A few disclaimers: I’m not married, have not personally tested this theory and I wrote this for a law school negotiation class. But I loved the book Getting to Yes, I had fun writing the paper, and I hope you’ll take it in the tongue and cheek manner I intended. I apologize for the odd citations but the blog system won’t seem to recognize footnotes (and in case you care, I got an A-). So here’s my advice for you girls in those dreary three or four year relationships waiting for your boyfriend to finally give in and get engaged:
For thousands of years, men and women both wanted marriage equally. Men wanted to have sex and women needed a partner and the only way to make these things happen was to get married. In recent years though, these incentives have changed, especially for men as most men do not need to wait for marriage to have sex. Many women find themselves in relationships with the man of their dreams whose worst nightmare happens to be marriage. Relationships break down when parties without even realizing it, engage in positional bargaining. Instead, a woman who finds her partner reluctant to marry should enter into a principled negotiation with these men to get to marriage. Principled bargaining is the best way to take a stalled relationship and get to marriage while keeping a healthy relationship intact.
In Getting to Yes, Professors Fisher and Ury lay out their case for using principled negotiation in any situation (Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes, Negotiation Agreement Without Giving In, (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).). If applied step-by-step to a negotiation about marriage between a couple, a woman will be able to achieve the marriage she so desires. The first step in principled negotiation is to stop engaging in positional bargaining. Negotiating by simply fighting over positions endangers relationships (Ibid). The classic example of positional bargaining in a relationship is a man and woman arguing about when they will get married. The woman wants a ring on her finger now. The man wants a ring on his finger never. As the couple argues, the girlfriend casually inserts time references such as “if we’re engaged by next summer, we’ll be able to…” or “after the bar, Ill have more time to plan a wedding” or some variation thereof. This is the absolute worst way a woman could go about attempting to get married. This turns her into a consistent annoyance, which is one of the most toxic behaviors in a relationship. This also puts pressure on the man – instead of the proposal being something that the man decides he wants and plans for, the proposal becomes a sign of his acquiescence to his girlfriend. Furthermore, as time goes on and the positional bargaining continues just with shifting time tables, the man might feel no consequence for his refusal to concede and so he might ignore the negotiation completely because the relationship simply continues. Or worse, he might begin to resent his girlfriend for nagging him all the time and the mere subject could poison the relationship. Either way, this type of positional bargaining is detrimental to the couple’s relationship.
Not only does positional bargaining damage relationships, it can produce an unwise agreement (Fisher). In the short term, the woman’s goal is to get married. But really this desire serves a larger interest that the woman has for family, stability and a happy marriage. Although positional bargaining may work for some girls in the sense that they might get married as a result, these girls may end up getting married to a man they would have been better off leaving. If the focus is simply on when the marriage will take place, the woman may stop asking herself if this is the right partner for her. The woman might stop evaluating her boyfriend’s behavior and miss the signs that he is not meant for her. Likewise, the couple might get married too soon and ignore the fact that the man might have legitimate reasons for waiting, like dealing with issues of his childhood, or financial concerns such as debt.
However, if a woman who wants to get married uses the method of principled negotiation, she will be able to achieve her goals without encountering the dangerous consequences of positional bargaining. The first step in principled negotiation is to separate the people from the problem (Fisher). This is especially hard in a romantic relationship but it is very much still applicable. If the relationship is a strong healthy stable relationship and truly the only issue between the couple is when to get married, then the issue is completely solvable. Yet still, if the woman brings up the issue only in an argument, she’s poisoning the subject. There is no reason this issue should be negotiated in bed or when her boyfriend is tired and hungry. Paying attention to these people factors acknowledges that the needs of people cannot be ignored in negotiation. If the man reacts irritably or short, these reactions may be less a reflection on his opinion of marriage and more a reflection of the kind of day he had. If the woman interprets these moods to be a reflection of his feelings on the subject of marriage, she may grossly overestimate how much her boyfriend does not want to get married. If instead, the woman is sensitive to the circumstances that surround the negotiation, she has a much better chance of getting her “Prince Charming” to commit.
