But How Do You Make Decisions?!

ErichAndBaileysEngagement-56.jpg
Real-life footage of how we often argue

Complementarians incredulously ask egalitarians, “If someone doesn’t get the final say, how do you make decisions as a couple?”

This question amuses me, because I can’t imagine how else to make decisions than by discussing our opinions on equal footing and coming up with a decision on which we both agree.

It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes I’ve wished decision-making were as simple as having the husband step in and call the shots. But there’s intimacy and oneness in making a tough decision together, with both spouses equally influencing and fully supporting the outcome. There’s wisdom, too, as two brains are better than one alone.

How do we egalitarians do this magical thing of making decisions together? It’s very similar to how most complementarians make decisions: we discuss, we listen, we look at things from all angles, we try to come to acceptable compromises or alternatives.

The only difference is that when egalitarians reach gridlock, the husband doesn’t say, “Well, looks like we can’t agree. I’m taking it from here.” The only difference between a complementarian couple making a decision and an egalitarian couple making a decision is that egalitarians keep going.

In my experience, and the experience of other egalitarian couples more seasoned in marriage than I, the perfect solution lies just beyond that huge bump in the road where you’re convinced you will never, ever agree.

Okay, but what does it really look like?

It kind of looks like an extended discussion that can span anywhere from a whole day to years, along with much personal reflection that seeks to understand one’s spouse’s position, as well as one’s own, with as much respect, charity, and open-mindedness as possible. 

Joint Decisions

When it comes to joint decisions — decisions that significantly impact both spouses — we generally yield to the person least comfortable with the decision. This isn’t something we decided on in writing; it’s just something we do, and it’s worked for us so far.

Right now, my husband is excited about buying a house. I am not. He would be happy moving this year. I would not be. Our mutual submission to each other looks something like this:

On my part, I listen respectfully when Erich tells me about a new house. I try to show genuine interest and understanding about where he is coming from. I go to showings of houses. I try to remain open-minded. I try to make sure that my objections to moving are reasonable and fair, not about being contrary or getting my own way.

On my husband’s part, he hears me and tries to understand my perspective. He does not drop the discussion or hide his enthusiasm, but he doesn’t push the issue too far so that it comes between us or gets disrespectful. He knows that since I am not comfortable with buying a house right now, we will not be buying a house until I am comfortable. He also knows that I am happy to entertain his thoughts and opinions.

For other joint decisions, sometimes we yield to the person most passionate and/or opinionated on a subject. One of our first arguments was (of course) about Erich leaving the toilet seat up. Unused to sharing bathrooms with boys, I’d tumbled into the toilet bowl a couple of times. It obviously wasn’t fair that I had to put down the toilet seat whenever I wanted to go to the bathroom. The toilet seat must stay down at all times! Then Erich shot back that it wasn’t fair that he had to put the toilet seat up every time, either.

An impasse.

I was so stunned with this excellent point that I’ve been putting down the toilet seat ever since.

Now that I think about it, Erich is much more opinionated about smaller household decisions — which brand to use, what foods to eat or not eat, how to fold socks — and since I don’t care, or don’t care as much, I shrug and do it his way. Why not?

For joint decisions that require more expertise, we generally delegate to the person more capable, interested, and/or available.

For instance, Erich handles long-term financial issues (retirement savings, the budget, investments, etc.), and I handle issues surrounding childcare and education. We do research, we come up with plans, and we present those options to the other spouse. The final decision still lies in both of our hands, but the mental load of sifting through the millions of different options rests on only one person’s shoulders. The more expert party might ask the other spouse to research a particular point or familiarize themselves with basic principles in order to make a more informed decision, but only one spouse does the mental heavy-lifting.

It’s kind of like the Congressional/Presidential relationship: one spouse is Congress, debating the options and presenting the final legislation; the other is the President, who gets veto power and can send the legislation back to Congress for further review.

That’s for joint decisions.

Personal Decisions

When it comes to personal decisions, we strive for “transparent independence.”

