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Free marriage counseling: Decision-Making Step-by-Step

This exercise is designed to help you and your partner calmly and respectfully agree on a plan of action or a decision when initially there are opposing points of view.

When you and your partner discuss how to solve a problem or make an important decision, you need to stay calm.

If either of you becomes angry, you need to stop talking and try again to  at a later time learn this skill.

If your partner wants to stop because either of you are becoming angry, don't pursue, complain or ridicule his or her decision to stop talking. Your situation will only worsen if you proceed if one or both of you are angry or very emotional.

If arguing is common when you are learning this relationship skill, you should stop and first master anger management and more basic communication skills. After you have done this, you can then return to this relationship skill and practice it some more.

Although this is a generalization, for many couples it is true — women have more aptitude for talk than men. From a practical point of view, this means you should not spend more than 20 or 30 minutes to problem solve. If you continue past a man's limits, he may become irritable and / or angry. If "the problem" is not solve in the allotted time, agree to continue on another day.

You may want to print this exercise for ease of use. Click the Print Friendly button above. From there you can also format this exercise into a PDF file or email it to a friend. Note: Printing from a computer works best.


Here is what you do when you need to make a decision as a couple to solve a problem or make an important decision:

1. Problem / Situation discussion — define and discuss the problem. For this phase don't make any decision — just share thoughts and feelings using the skills learned in the Constructive Communication exercise.

- Take turns until each feels understood.

- Summarize what your partner says.

- Ask questions until you fully understand your partner’s position.

2. Summarize your partner's point of view. Take a few moments to summarize how you understand what your partner's opinion is on the topic and what he or she wants to happen as a result of your conversation.

If you or your partner are not able to do this. Go back to step #1 and do it over. DO NOT GO ON TO STEP #3 UNLESS YOU EACH UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR PARTNER FEELS, THINKS, AND WANTS.

3. Problem Solution. In this phase, you try to agree on a plan to "solve" the problem.

- Stay on topic. Only discuss the specific issue at hand.

- Agree to disagree if necessary — but look for a practical solution that is acceptable to both of you and can work. TRY TO FIND A SOLUTION THAT INCLUDES AT LEAST SOME OF WHAT YOUR PARTNER WANTS.

If you agree on a solution, you can STOP HERE.

If an agreement does not come quickly, then continue using the following communication tools to try to work-through your disagreement.

4. Brainstorming. Find an acceptable solution you can both agree with.

- Take turns putting forth proposals.

- Be creative. Think out of the box.

- Don't judge your partner's ideas or solutions — just listen to what your partner has to say and after they have finished explaining their ideas, consider if you can accept this proposal. If not, make another proposal yourself or ask if your partner can modify his or her proposal so it would be more agreeable to you.

5. Compromise. If you are finding it difficult agree on a solution or decision that is mutually comfortable, when possible you and your partner should each sacrifice a little of what you want so you can agree on something acceptable to both of you.

- Be flexible.

- Look for a win-win solution.

- It is to your credit to give in to your partner as much as you can. Many problems can be solved if you both take this position. Being kind to your partner is necessary for a good marriage and giving him or her what he or she wants is a wonderful gift of love.

- Once you agree on a "solution," if needed or appropriate, set a time for follow-up. Sometimes trying a solution for a short time to see if it works, or to move forward temporarily while you consider more options, is reasonable and you can then agree to revisit the topic in a few weeks or at another mutually agreed upon future date.

6. Follow-up. Start a step #1 and try to find a more lasting solution if applicable.

- Be honest. Discuss the progress of the previously agreed upon plan.

- Stay calm if it didn’t work out the way you expected or wanted — try to renegotiate.

If you do all of this peacefully and respectfully, then even if you don't get everything you want, this "problem solving" communication can still bring you closer as a couple. Think of it as an act of intimacy.