One of the worst examples of how a woman is unable to separate the person from the problem is if she refuses to have sex because she is not getting her way. If the woman withholds sex until she gets what she wants, this is akin to negotiating with dirty tactics, which creates a whole host of other issues. Instead of nurturing her relationship with her boyfriend, she has decided to punish the man she most loves for having interests different from her own. Conversely, if she allows sex to continue as a part of her relationship as she should, she will be able to separate out the issue of marriage and she is much more likely to cultivate a happy relationship which is more likely to lead to a happy ending.
Finally, because the relationship between a man and woman in a romantic relationship is so intimate, the woman may enter into positional bargaining without even realizing it. This often results in her boyfriend perceiving something completely anathema to what she wants to communicate. Understanding what the other side is thinking in negotiation is not just useful but his/her thinking actually is the problem (Fisher). By subtly bringing up the woman’s position or dropping hints, the woman reinforces her position over and over. She may say “I’ve always wanted to be married by the time I was thirty” or “my mother will never let up if my sister gets married before I do.” While this may not sound like the traditional words of positional bargaining such as “I’ll sell it for 100,” in the context of a relationship, these words have the same effect. The words are reaffirming the woman’s timetable, which will be clearly understood by her boyfriend. For example after a hint is dropped, instead of him hearing something along the lines of I love you so much, I want my family to celebrate how much I want to spend the rest of my life with you, the man is hearing words that simply communicate I need a ring by Christmas of this year. Furthermore, he probably hears some variation of these words all the time so instead of focusing the man on why he wants to buy anything at all, some annoying hawker is shouting a number in his face all the time. Who wants to propose to that? The woman needs to put herself in her boyfriend’s shoes; she needs to think about his underlying fears and then ask herself how she would perceive the constant marriage comments if she was on the receiving end of them. The most important first step the woman must make in her attempt to use distributive bargaining is to separate her boyfriend from the problem.
Another step in separating your boyfriend from the issue of marriage is don’t deduce his intentions from your fears. This is another damaging mistake girls make in a relationship. After being in a relationship for a few years, a girl who has not received the proposal she was expecting, begins to blame herself by assuming his reasons are her worst fears. The woman thinks her boyfriend’s not proposing because she’s not good enough, or not skinny enough, or spends too much time at her job. Then she begins to resent her boyfriend for holding these things against her. The truth is, most men are not thinking about any thing remotely close to these self-flagellations; after a certain length of time, most men who have not proposed have legitimate fears and reasons for not popping the question yet. Assuming that your worst fears are fueling your boyfriend’s decision is dooming the relationship. This is why communication or the lack thereof is such an important tactic for employing the step of separating the people from the problem. If a woman reacts depressed and distant but is unable to bring up any of the reasons to her boyfriend, she is again damaging her relationship. Communicating that she wants a family one-day and that she worries about whether or not she is on that path is not the same thing as nagging someone to propose. Only if the woman communicates what she wants and the man communicates what he fears, can the two move forward and actually address the issue of marriage.
Fisher and Ury acknowledge that another danger of positional bargaining is “people will continue to hold out not because the proposal on the table is inherently unacceptable, but simply because they want to avoid the feeling…of backing down to the other side” (Fisher at 29). No woman should insist on a marriage date, simply to save face. Yet, this becomes a real problem if a woman has put down a firm timetable, such as needing to be married before a certain age. If her boyfriend has a legitimate reason for needing to wait a year or two, such as financial constraints or job changes, the woman has locked herself into a bad position. To stay in the relationship she has to admit that her timetable was arbitrary and that the deadline was meaningless or to save face she has unreasonably ignore the interests of the person she loves. Saving face has no place in the sacred relationship between two lovers and a good reason for rejecting positional bargaining.
In negotiating to marriage, another important part of separating the people is acknowledging the emotions of both parties. Nowhere are emotions more heated than in a romantic relationship and this leads to both an over abundance and an undersupply of emotion at the same time. The over abundance of emotion is present because both parties feel so comfortable with each other, they show all the highs and lows of their emotions which at times may not be rational; a woman sobbing hysterically about the lack of a rock on her finger to show off is not an appropriate sharing of emotion. And yet at the same time, if a man truly fears that marriage will lead to the type of debilitating relationship his parents had and yet says nothing, he is guilty of withholding some emotion that needs to be shared. There are legitimate reasons people fear marriage including childhood traumas, previous divorces, or simply fear of change so appropriately communicating emotion may reveal some important facts.
