Jan was enjoying an evening with his colleagues from his new job at their favorite tapas place downtown. The night was full of laughter and cheer, and Jan was glad to be bonding with the group. His colleague Antony then suggested that they all celebrate New Year’s together with their respective partners. Most of the guys readily agreed, but Jan said “I’ll check with my wife first and get back to you”. “You need to ask your wife first? Whipped much?” chided Antony. Jan explained that he and his wife make decisions together, and he wanted to get her input before committing to something in which she might like to have a say. Antony teased him a little bit more, but which of the two of them do you think ended up divorced a few years down the road?
Sharing power and accepting influence from one’s partner is one of the prime predictors of relationship satisfaction and success (Gottman, 2015). However, many couples consist of a partner who wields more decision-making power and a partner who wields less. Think about the common refrain “who wears the pants in your relationship?” Just the fact that this question exists is evidence that we have normalized relationship dynamics in which one person has more power than the other.
The master’s of relationships, on the other hand, intentionally consider one another’s wants and needs and make decisions that impact both of them together as a team, rather than constantly pushing for their own agenda to the detriment of their partner’s desires.
A longitudinal study of 130 couples suggested that one of the keys to happier relationships and lower divorce rates is men, in particular, being willing to accept influence from their wives. 81% of marriages in which a man was unwilling to share much power with his wife ended in divorce (Gottman, 2015). Guys, we don’t mean to point fingers at you–it’s also possible for wives to be controlling or stubborn, and there are usually more factors involved in the undoing of a marriage than just refusal to accept influence on its own. However, the truth is that the data shows that most wives already accept influence from their husbands by considering their feelings and opinions before making decisions, while many men are not apt to do the same for their wives. This doesn’t mean that a husband should simply become compliant and cave into his wife’s every whim. Far from it! Instead, we are suggesting that marriages in which both partners equally share power and decision-making are the strongest (Gottman, 2015).
Why is it that wives are more likely to collaborate on decision-making by considering husbands’ positions? To answer this question, we need only consider how girls vs. boys play with their peers as children. Girls are more likely to participate in relationship-based games like ‘playing house’; domestic and interpersonal skills are emphasized in these games, which prepare them for adulthood. In addition, if a girl-on-girl conflict occurs mid-game or if one girl falls and hurts herself, the game comes to a halt until the situation is resolved. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to play competitive games in which task achievement is emphasized over relationships. They learn physical skills, cooperation within a team, and how to get past conflict. These skills are useful in many professional contexts, but they don’t prepare boys for marriage because they don’t teach them how to understand the emotions driving people’s perspectives (Gottman, 2015).
As a result, females are more likely to enter marriage with more emotion-based interpersonal skills than men. This translates in part to a greater aptitude to accept influence from their husbands. This is not to say that all men are lacking in these skills; Gottman qualified 35% of the husbands he has studied as ‘emotionally intelligent’. And on the other hand, there are also plenty of women who are not emotionally intelligent. Nevertheless, the trends show that more often than not, men are less prepared for marriage than their female counterparts because they did not learn the type of interpersonal skills that are underscored by an understanding and consideration of emotions. Therefore, they are not primed to see the importance of considering their partners’ emotions and accepting influence.
Another hurdle to allowing ourselves to accept influence could be cultural. In our culture today it is very important to us to retain our individual sovereignty–and for good reason! We enjoy a lot of personal freedom and expression when we feel able to make decisions for ourselves. Nevertheless, our strong emphasis on individualism and personal choice may sometimes cloud our vision a teensy bit when it comes to recognizing when we should accept influence, and when we should assert our individual freedom. Here is a brief quiz to illustrate the difference:
Sandy and Jeremy are getting ready to go out for the evening to a cocktail party with Sandy’s colleagues in the fashion industry. When Sandy sees what Jeremy is wearing, she wrinkles her nose. “Jeremy, you can’t wear that. White exaggerates your tummy, and that tie is…not my favorite.”
A. Accept his wife’s influence by changing his outfit to something she considers more appropriate
B. Politely but firmly tell his wife that these are the clothes he wants to wear, and he’d like her to accept that
Correct answer: B. Although his wife might legitimately have a better fashion sense than Jeremy, controlling his clothing choices is taking it a little bit too far. If Sandy was perhaps concerned about Jeremy’s outfit not fitting with the dress code of the evening, she could have asked him if it would be ok to give some feedback and suggestions on his outfit, and then proceeded only if he were open to it.
It’s 7:00 at night, and Dan is putting his computer in his bag to head to Tree Leaves, his favorite coworking space/social cafe, to catch up on payroll and then hang with some friends. “Are you ready, Dina?” he calls to his wife. Dina appears and says “Dan, we always go to Tree Leaves. I know it’s a part of your daily routine that you really enjoy, but we do the same thing every day after work and it feels like there isn’t much space for what I’d like us to do. I’d really like if we could at least go to different venues from time to time. What do you think if we go to Coffee Grounds tonight, instead?”
