By Terry Gaspard, LICSW
During a recent couples counseling session, Melissa, 48, and Tom, 52, describe the gridlock that they experience when they are unable to compromise. They’ve been remarried for five years and often struggle with influencing each other in a positive way when they’re making decisions. While this dynamic causes them a lot of unhappiness, they both feel stuck.
Tom puts it like this: “I told Melissa that I was angry at her for planning a vacation in July with her two kids without consulting me, but she seemed unconcerned and unwilling to discuss it. In my defense, I can’t take a vacation this summer because I’m starting a new job. I just don’t feel like I have a say in this relationship. Why can’t we delay the vacation until the fall?”
Melissa responds, “I knew it would be a challenge to plan vacations with Tom because he’s always working and puts work before me. But with COVID, I haven’t been anywhere special in two years. So, I’m going with or without Tom.”
While this couple may both have valid reasons for holding tight with their perspectives, they are not open to allowing their partner to influence them. Instead, they’ve dug their heels in and maintained an attitude of self-righteousness which is detrimental to their remarriage.
Like many couples, Melissa and Tom seem to believe that they have to agree completely with their partner to accept influence. However, by listening and validating their perspective, it actually means that they’re important to you and you value their opinion, even if you don’t agree with them.
Accepting influence from your partner when it comes to decision-making puts you in a much better position to compromise and to develop shared goals. According to Sinead Smyth, it also lessens the chance that you will develop power struggles or what some couples describe as a “tug of war.”
Accepting Influence from Your Partner and Sharing Power
In a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, Nicole Schiener writes about her personal and professional experience regarding Dr. John Gottman’s “accepting influence,” which is one of Gottman’s Four Steps of Constructive Problem Solving.
The concept of accepting influence was the subject of an important study conducted by Dr. Gottman’s and is essentially the idea of power sharing in a relationship. That is, when it comes to issues of respect and power — and decision-making — partners who accept each other’s influence are more likely to avoid conflict and have happy, fulfilling relationships.
In Dr. Gottman’s 12 Year Study, he found that “even in the first few months of marriage, men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages, and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives ’influence.
Statistically speaking, Gottman found that when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.” Given traditional gender roles and ideas society has conditioned us to adopt around male/female power dynamics, men often find accepting influence more difficult. But it’s certainly true that both men and women struggle with — and can benefit from — a conscious commitment to accepting influence.
Schiener unpacks the difficulties and mechanics of accepting influence in her article. She begins by quoting Dr. Gottman, who advises that you “find out your partner’s subjective reality and validate it.” But, as Schiener points out, that can “be easier said than done.”
Many couples confuse the concept of accepting influence with “losing,” a mentality reflective of the way in which partners in a troubled relationship view issues big and small as an opportunity to win or lose. Schiener writes that this “all-or-nothing mindset can make it hard to stay present without getting defensive or arguing your own point of view.”
Avoiding Resentment and Burnout
Further, a failure to accept influence can also create “resentment and burnout from unequal division of work.” Truth be told, when a partner can’t or won’t accept influence, they shoulder an inordinate burden in the relationship.
For instance, when Melissa expresses her anger and resentment about Tom choosing his career over her, she’s not allowing his decision to change jobs influence her vacation plans. Her resentment is like a poison that has a negative effect on her marriage. She’s stuck in “all-or-nothing mindset” and believes that Tom’s new job is more important than her, without considering that with a higher salary, it could benefit their entire stepfamily. They could actually afford to get more help with child-care and have more enjoyable vacations.
In other words, by compromising and vacationing in the fall instead of the summer, it might be a win-win solution for Melissa and Tom because they’ll have more money to travel. And she can still have a say in the vacation plans (location, dates, accommodations, etc.)
In trying to provide tools for couples who have difficulty in this area, Schiener notes that accepting influence “doesn’t mean you go along with everything your partner says, but rather are open to seeing things from their perspective.” Indeed, it “actually leads to a win/win or shared power” dynamic and “helps partners get out of power struggles.”
When discussing how to put the concept of accepting influence into action, Schierner draws on personal experiences from her own marriage that are relatable to many couples. When Schiener decided to give up alcohol, she details how her husband supported her by following suit. He accepted her influence and ceded a degree of power and control in his life and relationship. The result was that they were in it together, and his ability to accept influence “brought [them] closer together.”
This insight into accepting influence can be applied across numerous aspects of one’s life and relationship. From parenting to professional pursuits, the empathy engendered by accepting influence from the people close to you fosters a sense of support and validation. In the end, accepting influence is perhaps best summed up by Hermann Hesse, who wrote that “some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”
Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on this website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020 and is the winner of American Book Fest’s 2020 Best Book Award in Self-Help Relationships.