It’s difficult to have a truly “personal” decision in a marriage; our personal lives directly and indirectly affect the other spouse. But Erich and I agree that while it’s important to run personal choices past the other spouse, the responsibility for making some decisions lies with the person it most affects. 

We firmly believe it’s important to maintain individual autonomy in these matters. We need opportunities to fail, succeed, change, and respond to our own personal needs and desires within a supportive relationship. Exercising authority over the spouse, no matter how benevolent (as in complementarianism) or informal (as in constantly nitpicking and henpecking), is disrespectful and unnecessary in a relationship between two adults.

Further, we need opportunities to see, understand, and respect that other people can do things differently than we do. It’s not necessary to be uniform in order to be united! [1]

Issues about how we spend our free time, how we spend smaller amounts of money, how we parent, how we practice our faith, how and when we perform our household duties, what job we get, etc., all fall under “personal decisions” to us.

We’ve always run everything past each other, even if it’s not technically the other spouse’s decision or doesn’t affect them that much. “Do you mind if I spend the evening playing games with my friends?” “Would you care if I bought some snacks during the grocery run?” “I’m spending over a hundred dollars on this particular thing. Is that okay with you?”

This isn’t about permission. It’s about transparency and accountability, and an acknowledgement that our personal decisions do affect the other spouse. Normally I’m happy for Erich to play games with his friends, but maybe that particular day I’m worn out from being a stay-at-home mom and want him to watch Emmerich while I nap. Normally Erich doesn’t care about what I buy at the store, but maybe he wants to point out that I’ve been eating too much junk food or am constantly going over-budget. Of course, we trust each other’s judgment on larger purchases, but maybe we feel the money would be better spent or saved in another way.

Even with big personal decisions that hugely affect the family, we try to give each other as much autonomy as possible.

With parenting, for instance, we split along traditional mom/dad divides: I am more nurturing and cautious, Erich plays rougher and rowdier. I don’t always like how Erich parents (and vice versa!), but after saying my piece, I give him space to be the dad he thinks Emmerich should have. (And normally Emmerich giggles over whatever crazy game his daddy comes up with — even the ones that give Mommy a heart attack!)

An Important Reminder

This is what works for our particular relationship. None of this is formula for all marriages.

We’ve been egalitarian from the start, so we don’t have to deal with any latent authoritative male headship issues that might require a wife to be more assertive. We’ve never dealt with infidelity, substance abuse, or addiction, which might require one spouse to set boundaries stricter than appropriate in a healthier marriage.

And even in our own marriage, individual situations require a slightly different approach or end up with a slightly different outcome. Sometimes one of us changes our mind, sometimes we reach a compromise, and sometimes we hit upon a completely different third way. We just never know until we get there!

I firmly believe that there is no one way to reach a united outcome. It’s not about a wife yielding to her husband all the time, or a husband yielding to his wife all the time, or a wife asserting herself all the time, or a husband asserting himself all the time. It’s a dance of submission and assertion, of staying silent and speaking up, of changing one’s own mind and challenging the other’s. 

But the common denominator in of all of these variables is that we never close the discussion or make a decision unless both of us are happy with the outcome. While some decisions seem more impossible than others at the time, we’ve always found a satisfactory conclusion to our disagreements.

And let me say again: this way of decision-making is not always easy. Whether from selfishness or simply difference, becoming a united front is daunting. The decision-making process surrounding family faith and parenting, for instance, started at the beginning of our dating relationship and only reached an acceptable compromise sometime during our first year of marriage. That’s around four years of debate, frustration, discomfort, tears, and despair.

But as hellish as that time was, the outcome has been amazing. There is no resentment, no feeling that we weren’t heard or understood, no frustration about having to do things the other person’s way — only unity and understanding we never thought possible at the time.

[1] Dr. John Gottman, a prominent researcher on marital health, says that even in happy marriages, the majority of disagreements remain unsolvable. It’s important to pick your battles and give lots of grace and understanding!

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8 thoughts on “But How Do You Make Decisions?!

