American marriages, danger ahead

By and large, Americans practice a certain type of decision making in their marriages which we might call the equal partners model. The idea is that justice requires that the husband and wife each have one vote. In this model, decision making is easy when the husband and wife agree. When they disagree, they are expected to talk it over and arrive at an agreement. I submit that this model is a trap and should have a sign posted in front of it that says something like, “DANGER – BRIDGE OUT AHEAD.”

In the equal partners model, with two voting members, you either have unanimity or you have impasse. Marriages don’t function well under gridlock conditions. It isn’t really a viable option to forego deciding what’s for dinner, or whether to visit the in-laws this weekend. Something is going to be done, the question is what. That’s where the equal partners model sets husband against wife, as adversaries.

The theory is that husband and wife will talk things over and the right decision will reveal itself. Sometimes that does happen, like when one partner has crucial information the other lacks. One quick comment and the issue is resolved. But often there are disagreements based on judgment or preference. These kinds of disagreement do not resolve quickly by discussion.


This model pits husband and wife against each other like political rivals. Equal partner marriages function like a congress of two. Impasse means that each party takes up their own cause, arguing for their own side, hoping to persuade the other spouse and thus win the issue.

The equal partner model is an adversarial system in the same sense that the American legal system is adversarial. In our legal system, one person is the prosecutor and another person is the defense attorney. These two people are not enemies outside of the court room. They may even be good friends. But inside the court room, during this particular trial, they are adversaries. This system attempts to provide justice by having one person work as hard as possible for a conviction while another person works as hard as possible for an acquittal. In the equal partner marriage, you argue your own case, or you lose.

Ostensibly, differences of opinion, when they are not resolved by information sharing, or preordained areas of responsibility, are settled by who feels more deeply about it. This is thought to be the natural consequence of showing consideration for the other spouse. After all, there’s no sense in her enduring a crushing disappointment to save him from a mild inconvenience. But the seedy underbelly to this arrangement is that each person knows that they might get their own way if they just want it a little more. This turns differences of opinion into a dangerous game of relationship chicken. Each side is incentivized to escalate and exaggerate. Just a little more emotion might put you over the top, and then you win.

I’m convinced that spouses play these games more often than they know. The equal-partner model leads husbands and wives, as if by an invisible hand, into conflict and stress. The incentives drive behavior, and in this case they drive destructive behavior. Although we give lip service to partnership, the marriage instead becomes an ongoing negotiation, with each spouse representing their own interests. Such negotiation is not unity in any sense, and it is guaranteed not to feel like being partners.

It is also not a model that readily permits showing generosity to one’s spouse. If the facts require we implement his plan, she is not being giving to acknowledge it, she has been set straight. If her reasoning is solid and his is faulty, he isn’t being kind, he is just admitting he was wrong. Likewise, when he lets her have her way because it matters more to her, he isn’t being generous, but merely reasonable.

If there’s one thing sure to generate warm feelings towards your spouse, it’s the sense that you always receive your due, once you’ve proven it’s rightfully yours, beyond a reasonable doubt. Good grief.


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