Ellyn Bader

Marriage is a challenge. Growing your business is a challenge. What happens when you try to combine the two?

I know first-hand how daunting it is to blend these two endeavors. You see, I'm in business with my wife. For over twenty years my wife and I, both psychologists, have directed The Couples Institute. As psychologists specializing in marriage counseling, we should have all the skills necessary to blend business and marriage, right?

In fact, the opportunities for us to disagree are practically limitless. Fortunately, the opportunities for us to grow together are even greater. For our own personal and marital survival we have had to develop some really effective methods to make decisions, solve problems, and negotiate better solutions. This article is a summary of our best suggestions on “Super Negotiating for Couples.”

There has been a lot of trial and error – more error than I would like to admit. But in retrospect, we seemed to have learned from these mistakes. And over the years I've had ample opportunity to try these techniques in my practice and refine them to fit a wide variety of couples and their situations.

The result is that we have developed a refined negotiation strategy that works. Really works.

Negotiation can be messy and riddled with tension. Finger pointing, selfish demands, and resentful compliance are often part of the process. But this is normal.

Managing tricky emotions is part of negotiation. So are conflicts of values and feelings. These factors do not lend themselves to an easy list of negotiation steps.

In this article you will learn why I tell couples to stop trying to define the problem. This is a deadly mistake that couples and even negotiators make. In fact, defining the problem just makes things worse. I know this sounds like heresy, but I needed a faster way to help couples resolve their problems.

There is more. If couples don't have a better way to manage unruly emotions when negotiating, then all the great steps and guidelines in the world are useless. So they will learn how to manage your emotions during negations with their spouse.

These guidelines will help couples avoid the three most common negotiating mistakes couples make:

1. Caving in too quickly to avoid tension or to keep the peace
2. Stubbornly pushing too hard for your own solution
3. Failure to prepare before the negotiation with your partner

Here are some basic concepts to start with:

Why learn to negotiate?

Conflict is inevitable for growth in your relationship.
Many people are frightened of conflict because they can't negotiate.
If you can negotiate you don't need to be so afraid of conflict.
Good negotiation leads to acceptable solutions that work for both and strengthen your relationship.
Your communication skills automatically improve as you develop good negotiating skills.

Win-win solutions

These are the best and are often difficult to attain. They require self-knowledge plus a very high degree of understanding of your partner's values, concerns and desires. Respect for yourself and for your partner, openness and persistence becomes the grease that makes negotiation successful.

Negotiation is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

The more complex the situation, the higher the stakes, the more your core values are involved, the longer it will take.
The more complex the problem, the more trial and error solutions will be attempted.
There is no such thing as a perfect solution. Every solution sets the stage for another problem. This will likely be a challenge you would not have even attempted because you were stuck on a lower rung of the ladder.

The difference between negotiation for couples and other negotiations

The amount of self disclosure required is higher for couples.
Effective compromises for complex problems require lots of openness, curiosity, and emotional risk.

Skills required for negotiating with your partner

Openness about yourself
Curiosity about aspects of your partner's struggles

Some things cannot be negotiated

Core values

Do your best to separate interests and concerns from values. You can negotiate interests but not core values or integrity. For example, it doesn't work to say, “I'll give up my spiritual beliefs for you.”

The only things you can really negotiate are behavior and decisions

What someone will do
And when they will do it

How to prepare to negotiate

Ask yourself how you aspire to be during the negotiation.

For example, calm, open, flexible, honest, understanding, curious.

By following guidelines set for yourself, you can stay more easily focused toward a successful outcome. This is an often overlooked aspect of negotiation. Staying conscious of your own guidelines will help keep you centered and focused. Write your guidelines on a piece of paper and keep glancing at them during the negotiation. You will come across like an experienced negotiator simply by staying consistent with your own guidelines.

Emotions and attitudes can interfere with effective negotiation, before it even starts

I don't deserve it. I'm not worthy.
If I get what I want I will be obligated in the future to give when I don't want to be giving.
I never get what I want.
My partner doesn't care about what I want.
What I want is more important than what my partner wants.
I Won't let anyone push me around.
Have to fight for what you want in life.
Whoever wants it the most should get what they want.

