Negotiating the Best Valentines Day EVER
As a trained mediator, I have spent years teaching negotiation skills to parents who are in the midst of divorce; helping them to restructure their relationships in a way that severs their intimacy while preserving the very best of their parenting partnership. Which is a great thing, but not what this blog is about.
The divorce negotiation(s) starts with and ends in a fairly narrow period of time in a very specific type of relationship. It starts when a couple decides or learns that their marriage is ending and continues until all the related legal documents are filed. It seems like a downer to discuss that with Valentines Day around the corner.
I think what has surprised me most during this Mediation period of my professional life is how good negotiation skills are also needed in every other period of a love relationship (and in other relationships). Relationships are a series of social contracts. What were the relationship contracts that were agreed to prior to the first date? What was the second date contract? Was there an exclusive “going steady” agreement? The contract for living together? For the division of labor in the house? For making babies? Couples have an endless list of social contracts, and they all start in the same place.
Every contract starts with the parties’ expectations. Romantically, we might talk about dreams and desires – the way we were thinking or hoping this might turn out. We have all been planning these relationship events since we were about five years old and wanted to marry the cute six year old neighbor. So at the moment leading up to the creation of this contract, the two parties have somewhere between 15 and 50 years of detailed plans about what they want in this moment. Yet they often don’t share that plan with the other party. Perhaps worse, they don’t take the time to find out what is in the other person’s list of expectations. If you want to be in a sustainable and contract worthy relationship, that’s the information you need. Yet we often don’t share or we don’t ask until the contract is in place and we discover it’s not well designed. This wide spread phenomenon interests a mediation guy like me.
Now, I understand that the guy who discusses his future child’s nutritional plan on the first date doesn’t get a second date, but I do think we would benefit from increasing our negotiation skills. I would still place Negotiation Skills as a required course in every High School. In Chapter One, everyone would learn how to identify their own interests and how to express those interests to people who matter to you. Then we could study how to inquire about another’s interest and what questions to ask to give you the best data. Sometime mid-semester we would learn what our best choices are when we find that my interests and your interests don’t match. We would learn when to listen quietly and how to affirm the other. We would practice letting go of small conflicts and learn how to keep moving forward when feelings are high and agreement is important.
All of these skills are Big Important Stuff, but this week, let’s practice skill #1. This week, it all comes down to one small contract: What makes for the best Valentines Day ever? I say small, but relationships have been both crushed and heroically enshrined over the outcome. You won’t know if you don’t have the conversation. It’s the first skill of negotiation – finding out what the other person values. How do they describe it? How is it measured? What is it that makes it important to them? Is it the percentage of the dark chocolate? Is it the surprise? Or does she hate surprises? The dinner I made you or the reservation I had to so carefully plot back in December? (Sorry to bring that up if that is true, because it’s too late). Maybe I don’t care about Valentines Day and am only in the game for Half Price Chocolate Day on February 15! He might want flowers at work or maybe she’s just waiting for those sweet whispered words, “I’ll wash the dishes and get the kids ready for bed, if you want to just relax and watch the show…”
Jake Jacobson is a Mediator and one of the couple’s counselors at CCD Counseling.