I recently spoke with a man, Louis, who had been experiencing a recurring conflict with his wife, Barbara. Her brother had asked her for a loan, but Louis believed that they couldn’t afford it and that his brother-in-law would never pay them back. Barbara, however, argued vehemently that they could afford it, that he would pay them back, and — with special emphasis — that making the loan was simply the right and Christian thing to do. Louis complained that every couple of days Barbara was pressuring him to change his position on this issue, and his frustration was rapidly growing. We arranged for the three of us to meet.
After they had both taken their seats in my living room, I asked, “Would either of you like to offer a definition of marriage?”
They each made a couple of suggestions, which included the words partnership and union. “You would both agree then,” I said, “that marriage is a kind of partnership?”
They both nodded their heads.
“Partnerships have enormous potential advantages,” I said. “That’s why we create them: between people, animals, and even objects. For thousands of years, for example, men have partnered two oxen, because they have observed that two oxen can pull twice the load that one ox could pull. In this case, 1+1 = 2. But partners can often create miraculous results, far beyond simple mathematical sums, such that 1+1 can equal far more than just 2. For example, by itself how fast can a car engine move, and what can it carry?”
“By itself an engine can’t move at all,” Louis said. “It just sits there.”
“How about a car tire? By itself, what can it move?”
“By itself, a tire isn’t good for much except to roll down a hill or decorate your front yard — depending on your neighborhood. But if you attach four tires to four wheels, connect a few other parts, and then partner them with that engine we just talked about, a real miracle in transportation becomes possible. Even though an engine and a tire are quite different in their qualities, if we partner them properly, the result can be quite productive. The same is true with a marriage partnership. When two people marry, they often possess qualities that are quite different, but if they are willing to share what they have as partners, the yield to themselves and to others can be remarkable. The sum of 1+1 can equal much more than 2.”
It was obvious that Louis and Barbara were following this, so I continued. “The benefits of such a partnership are possible, of course, only if each person accepts the unique qualities of the other partner. What would happen, for example, if the engine persuaded the tires to become more like the engine, so that instead of an engine and four tires, we had two engines?”
“The car wouldn’t move,” Barbara said.
“And 1+1 would equal useless,” I said. “So it is with a marriage. If Louis tries to get you to become like him, or if you try to get him to become like you, you would lose the benefits that come from the unique assets you each bring to your marriage. Sometimes we think we want to change our partners, but we fail to realize what we’d lose in the process. So the point is that in order to enjoy the benefits of partnerships, we must also accept the principles that govern them. One of these principles — as we just discussed — is that we must accept our partners and not try to control them. But let me talk for a moment about another principle that governs healthy partnerships. I believe you’ll find it useful in resolving your conflict about the possible loan to Barbara’s brother.”
“Louis just doesn’t trust my brother,” Barbara said with considerable impatience. “I don’t think Louis trusts me either. He doesn’t believe me when I say that my brother will pay us back, and Louis doesn’t understand that it’s just the nice thing for us to do.”
“See what I mean?” Louis said. “For weeks she’s been saying stuff like, and I’m tired of it. Then she even says, ‘What would Jesus do?’ That one makes me crazy.”
I raised my hand to stop their argument. “I assume that on plenty of occasions you’ve both stated your positions on this issue, so there’s no good reason to go over them again. Would that be fair to say?”
They both nodded and shrugged their shoulders.
“So let me suggest a principle that might help you come to an agreement here. In any partnership — business, political, or marital — we potentially gain advantages or strengths, but one of the reasons for these advantages is that we agree to function as a unit with our partners. This means that, to varying degrees, we no longer function entirely separately from our partners. We agree that before we make decisions that will affect our partners or our partnership, we will consult with them. If we did not do this, there would be no partnership and therefore none of the advantages from the partnership. To illustrate, let’s go back to the car engine and imagine that engines and tires could make their own decisions. What if the engine decided to go east while the tires decided to go west? How would that work out? Or what if the tires decided to rotate in reverse while the engine decided to move in a forward direction?”
“Impossible. Or it would destroy the car,” Louis said.
