While equality in a relationship has a high value, sometimes manifesting equality around certain issues or decisions can feel impossible. For example, who gets to decide whether I take this promotion at work or not? The decision might affect everyone in the relationship but do both really get an equal say about which job one member will take? Another example that I bump into with a certain regularity is how pregnancy and child birth decisions get made. Because I work in a very liberal area, on the one hand, most couples readily agree that the person carrying and birthing the child has decision making control over their own body. However, they don’t always know how to include input from the other partner. In situations like these I teach a couple a tool I call Delegated Decision Making.
3 Ways to Identify the Delegated Decision Maker
One way the delegated decision maker can be identified is by asking who will live with the consequences of the decision most on a day-to-day basis. In the examples listed above, the person who will have to work at the job or the pregnant person is the one most affected by the consequences of the decision.
A second way to identify the delegated decision maker would be to ask who has more expertise in this area. Is one person a certified financial planner? That person might be identified as the delegated decision maker about whether the joint finances can afford to purchase a certain home or not (though that isn’t the same as deciding whether to buy that home if it is affordable). Is one person the stay-at-home parent? That person might be a good delegated decision maker about daily routines and some parenting decisions.
A third way to identify the delegated decision maker is to just decide who that will be. The determination could be as arbitrary as flipping a coin, or it could be more emotionally based as in, “I think you feel more strongly about this than I do so I’ll let you decide.”
The Rights and Responsibilities of the Delegated Decision Maker
The most important thing about being the Delegated Decision Maker is that the person needs to understand that the task is not to make the best decision about the topic at hand. This may seem surprising at first. Especially when I have client who works in science and technology this comes as a surprise. They can be so used to making scientifically informed decisions about relatively closed technological or mechanical systems that when they have the decision making power in relationship, this same style of decision making kicks in.
For the Delegated Decision Maker, the task is to make the best decision for the relationship with all factors considered. This means that in addition to gathering the best information that you can about the topic and identifying theoretically maximized options you also need to understand what the impact of different decisions might be for others in the relationship. For example, though you might love that job how will your partner react to those additional hours of work? Are there ways to mitigate the risks of a negative impact of those hours on your relationship or not? How confident is your partner in those potential mitigating factors?
Once the Delegated Decision Maker has gathered enough information it is now their task to make the decision. The delivery of the decision can be just as important as the process used to come to the decision. For example compare the following ways of delivering the same decision about affording a house:
“Like I told you before, we can’t afford that house.”
“I know you love that house. The kitchen is just like the one you’ve always wanted. I’ve been over the numbers and I tried to find ways for us to afford it because I know how important it is to you. I found that the only way we can afford it is if we both work a lot more and I’m afraid that this would lead to us not being as close and put strains on our relationship. So, I’ve decided that we can’t afford that house. Would you like to review how I came to that decision or just get a hug about it?”
The second method is much more likely to be received positively. I’m going to identify the components of the effective communication in that statement:
“I know you love that house. [Acknowledgement of emotion] The kitchen is just like the one you’ve always wanted. [Acknowledgement of a dream] I’ve been over the numbers [Indicator of diligence] and I tried to find ways for us to afford it [Motivation to meet the partner’s needs] because I know how important it is to you [acknowledgement of dreams of the partner]. I found that the only way we can afford it [acknowledgement of subjectivity in the decision] is if we both work a lot more [identifying costs] and I’m afraid [emotional vulnerability] that this would lead to us not being as close [I value our relationship] and put too much strain on our relationship [The costs are too great]. So, I’ve decided that we can’t afford that house [As the delegated decision maker here is my decision]. Would you like to review how I came to that decision [I’m not trying to be authoritarian, I can make the decision making process transparent] or just get a hug about it [Willingness and desire to maintain connection even if this decision is painful]?”
The Rights and Responsibilities of the non-Delegated Decision Maker.
The non-delegated decision maker needs to give up some control but not too much. For example, if the range of options in a given decision includes relationship breaking options, the non-Delegated Decision Maker needs to communicate that and may request that those options be removed from consideration. In addition, the person who isn’t making the decision needs to inform the Decision Maker what the potential consequences of different decisions might be. However, if every option but one is described as having dire consequences, it should be questioned whether a delegated process is the most desirable. That is, if you veto all the options but one, you haven’t trusted the decision maker with anything.
The non-Delegated Decision Maker also needs to demonstrate a degree of grace after the decision has been made. Temper tantrums, passive aggressive withholding, or reversing the decisions will all undermine the process in the future. If the decision made will cause challenges for one partner or more, the team should approach that as a challenge that can bring them together and not as “something you made me do”. As the non-Delegated Decision Maker, if you accept the process, then you made a choice.
A Caution about Outcomes
Sometimes the Delegated Decision Maker makes a poor choice. Sometimes this outcome was anticipated by one or both and sometimes it wasn’t. The Delegated Decision Maker needs to focus on what they will learn from the outcome and if possible acknowledge that their choice led to a negative outcome. The non-Delegated Decision Maker needs to cultivate humility about the negative outcome and be kind to their partner about the consequence. If both do these things, it is more likely to create a positive feedback loop that keeps the relationship strong despite the negative outcome.
It is not necessary or advisable to identify a Delegated Decision Maker in a relationship, but in some cases it can be very helpful. I’ve seen couples move through tough impasses by delegating certain decisions to one person which divides up work and can help build a positive sense of security, trust, and confidence in all members of the relationship. I have found the tool described above can help a couple develop skillful delegation.