Dear Dr Love,
My boyfriend and I have been in a committed relationship for many years and we currently live together. He is generally a wonderful person but when it comes to certain life decisions he can be selfish. The problem is that he quit his job two years ago so he could begin a start-up company and it’s plunged us into uncertainty. He hasn’t looked for a job since and every time I ask about job hunting, he suggests that he is self-employed.
Now before we start thinking about the future, I am worried about his financial stability. How should I convince him to get a job?
Money matters in love, whether we like to admit it or not. Part of sustaining a healthy relationship means effectively managing each other’s expectations about money. For example, a recent online survey found that 58% of respondents said that financial disagreements were one of the key reasons for their breakup. Among those individuals in relationships, money was stated as the main source of stress with their partner. Relationships involve consistent negotiations. The couples who are good at negotiating and cooperating stay in love. Those couples who are not, end up dealing with a lot of misery!
It seems clear that you and your partner are in a deadlock in your negotiations. But do not fear, as this is surprisingly common in relationships. One major reason for deadlocks is that our brains are geared towards what we call a self-serving bias, when judging what is fair. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, George Loewenstein and Linda Babcock have found that we have a tendency to mix up what is fair with what benefits us. So when you think it’s fair that your partner should just get a job, it might be because this is what you want, which is why it seems fair to you. Conversely, he thinks it’s fair to try to set up a company because it’s what he wants.
This type of bias is particularly problematic. Firstly, because neither you nor your partner think you are self-serving, you both think your side of the argument is the neutral one. Secondly, because people don’t just care about the outcomes of negotiations, they care about what the other person’s intentions are. So if you think you are being fair, you clearly think he is being unfair and trying to take undue advantage. However, it’s possible he might be thinking the same about you.
What you need to look for is the contract zone, in your case the set of possibilities you’d both prefer over breaking up. This is not easy to do for couples in a deadlock. However, the good news is that there is another way. It turns out that if you each believe you are right or fair, you are more likely to be open to a mediator. This can be an excellent way to resolve issues. Think of someone you both trust and respect and ask them to help you judge what is a good compromise.
Best of Luck,