I’ve read, heard, and thought a lot about joint decision-making, and particularly what that looks like in marriage, friendship, and leadership. Who decides and how decisions are made are the bread-and-butter of most every functional relationship. What we do, where we go, what the dress code and schedule is, whether we say yes to particular invitations or opportunities are all things where one decision impacts a broader circle of people, and the conversation before and during those decisions matter.
But this is not a post about the process of decision making: how to play fair and communicate well before and during. This is a post about what happens in relationships AFTER decisions have been made. Perhaps, in an ideal world, every big decision (which furniture to buy, which school to send your kids to, which retirement choices to make) is come to by conversation and consensus, but in my world – that’s generally not how it happens. More often than not, we decide by compromise and concession. He concedes on this issue, because I *really* have strong feelings about it and he’s kind of meh about it. I concede on that because the outcome will impact him more. Or maybe I decide that we’re not getting a new blender this time, because last time he got to pick the bathroom tile. Or maybe we both begrudgingly concede to let the kid try a new instrument because they’re so excited about it, even though we both suspect it will be abandoned and there will be tears of frustration over it in four months’ time. I’ve heard it said that compromise means coming to a decision that everyone is a little unhappy with, and sometimes that’s true. Or maybe it’s like Tami Taylor in the finale of Friday Night Lights: after years of molding their family to follow his career, she got a dream career opportunity and whispered low to her Coach husband: “it’s my turn now.” Maybe it’s just a question of taking turns.
But the question is: after those decisions where there was concession or compromise—which means that at least one person in that decision was less than 100% gung-ho about it—what happens next? What happens between you when that tile he picked turns out to be terrible quality? Or it turns out we really should have replaced that blender when we saw the deal? What happens when the instrument is abandoned, or the bank you picked to invest in goes under? Or when the person you vouched for betrays you as a team, even though the other had said they had red flags about them? Or when the decision the committee makes leaves half the community they serve ready to pack up and go?
The realm of “I told you so” is fraught with landmines and bitterness.
One of the worst things I’ve seen in relationships (be they marriages, friendships, or work and ministry connections) is when someone uses a decision they didn’t support as eternal ammunition against others. Families, ministries, and teams fall apart because one person lords it over the others, gloating “see where your choice has brought us?” Marriages weather the worst tension because “you knew I didn’t want this x/y/z and now look how badly things have gone…”
Whatever good we may have done by “making decisions together” is undone if you remove your support after the decision is made, and leave your team mate in the dust, or worse yet, with a target on their back for any or all things that may go wrong. Joint decision making doesn’t just mean contributing to a decision, it also means sharing the consequences of that decision.
By contrast, one of the most tender ways we can show love for others after a decision is made is to be with them in the aftermath, and to protect them from the ravages of self-recrimination and regret if something goes wrong. Sometimes love in action looks like solidarity in defending the rightness of how the decision was made, even if yours was the dissenting voice in the court. My husband is a rock star at this: that he doesn’t hold my bad decisions over me as leverage (when really, he has cause for all sorts of finger pointing) is testimony to tremendous self-restraint and kindness. Rather, he chooses “we” language: “We made the best decision we could. We’ll figure it out together.”
What a remarkable thing to have thought something was wrong, to have voiced that opinion, to have the decision go against your better judgment; and then after the fact when questioned about who made that disastrous choice, to say “we did.”
15 years ago, on the windswept moors of Devon, a mother sat curled over her obstinate toddler who was determined to fit her left shoe onto her chubby right foot. “I DO IT,” she insisted. “How about we do it together?” the mom replied. I remember catching my husband’s eye and smiling at the phrase. That conversation stuck, and has snaked its way into countless little conversations since then. (Should we divide and conquer the to do list this morning? No, let’s do it together?)
It’s tough to make good decisions as a team. But perhaps the bigger challenge in mature decision making comes afterwards, in a commitment to share the weight of the heavy things, the mistakes, the hard consequences, and the regrets together. Even when one of us was more responsible for the mistake than the others. Refraining from gloating or pointing fingers is self-control, kindness, and gentleness in action.
Nobody wins if we keep score in relationship. And strangely enough, we win if we take our losses together.