Collaboration vs. Control in Partnerships
Updated: May 15
Two people trying to make a decision together in a collaborative way can be challenging. It might be stressful for either person or both to take a stance on an issue or to formulate their own opinion. It can be especially challenging to collaborate with a partner if one partner tends to try to make the other person feel badly or to back them down for not agreeing with them.
Let’s consider why people become agreeable to their partner’s wants vs. collaborating with them.
I worked with a married woman with young children who struggled to make decisions with her husband. Her husband decided where they lived, how they spent their money, and how they spent their time together. The wife avoided participating in the decision-making process. She would busy herself with their kids or say that she “trusted” her husband to make the “right” decisions.
Understanding the “Why” of Giving Away Control
When exploring the wife’s behaviors in therapy, she came to realize that she felt worried about making the “wrong” decisions or one that she thought her husband might not like. She wanted to please him, which she believed meant giving him his way. My client recognized that the dynamic that she had with her husband was like the one that she had with her mom growing up. She was used to going along with what her mom wanted and getting praised for it. It felt validating and she liked being seen as “good”.
My client recognized that going along with others’ decisions removed her worry about disappointing them or being at fault for the outcome of her choices. It also removed the work of her having to formulate her own opinions. She sometimes felt her husband’s approval when she agreed with him, which felt validating. She reassured herself that she was being “nice”, rather than avoidant. She was able to get away with her avoidance by stroking her husband’s ego and saying “I trust you” and “you know what is best.”
While it is not necessarily a problem to allow our partner to have things their way at times, we could deceive ourselves into thinking that we are a "good" partner by deferring to them. The reality might be that we don’t want to face the discomfort of being our own person in our relationship and potentially being judged by our partner.
The Impact on Our Relationships
At times, my client’s husband liked making the decisions for the family and having things his way. However, it became burdensome to him to make all the big decisions for their family. The wife and the husband were both resentful towards each other at times over their dynamic, and it hurt their connection with one another. The couple missed a chance to understand each other’s views and ideas. They missed the chance to grow from the experiences of both having and letting go of control.
Confronting our Emotional Avoidance
Fortunately, my client was willing to see her emotional avoidance and she started to confront herself. She redefined what it meant to be a good partner, which no longer meant always agreeing with her husband (despite his potential frustration for her differing opinions) to keep the peace or to make him “happy”. She started to formulate her own opinions (which evolved over time through trial and error) and she learned to soothe her own anxiety enough to speak up.
Although her husband didn’t always like not getting his way, he came to respect his wife more, and she respected herself more. He appreciated her support in the decision-making process. He knew her better because she shared her values and opinions with him. It challenged him to grow and to let go of some control (his self-worth was tied up in being the decision maker and leader of the family). In turn, he earned more respect from his wife and himself for working with his partner.
Checking in with Ourselves
We can check in with ourselves to discover our true motives for "going along" with things and not taking a stance or having opinions for ourselves. Like my client, we might make excuses for ourselves to avoid the discomfort of not agreeing with our partners. We might realize that we don’t want to be wrong, to be blamed, or to be seen as a bad partner.
Skills We Need to Collaborate with Our Partners
The ability to soothe our own anxieties and make space for our voice and our partner’s voice
Our own definition of what it means to be a good partner
The ability to express our views and self-validate
Tolerating and dealing appropriately with our partner’s feelings and reactions to our opinions
Collaboration can Strengthen Relationships
Ultimately, we can create a more authentic and deeper connection with our partner when we show up and take our own shape. We don’t have to have an opinion on everything, nor do we have to be involved in every decision with our partner. We do have to deal with our emotional avoidance to have a collaborative and meaningful partnership. When we participate more fully in our relationships, we can gain more self-confidence and more respect from ourselves and from others.