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Relationships: The Unilateral Decision-Maker




Excerpted from
Wake Up or Break Up: 8 Crucial Steps to Strengthening Your Relationship
By Leonard Felder, Ph.D.

Now we come to a third tricky behavior that disrupts the balance of a relationship and creates substantial friction between partners. When you have to make a major decision about your career, vacation plans, weekend plans, or the purchase of a home, a car, or something less expensive for around the house-a sofa, lamp, barbecue grill, lawn ornament, video equipment, sound system, or other item-do you automatically consult with your partner about the best choice for both of you? Or do you sometimes listen to the part of your brain that is saying, "Naaaaah, I don't need to run this by anyone. It would be a lot easier and less complicated if I just made the decision on my own and told my partner there was no time for consultation."

Even couples who love each other a lot and who strongly value fairness and good communication may make hasty or one-sided decisions without taking seriously the other person's point of view. There seems to be a basic human urge for control that even good people find hard to resist, almost as if they are saying, "Hey, I grew up with a parent (or an older sibling) who never took my feelings and opinions seriously. I had to ask for their permission all the time and they rarely checked in to see how I viewed a situation. Now that I'm an adult, I don't want to have to stop and talk things over with someone who might disagree or slow me down. Sure it would be nice to have my partner's input, good ideas, and mutual consent before I rush into a major decision. But it's so much quicker to just do it my way and tell my partner later when it's a done deal."

For men, especially, it may feel unnatural and almost creepy to have to consult with your partner. You may have been told as a young boy-and may still be told-"Make up your own mind," "Don't be wishy-washy," "Be your own man." That's one of the reasons many men don't like to ask for directions or seek advice. From an early age they are taught it's weak, shameful, or downright unmanly to ask for consultation or advice when we should be making up our own minds as though we have all the answers.

For women there are different, but equally strong, reasons for not checking in with a partner. Some feel that they are giving the lover or spouse too much power, and that it's easier to get things done by not asking for input ahead of time. Other women were raised with the same tactics described in Nia Vardalos's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the mother teaches the daughter, "Do what I do with your father-always make him think it was his idea and then he'll say yes." Still others were taught that you probably won't get a yes if you ask directly, but if you use your looks, your charm, or your sweet voice to distract your partner you will get the person to go along with what you want.

UDMs are the WMDs of Relationships

Unilateral (one-sided) decision-making might appear at first glance to save time or eliminate complicating factors, but over months or years in a romantic partnership, this attitude of "I'm gonna do what I want and you don't have any say in the matter" may slowly drive a wedge between the two of you and cause friction, hurt feelings, and ugly scenes. In fact, it may take years or decades to resolve the anger and loss of trust that occur when you pull a fast one on your partner and make a major decision without adequate consultation. I've counseled good people with good partners who have remained distant or distrustful of each other for many years after a Unilateral Decision-Maker, or UDM, left his or her partner out of a crucial decision.

Three types of UDMs are common:

The Pressured UDM makes a dinner commitment with an important client or a social engagement with friends and neglects to discuss it with his or her partner until the last minute. The Unilateral Decision-Maker will often say, "I felt pressured to do this." The left-out partner will often feel, "Bullshit! You could have said, 'Let me check with my partner to see if it works for both of our schedules. Then I'll get back to you by the end of the day.'" Do one or both of you sometimes make plans without considering the other person's preferences or needs?

The Generous-but-Controlling UDM buys his or her partner a new car, a piece of furniture, or an article of clothing but neglects to ask for input about the color, fabric, style, or features for the item that the unconsulted partner would be using most of the time. The generous-but-controlling partner often says, "But I wanted it to be a surprise" or "But it was on sale and I just happened to be in the store." The unconsulted partner often feels, "I don't want to sound ungrateful, but could you stop for a moment and think about whether you would want to spend several years with something important that has the wrong colors, fabric, style, and features for your particular tastes and needs? I thought we were going to make that decision together ... as teammates."

(In situations like this one, I've found it's a good idea for the couple to take the item back and start the decision process again, with better consultation and teamwork this time. Otherwise, each time you look at the car, furniture, appliance, clothes, or expensive item that your partner chose without considering your point of view, it's likely to bring back feelings of resentment and imbalance. But if you take the bold step of getting your money back for the item that's been causing a rift between you, you will hear a wake-up call in your relationship that says, "We learned something here. We're going to be partners from now on and not pull any fast ones on each other. Our trust and our sense of teamwork are more important than this item that was driving a wedge between us.")

The Subtle UDM pretends to be flexible but really isn't. For example, when asked which restaurant or movie he or she might prefer, the Subtle UDM says, "Oh, it doesn't matter to me. Whatever you want is fine." But then when the initiating partner suggests a restaurant or movie, the unilateral decision-maker frowns and says, "No, I don't think so." The initiating partner may then offer a second choice of a restaurant or movie, to which the UDM frowns and says, "No, I'm not in the mood for that." Pretty soon, after three or four rounds of "whatever you want is fine, except for that and that and that," the initiating partner gives in and goes along with the particular movie or restaurant that will cause the subtle UDM to say yes, even if it's a movie or restaurant the initiating partner doesn't especially like. Does this sound familiar to you? Do you sometimes feel like a dentist pulling teeth to get your loved one to be flexible or to say yes without a huge ordeal?

The next time you or your loved one suspects that one of you is being a unilateral decision-maker, you don't need to scream or shout at each other. All you need to do is calmly and lovingly say to your partner, "Let's take a few minutes and admit what we each want or don't want regarding this decision. Then let's invent an imperfect solution that respects both of our differing points of view."



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