This is part three of my mini-series that began on Sunday on how to tell if you’re correctly using my three favorite techniques for a happier marriage:
- Assume Love
- Expect Love
- Find Third Alternatives
Today we look at Find Third Alternatives. This is a very handy technique when a disagreement puts you on the defensive or when you still want what you have decided you cannot really expect your spouse to provide.
A Third Alternative is one you each like as much as or even more than your initial proposal, the one your spouse argued against. One of you might like the cap put back on the toothpaste immediately after squeezing out the toothpaste. The other may insist no cap is needed or wanted. This tiny difference of opinion provides enough content for a full semester of debating class exercises.
If you want to see a bigger, more distressing disagreement, try on “we said we would start a family when we turned 30” vs “we did, but I have changed my mind about having kids.”
You get a difference of opinion (and hurt feelings, resentment, criticism) because the two proposals, as stated, contradict each other. Third Alternatives are possible because those statements are usually shorthand for something else, and the two of you have filled in the details differently.
If “put the cap back on” is shorthand for “keep the germs out of my toothpaste and don’t let it dry out because I can’t stand clumpy toothpaste,” then it is not actually incompatible with “the cap is not needed.” There is no reason the cap that’s left off needs to be on the same tube as the germ-free, ever-fresh tube. And no reason why a cap is needed if the toothpaste inside is protected another way.
But if “put the cap back on” is shorthand for “when my home is not neat and orderly, it raises my anxiety level,” then it’s still not incompatible, but the solution cannot be a capless tube out on the sink. It has to go in a drawer. Toothbrushes with toothpaste stored in the handle would be fine here, too, but not for someone looking to keep out germs and prevent drying.
So the first step to Find Third Alternatives is to jump the net. Agree that you want your spouse to have whatever his or her proposal is shorthand for, just not in the manner proposed.
The next is to create specs for what your everyone-is-pleased alternative needs to accomplish. Start with the “I wants” and then the “But I want to avoids” for one of you. Then do it for the other. Make that shorthand clear.
Do you really want no children? Or is it that you want to avoid becoming a single parent if your spouse dies or leaves? Or maybe that you want to avoid diapers; an older child would be fine? Or you still want to see the world? Or perhaps you want to avoid having a wife who is smoking and doing drugs carry your child?
For the other spouse, do you want to avoid having kids still in high school past a certain age? Do you want to avoid some of the birth defects whose rates go up with the years? Do you want your own children or might you be happy as a foster parent, overnight group home parent, or adoptive parent of an older child? Do you need to share the diapering? Is so, do you need to share it with your spouse?
There should be four boxes on your page of specs: A wants, A wants to avoid, B wants, B wants to avoid. If there is still a want that contradicts a want to avoid, dig a little deeper into why it’s wanted, until the conflict is gone.
Now you need to brainstorm together to come up with an option that meets all four sets of wants. Remember that brainstorming is mistake-filled, off-the-wall, and never, ever met with criticism. When you finish, check the list of ideas against the specs and cross off any that don’t match. If you find one you just don’t like, even though it matches, figure out what “want to avoid” is missing from your specs.
If none match the specs, set a time to take another stab at it on another day. This time, get crazier, with ideas like hiring someone to dispense toothpaste twice a day or carving a toothpaste plug in the shape of a heart.
When you run out of ideas, ask other people, especially people who have been married a long time and people who work in the area you’re dealing with (for the toothpaste, a biologist, someone who designs packaging, someone who works in disease control, someone in toothpaste manufacturing).
Instead of getting upset when your spouse does not do as you expect, you can use the Find Third Alternatives technique to get help figuring out how else you might get what you want. You start by listing what you expected. Now ask what’s in it for you? What is it you actually want?
For example, if you expect your spouse to want to spend New Year’s Eve with your parents, why? What do you get from it? A certain image for your siblings or Aunt Ida or your parents’ friends? Someone to endure a difficult event with? Or someone to have fun with who will be safe to kiss if you’re drunk at midnight? Or maybe a trip to your hometown on a weekend when other friends are there?
And what part is it that your spouse wants to avoid? Is there any part of it that your spouse wants? Get your specs together and brainstorm, remembering that there are many other people besides your spouse who can help and many ways other than this party to get some of those wants filled.
You know Find Third Alternatives is working when you discover one of your brainstormed ideas actually matches all the specs, and you can give your spouse what she or he wants while getting what you want. But you also know it’s working when you are coming together to look for a solution instead of pulling apart out of fear you will have to make do without what you want, even if it takes a long time to find your Third Alternative.
Find Third Alternatives is not working if you find yourselves compromising more than once in a blue moon. Compromise means accepting disappointment but requiring as a condition that your best beloved be hit with just as much disappointment. Third Alternatives bring each of you at least as much pleasure as getting what you originally proposed or asked for.