“Right,” I said. “and if engines and tires could make decisions, neither would want to make decisions that conflicted with the interests of the other, because the moment they did that, the car would malfunction, and all the advantages of working in partnership would immediately disappear. The car would become useless, which would make both the engine and the tires essentially useless. The situation is quite similar in a marriage partnership.”
“Explain,” Barbara said.
“If I’m married to you — if I’m your partner — and I make a decision that will affect both of us, without your willing consent, what am I saying about my feelings for you? Am I telling you that I unconditionally care about your happiness?”
Barbara smiled sarcastically. “No, hardly.”
“Exactly. Anytime I insist on making a decision that affects you, or that affects both of us, without your agreement, I’m telling you that I do not care about you, and that will have a terrible effect on our relationship, won’t it?”
“I may rationalize that what I’m trying to do is right, but when I begin to make decisions without your participation and agreement, I will have a destructive effect on the Real Love in our relationship. We will no longer be working together as partners, and from that point everything we do — together and individually — will be less effective and less enjoyable. Do you want your marriage to be less effective and less enjoyable?”
They shook their heads.
“So I suggest that couples apply what I call the Veto Principle in their relationships. The Veto Principle goes like this: Either partner has the right to stop any activity that affects him or her in an unavoidable and negative way.”
“Explain that some more,” Barbara said.
“Glad to. Suppose you and I are married, and we’re driving somewhere together. I’m the driver. Suddenly, at seventy miles an hour, I announce that I intend to drive our car into one of the oncoming eighteen-wheeled trucks that is thundering down the road at frequent intervals. Is that fair? Or would you like the right to veto my proposal?”
“I’d like the veto.”
“Of course you would. Hence the Veto Principle. No loving relationship could exist without the right of either partner to veto any activity that would injure or frighten or otherwise negatively affect him or her. And no loving partner would want to make decisions that would unavoidably and negatively affect his or her partner. If I care about you, I would not intentionally drive you into the path of an oncoming truck. I would give you the right to veto that choice. If I really cared about you, I would always give you the right to stop any activity that affected you negatively, right?”
“Now, notice the language of the principle: ‘Either partner has the right to stop any activity that affects him or her in an unavoidable and negative way.’ I emphasize the word unavoidable because otherwise some people might tend to use the veto principle to control their partners. For example, let’s say that I decide to watch football all day. You might attempt to veto that activity, claiming that it affects you negatively, claiming that it keeps you from spending time with me. True?”
Barbara smiled. “The thought did occur to me as you brought up watching football.”
“But my choice doesn’t have an unavoidably negative affect on you. If I choose to watch football all day, you still have hundreds of other choices to make that could make you happy. My choice does not determine what you do.”
“Let me suggest a second consideration in the use of the Veto Principle,” I continued. “Most people consider the veto as a kind of weapon they can use to stop their partner’s behavior, but that is a selfish view. Ideally, the veto is freely offered by one partner to the partner who would be inconvenienced or injured. Imagine, for example, that I’m tired of mowing the lawn, so I decide that I’m going to replace all the lawn in my yard with an enormous concrete pad. Much easier to maintain in the long run.
“One approach would be for me to simply begin work on the lawn removal and the laying of forms for pouring of the concrete. Then my wife — who would not find an all-concrete lawn attractive — would be forced to state her right to a veto. But a second approach is much more loving: Before I even finalize the concrete decision in my mind, I will talk to Donna and ask her what she would like. As I do this, I am demonstrating an interest in her feelings, and I’m offering her the veto, rather than requiring her to pull it from her holster like a gun. Ideally, this is how the veto should be used.
“The Veto Principle is not intended to be a weapon that we use against our partners in an effort to protect ourselves and get what we want. If I use the Veto Principle to control my partner, it will tend to detract from the love in our relationship. If, on the other hand, I use the Veto Principle to control my own behavior, the Veto will communicate a genuine concern to my partner for her happiness and will add significantly to the Real Love in our relationship. Now, with all this in mind, can you apply this to your situation with the loan?”