After recognizing and understanding the emotions at play, Fisher and Ury advise making emotions explicit (Fisher 29-30). For the woman in a relationship, this means carefully and clearly communicating her own emotions to her boyfriend. Telling her boyfriend that she feels a lack of commitment on his part which makes her feel unworthy, is a legitimate way of communicating emotion; simply crying and slamming the door when someone else’s wedding invitation arrives is not. Furthermore, the woman must similarly attempt to recognize the emotions of her boyfriend and validate them. If he admits he is scared about commitment, responding with that’s stupid and cliched is not a validation of his feelings, and plus, it is a flat out rejection of his feelings. Validating his emotions allows him to be understood and a relationship cannot move forward if one party is rejecting the other’s emotions.
Lastly, one of the most important parts of separating the people from the problem on a woman’s way to getting to marriage is to take care of the relationship. Bargaining in this type of situation is unique from many other types of negotiation because the relationship is more important the actual agreement. Without a healthy relationship, there is no reason why a woman should be trying to get married. Therefore, while the process of negotiation is taking place, a woman must constantly be feeding her relationship with what it needs. This means continuing to make gestures of her love and affection and the normal sacrifice and time a relationship takes at any stage. A woman who wants to get married should never lose sight of the fact that the relationship is the most important part of any negotiation.
The next step in Fisher and Ury’s method of principled negotiation is focusing on interests not positions (Fisher). Interests are the underling reasons that a man and woman take a particular position in a disagreement. If a couple’s only problem is that the woman wants to get engaged now and the man wants to get engaged in four years, it seems like these positions are irreconcilable. But if the woman wants to get married now because she wants to know if her boyfriend is committed to her and the man wants to get married in four years because he inherits more money then and will be able to afford a bigger wedding, their interests are not necessarily at odds. Perhaps the woman does not care about a big wedding and the two could elope now, or perhaps the woman will accept a ring now and a wedding in four years. Either way, the real problem is not when the date for the wedding should be. The problem is how to address the woman’s legitimate fears about stability and the man’s legitimate financial fears.
When it comes to a relationship, a man and woman have many interests of which they are probably only aware of some. The woman needs to spend time really identifying her own interests first. Why does she want to get married before she turns thirty? If the answers are simply because her mother told her she has to or because most of her friends belittle her, just recognizing these interests may signal to the woman that her position might be unjustified. If her most important interests are satisfied and her interest to keep up with her friends is the only motivation behind her position on when she wants a ring, perhaps the woman will realize that the position is not really important her and she will simply drop it.
If a woman is in a good relationship, it is likely true that she and her boyfriend share many similar interests. Identifying the many interests that underlie a man and woman’s position on when to get married will likely reveal that both parties’ shared interests include love, stability, family. It is well established that part of what drives human love is the need to procreate. The genetic makeup of men and women have predetermined that both are bound to want children and therefore sex and love. Mostly, both men and women want partners to spend their lives with. Both want stability. If a couple’s interests are diametrically opposed, i.e. she wants kids and he does not, then the date of a marriage is probably the least of their worries. In a good relationship, it is very likely that there will be many shared interests, which is probably part of why the relationship works. Identifying the shared interests by talking about them and validating how many similar things both parties want will build a stronger foundation to discuss the interests that differ.
There is no denying that some couples’ interests regarding marriage will be completely different. If a woman wants the proposal now because she will only feel the stability she needs if married and the man does not want to get married because he still knows he has some sexual wild oats to sow, then the fact is, their interests really do conflict. But rarely are men and women’s interests so firmly in opposition. More often, the man is simply comfortable with the status quo and not in a rush and the woman feels social pressure to be on a schedule and so positions develop that are opposed. But both may have the same interests of family and stability and simply differ on how a wedding relates to those interests. Or the man may not understand why marriage is so important to the woman because she has never explained her interests. Identifying the reasons men and women feel the way they do about marriage is a complicated endeavor. Marriage is a storied fundamental institution in our society and everyone grows up developing opinions about it. Furthermore, the marriages of one’s parents, other family members, friends, and others all become a part of one’s opinion on marriages. It is easy to see why a woman whose parents had a happy marriage might believe in the institution and a man whose parents fought bitterly during their marriage might dread it. Identifying one’s interests in regards to marriage is extremely complicated, but the self-exploration is the only way to enter a principled negotiation that will allow the woman to achieve what she ultimately desires.
