Learning to Make Joint Decisions

See also: Negotiation in Personal Relationships

When you have always made your own decisions, it can be difficult to have to consult someone else on a routine basis. But this is what happens when you are in a relationship, especially a long-term one, and particularly when you are living together.

Even relatively small decisions, like whether to go out tonight, what colour to paint the bathroom or the timing and location of a holiday, can be fraught with difficulties if your tastes are very different.

Learning to make joint decisions is an important part of any long-term romantic relationship. While decisions start small, with tonight’s supper, they get bigger, through the colour of the bathroom to whether to have children, how to manage childcare, and whether to move abroad to support one partner’s career, for example.

Developing a reliable basis for decision-making and discussion will provide a good foundation for a long-lasting relationship.

Ways to Decide

There are two main bases used for making decisions:

  • Reason or logic, where you consciously draw on the facts in front of you, and your previous knowledge, and make a decision using that evidence; and
  • Intuition or ‘gut feeling’, where your decision has to ‘feel right’. Intuition is actually a combination of your previous experience and your values, and is therefore a valuable tool. It is important to remember, however, that your perceptions may play a big part in your feelings, and they may not be accurate.

Perceptions, intuition and reality

Experience and perceptions can play funny tricks on us. For example:

  • You may find that, for no apparent reason, you do not like or trust a particular colleague or acquaintance. You just have a feeling that they may be out to get you.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and you might surface a name connected with that feeling, which has nothing to do with your colleague, but belongs to someone who looked a bit like them. Your intuition, in fact, is leading you astray on this occasion.

On another occasion, however, your intuition may be right, because it is based on a mismatch between body language and verbal communication, or something that you have seen, but not consciously registered.

It pays to examine your intuition, especially if it does not really seem to fit the facts.

It is worth developing an understanding of which method of decision-making you prefer and/or routinely use, because both have their advantages and disadvantages.

In a relationship, it is also worth understanding which your partner prefers.

Mismatches in decision-making technique can cause a problem, especially if reason and intuition come up with different answers.

Resolving disagreements and developing decisions

In a relationship, there is no substitute for talking things through as you try to make a decision. This means both explaining your point of view, and listening to your partner’s ideas.

DO NOT be tempted to just keep repeating your viewpoint.

Instead, explain yourself, and then listen carefully, and think about their opinion. How does it affect your opinion?

For a reminder about how to listen effectively, read our pages on Listening Skills.

One useful option is to go through a defined decision-making process. This may range from the relatively simple (applying first reason then intuition) or the more complex, such as a formal decision-making framework.

Top Tip! Applying Reason AND Intuition

One way to improve your joint decision-making is to sit down together and apply both reason and intuition to the problem.

  1. Start by going through the facts together. Which way do they point? Is there an obvious answer, or is the decision more nuanced than that?
  2. Once you have reached a logical ‘answer’, or a point when you know that there is no obvious answer, check with your intuition. What does that tell you to do? Ask yourself why, and be prepared to examine what is behind that feeling.
  3. If there is still disagreement, then you may need to compromise, and try to reach a mid-point that you are both prepared to accept.

A more complex structure, which may be particularly helpful if you have been struggling to make decisions together for a while, is a framework like our Decision-Making Framework. This provides a step-by-step process for making decisions. It is quite formal, but working through a process is a good way of making sure that you have thought of everything, and will help you both be more comfortable with the result.

Finally, if you are still unable to decide, the default answer is usually to go with the status quo.

This is particularly important for major decisions like moving house, getting married, having children and so on. This may feel uncomfortable, especially if you were the partner who wanted to make the change, but you have to recognise that you cannot force someone else to accept a decision like that.

A question of values?

It can be very difficult if you find that the two of you want very different things.

For example, if one of you wants to get married or have children, and the other one feels that they are not ready or will never wish to do so, it can feel like the basis of your relationship is being challenged.

In the last analysis, this may force you to make other decisions, about whether you want the relationship to continue, or if other things are more important.

You may find it helpful to read our page on Difficult Conversations in Relationships, and Breaking Up if this applies to you.

Guide to Personal and Romantic Relationships

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide Personal and Romantic Relationships

Personal and romantic relationships can be difficult to navigate.

Even those who are highly skilled at personal interactions at work can struggle to translate these skills to their home environment. This book is designed to help you do just that: to take your existing interpersonal skills, understand them better, and use them effectively in your personal relationships.

Decisions, Persuasion and Negotiation

At what point does a joint decision morph into a negotiation and/or a matter of persuasion? The three are very closely linked, and may even be a matter of perception.

One person’s joint decision may well be another person’s negotiation.

See about page on persuasion and negotiation in relationships for more about this subject.

It does not really matter what you call it. The point is to find a way to make your decisions together, whether through a process of negotiation, or by using the same decision-making framework.

After all, you both need to buy into them, so they do need to be made together, if you are to develop the basis for a long-term relationship.