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Having a Win-Win Marriage: Why You Might Need to Stop Sacrificing

  • Willard F. Harley Jr.
  • 2013 9 Sep
Having a Win-Win Marriage: Why You Might Need to Stop Sacrificing

Why Do Couples Resist a Win-Win Goal?

A win-win outcome both in business and in marriage is the ideal. No one would argue that point. But as I’ve already noted, some feel that trying to achieve that ideal in marriage is immoral, impossible, or impractical. They feel that there’s something about a romantic relationship between a man and a woman that rules out win-win resolutions to conflict.

The problem usually begins with confusion over the value of the sacrifice strategy—one partner is willing to lose so that the other partner can win. It’s a time-honored way to prove that you care, and it’s the way most romantic relationships begin. It gives your account in a prospective mate’s Love Bank an initial boost.

It’s a lot like the way a business introduces a new product. It’s sold at a greatly reduced price, or is even given away, to give prospective customers a taste of what the business can do for them. In a dating relationship, partners want an opportunity to get to know each other, so they will often sacrifice their own interests to motivate each other to spend time together. When I would call Joyce for a date, she would agree to go even before I told her what we’d be doing.

But it’s at this point that business and romantic relationships usually part. In business, the product that had been initially given away is now priced to provide a profit for the company and value for the customer. In romantic relationships, however, sacrifice continues to be expected. After all, it’s regarded as the romantic ideal.

Fortunately for our marriage, after we said our vows Joyce stopped sacrificing her interests just to be with me. If we were to go on a date, she wanted to know where we’d be going before she’d agree to go. And if she wasn’t interested in what I had in mind, she’d suggest alternatives that served her interests. The sacrifice strategy had come to an end in our marriage, as it does in all romantic relationships.

Why was this fortunate for our marriage? Because we were now forced to do what businesses do—find win-win outcomes to our conflicts.

Of course, we could have chosen the path that most romantic relationships follow: dictatorship, dueling dictators, and anarchy. In time, we would have become disillusioned, had a power struggle, lost our love for each other, and eventually parted ways either through divorce or permanent separation.

But we didn’t follow that path, and as a result, we are still in a romantic relationship after fifty years of marriage. I’m convinced that every couple can follow the path we’ve taken by learning to re- solve their conflicts with each other’s interests in mind. When that happens, they discover win-win solutions to all of their conflicts.

The Policy of Joint Agreement

To help couples keep their eye on the ball, I challenge them to consider a rule that leads to win-win outcomes. I call it the Policy of Joint Agreement: Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse. Enthusiastic agreement becomes the goal of negotiation whenever a couple faces a conflict. In other words, they both must win or they keep negotiating.

If you follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (POJA), it will force you to resolve conflicts the right way—the way that takes the interests of both of you into account simultaneously. Not only is this the mutually caring thing to do, but final decisions made this way are usually wiser than any decision you would have made on your own. By joining together to make each decision, you’re able to consider a much broader range of options, and come to conclusions that take more factors into account.

When I first introduce this rule to clients, it usually triggers two reactions. At first people react to how they feel about being consulted before their spouse makes a decision: “If this means that Lisa must ask me how I feel about what she’s planning to do before she does it, I think that’s a good idea. There’s a lot going on in her life that I’d like to know about, and a lot that I wouldn’t agree with if I did know. If she’d tell me her plans in advance, and give me the right to veto some of them, I think we’d get along a lot better.”

But it doesn’t take long for a second reaction to unfold—how they feel about being required to have their spouse’s agreement before they can do anything: “It would be ridiculous to let Lisa keep me from doing what I have to do. Sometimes she just doesn’t understand, and so I have to make decisions she doesn’t like. I don’t think her ‘feelings’ should keep me from achieving my personal goals.”

This introduces the problem of empathy. We all want our spouse to be considerate of our feelings because we feel what our spouse does to us. But we tend to be inconsiderate of our spouse’s feelings because we don’t feel what we do to them. If we were emotion- ally connected to each other so that we would feel what each of us does to the other, we’d behave very differently. We’d want to know how our behavior would affect each other—in advance—so we would avoid any discomfort to ourselves.

Without such an emotional connection, the POJA is the next best thing. It forces us to give advance notice of how we will be affecting each other. While we can’t actually feel our effect on each other, it makes us behave as if we did.

“How Do You Feel?”

The Policy of Joint Agreement helps you to become sensitive to each other’s feelings, especially when you don’t feel like doing so. Since you’re required to have each other’s enthusiastic agreement before you do anything, it forces you to ask each other a very important question: How do you feel about what I would like to do (or what I would like you to do for me)?

That simple question and its answer helps you build a crucial understanding of each other. You may not actually feel what your spouse feels, but at least you give your spouse the opportunity to tell you how he or she feels. And then, even when you find yourself in a thoughtless mood, the POJA forces you to be thoughtful.

You are now a team, no longer two independent individuals. As life partners, you should work together to achieve objectives that benefit both of you simultaneously. Why should one of you consider your own interests to be so important that you can run roughshod over the interests of the other? That’s a formula for marital disaster. A team can’t survive if each member is pulling against the other.

When I first see a couple in marital crisis, they are usually living their lives as if the other hardly exists, making thoughtless decisions regularly because they don’t care how the other feels. As a result, when I introduce the Policy of Joint Agreement, it seems totally irrational to them. Their way of life is based on so many inconsiderate habits that the policy seems to threaten their very existence.

At first, neither spouse wants to abandon their thoughtless and insensitive lifestyle. But I challenge them to try it for just a few weeks, and the more they try following the policy, the easier it becomes to reach agreement. They replace thoughtless decisions with those that take each other’s feelings into account. And they develop real compatibility—building a way of life that is comfort- able for both of them.

I think you can see why thoughtless behavior ruins a marriage. It not only creates massive Love Bank withdrawals, destroying romantic love, but it also proves that spouses don’t really care about each other. If they did care, they would be thoughtful of each other—they would make decisions that take each other’s feelings into account.

No wonder so many people are disillusioned by marriage. I’d be disillusioned too if Joyce were to ignore my feelings when she makes decisions. But that’s not the way it has to be. It’s certainly not the way it’s been in our marriage. By making our decisions together, Joyce and I demonstrate our care for each other, and as a result, our marriage continues to be very fulfilling for both of us.

When a couple makes a commitment to share power and control with each other by following the POJA, their lives begin to blend and their love for each other grows. At that point they are using what I call the democracy strategy to resolve their conflicts.

Excerpted from He Wins, She Wins by Willard F. Harley Jr., releasing October 13th 2013, Revell Books. Used with permission.

Willard F. Harley, Jr. is a nationally acclaimed clinical psychologist, a marriage counselor, and the bestselling author of numerous books, including His Needs, Her Needs; Five Steps to Romantic Love; Love Busters; and Draw Close. Harley's most-loved book, His Needs, Her Needs, is now available as a video curriculum for churches and small groups. His popular website,, offers practical solutions to almost any marital problem.

Publication date: July 24, 2013