What is negotiation? The dictionary says, “to confer with another…in order to come to terms or reach an agreement…to arrange or settle by discussion and mutual agreement.” And “agree” means, “to grant consent, to be in accord of opinion, to be of one opinion, concur.” The reasons why I go to such distinct definitions is because of the importance of understanding that there is a contract or covenant being formed.
The marriage vows are the result of an ongoing negotiation. Both members of the couple should feel equal and powerful. The most important balancing act for most couples is their handling of differences. Unfortunately, many couples in the romantic “in love” stages of the engagement period, decide to postpone more serious or longer-term discussion until after the marriage starts. I have heard too many comments like these not to know that major decisions and questions weren’t put on the table in the beginning. Here are a few: “I thought that you would cut down on your drinking after we got married; of course, I thought that you would want to have children – all your siblings do; you never told me how much you dislike my mother, etc.”
Most couples know how to negotiate in the beginning, in the give-and-take of marital life. You want solutions to be win – win. One person gets this, the other gets that. It might change the next time around. They start off understanding and believing in the equality of the balancing act of jobs, chores, who does what, when. And that works pretty well until the couple decides to have a child. This is a major decision, a real turning point. I don’t think couples pay close enough attention to the potential, major shift in the power balance of their relationship at this point.
Now, would be a good time to introduce the couple to a family consultant; that is, somebody who has been around the block a few times with couples who have already gone through this stage of the lifecycle and knows many of the issues that need to be discussed, prepared for and negotiated. Why? Because statistics show that the levels of marital satisfaction decrease for couples after the birth of the first child (Gottman, by 67%) and continue to do so with each additional child. Those are facts; even if you don’t think they apply to you and your situation; and the statistic certainly gets your attention. Having a baby is often presented as a magical and happily ever after event, but the reality of becoming a parent puts an enormous strain on your relationship; so much so, that about 25% of all couples breakup after the first 12 months. And, it is reported, that about 1 in 10 men have affairs during their wife’s pregnancy.
So, what I am suggesting, at this crucial turning point for many couples, is that if you plan to start a family consider taking your marriage in for a 25,000-mile check-up. Think about it. You take the car in for a 10,000-mile check-up, you get an annual physical, and you see the dentist once a year for a check-up. Your marriage and your emotional well-being don’t deserve the same treatment?
Let me just describe what might happen if a couple decided to get a 25,000-mile check-up. First, you would be asked to discuss what agreements you have already made, knowingly and unknowingly; and do you feel that any of them need to be reviewed? Is the distribution of household chores agreed upon, are both your careers supported and respected, is the financial income distributed so that both partners feel equal rights to spend, discuss, veto and challenge expenditures? Do you feel that your sexual needs are expressed and responded to? All of this and more would be discussed before discussing the joys and challenges that adding a child to the relationship would entail. This check-up would improve your negotiating skills with your partner because you would learn the questions that need to be asked and answered in a healthy discussion of a serious topic.
As a matter of fact, I would recommend that a couple go in for a 25,000 mile check up at the three major turning points in a couple’s life cycle. Those crucial turning points are: getting married; having a child; and launching the child and returning to a couple again without children. There is so much negotiation that must take place at these crucial junctures in the family life cycle. I was discussing this “25,000-mile check-up” idea with a group of parents looking for ideas on improving parenting skills. I told them that the best gift that they could give to their children was to demonstrate a strong, communicative and loving relationship between them and their partner. Interestingly, one man stood up and said, “Tom, isn’t this “25,000-check-up” idea, just a way for you to make money and have more business?” I said to him, “I will get paid either way. I would prefer to help you before you have problems, rather than waiting for you to go through pain and suffering before you are smart enough to get the preventive educational information that I have to share with you.” Let’s continue this discussion in the comments below.