To maintain shared happiness and minimize distress as a couple, you have to know how to successfully collaborate with each other.
To do this, there are certain strategies and skills that will enable you to communicate well when there are decisions to make or differences to settle.
The essence of good collaboration is to adhere to a basic rule: you have not reached a real and proper decision until both of you really like it. In other words, all decisions must be good for both partners.
This is a simple rule, but to follow it can often require a complex set of interpersonal communication and cognitive processing skills, as well as having effective emotional self-regulation and co-regulation tools.
Training couples how to collaborate well is a typical part of the work I do to help partners who suffer distressful marriages. In my experience, while some couples are good at collaborating in certain ways, most are not, especially when emotions run the show.
And not being able to collaborate well is a root cause of increasing dissatisfaction, upsets, and emotional disconnection over time.
By the time I see many distressed couples, partners a resorting to competitive narratives that essentially are a blame game. They demonstrate the very opposite of collaboration. Instead, each of their communication skillsets have been funneled into trying to score points at their partner’s expense.
Obviously, a competitive mode of relating rarely results in a pair of happy partners. Couples unconsciously sabotage their ability to maintain shared happiness unless they consciously learn to understand and follow the rules of effective collaboration.
I have found several elements that foster successful collaboration. Each can be mastered with a bit of practice and coaching. I will briefly present these below.
Track and Relieve Distress Levels
Key collaborative parts of the brain live in the pre-frontal cortex. If that circuitry is not on, you cannot collaborate. It’s like when an app on a device freezes and no longer produces useful output. That’s what happens when distress takes over.
When your subcortical survival system, i.e. your “amygdala”, hijacks your higher brain capacities, your cognitive abilities will focus on winning at the other person’s expense, because the interaction seems to turn into a competition for survival.
As far as your amygdala is concerned, there is no place for empathy or understanding what your partner wants, needs or feels. There is no collaborating with a tiger, right? Instead, there is increasing energy put into fight or flight, or perhaps even freeze.
Those distress states, which escalate quickly in couples, turn off the vital resources you need in your frontal lobes to engage in collaboration and leave you stranded in a one-dimensional fight for survival.
Thus you and your partner need a plan for what to do if and when the conversation starts triggering distress. You simply cannot afford to act it out. Even if you “won” the competition, you will lose the relationship.
You have to monitor for distress and if you see it, you need to know how to slow down and relieve it. The general rule here is to track distress and take the lead in relieving it.
Have a pause agreement and an “S.O.S.” signal that either of you can use if you notice distress in either of you. Then repair the emotional distress as quickly and thoroughly as possible before trying to return to the discussion.
I have written much on this site and in my books about having a CPR agreement, where you catch-pause-repair whenever you notice distress or triggering.
Self-Regulate and Co-Regulate
Continuing with the enterprise of keeping distress at bay, it’s powerful to engage in conscious self-regulation and co-regulation, also known as interactive regulation. This means knowing that you need to slow down at times and take a breath. Or, even better, doing this in partnership as a team of co-regulators.
Think of a sports analogy. You are not only a player on the field, but also a referee. Whenever you notice that there is even slight tension, blow the whistle on it. Put the ball down, it’s out of play. Instead, take a moment to pause. Walk around a bit. Shake off the tension. Breathe. Then get into a huddle, literally offering physical comfort to each other in the form of a hug or hand holding.
Being highly proactive in self-regulating your own nervous system is a skill and an asset that enables you to continue to bring your best to the conversation. Offering frequent co-regulation benefits both you and your partner.
Take breaks from the topic at hand every so often. Make off-topic appreciative and friendly remarks to each other. Say things that bring lightness and pleasure. It could be as simply as noticing something you like about your partner’s appearance. Or remembering a pleasant moment shared recently.
Prove to your partner’s amygdala there is no reason to fear you. On a moment-to-moment basis, prove you are a friend, not a foe.
Move Forward from the Present
Something that typically derails collaboration is triggering. And couples can easily trigger each other. Triggering means that someone’s amygdala starts to get afraid.
Your partner’s amygdala starts to fear you as a foe, for instance, because when you start to try to influence them, your voice tone starts to automatically sound adversarial. Maybe it starts to resemble a critical parent that raised them. Or a professor or other authority that was dismissive.
Regardless, what this is about is how the past will come up as you try, in the present, to construct an agreement or joint decision about the future.
So you have to watch out for this trick of mind. Self-protective parts of the brain will automatically interject negative ideas and expectations about the future. Automatically it can create criticisms about the past that attempt to arm-twist the other party.
In fact, for any hope of the future, you have to do it different that the past, if in the past there were shortcomings. The best way to do that is to assume possibilities in the future that would be foreclosed on if you limited the future by what triggered you in the past.
So you have to stay in the tabla-rosa present to create a new picture of the future together. You cannot afford to derail a collaborative conversation about a mutually satisfying future by unrepaired negative feelings from the past.
If you find that either of your brains are going into the mode of bringing up unresolved matters from the past, then you need to stop trying to work on the future, and instead utilize emotional repair tools about these past unresolved issues.
