“Let’s go to New York City for Christmas,” I said to my wife, Diane. The
idea had been growing over the past few weeks after I had gone there on a
business trip. I grew up seeing the wonder of the season there in Christmas
movies and annual television specials. It was always romantic and
beautiful, and I pictured us bundled up in a horse-drawn carriage exploring
Central Park in the lightly falling snow.
I anticipated Diane’s excitement as she would catch the vision I had.
Instead, I saw the deer-in-the-headlights look that betrayed her thoughts.
After considering the proposal for a few minutes, she said, “I’m not sure
this is the right time to spend that kind of money on a trip like that.”
I don’t know exactly what I felt, but it wasn’t joy. I had planned a
perfect getaway, and she wasn’t excited. I think I was a bit resentful
because I had been planning it to please her.
Over the years, we’ve both come up with amazing ideas that the other spouse
didn’t share. It used to be a source of frustration because we didn’t feel
supported when that happened. But those episodes have taught us a deep
“Good” ideas become “great” ideas when we develop them together.
The search for synergy
Before marriage, people learn how to negotiate life on their own. Leaving
home gives them independence, and they make choices without the input of
others. They come up with ideas and work them out on their own. They don’t
have to ask permission, and it feels good.
That independence doesn’t automatically shut off after the wedding
ceremony. In fact, it’s one of the biggest struggles newlyweds face —
realizing that somebody else is affected by every decision. Both spouses
have a lot in common, but they still have their individual desires, tastes
and ways of doing things.
Usually when their great ideas clash, each spouse attempts to build a case
for his or her agenda, trying to change the other person’s position. They
think their spouse has to come around to their way of thinking to make the
relationship work. After all, shouldn’t two people think more and more
alike the longer they’re married?
Missy and Matt* began their marriage with both of them working. When the
twins came along, they decided to live on just Matt’s income. It was tight,
and they barely had enough to make ends meet. Missy wanted to contribute,
but Matt wouldn’t hear of it. “Being a mom is a full-time job,” he would
say. “I’ll figure out the finances.” But nothing ever changed, and it
became a frequent source of conflict.
Missy heard from a close, trusted friend about a work-from-home opportunity
that had the potential for some serious income. She explored the
possibilities, and it seemed like a perfect solution. But Matt wouldn’t
even listen when she approached him about it. “Nope, we’ve talked about
that. We already decided.” To Missy, it seemed hopeless, and she found
herself resenting him.
It’s called “win-lose” when one person wins and the other person loses.
It’s ineffective, but common. Many couples go through their entire marriage
with this mindset. They give up on healthy communication and live with a
constant, low-grade frustration toward each other.
Is there hope? Absolutely — but it’s not about building a more convincing
argument. It starts by working on your communication skills. It’s called
The search for a solution
Synergy recognizes that everyone is different, which provides the strength
in relationships. It’s not a matter of fighting to see whose idea wins.
Synergy takes the ingredients from both positions to create a new idea
that’s stronger than either of the original ones.
The greater the impact the idea has on the other spouse, the relationship,
your finances or your future, the more critical it is that you’re on the
same page. Otherwise, one person will be pursuing the idea without the
support of his or her spouse — which means that either the idea or the
relationship is going to suffer.
To make it work, you need a strong commitment to building a solution that
is more energizing than the one either spouse started with. It’s saying, “I
know my idea is great, and I know your idea is great. Let’s put our ideas
together and come up with something even better.” Those differences become
the raw ingredients for world-class outcomes.
Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until
the other comes and examines him.” I’ve learned that my ideas always look
great when they’re still in my own mind, but they become even stronger when
blended with other perspectives.
Finding a synergistic solution begins with trust and communication. It
takes a deep commitment to the relationship, wanting the best possible
outcome. When done correctly, both spouses will feel heard, loved and
Where do you start? How can you approach your spouse in a way that opens
the door to synergy?
Make the relationship more important than the issue.
When your spouse hesitates at your great idea, there’s a reason such as
fear, lack of trust, past experience, need for security, family of origin
issues, temperament or your track record with previous ideas. If those
issues are ignored, your idea will be as well.
Start with something like this:
“I’ve got an idea I’ve been thinking through, and I’d really like your
input. Could you help me explore it? I know what I’m thinking, but it’s
going to be incomplete without your ideas as well. I want us to be in this
together because I really value your perspective. With your input, let’s
build something that will work for both of us.”
When you talk, follow this three-step process:
Present your idea completely, describing your reasons, your emotions and
the details of what you’re proposing. Your spouse’s job is to listen
without commenting on anything, because the goal is for him or her to
simply understand — not necessarily to agree. He or she can ask clarifying
questions, but no other comments or reactions are allowed.
Give your spouse time to process what you’ve presented. Then ask your
husband or wife to present everything he or she is thinking and feeling in
as much detail as possible. Your job is to listen without analyzing or
commenting. Your sole purpose is to understand his or her perspective — not
It’s possible that both sides of the conversation could take place back to
back — as long as the first person feels understood. The second spouse
might need some time for processing, but hopefully not more than a day or
two. If it goes longer than that, only one person will have been heard.
- When both of you have expressed your perspectives without interruption
or defense, you’ll both feel heard. Reaffirm your commitment to finding a
new solution that draws from both perspectives. This could take time, but
you’ll be crafting something together that’s better than your original
idea. And you’ll have your spouse’s support.
It’s all about listening for understanding, not listening to come up with a
defense. King Solomon said, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is
his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
The idea is that instead of the normal point-counterpoint conversation,
each person presents his or her perspective completely. No interruptions.
No defense. And any questions are for exploring that position. Make sure
the first person feels heard and understood completely. Then repeat with
the other person. The result is that both people feel deeply listened to in
the end. That opens the door to the final part of the conversation, where
they explore creative alternatives.
As you work toward this solution, follow these guidelines:
- Don’t try to talk your spouse into anything; let him or her be your
teammate in your dream. It’s not a competition to see who’s right and who’s
wrong. It’s a collaboration to find the strongest possible solution.
- As you explore both perspectives, ask, “How will this idea make our
relationship stronger? What challenges will it bring?” After you’ve crafted
a new solution, ask the same questions as well.
- Evaluate the effects of your decision. If you both say yes to this idea,
what will you have to say no to? How, specifically, will it affect all the
other areas of your life?
- Don’t be a mind reader. It’s easy to assume you know what your spouse is
thinking and feeling, but those assumptions can derail communication. “Tell
me what your thoughts are about what we just talked about,” you could ask.
“How does it make you feel?” Then listen without becoming defensive.
Two for the journey
Don’t try to win your spouse over to your great idea. Win him or her over
to a journey of teamwork and synergy.
As you listen to your spouse’s ideas, you may come to realize that your
idea wasn’t as great as you thought. Or it may be a great idea but the
wrong time to act on it.
Diane and I still haven’t been to New York City for Christmas. We might
someday, and I still think it’s a great idea. But in the meantime, we’ve
come up with creative alternatives that have taken us in some amazing
directions — because we planned them together.
Dr. Mike Bechtle
is a speaker and the author of
Dealing With the Elephant in the Room: Moving from tough conversations
to healthy communication.
*Names have been changed.
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