A. Explain patiently to Dina that this is how he decompresses after a work day, and she knew from the start of their relationship that this is a big part of his life. After all, there’s also no harm in Dina going to Coffee Grounds by herself if she wants to.
B. Ask himself whether Dina is right–how often does he go along for activities she suggests, and how often does she go along with his activities? How much space does he make in his routine to accommodate requests for what Dina would like them to do together?
Correct Answer: B. It’s relatively common that if one partner is more flexible than the other, they are invited and welcomed into their partner’s world. And that’s amazing! However, in such dynamics, the less flexible partner rarely steps into the world of the other, creating a power imbalance and leading to one partner not feeling completely seen or honored. A healthy relationship sometimes necessitates deviating from your pre-relationship routine in order to build something new. If you don’t want to and/or your routine does not allow for this, it will be difficult to build a healthy relationship.
Alexa is absolutely furious with Sam because she has just discovered a charge of $5000 in their joint bank account–for a new jacuzzi that Sam has ordered. Sam makes a lot more money than her, so he doesn’t feel the need to run every purchase by her. For her part, Alexa does more around the house, and she and Sam decided recently to combine their finances, share everything, and make decisions together. How should Sam react to Alexa’s displeasure at the surprise expense?
A. He should apologize and tell Alexa that although he isn’t accustomed to talking about his purchases first, he understands that they are a team and that when they have joint finances, they need to make joint decisions.
B. As the (substantially) bigger earner in the relationship, Sam finds Alexa’s reaction demeaning. He should calmly remind her that because he supplies most of their money, he wants to be able to use that money to buy a new jacuzzi if he wants to.
Correct answer: A. Sam and Alexa are a team, and income sharing is something upon which they have already explicitly. If Sam does not want to make financial decisions jointly, then he and Alexa should not be sharing their money.
Jack and Leila have been together for a few years, and they recently moved into Jack’s upscale apartment near Los Angeles. They go out a few times per week, because Jack is a total wine aficionado and loves wine bar culture. He tends to drink a lot more than Leila, but she also enjoys a glass of wine on these occasions. To simplify their financial management, Jack has devised what he feels is a good system of sharing expenses: he covers all of their going-out expenses and groceries, whereas Leila is responsible for the rent. Leila is not totally sure she likes this plan, because going-out expenses are largely comprised of glasses of wine for Jack, and rent is pretty expensive. Should she…
A. Accept Jack’s influence and show her appreciation for the evolution of their relationship by agreeing to his financial management system
B. Tell Jack that she doesn’t think his system is fair because if you don’t consider the wine Jack drinks as a ‘shared’ expense, she ends up contributing the lion’s share of their shared expenses by paying the rent
Correct answer: B. Going along with a plan which disproportionately asks one partner to contribute more than their fair share is not ‘accepting influence’, it is being a pushover. Don’t confuse accepting influence with poor boundary setting.
Rita and Santosh have recently moved to Canada together and are planning a wedding while acclimating to their new life in a new country. Rita asks Santosh for a prenup. Although it is unconventional in their culture of origin, she explains that prenups are becoming more common around the world and that many of her new friends in Canada arranged prenups before their marriages, and they felt that financial expectations in their marriages were more clear as a result. Santosh scratches his head; no one in his family ever got a prenup, and his parents and grandparents are still happily married. Should he…
A. Express his misgivings, but also get curious about where Rita is coming from by asking her more questions about her motivations and about what she has in mind for the prenup, while remaining open to the possibility of changing his mind.
B. Tell Rita that marrying in accordance with tradition is important to him, and that although he loves her dearly, this is something he simply will not agree to.
Correct answer: A. When it comes to a big and far-reaching decision like a prenup, a good rule of thumb is to resist the instinct to immediately say ‘no’ even if you feel a strong reaction against something. Instead, try your very best to deeply understand the other person’s perspective before making a decision. If you do eventually say ‘no’, make sure you have made your partner feel heard and considered in the process.
Bottom line: Although you shouldn’t be a doormat and say ‘yes’ immediately when you are really not ok with something, accepting influence from your partner when appropriate will make your relationship significantly more durable. You don’t need to lose sight of your own desires, but you do need to be able to get enough distance from them to also see and care (a lot!) about your partner’s desires. In a relationship you won’t always get your way, but if you act skillfully, you will get something a lot better: A happy marriage with a strong, intimate connection to another human being who has your back and truly sees and honors you.
Gottman, J. 2015. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Harmony Books: New York.