Much has been written about how and why men and women communicate differently (Elizabeth Aries, Men and Women Interaction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)). However, when something is clearly communicated it should be widely understood. As a woman, the first step in communication is recognizing that your boyfriend does not need to communicate the same way you do. A woman should concentrate on communicating her own interests clearly by focusing on the truth and explaining the truth of what she wants as simply as she can. She should be specific about what she wants. Instead of saying “I feel like it’s time to take the next step” which is vague and in a non-specific time frame, she should say “my mother had a lot of trouble getting pregnant at thirty-five. I’d like to start having children before then because I’m fearful I might not be able to later in life.” This very specific reason communicates what she wants and why she wants it now. In exchange, she should ask her boyfriend to explain his interests as well. If he has trouble communicating or he answers in a way that is unclear, follow up with questions. Fisher and Ury suggest creating a list. A woman might put herself in her boyfriend’s shoes and write down his interests as she hears them. Then she should show her boyfriend and ask him to correct or add to the list.
Identifying the interests a man has in postponing marriage sounds a lot easier than it actually will be. Uncovering his interests may be a process that takes months. As opposed to a negotiation with a seller who can easily explain why his product is worth more money, a man may not fully understand his own interests regarding marriage and it may take multiple conversations to reveal the truth. In a negotiation over marriage, identifying his interests is the absolute most important step and also the hardest. Men are not as introspective as women (Daphne Rose Kingma, The Men We Never Knew (Emeryville, CA: Conari Press, 1993) 245) and therefore while a woman may clearly understand why she wants to get married immediately, she must not expect her boyfriend to be able to reciprocate immediately. Women must be patient with this step because you are essentially asking your lover to explain his innermost hopes and fears and dreams. This may include long discussions about his own childhood and his relationship with his parents. The girlfriend needs to carefully listen to all of it. Remember, there is not going to be one easy answer in figuring out how to negotiate to marriage. It will be one of the most complicated negotiations a woman ever enters into. She must expect that there will be multiple competing interests and instead of just looking for the right one, she needs to attempt to understand all of them and the interplay between them. She must not expect to hear a magic word and then just figure out what the answer is. She must spend time letting herself marinate in his interests and fears. So only after taking adequate time to really soak up all of the information a man can give about his underlying interests should a girlfriend be ready to move on to the next step.
Focus on the interests of the future. Don’t bring up past ills or wrongs. If your boyfriend finally has a breakthrough and communicates why he wants to wait to get married, don’t remind him that he said a year ago that the two of you would be married by now. Pointing out things your boyfriend has said or done in the past is completely counter-productive to getting a marriage proposal. Woman often feel so justified and so right regarding something that has happened in the past that they feel they have the right to point it out. Each woman will have to decide for herself if these ills are worth bringing up at another time. But as far as using principled negotiation to get to marriage, bringing up the past has no place and no purpose. It is a useless tactic so if your focus is really on getting to marriage, drop those old grudges completely. If you feel you have to say something about a past ill, never do it while discussing marriage. Keep your grievance completely separate.
A woman must be firm about her interests and not her positions. If a woman has said over and over by year four of her relationship she wants to be engaged, she is simply locking herself into a position. On the contrary if a woman does not believe in having kids out of wedlock this is an interest, which she can commit to and still allow her boyfriend flexibility. There are real physiological concerns a woman might have which inform her interests in when she has children. Communicating these concerns and the fact she believes she needs to be married before having children to her boyfriend, will clearly communicate her interests. Her boyfriend will then be able to understand whether or not his own interests allow him to reconcile his timetable with hers. Her boyfriend may be much more understanding of this predicament than of an arbitrary deadline he believes his girlfriend has instituted simply because of peer pressure. The woman should also be aware that her interests might not align with her boyfriend’s interests. If she is religious and firmly believes in marriage before children, she should not negotiate on this point. She should find out whether or not marrying her boyfriend will allow her to serve her own interests.
