How to Negotiate When No One Wants to Raise the Issue

Willard F. Harley, Jr., PhD

Are there problems in your marriage that have been festering for years? Have you lost hope of ever resolving them because they are never discussed? Are you afraid to bring them up?

In the article, How to Negotiate When You Are an Emotional Person, I described two ways couples handle conflict.

Option A. You calmly and respectfully discuss the conflict until you find a mutually agreeable resolution.
Option B. The one who screams the loudest wins the argument.

Option A, of course, is the right way to do it, and in that article, I encouraged you to avoid option B at all costs. But if eliminating option B does not result in using option A, there's a third option that couples often choose:

Option C. You avoid the subject entirely.

Successful negotiation in marriage is a skill that should be taught in school along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. That's because successful marital negotiation leads to happy marriages, and that, in turn, creates productive families that make our entire culture flourish. I firmly believe that it's one of the most important skills that anyone can learn because a successful marriage is the backbone of a successful way of life. It's also the single most important factor in making people happy.

But sadly, most couples are not skilled in marital negotiation. Option A is not the procedure most couples use to resolve conflicts. Instead, they choose options B or C. I've already shown you how option B fails to do the job, so in this article, I'll focus my attention on Option C — sweeping your problems under the rug.

Suppose that you and your spouse want to take a vacation, but can't agree on where to go. One of you wants to spend a week at a campground four miles from your home, while the other would prefer a week in Orlando, visiting Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios. Your children have all voted for the Orlando trip. You don't want to fight about it but haven't learned how to negotiate. By avoiding the subject, no vacation is on the horizon.

So to go on any vacation, one of you decides to capitulate. You either go camping or visit Orlando, depending on who does the capitulating. That 's one way to solve a problem without having to discuss it. But the capitulator ends up feeling very resentful. The one wanting a Florida vacation will be very unhappy camping, especially if it rains, and the one wanting to camp will not be cheered up by Mickey.

But in spite of the distasteful outcome, couples try to avoid all sorts of marital problems. Take sex, for example. One of you wants sex more often than the other, so one person gives in, either agreeing to more sex when you want it less or by putting up with less sex when you want it more. Either way, resentment is the final result.

Of course, there's always the option of no vacation, where neither is willing to budge or negotiate. And the issue of how often to have sex can turn into not having sex at all when spouses won't discuss the issue with each other. Resentment builds to such an extent that the capitulator finally decides not to capitulate any longer.

Does this describe the way you deal with conflicts? Do you pretend as if they don't exist? If you have piles of unspoken issues in your marriage, I want to encourage you to get them out on the table this week and start negotiating. Here's one way to do it.

Write a Letter

The problem with talking about conflicts that have been buried for years is that when they are raised, they tend to explode in your face. So much emotion has been festering that when the topic is introduced, demands, disrespect, and anger often destroy any hope of a thoughtful and intelligent resolution.

Remember, the first guideline for successful negotiation in marriage is to make the discussion safe and pleasant. If you try to talk about the problem, you may find that your emotions get the best of you, and you simply can't proceed. But if you negotiate in writing, even if you are seething while you describe your problem, you can edit your initial emotionally charged sentences, and rewrite sentences that would be interpreted by your spouse as demanding, disrespectful, or angry.

Your letter should begin with an explanation for having to put your problem in writing rather than being able to talk about it. It might look something like this:

Hi Honey,

I know that this may seem to be a strange way for me to introduce a topic with you, but I'm afraid that I might have trouble making myself clear if we were to talk about it. So if you would indulge me, I'd like to introduce a problem that I've been having so that we can work together toward a solution. This is a problem that we have had for some time now, but I think we have both avoided dealing with it for a variety of reasons. Maybe by writing to each other about it, we can come to a resolution.

The next section of the letter should state the problem, and offer your perspective on how it might be solved. Again, remember to avoid writing anything that sounds demanding, disrespectful, or angry.

The problem I'd like us to solve is that, from my perspective, we are not making love often enough, and when we do it's not in ways that satisfy me. I would like to make love at least twice a week, and before we make love, I'd like us to spend some time talking to each other and being affectionate. I think that we could do this if we scheduled time to be together each week for that purpose — like having a date.

After you've stated the problem and described your perspective, you should ask for your spouse s perspective. How does he or she feel about the problem itself and about your proposed solution?

How do you feel about it? Do you also feel that we're not making love often enough and that we're not doing it in ways that satisfy you? If so, how would you like to solve this problem? But if you are happy with how often we make love and find that the way we do it is fulfilling to you, would you help me with this problem I've been having? What would you suggest to satisfy my need? Please write me a response so that we can begin solving this problem together.

I know that this letter sounds very formal and somewhat awkward. But my point is that this is one way to bring up a problem that has been buried too long.

Once the problem is on the table, your spouse will either respond to it or ignore it. Let's consider ways that your spouse might respond.

  1. A proactive response. Your spouse responds in writing with empathy and creativity. He or she apologizes for failing to meet this very important need and expresses a willingness to try just about anything to resolve it. He or she suggests that you plan two dates a week that will begin by being alone with each other to talk and be affectionate, just like you did before you were married. Then at the end of that time together, you would make love. You would discuss by letter your reactions to each of your dates so that you could improve upon them. If either of you feels that changes would be helpful, you would write to each other about it without making demands, being disrespectful or becoming angry. When you feel safe, you could start discussing it face to face.
  2. A defensive response. You receive a letter in a timely manner, but it begins by blaming you for the problem. If you would not be so busy, or if you would be a better lover, or if you would not be so moody, etc., etc., you would not have this problem. While those issues could be discussed respectfully, your spouse turns them into disrespectful accusations. This kind of reaction is the primary reason that you have not solved the problem earlier. You need help in knowing how to negotiate. Your next letter might suggest that you read the first five chapters of my book, Love Busters, together before tackling this problem. Then, when educated on how to solve problems the right way, without demands, disrespect, or anger, you proceed to solve your problems proactively.
  3. No response. Occasionally, when one of my clients writes this letter to get the ball rolling, their spouse rips it up and throws it away. Or, they don't even acknowledge receiving the letter. In cases like these, I usually recommend planning for a separation, while at the same time sending the letter again in slightly different forms, mentioning the fact that your problem needs to be addressed. A spouse that is unwilling to respond to repeated communications of a problem is in many ways emotionally divorced. They have violated the vow to care for their spouse, which is the purpose of marriage itself. If two years of separation go by without the other spouse's willingness to solve problems respectfully and intelligently, the neglected spouse usually comes to the conclusion that he or she no longer has a partner in marriage and files for divorce. Sometimes that jogs the other spouse into action, but even if the divorce goes through, the fact that the other spouse was no longer willing to provide necessary marital care means that the marriage was over years earlier. But in most cases, while separated, I've found that couples learn to discuss their problems effectively, and then live together fulfilled.

I've counseled many retired couples who finally address problems they've endured through most of their marriage. They're happy that they were finally able to solve them, but wish that it had been done much earlier in their marriage. The busyness of raising children and developing careers distracted them enough to keep their problems unresolved.

Don't sweep your marital problems under the rug. If you've been afraid to raise issues in your marriage, try using the letter I've recommended. Make problems that have been bothering you a top priority in your life. And with respect for each other, solve them.

For more helpful advice on how to negotiate in marriage, please read He Wins, She Wins.