Love is unconditional; everything else is negotiable.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D.

A burning question in human relationships—at least for those couples that present for counseling—is how to get your partner to do what you want.

We’ve evolved a few tricks over the millennia to be sure, but most are not adaptable to complex modern relationships:

  1. Coercion. (“You’ll lose approval or status or suffer in some way if you don’t do what I want.”)
  2. Manipulation. (“You really want what I want,” so I’ll trick you into it.)
  3. Incentivizing/bartering. (“If you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.”)
  4. Persuasion (“Here’s why you should do what I want—and you know I’m right.”)
  5. Negotiation (“Let’s find a course of action we can both feel more or less okay about.”)

Although choices 1-4 can be successful in some relationships, they will lead to unmitigated disaster in love:

  • Coercion can take the form of criticism, demands (or outright intimidation), and devaluing behavior—or, in its more covert variations, withholding affection, cooperation, and good will. The clear message: You will lose something, or suffer in some way, if you don’t do what I want. The objective of coercive behavior is submission, self-delusions about benign intentions notwithstanding. Those who use coercive behavior assume superior rights, privileges, intelligence, talents, sensitivity, or entitlements, which automatically prompt negative responses from partners, regardless of “the facts” of the request. The unavoidable result of coercion is power struggle, resentment, bitterness, and, eventually, contempt, although both parties are likely to think that they’re just trying to “get their needs met.”
  • Manipulation requires a certain amount of deceit, or, at best, hidden agendas, which undermine the honesty, openness, and trust necessary for the long-term health of an intimate relationship. Remember the old song lyric, “All the while you were stealin’ the love I thought I was givin’.” Those who feel manipulated in love also feel demeaned—not by the requests themselves, which are often trivial, but by the desire of a loved one to manipulate them. (Manipulation and coercion often go together when a relationship suffers from a power imbalance, in which one partner controls the couple’s resources and most of its choices. Manipulation is inevitable when power is not shared equally.)
  • Bartering occurs to some extent in the best of relationships, but it carries a high risk. Employed consistently, bartering almost always leads to score-keeping, resentment, and the classic impasse: “If you loved me you would just do this,” countered by, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do it.” Bartering fails in the long run because there can be no balance sheets in love.
  • Persuasion can be accomplished through reasoning, seduction, coaxing, or pleading. While it may succeed occasionally in intimate relationships, attempts at persuasion too often rise from the same toxic assumptions as coercion—superior rights, privileges, intelligence, talents, sensitivity, or entitlements. With repetition it has similar negative effects: “Here we go again: +
  • You’re right and I’m wrong.”

Negotiation, however, succeeds (or at least never completely fails) because it has built-in respect for both partners. It puts more value on the relationship than on the specific behaviors under negotiation, so that neither partner can lament, “Getting what they want is more important to them than I am!” The goal of negotiation is cooperation. Humans hate to submit, but we like to cooperate, probably because cooperation is necessary for our survival. The “spirit of cooperation,” to which most intimate partners would subscribe (at least in the abstract), is the willing, though not necessarily enthusiastic, support or teamwork.

Cooperation Requires Value

When people feel valued, they tend to cooperate. When they don’t feel valued, they resist what feels to them like submission. If you want cooperation in a relationship, you must show value. (If you want resistance, all you have to do is devalue, criticize, demand, or otherwise show ill-will.) But don’t think about showing value: That can smell of manipulation. Focus instead on feeling value for your partner. This will lower emotional intensity and shrink the subject under negotiation to manageable proportions. Regardless of your stance on any specific behavior, always remember that you are negotiating with someone you love, who is more important to you than whatever request you are making in the moment.


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