After truly exhausting the exploration of both parties’ interests, the next step in principled negotiation is what Fisher and Ury call inventing options for mutual gain (Fisher at 56). Simply put, the couple needs to brainstorm. If a woman thinks she knows the answer to how the negotiation should end, she is setting herself up for failure. Both the woman and her boyfriend should make suggestions that address both parties’ interests. One important element in brainstorming is not judging prematurely. If the boyfriend says, “let’s move in together now and wait a few years to get married,” and the woman’s reaction is “no, that’s not good enough,” she is evaluating the options right there and then. This will completely stunt the process of brainstorming. Both parties must refrain from commenting on the options during this process. If one suggestion does not adequately meet an interest, the time to explain how is after all the ideas have been put on the table. Judging suggestions as they arise, creates an atmosphere where the boyfriend begins to censor his suggestions and this will severely limit the amount of options to choose from. Both parties must contribute to the brainstorming. The woman cannot begin and end the negotiation with her ideas. She must be sure to include all of her boyfriend’s suggestions and if he cannot think of any, she must give him time to develop some. If he really loves the woman, he should be able to develop ideas that address the interests of his girlfriend. Inventing options for mutual gain should always be a time for adding to the list and not crossing anything off.
Most women will enter a negotiation with their boyfriend on marriage, assuming that they are splitting a “fixed pie” (Fisher). The fixed pie is the thinking that at the very latest I need to be engaged by X date. Even if she talks about distributive bargaining, in her heart she may think to herself this better lead to an answer that gives me a ring within one year. This is a woman who is not truly engaging in distributive bargaining. The pie must be broadened beyond the timeline the woman is thinking about. She must allow the pie to include what she wants out of life in many facets: love, partnership, children, a house, etc. The time of the proposal is one small slice in the pie of marriage. A woman must truly believe this in order to continue principled negotiation. If she does, she is allowing her life to open up to many possible solutions with the person she loves.
To continue inventing options, try dovetailing interests that are different but not mutually exclusive. For example, if a woman’s most important interest is stability and a man’s most important interest is a fear of monogamy, perhaps an open marriage is a mutually satisfactory solution. According to research published in 1983, between 1.7% to 6% , of married couples participate in an open marriage, depending on how one defines open marriage (Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz American Couples: Money, Work, Sex, (New York: William Morrow and Company 1983)). So in actuality, for millions of couples, this is a viable option for addressing different interests.
While an open marriage may be a little extreme for many couples, there are still plenty of options to solve different issues. If a woman is only worried about the age she begins to have children by, perhaps her boyfriend is willing to try to have children now and deal with marriage later. If the woman simply doubts her boyfriend’s commitment to her, perhaps the two can buy a house together. If the man is dreading the drama of a wedding or fearful of the expense of a wedding, perhaps the two can elope. Or, if the man feels that marriage is a product of a religious institution he does not support, the two could get married in a civil ceremony at a courthouse. If the woman is simply trying to deal with a reproving mother, perhaps the couple can simply agree to tell the mother that they already got married. Or perhaps the couple can simply agree to start a family without ever getting married. The options really are endless. The key is to focus on the underlying interests as opposed to the date of a wedding.
The final step in the method of principal bargaining is using objective criteria to come to agreement. The physiological constraints on child rearing are objective factors that may help guide a man to determine when he wants to start a family. The financial tax benefits of marriage, the ability to receive benefits from a spouse’s employer, estate planning tools, the age of living grandparents are all objective criteria that men and woman should use to find a way to satisfy their interests and find an appropriate time to wed. These objective facts are logical concerns that are easily understood as irrational histrionic whining. Furthermore, without using objective criteria, the tendency is to come to an agreement based on will. In a relationship, deciding an argument based on who is more willful is incredibly detrimental. Being as willful as possible brings out the worst in people. While there times in other types of negotiations where using will is not costly, in a relationship, if you use this tactic to win, you have probably lost something much more valuable: a happy relationship.