  1. Lauren

    So glad you wrote this! It’s an amazing summation of what being a team (as my husband and I are fond of saying) looks like!

    And like you said, even though it might have been hellish for you two to get to this point, it’s SO good that you did. Whenever I was dating, and through our first year of marriage, we were so incredibly in sync that we had no paradigm for how to deal with profound disagreements. I’m not saying I would change anything, but we’ve had our own challenges in learning to communicate and respect our differing perspectives for big decisions, financial investments, parenting expectations, etc.

    Thanks for sharing; I’m encouraged and inspired. :)

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      I love seeing how unique everyone’s marriages are! Honestly, those big disagreements will eventually pop up at some point during marriage — and it’s never convenient! There were lots of good things about having to deal with big issues right away — we could solve them and put them behind us right at the beginning (kind of) — but it was a bummer having those differences and decisions hang over our head during the “honeymoon” stage of our relationship.

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  2. villemezbrown

    I have been thinking about this a lot since I first read this post yesterday. When I was growing up and into adulthood I never had any expectation that my marriage would be anything other than egalitarian. I had never even heard of complementarianism. I remember meeting a guy when I was in college who honestly thought one person in a relationship *had* to be the leader because otherwise it couldn’t possibly work, and I thought that was ridiculous. And now? Now I have been married almost 24 years. I tried to think about how we make big decisions and we make them together, but that doesn’t explain the how. I think it helps that we both are truly committed to doing what is best for our family and so we are working together to figure out what that is. It also helps that I want my husband to be happy and I know he wants me to be happy. And then, as I was thinking, I realized that from the outside, someone looking at my relationship would probably assume it is not egalitarian at all. I thought about a recent major decision – purchase of a car for me. I will only drive a Honda, preferably a Civic. My husband did research and found a bunch of possible cars in the area. We spent a day going to dealerships and doing test drives. My husband planned our day. We both test drove all the cars, but my husband did all the talking. The last one we looked at seemed to me like we should probably get it, even though it was black and not a fun bright red like some of the others. I asked my husband what he thought. He said he thought this was a good car but he seemed to have reservations. I explicitly told him I felt like he was hesitating and asked what his concern was. He said he thought this was the car to get but he was afraid he was bullying me into doing what he wanted when I really wanted one of the red ones. I assured him that was not the case. So we decided to get this car. My husband did all the negotiations. I was literally not in the room. I waited in the waiting room and came in to sign the papers where they told me to. I had asked him to do it this way in advance, because that is what I wanted, but I’m sure we looked like a couple where the man buys the car even when it’s for his wife. I think, as a couple “grow into” a marriage, if the marriage is otherwise healthy, they learn each others strengths and weakness and the process for making decisions becomes something organic and automatic that works for them, even if it means a total feminist like me outwardly behaves like a submissive wife in certain situations. Oh, and I love my new car. :-D

    Thanks for another well-written and thought-provoking piece!

    Adele

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Your illustration is lovely, and, in my view, very egalitarian, as decision-making power/responsibility is still mutual and delegation of tasks is based on personal strengths, not prescribed gender roles. I loved your point about growing into a marriage and how that decision-making process becomes more organic and automatic as the couple understands each other more and is used to leaning into each other’s strengths.

      One of the pitfalls I faced as a newlywed was thinking “egalitarian” meant everything had to be split 50/50, and that simply isn’t the case.

      And congrats on the perfect car! ;)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. CatholicFeministWoman

    Male headship never made sense to me. A marriage will fall apart unless one person has all the power? Yikes!

    When two people have equal say over the marital resources they both depend on each other’s cooperation. Either spouse could stand in the way of the other’s ambitions. If it’s a decision about something you want but don’t need then you can wait until an agreement is reached.

    On the other hand, your spouse can also prevent you from meeting your legitimate needs. In that case it would be absolutely justified for you to protect yourself. Not by declaring that this partnership thing isn’t working so from now on you’re the boss and spousey is the subordinate. Setting appropriate boundaries and consequences would be the way to go.

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