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The Communication Skill We Need To Talk More About

Communication difficulties are the number one concern couples say they have about their relationship. It makes sense, because communication is the foundation for everything else! Poor communication makes any problem so much worse, and good communication offers a buffer for even very difficult disagreements.

One area of communication that I wish received more attention is how to respectfully negotiate with your partner. Very often, partners see asking for something or being asked for something as a binary. I ask, my partner says yes or no. My partner asks, I say yes or no. In reality, there is so much nuance in your options responding to a request and also the way the conversation plays out.

How To Negotiate Effectively

Negotiation in an intimate relationship is not the same as negotiating for a job or salary. You want your negotiation process to leave your partner feeling good about you and the relationship. Getting what you want is not the only priority.

Effective negotiation usually involves:

  1. A partial yes - although you aren't able to say yes to everything your partner is asking for, you want to indicate that you are on board with some of what they're requesting.

  2. A suggestion (or several suggestions) for what might work better for you.

  3. Offering your partner space to accept your suggestion or offer an alternative.

In practice, this might look like:

Your partner comes home from work and is super tired and doesn't feel like cooking dinner, even though it's their night to cook. You're also pretty exhausted and had really been looking forward to relaxing rather than cooking.

They say: "Hey, I know I agreed to cook, but I just don't have it in me. Can you handle the recipe we had planned for tonight?"

You respond: "Ah, I totally get not wanting to cook. I was really looking forward to not being the one to cook tonight, though. Would you be open to takeout?"

They counter: "Neither of us want to cook! I don't feel like takeout but I'd be down to go eat at that Thai place we've been meaning to try." Great - you negotiated to a place you can both feel okay about.

More Complex Negotiation

Of course, this example is very light and might be pretty easy to negotiate. In contrast some topics where negotiation is likely trickier include things like whether or not to raise your children in a particular religion, how often to see your parents, what type of agreements about monogamy you have in your relationship, how much time you spend together as a couple, or where to live. Negotiation is not necessarily a one conversation process, and in fact couples can stay in active negotiation for months at a time. For very complex topics, it's helpful to create containment around the negotiation so that it doesn't bleed into every day life. This often sounds like "I know we're not done talking, and we haven't yet found a solution we both feel good about. I believe we'll get there, though! Let's talk about this again tomorrow [or next week, or next month, depending on the situation].

Negotiation Is About Getting More Of What You (Both) Want

Some people have an aversion to the idea of negotiation because it implies that you can't simply make an ask and receive it from your partner. Many folks see asking for something and having that request met without resistance as a powerful experience of being loved. It can help to reframe negotiation as a process that will lead to you getting more of what you want, not less. You can also let your partner know that it means a lot to you when they can say yes without reservations - and then ask them for things that they can easily say yes to! This builds up currency in your relationship where you believe they want to say yes to your requests when they can, and where they believe you make reasonable requests of them they can meet.

Negotiation Isn't Coercion

As a final reminder, negotiation is not coercion. It's okay to have firm nos in your relationship, and they should be respected. This can especially come up around sex. In a respectful, safe relationship, it is very healthy to negotiate around sex. You might be in the mood for some intimacy, and your partner is on the fence. It is not coercive to offer a variety of options and see if you come to a shared sense of interest. It IS coercive to hear your partner say no to an activity and then repeatedly request that same activity or put pressure on them to say yes.

Notice the difference:

"I know you're not in the mood for sex, would you be down to just kiss for a bit?"


"Come on, I know you'll enjoy it once we get going."

The first is not coercive. It offers an alternative, and your partner has the option of saying no or suggesting a different alternative. The second is coercive. It rejects the no and doubles down on the ask.

Although learning to negotiate with your partner can take practice, it can be a real game changer in actually feeling good about the decisions you and your partner come to.

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