Decision-Making in Relationships: Knowing When to Give In or Dig In

A couple embraces beneath a Christmas tree.Jonathan and Michelle came into my consulting office looking for someone to help them make a decision about Thanksgiving with Jonathan’s parents. Jonathan said Thanksgiving was his mother’s favorite holiday. After dinner, she would drive the men out of her kitchen, and they would then watch the game while she cleaned up. When Jonathan and Michelle were married two years ago, Michelle was brought into the family fold and treated by his parents as one of the children. She loved Jonathan’s parents but was taken back when his mother expected her to participate in the preparation and clean up while the boys watched football. Though Michelle wanted to relax and watch the game, too, she decided to go along with Jonathan’s family tradition the first two years. This resulted in her feeling resentful toward both him and his family.

In our sessions, I encouraged them to consider three components of decision-making in relationships. Being mindful of these elements can help you know when to give in and when to persevere.

The three aspects of a relationship that good decision-makers keep in mind are:

  1. The value of the relationship (in this case, the in-laws and the marriage)
  2. The importance of the issue at hand (in this case, how to handle the clean-up and watch the football game)
  3. Personal integrity (in this case, Michelle’s resentment)

Good decision-makers weigh these three values when they have difficulty deciding whether to give in or dig in. If the relationship is the most important element, for example, you might consider compromising or giving in. On the other hand, if the issue at hand is the most important, then stick with your side of the argument and present the importance of the issue. You may decide to compromise if the other person presents reasonable data. The third aspect, integrity, involves deciding how much of your honor is at stake. If going along with the other person means you have crossed your own line for honesty and you feel your personal reputation is at stake, you are less likely to compromise or give in.

What should Michelle do? Her marriage is important, as is her relationship with her mother-in-law. However, she also wants to relax and enjoy Thanksgiving. She has no investment in winning this argument and does not see this situation as having anything to do with her honor. It came down to relationships versus rest for her. Michelle decided to press for compromise—both from her husband and her mother-in-law. She said she would like him to help the two women for part of the cooking or clean-up so she could finish up in time for the game.

When Michelle focused on the things that were most important to her, her attitude opened, enabling her to compromise and to assert and validate her needs.

Jonathan said he didn’t care so much about the issue and did not feel his integrity was on the line. He did care about his relationships with Michelle and his mother. Just like Michelle, he could more clearly decide where to put his energy after examining the three aspects of decision-making in relationships: relationship, issue (content), and integrity.

© Copyright 2009 by By Pamela Lipe, MS, therapist in Saint Paul, Minnesota. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Robin

    July 31st, 2013 at 1:28 AM

    “However, she really wants to relax and not do any work on Thanksgiving.”

    Really? This is framed as if Michelle is being selfish and not wanting to contribute, when what I see is a clear issue of sexist gender roles. I would most certainly not be comfortable with this arrangement were my mother-in-law to suggest it. I would suggest that we all clean up, or that she ask for a couple volunteers (and I might volunteer–the issue is not the clean-up, but the expectation that it is “women’s work”).

  • Lisa S

    April 5th, 2016 at 4:26 PM

    Well. This is the way I go about compromising. However, each situation demands different compromises, if its complicated, how to more forward?

  • Lisa S

    April 5th, 2016 at 4:30 PM

    Hence, in this situation, she may be opening a can of worms so to speak since it’s a family tradition that the men after the meal go to the living room and the women go to the kicthen. There is a reason for that which has nothing to do with the division of labor/chores or women interested in the football.
    Its a time for the women to bond alone and the men to bond alone.

  • Alesia

    July 30th, 2016 at 7:41 PM

    I don’t quite agree with Lisa’s comment on ‘women bonding’ while the do all the work and ‘men bonding’ over leisure. That’s simply unfair. I believe a hostess should not expect the guests to cater the event. On the other hand the guests can offer to pitch in to show appreciation to the hostess. The issue I see here on which the author doesn’t elaborate is that the MIL has ‘accepted’ the DIL as ‘one of her own’, and probably does not have a female offspring, therefore she feels it’s her right to impose her ‘traditions’ on the poor DIL. It’s a shame that the In-laws often feel that their children’s spouses should try tirelessly to please them ( aka – kiss their bums) to earn their place in the family.

    It’s not surprising that (as we learned from Jane Austen’s books), that the patri/matriarch would often have a huge influence on the spouse-selection. The landed gentry man was truly free to make his own choice when he becomes ‘independent’ (aka – inherits the assets and the parents/future-spouse’s in-laws are dead). Till this day, the family (multi-generational) is not a democracy, with freedom and justice for all…

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