Decision-Making in Marriage (When One Spouse is Not the Automatic Tiebreaker)

One of the main objections raised to egalitarianism or even soft complementarianism is, “How does a couple make decisions if neither one of them is the tiebreaker?” I had a reader ask me this question on my recent book review of Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission.

In recent years, I’ve done much study on the Bible, theology, psychology, gender roles, and gender dynamics. All of that coalesced into realizing I had an idea of how to answer this question. I replied to my reader with my initial thoughts, and I decided I wanted to flesh it out further in this blog post.

Basically, I have identified three different categories of decisions that will need to be made in a marriage context.

  1. Group Decisions
  2. Individual Decisions
  3. Consent Decisions

It’s not as cut-and-dry as these three categories suggest, and sometimes they bleed into one another, but they still provide a helpful framework for looking at the different kinds of decisions couples need to make. Also, many of these principles can be applied to other types of relationships: friendships, dating, business, or other types of family relationships.

Let’s look at the three categories of decisions in more detail.

Group Decisions

This is the largest category of decisions and include such things as what restaurant to eat at or what schooling options to choose; these decisions affect the group and are best arrived at using communication and compromise to reach consensus.

When a husband and wife disagree on a decision, the first thing they should do is each explain their perspectives and try to truly understand the other person’s. Often, this will resolve the issue, as one will share information that will end up changing the other person’s mind.

If not, helpful questions to further dialogue could be:
Who has the stronger opinion or bigger need in this situation?
Who has more knowledge, expertise, or experience on this particular issue?
Is there a way to compromise?
What feelings, needs, or histories are each spouse bringing to the situation, and how can they be taken into account?
Whose idea “won” last time?
How can each spouse express care for the other regardless of what decision is made?

It is also appropriate when a wife chooses voluntarily to submit to her husband’s wishes, even if there’s not another specific reason to do so. Likewise, it is appropriate when the husband decides to love his wife by going with her idea, even if there’s not another specific reason for him to do so.

Individual Decisions

Some decisions have more to do with the individual than the couple. For example, what time to wake up in the morning, what hairstyle to have, or what book to read. In these cases, the other spouse may share advice or make a request—particularly if it affects them–but the person who is actually reading the book or waking up at a certain time gets the final say (though they should care a lot about their spouse’s opinions and requests!).

Consent Decisions

Another category of situations are those in which if both spouses do not freely say “yes,” the default is “no.” This could be as simple as deciding whether to have another family over to one’s house (since the house is both spouses’ space). Generally speaking, major financial decisions would fall into this category; both spouses should agree to major purchases, especially if they have a joint bank account. Sexual intimacy is another scenario in which two willing (and hopefully joyful!) yeses are absolutely required in order for things to proceed in a respectful (and non-criminal!) way.

Summary

But does this actually work in the real world? I have friends from various walks of life and different belief systems who say that this is how their marriages function. So yes, it is possible! Because when you have two people with good character and emotional intelligence who seek after healthy communication, true understanding and care, and a willingness to work together, things generally work themselves out.

Application

If you’re unmarried put in the work now to become this sort of person–for your own sake and for the sake of your present and future relationships.

If you are looking for a dating relationship, pay attention to if a potential date has these qualities.

If you’re married and your marriage already looks like this, I rejoice with you! Keep up the awesome work, and consider mentoring others.

If you’re married and your marriage does not look like this, please know that growth is very often possible—especially when both spouses are committed to it!

But here’s a very important caveat: if you are married, and your spouse is guilty of serious and unrepentant sin (such as adultery, abuse, or abandonment), please know that no amount of healthy communication or character on your part can fix your spouse, and if you choose to leave such a spouse, I believe you have done no wrong.

Resources

For those seeking personal growth, character development, and/or relationship strengthening, here is some advice and some sample resources:
– Sit under the teaching of God’s Word and fellowship with his people. These are tools the Holy Spirit uses to grow people in Christlike love and wholeness.
– Look into receiving professional counseling services (individual therapy and/or couples therapy).
– Seek out mentorship or discipleship opportunities by mature individuals or couples.
– Read books such as Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud (which I honestly haven’t read, though I’ve appreciated some his other books—which are sometimes a bit theological fluffy, so be discerning).
– Study materials put out by The Gottman Institute, which I see as the gold standard in relationship advice, and most of it is totally compatible with a Christian worldview.

And that’s it! Thus ends my musings and insights on how couples can make decisions together in ways that honor one another.

A big thank you to my reader who asked a great question which then inspired this post!

What about you? What advice do you have regarding how couples can make decisions well? What have you found works for you, or how do you want your marriage to work in the future?