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.