Why You Need a Dictator in a Marriage
It was 7:30 a.m., and I was groggily pulling on a bathrobe when the doorbell rang.
'Who could that be?' I murmured to my husband.
'It's the painters, ' he answered, darting downstairs to open the door. I soon heard him chatting with them in Spanish on the front porch. That's when I really woke up.
'The painters? For our house?' I called down the stairs incredulously. Alejandro and I had been talking about painting the exterior of the house for over a month. We had looked at color charts, painted sample patches and narrowed down the choices. But we were still completing the plan.
By the time he came back inside, I was furious.
'Why are painters already here? We don't know the accent colors! We haven't sketched it out! We didn't run it by my sister!' I complained.
'We'll get started and figure it all out as we go, ' Alejandro said. 'It's time to make it happen.'
I was mad all day long: Painting our house is part of our investment in it and ought to be a mutual decision, I fumed. But that evening when I got home and took a look at the painters' progress, it was suddenly easy to figure out where the trim color should go and what color the door should be. I tried to defend my morning hysteria, saying we had not technically been ready to pull the trigger on the project, but my argument fell apart in light of how well it was working out.
'Maybe you could even say…I was right?' he asked, teasingly, hopefully.
I answered with a mock cry of horror, as though he had asked me to curse my children. I love the man, but really. What a suggestion.
In a democratic system like our marriage, where two parties enjoy a 50-50 split in voting rights, it's uncomfortable when one party designates himself or herself the dictator and makes a decree. I've always prided myself on being part of a marriage of equals, where we are both the breadwinners and, as I like to tenderly remind the South American gentleman to whom I am wed, we are both responsible for the housework. We also both handle the banking, bill paying and investment decisions.
But as illustrated by the 'paint-gate' episode, sometimes it really doesn't work to wait around for consensus to take hold. Sometimes you need to designate a trigger man to execute the final decision. And sometimes─and this is where it gets complicated─we need to assign ourselves that role and simply take over.
In retrospect, I realize I did this a few years ago after our kids were born and I felt strongly that we did not have enough life insurance. For Alejandro it was a nonissue: None of his Uruguayan friends or family have life insurance, which he considered a symptom of Yankee neurosis. Getting insurance for myself was easy enough, but it felt awkward to demand that Alejandro take out a policy on himself. Combine that with the fact that when I can't sleep, I watch those true-crime TV shows that are inevitably about one spouse who knocked off the other for the insurance money.
However, it was my absolute certainty that life insurance was essential that motivated him. Now we both have policies, and we both feel better for having them.
One party having that total confidence that this is the right thing to do is, I believe, the first requirement for decree-making. It relates to the second requirement, which is a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences. It's not always possible to completely mitigate the impact after the fact, but it's important to let your spouse know you understand it will be your job to clean up any mess.
I got an opportunity last week to exercise some of my new theories on decree-making when we needed to clear out space in our garage, which we are converting to a guesthouse. I suggested selling our unneeded stuff on Craigslist.
Alejandro was negative about Craigslist, arguing that he didn't want strangers stopping by the house and that the payoff would be too small for the work of posting ads and fielding calls. At first, I let the items sit while we mentioned them to friends, hoping we might somehow luck into a taker.
Finally, I decided this was silly: I knew selling them on Craigslist was the right thing to do, and I was willing to do the work of vetting calls and receiving customers. A week later, our garage was empty and we were a few hundred dollars richer. Alejandro can hardly remember why he didn't like the Craigslist idea and is happy to have been overruled.
And, oddly enough, that's how I feel about the house paint and some other decisions that my beloved temporary dictator has unilaterally imposed.
I may even work my way up to saying 'you were right.' But first let's see how the house looks when the paint dries.