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Life's Big Questions: How to Share and Share Alike in Love

A recent Pew Research Center survey delivered the happy news that men and women appear to doing pretty well in sharing decision-making around the home these days. In one time-honored measure of equity -- which partner gets to hold the TV remote -- the poll found that in about a quarter of the relationships, women change the channels; in another quarter, it's the men who man the flicker; and in another quarter, the couple decides together. (You can take the survey yourself here.)

The survey of 1,260 people turned up signs of decision-making equity in four areas ranging from finances to making weekend plans, with many couples reporting they share equally in making decisions about such matters.

But the numbers don't paint an overall picture of perfect parity: in those areas, which also included decisions about big-ticket purchases and television choices, just under a third of couples reported sharing equally in decisions. In 43 percent of the couples, the women took the lead in those decisions; men were in charge in 26 percent of the couples polled.

The results got me thinking about the folks on the other side of those numbers, the ones who AREN'T in charge or sharing equally in decisions. Is there anything those men and women can do to shift the balance of power so they can play a bigger role?

I asked Michael Oberschneider, director of Ashburn Psychological Services in Virginia, and Eileen Dunn, a clinical psychologist practicing in Northwest DC. Both note that the balance of power in a relationship stems from the couple's initial tacit agreement, or "handshake," as Dunn calls it. Inequities can stem from all kinds of situations, Oberschneider says, including the couple's age, religion, culture, even their conservative upbringing. Whatever the root, he says, "The dynamics have likely been in place for many years." His first piece of advice, then, is to "give it a whole lot of time."

So where to start? Here are the experts' tips:

- Speak up: The person who wants things to change "needs to express her thoughts and feelings directly and clearly, albeit respectfully," Oberschneider says.

- Don't Strike When the Iron's Hot: Best to initiate a conversation about making changes at a moment when a decision isn't close at hand, Oberschneider says. "If you have the conversation right when the man wants to sit down and watch the football game and the woman wants to watch Heroes, both will defend their positions, and the one with more power will win out," he says. Better to pick a "non-emotional moment well before the show starts," he says.

- Talk. Then Talk Again: Oberschneider says those calm conversations need to happen over and over, and that their point should be to achieve compromise. "It's not just about winning," he says. "It's about doing the activity together." Going through this process many times may help to "internalize the experience," he explains; then "some real change can occur, and eventually the partner in power may actually initiate the conversation."

- Put it in Writing: Each partner should write down his or her own understanding of the "original handshake," Dunn recommends, "knowing what they know now but remembering it as it was intended then. Then think about and discuss any discrepencies," she suggests.

- Wonder Why it Works: Both partners should take time to think about how the power imbalance "serves them as a unit," Dunn says, "and how the positions of 'More' and 'Less' serve them individually."

- Recognize Your Role: "Sometimes [the weaker party]'s passivity may play a quiet role in letting this inequity unfold," Oberschneider says. That party should "take a look at [him or herself], ask how did the couple get to this point, and try to get some understanding of [his or her] own role in this." In some relationships, he notes, one party allows the other to take on the decision-making power because it just seems easier at the time.

- Make a Trade: "Consider trading places, as literally as possible, for a day a week," suggests Dunn, to allow "each to feel, as much as possible, the reality of the other."

- Offer a "Compliment Sandwich": If you want a bigger say in, say, family finances, try this when you raise the subject with your partner, Oberschneider advises: Acknowledge that the system worked well in the past. Then spill the beans, saying that things have changed for you and that you'd like to join in the decision-making. Finally, pay another compliment, of sorts, he suggests: Tell your partner that you think working together will be good for you as a couple.

- Enlist a Third Party: "The person who doesn't have a lot of power is going to have a very quiet voice on her own," Oberschneider notes. The person with more power may be more receptive to hearing that voice if it plays off a third party, he says. The one seeking change may gently offer the example of another couple, for instance, "pointing out their more equal ways," Oberschneider says.

How's the balance of power in your relationship? Is it different from what you saw in your parents' marriage? Do you expect your kids will be equal partners with their partners?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 1, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Life's Big Questions  
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