Oh, they’re doing this just because they have to.’ Yet aren’t you generally pleased to give someone you care about what they want, when you know what it is? Why should other people be any different?

It is extremely effective to help the other person give you what you would like to receive: What could I do that would enable you to give me what I’m asking for?’

Anticipate potential problems. It does not put a hex on things to explore how they might go awry.

Make Commitments

Establish a clear understanding of what you and your partner are going to do.

Establish accountabilities: Who is going to do what?
Check your gut feeling. Do you really feel like this is going to happen? Or are people kidding themselves?

Identify times and/or occasions for checking back in. For example: ‘Let’s try this for a month and if it’s not working for you, we can make some changes.’

Close at a human level. In some natural way, thank your partner for talking with you, being willing to take the time to work things out, etc.

Address Departures from Your Plan

It is obviously important for people to keep their commitments. Doing so is the basis of trust in any relationship.

Nonetheless, no person manages to keep all of his or her agreements. When this happens, it is important to acknowledge that and restore trust.

If you do not do what you say you will do, if possible bring up the matter yourself. Say if this was a momentary lapse which does not reflect your true intentions. Or explain that you feel there is something seriously unworkable with the agreements and they should be revised.

If it is your partner who departs from the plan, talk about it openly. Silence on your part can be taken as tacit approval. Plus, you need to know what is going on. Maybe you misunderstood something and he or she has actually been doing what you wanted. Perhaps there was an ambiguity in the original arrangements.

Or was it a true breakdown in agreement? If so, was it just a temporary lapse? Or do you need to re-negotiate your agreements?

Try to find out the beliefs, emotions, decisions, etc. that led to the breakdown. If appropriate, check out your tentative conclusions.

Even though it can be uncomfortable for you and your partner, if you do not talk about misunderstandings and broken agreements, they will happen again.

Revise As Needed

Plans change. When they do, create a new agreement. Ask yourself once again: Do I really feel that this is going to work?

Coming Up: How to Negotiate Practical Solutions
In our next columns, we will apply these methods to the nitty-gritty issues of childrearing practices (ie. sleep, food, discipline), who does what, sharing the load fairly, schedules, and money.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.