One of the most common misperceptions in a negotiation over marriage is a physiological one. It is widely known that women who have children after the age of thirty-five, are much more likely to have a high-risk pregnancy. Fertility problems increase after about age thirty-five, miscarriage rates double, and the older a woman gets, the higher the risk of chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down syndrome (Robert Creasy, Robert Resnik and Jay Iams, Creasy and Resnik’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine: Principles and Practice (WB. Saunders, Philadelphia, PA. 1994)). This means that for women who want to get married before having children, there is a legitimate health reason for focusing on marriage earlier rather than later. Most men however, believe they have all the time in the world and there is no consequence if they wait till they are in their forties to have children. Yet, there is a plethora of emerging research which points to the fact that men over the age of thirty-five who father children are much more likely to produce children with Down syndrome, mental illness such as schizophrenia, and other genetic mutations (Harry Fisch, The Male Biological Clock: The Startling News About Aging, Sexuality, and Fertility in Men (New York: Free Press 2005)). There is a real need to educate men about this research so that everyone understands that the idea of a ticking biological clock is not simply a woman’s problem. Pointing these objective well-supported facts out to a boyfriend will help correct the misperception many men have that there is no consequence for waiting to start a family.
These steps for principled negotiation can be used in every attempt a woman makes to get her boyfriend to propose. However, this does not mean this method will always lead to a proposal. And sometimes, it should not. In order for a woman to protect herself in negotiation, she must develop what Fisher and Ury call her Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) (Fisher at 100). In a relationship where a woman wants marriage, her BATNA is to leave the relationship. While a woman should never bandy about this option casually, she should seriously consider this option and be prepared to take action if need be. This means the woman must truly be willing to leave the relationship if she sees no way for her interests to be met. If a woman knows she wants to get married, and her boyfriend consistently says he never wants to commit to one woman, their interests may prohibit an agreement and in this case the woman should exercise her BATNA and break off the relationship.
To exercise the break-up BATNA, the woman must not just end the relationship with her boyfriend, but truly cut off all communication. If she continues to have a sexual relationship with her boyfriend, then she has not really exercised her BATNA and the boyfriend is not really feeling the consequences of not coming to an agreement. In positional bargaining, when someone exercises his/her BATNA, a Buyer might walk away from a sale and the Seller will truly experience the consequence of not taking the money the Buyer was offering. If the Buyer kept coming back and dropping a few dollars here and there, the Seller is not experiencing the consequence of a true walk-away. Negotiating to get to marriage is exactly the same when it comes to a BATNA. If the woman decides to exercise her BATNA, she must commit to it and exercise it completely. This means no phone calls, text messages, coffee dates to talk things out, and no sex. If she does exercise her BATNA fully, her decision will result in one of two good options. The first is that her boyfriend misses her and finally understands the consequence of his interests. If he decides his interest in loving the girl is more important than his previous interest in putting off marriage, his interests may shift. If this happens, then his interests and the woman’s interests will align and when he contacts her to explain this, the reunion should bring the couple even closer together. The other option is that after the break-up, the boyfriend believes his interest that underlies his position to not get married is more important than his relationship with the woman. In this case, there will be no reunion but the woman is also in a better position than she was before. She can begin to start the grieving process of ending a relationship and move on to finding someone to share her life with who will satisfy her own interests. Satisfying her long term interests is the only way a marriage can work for either party so a relationship that does not satisfy her interests is a waste of time. A compromise to marry when neither party’s interests are met, is only good for divorce lawyers.
Ultimately, everyone’s desire in life is to satisfy their own most basic needs. Recognizing this and understanding what one’s own needs are, is the only way one can make the right decisions to lead to happiness. Using principled negotiation is a method that allows a man and woman to examine what their most fundamental interests in life are and use that information to determine whether or not to share their life together. This method will also allow the parties to coddle their relationship at the same time so that a woman will be able to find out if she can achieve what she wants, without sabotaging her relationship. By nurturing her relationship and sticking with these principles, every woman in a relationship should be able to successfully negotiate her way to a happy life.