Fears that interfere with good negotiation

Fear of reprisal of being assertive
Fear of offending partner if assertive
Fear of disrupting relationship if assertive
Fear that if you ask and don't get, it triggers old memories of similar experiences
Fear that if you really seek to understand your partner's concerns you will have to agree with what they want

Before you start the negotiation, quietly reflect on the following questions:

What do I want?
How important is this to me?
Why is it important?
To get what I want, what will I need to do and what will my partner need to do?
If I get most of what I want what is the positive and negative effect on my partner?
How could I make it easier for my partner to say yes?
I'm afraid if we don't resolve this disagreement, then the effect on me and my partner might be _______________________________.
If I get most of what I want, the effect on me would be _______________________________.
If I get most of what I want, the benefit to my partner might be ____________________________.
However, it may be difficult for my partner to give me most of what I want because __________________________.
I may be able to increase the benefits to my partner by ___________________________.
I may be able to decrease the downside to my partner by ___________________________.
Add other relevant information that has not been suggested here.

Do not feel like you need to robotically go through these questions and statements in a dialogue with your partner. But as you get mentally clear about these issues it will make it easier to conversationally express your concerns and desires.

Start by stating the area of disagreement

It is important to describe the issue as disagreement instead of as a problem. It is very difficult to say “The problem is ___________” without pointing fingers at your partner or yourself. This actual or implied finger pointing leads to a defensive reaction from one or both parties. The negotiation then begins to slip like a house built on loose gravel.

State the disagreement in the form, “We seem to disagree about _______________.”
Then take turns expressing what your concerns and desires are about the disagreement.

Describe concerns about the subject

One person goes first and expresses all their concerns while the partner listens without rebutting or defending anything. The response is simply to recap and check for understanding. It may also be necessary to ask questions for clarity.

Avoid leading questions that sound like Perry Mason, “Did it ever occur to you that.?”

Brainstorm solutions

After each person has expressed all their concerns and desires, and each of you feels understood, then it is time for brainstorming solutions.

One partner proposes a solution

Make the suggested proposal in the following format:
Honey, what I suggest is ____________________________________.
This suggestion works for me because ____________________________________.
This suggestion might work for you because ____________________________________.

The reason for this “formula”

It encourages being a good self advocate.
Simultaneously it forces you to consider your partner's perspective and helps prevent the possibility of being a stubborn for only what one person wants.

The other partner responds

If the partner agrees with the whole suggestion, then recap why it works.
If the partner does not agree then start with recapping the part that does work.
The part that does work is _________________________________.
The part that doesn't work is _________________________________.
So my alternative suggestion is _________________________________.
This suggestion works for me because _________________________________.
And it might work for you because _________________________________.
Add value to your offers. Keep finding ways to make it easier for your partner to say yes.

Remember – this negotiation is only an experiment- nobody is locked into a permanent solution. It is only for a period of time to see what if anything needs adjusting.

Repeat suggestions until agreement is reached.

Take action

If action is appropriate, decide who will do what by when.
Decide for how long you will try this solution.


After the action phase come back and evaluate the results.
If things are fine, continue for another block of time.

Round two, three, etc.

If it didn't work out as well as hoped, each person begins by saying, “Honey, it didn't work the way I hoped, but here is what I could have done differently.” Don't start by stating what your partner should have done differently.

Then repeat appropriate steps above.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.

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Jean Pollock
Jean Pollock
6 years ago

Wow –This is fantastic. Thanks for mentioning it, Pete. Great.

Marcia Naomi Berger
Marcia Naomi Berger
6 years ago

Wow again! Excellent, thorough exploration of a key skill for marriage. Thank you!

Omar Becerril
Omar Becerril
1 year ago

Easy to follow and effective to start the dialogue — wry helpful thanks

Kent Hamdorf
Kent Hamdorf
1 year ago

Very informative, easy to follow, very adaptable to what is currently going on in the world. Timely interns of helping all peopleconnect better.

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