Repair is a different skillset. Again, that is a topic I have written about extensively in other articles on this site as well as in my books.
Engage in “Two-Party” Thinking
A win-win outcome depends on two creative partners figuring out together how to bridge the gap of their initial positions. As mentioned so far, this depends on your frontal lobe circuits being turned on so that you have access to parts of your brain capable of understanding each other’s needs.
Thus amygdali are your mutual task to tame, as they will turn off these circuits. That’s absolutely necessary. But not sufficient. You need to lean into a more complex way of cognitive processing that we could call “two-party” thinking.
Most couples, rather than collaborate, tend toward debate. They each want to be understood, but neither is spending much time or effort to understand the other person. Why? Because two-party thinking is difficult. It seems to stretch our brain, and our brains do not like to be stretched.
Skillful two-party thinking demands that you simultaneously track what two people are wanting and needing. That can be difficult, especially when those seem to be different or even opposite things. It’s like playing three-dimensional chess compared to the usual way of trying to resolve an issue, i.e. the tick-tack-toe of “I win, you lose.”
Instead, you have to keep the highest creative circuits of your brain running to solve what seem to be highly complex requirement for solution, i.e. “How do we make this a win for both of us?”
To do this, your own brain has to be able to accurately represent and hold not only what you want and need, but also what your partner wants and needs. And, furthermore, to rotate that information in as many dimensions as required to solve for its complex simultaneous equation.
There’s an exercise I do with couples to help them develop this skill of representing the other person’s view accurately. I call it role-reversal, and I learned it from my wife who is also a drama therapist. How does it work?
Present you and your partner are on a reality TV game show. The host asks you to engage in a decision-making process where you and your partner initially are polarized. At any moment the host can ring a bell and you have to switch positions.
Instead of continuing to represent your own views, wants and needs, you have to now pretend you are your partner. You have to accurately play their part, saying, as you take on their identity, how you see the world and what you want and need, as them.
Being able to accurately role-reverse is the only way to prove actual communication is happening, where what one person says fully lands and stick inside the brain of the listener.
And if your brain does not have an accurate representation of both people’s points of view, their wants and needs, then you will not have enough data to even begin to suggest an authentic win-win outcome.
While this is complex and brain-straining, it is necessary that both people simultaneously do it. Your partner also has to be able to take on your viewpoint accurately. Only then can a couple co-create a win-win outcome.
Improvise with “Yes-And”
In improv theater or jazz, experienced players know how to engage in a “yes-and” relationship with content that emerges. Most of the rest of us tend to engage in “yes-but” linguistic and cognitive processes.
Think of it as being like making a joint piece of art with your partner. Creatively look at whatever your partner puts on your joint canvas as a contribution and work with it as if you put it there.
Solo artwork is done over time, as a creative process of putting something on canvas, then stepping back and seeing if the painting now looks complete. Eventually there is the moment when you step back and say it is done.
A joint work would be similar, but both artists would step back. The piece is done when you jointly feel it is done. That is how you “yes-and” your way into a completed picture.
The “yes-but” process would instead be you trying to scrape off your partner’s contributions as being wrong and unworthy of inclusion. This is the normal, but unsuccessful, debate style in which partners get lost when trying to collaborate.
Sure, you may have different brush strokes, different palette prefs, but it is your joint job to include all of it if you want to end up with a jointly collaborated picture.
Only Carrots Are Allowed
There is an all-important matter of how one persuades the other to come to their point of view. The art of influence in society at large includes using both the carrot and the stick to get your way.
The carrot is anything that would be a positive reward that would attract the other person to come forward towards your point of view. The stick would be anything that would threaten them if they failed to adopt your viewpoint.
Couples that use the stick are doomed to failure in the shared-happiness department. You cannot get your way though blame, threat, guilt, criticism or other fear-based tactics and still think there is any way to be a happy couple.
You can only offer more positive incentives to influence your partner. You have to bring them to a fully congruent “yes” where they feel great about it.
If you are not yet getting the results you want, put more candy on the table. Make it more attractive. Make them a deal they can’t refuse, not in the tradition of the Sopranos, but by making it so attractive to them.
Losing Is Not Allowed
You need to triple-check that both parties are fully satisfied by the outcome. Compromise used to be the mantra. Or to “agree to disagree” as a backup position. Neither of the latter will result in shared happiness.
Do not let your partner pre-maturely agree or throw in the towel. Don’t let anyone give up. Instead, take breaks. Slow down. Come up with even more creative ideas. Brain storm.
And make sure the debaters, critics and editors are left outside the building. They have no place in a collaboration.
Only be satisfied an authentic agreement is reached when you can see that your partner is genuinely smiling and you feel fully satisfied.
If you are not yet there, get even more creative.
While there are circumstances in which you might run into a true deal-breaker like we can’t both have a kid and not have a kid, most couples simply fail to bring sufficient brain power to the table in the form of empathetic communication, two-party thinking, and creative imagination.
Remember, if one of you loses, you both do. You might score a short-term win but suffer a long-term loss. Win the battle, lose the war. You are in the foxhole together, after all.