Creating and Maintaining Structure and Roles in a Loving Relationship
Creating a decision-making structure for our family that works is a challenge for most of us. Instead of creating leadership in areas of importance in the operation of our family, we often prefer to reserve the right to fight for what we want in every situation. We don’t see our deference to the decisions and leadership of someone else as being reflective of us—though it can be and without making our wants and needs any less important. Let me share a story.
Setting Clear Roles and Responsibilities
Decades ago, I interned at a company and worked under a retired naval officer, Rick. Rick wanted me to spend my lunch hours sitting with him, asking questions and seeking his advice. I wanted to spend my lunch hours napping in my car.
To convince me to do as he wished, Rick told me about a time a naval subordinate pushed back on something Rick ordered him to do. When the subordinate continued resisting, Rick pointed to the stripes on his blazer, communicating, “I have more stripes and authority than you do, end of discussion.” As far as I know, according to navy protocol, the subordinate was expected to follow orders and subsequently did so.
Rick’s lesson fell on deaf ears as it pertained to me spending my lunch hour with him. I was interested in a passing evaluation and it clear that I would get that without spending my lunch hour with him. His personal approval meant little to nothing to me. However, his lesson that highlighted the importance of respecting rank, order and responsibilities resonated.
How Do Predetermined Roles Reduce Conflict?
His story showed the value of acknowledging and respecting roles and responsibilities—particularly in regard to making decisions. Both Rick and his subordinate had different roles and responsibilities. Some might believe that Rick was being a bully or even rubbing his power in his subordinate’s face. However, this was not the case; Rick was merely embodying his role and owning his responsibility. Presumably, Rick’s responsibility was making sure a task was completed; and the subordinate’s responsibility was actually executing the task.
How Do I Work Through Tough Issues With My Spouse?
One of the most important structures that a unit, team, or family can create is a decision-making system. It’s worth noting that couples already work together to make many decisions every day. Generally speaking, couples create a culture based on their easy innerworkings. This is a decision-making system that is created seamlessly when both are in agreement. However, the challenge is determining how decisions will be made when desires or agendas conflict.
In Rick’s story, there was a conflict and an established system to address how conflicting preferences were handled. Everyone had their role to play, and no one party was more important than the other. They effectively—though maybe not happily—managed the conflict.
In relationships, particularly in the United States, roles and responsibilities are often not as defined as they are in the armed forces. One party often has as much input as the other pertaining to any decision made. There is often no one person who makes the final decision in each area of the family life (the children, food/diet, money, vacations, etc.). The question, Who is in charge? has no simple answer.
And while there is nothing inherently wrong with that lack of set roles and responsibilities, it can lead to recurring confusion and conflict. This confusion and conflict can worsen over time and deleteriously affect the relationship.
5 Steps to Creating and Maintaining An Effective Relationship Structure
If this is the dynamic of your relationship, here are five suggestions to set it back on a healthier, happier path.
1. Start Small.
If you and your partner are having trouble coming up with a system for making decisions, start small, perhaps with something as small as the mail. Decide whose responsibility it is to check the mail every day and ensure each piece of mail gets to the correct family member. If you and your partner do not feel the mail is important enough to include in your decision-making system, then choose something that is but still appears relatively small to both of you. Small decisions lead the way to larger decisions.
2. Buy into the system.
The system(s) we intentionally co-create with our partners are meant to benefit both the unit and the individuals. In order for a system to work, the people within it must buy into it—they must both agree to abide by the rules and roles they establish. This does not mean or suggest that one partner agrees with every decision the other partner makes or that they would do it the same way if they were making the decision themselves. It simply means that both partners believe the system they created—and its intent—are sound, and both partners are willing to stick to that system.
System Example: River and Jordan co-create a system where River is in charge of anything pertaining to the family vehicles. This means River selects the cars that both parties purchase, takes care of the servicing and repairing of both vehicles, and makes sure the car insurance is paid each month. River also fills the cars with gas and is responsible for cleaning the vehicles. If River does something in a manner Jordan doesn’t like—perhaps using a carwash Jordan doesn’t care for—Jordan can say something to River about it, but ultimately, any decisions made concerning the cars are River’s, and Jordan will support them.
If Jordan does not buy into the system and chooses not to accept River’s decisions as final, the couple may conflict. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows the biggest issues can easily stem from the smallest conflicts, so avoiding even minor conflicts can improve and/or strengthen the health of a relationship.
But please remember, our ability to defer to the decision and leadership of our partner does not diminish our importance or value. In contrast, it can actually reinforce our importance, as relationships can flow more smoothly for us all when everyone is on the same page. The choice to buy into the system is simultaneously a choice to avoid unnecessary conflict.
3. Set the example.
One of the most important steps that any of us will take as we work to establish a loving culture in our relationship is to go first, set an example. Setting an example means if we identify an area in our relationship that can be improved, the improvement begins with us. If more discipline is needed in our relationship, perhaps we see the lack in ourselves, our partner or our children, we start fixing this issue by modeling the missing discipline.
If our partner is having trouble agreeing to a responsibility designation or allocation, such as our being responsible for all things vehicle-related, go first. Ask your partner to select an area of importance (such as finances, meals/nutrition, home décor, vehicles, etc.) that they would like to lead, and then commit to getting behind them 100 percent. Nothing gets things going like an initial leap of faith. The follow through on your commitment.
4. Be a Mentor.
In the Bible it reads: It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
Author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn explains, “Giving is better than receiving because giving starts the receiving process.” And since my final suggestion involves receiving advice and wisdom from a mentor, we need to precede that step by giving advice and wisdom. Once again, we get to go first, but this time the connotation is a bit different.
One of the best ways to find the help we need is to give someone else the help they need. Most of us can use some assistance. With that in mind, most of us are doing something well in our relationship; and, undoubtedly, someone else or some other couple struggles with that relationship aspect. Find them and help them.
5. Get a Mentor.
Now that we are a mentor, have gone first and have given before asking for something, it’s time to find our own mentor. We get to find a couple or a member of a couple that has established structure around decision-making. Some ways you could look for such a mentor include asking your pastor, posting to your friends on Facebook that you are looking for a mentor, and paying attention to couples that appear to be thriving in your community.
Once a prespective mentor is identified, ask the couple or the couple member for support and assistance. Ask them how things work in their relationship and how they are able to make them work. Ask them about both the benefits and the challenges of the systems they’ve built. And ask for advice on how you could build systems within your own relationship. Most happy couples delight in helping others.
As we work to establish a loving culture in our relationships, one of the conflict management strategies that we can implement is establishing decision-making systems. If we learn how to manage disagreements well, there will be fewer disagreements to manage!
“You will handle these responsibilities, and I’ll handle these responsibilities. I will follow you into your area of leadership and you will follow me into mine.”
Enjoy the structure. Enjoy the simplicity. And take care of one another.
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Frank Love coaches individuals toward creating a loving culture in their family. He is also the author of Relationship Conversations You Don’t Want to Have (But Should Anyway) and 25 Ways to Be Loving. To schedule a free consultation, contact Frank at Frank@FrankLove.com.
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