Barbara appeared thoughtful before she said, “So you’re telling me that Louis has the right to veto the loan to my brother, and that I should just tell my brother to forget it, even though I think it’s the right and Christian thing to do?”
I smiled. “You may not have realized it, Barbara, but you just went through your entire argument again, trying to prove your case. You believe that the loan is justified because he’s your brother, right? You believe you can’t refuse a request from family. You also think the loan is justified because you believe he’ll pay you back. And you believe it’s the Christian thing to do. All that, yes?”
“But despite all that, Louis simply disagrees with you. And he gets to. Engine and tires, darlin’. You two are simply different, and if this marriage is going to work, you have to allow each other to be different. You have to support each other while you’re different, not just when you agree. Even though you’re different, you have to be going in the same direction, and that can only happen while you both feel loved and supported by the other. Are you with me so far?”
“How would you feel about me if you knew that I would never, ever do anything that would hurt you or frighten you or affect you in a negative way? What if you knew that if you felt the least bit afraid or even inconvenienced, all you had to do was put up your hand, and I would stop doing whatever was contributing to your negative feelings? How would you feel toward me? Would you trust me? Would you feel like I cared about you?”
“That is what the Veto Principle is all about. It’s a communication of love between partners. It’s a way of saying, ‘I will never intentionally hurt you.’ We may not entirely understand the thinking of our partner. We don’t have to. That’s the beauty of the veto. If I really care about my partner, she doesn’t have to explain herself to me when she exercises her veto.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Most of the times that people vehemently object to an activity, they’re afraid of something, and — with rare exceptions — we simply don’t have a right to frighten or injure people. Sometimes people can explain their need and fears, but often they cannot, because most fears are irrational. If my partner can’t adequately explain the fears that underlie her veto, I don’t care. My love for her is enough reason for me to accept her objection.”
“So you’re saying that Louis gets to control this loan,” Barbara said.
“Oh, that would be a terrible way to see this. I’m saying this: A decision about a loan has presented itself before the Barbara-Louis partnership. You would grant the loan, but for reasons that may not be clear to you — fears you may not understand, perhaps — Louis disagrees. Compared to the importance of the maintenance and growth of the Real Love in your marriage, this loan means nothing. So the real decision that lies before the Louis-Barbara partnership is this: What will we do here that will increase the love in our marriage? You are in complete control of that. By comparison, the veto of the loan is a tiny matter indeed. It’s insignificant. So what will you focus on: a loan to your brother, or the love in your marriage? Will you see this as Louis controlling a tiny thing, or you being in control of all the happiness in your life and your relationship? It’s all your choice.”
“I recognize,” I continued, “that you also have fears around this decision. You are probably afraid not to give the loan, because if you don’t, your brother will not be happy with you.”
“That’s true,” she said.
“So you might be tempted to believe that the Veto should work in your favor, that Louis should agree to give your brother the loan so that you are not affected in a negative way. But it doesn’t work like that. What you’re contemplating is a decision whether to loan the money — which is a change from the way things are — and the Veto affects that decision, or any decision to do something. You can’t use the Veto in a twisted way, to claim that not doing something would affect you negatively, thereby forcing your partner to do what you want. If we did that, one partner could say to the other, for example, ‘I will be negatively affected by your not having sex with me, so I veto your not having sex with me, and now you must have sex with me.’ We can’t use the Veto Principle to control people and get them to do what we want.”
Several days after Barbara and Louis left my office, I learned that Barbara did decide to accept the Veto Principle, and she told her brother that they would not be giving him the loan. As a result of this demonstration of love and trust for Louis, he experienced a change of heart and decided that they could loan half the amount to her brother that he had originally requested. What really mattered, however, was not the giving of the loan but that Louis and Barbara learned to love and trust each other as a result of living a principle.
In short, the essence of the Veto Principle is that I will choose not to continue in any task or activity that unavoidably causes my partner inconvenience or harm or fear. I also want my partner to feel free to stop me from causing such a negative influence at any time, because I want her to feel my love for her. As we all choose to live in such a way, our relationships can only flourish.
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