Make a marriage work through negotiation

As a lawyer, couples mediator and self-help author, people turn to me for my expert relationship advice. They assume that because I have all the answers, I must have a perfect marriage myself. The truth is that I have a happy marriage with good days and those less-than-perfect days that require me to put my own communication advice into practice.

You see, conflict is normal and expected, especially for parents, but how we choose to respond to it can either destroy or build love. For example, there was that time some years ago, when I had a Chinese food “take-out” awakening:

My husband and I are a great team, but at times (like all couples) we were no match for the demands of our infant son. Stress from a little one can wear down anyone’s patience and test any marriage.

It happened after I had a tiring day of work, and my husband had his usual high-pressure day of work. The evening arrived and we fell into our typical routine. Our 11-month-old was on the verge of walking and he was trying to climb everything in sight. One of us, therefore, needed to pay very close attention to him at all times to make sure he was safe. As usual, it was me who ended up being on surveillance duty. My husband was nearby, but somehow I was the one “in charge.” We had never verbally agreed to this division of power. It just happened. When I would use the bathroom or make a phone call, I had a nagging guilty feeling that I had to rush back to my duties.

On this seemingly uneventful night, we ordered take-out Chinese food and my husband announced that he would go pick it up. As I was left stranded at home, again, I became angry. “Darn it, I want to get out of the house for 20 minutes to get the take-out! I want to do the errands!” But I didn’t say this to my husband because it felt wrong. After all, he was only trying to be helpful by doing the errand. And so I slept on it.

By the next morning I was prepared for a difficult conversation. I couldn’t blame my husband for the situation; I had tacitly agreed to it. And the truth is, how could he know what I wanted if I never said it? Now was the time to re-negotiate our evening parenting responsibilities. The de facto parenting split, 95 percent me, 5 percent him, was not acceptable. I took my own advice as a family mediator and I shared my feelings without blaming him. I told him that I wasn’t asking for him to be in charge all of the time, or even half of the time. I just needed him to spend a portion of each night as the truly responsible party, so I could have a chance to relax or pick up the take-out, knowing our son was well taken care of.

I’m not kidding when I tell you this: From that day forward, after our “child care negotiation,” my husband stepped up to the plate. He created fun little games with our son that they play every night. They have their own sayings and jokes. When our son needed his diaper changed during the “Daddy play period,” my husband would do it, without yelling for my help. As the days wore on, the nighttime fun turned into the bedtime routine, which my husband still does three years later. With a second child in the mix, Daddy’s participation is even more valuable.

My suggestion: don’t wait to ask for what you want. Re-balancing expectations, child care and household chores should be an annual event, at the very least. I offer simple tips to negotiate with your spouse in chapter 14 of my book, Fight Less, Love More,now out in paperback. Use the tips, and your own wisdom, to speak up with the goal of finding a solution, and you may find that your entire family is better off, for years to come.

Laurie Puhn is a Harvard-educated lawyer, couples mediator, and bestselling author of “Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In,” who frequently appears on CNN, “Good Morning America,” and “The Early Show” to offer relationship advice. Visit her at

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