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Good Marriages and Hostage Negotiation

Is it crazy to imagine that Hostage Negotiation techniques could help your Relationship?
We look at why imposing your will upon your partner (or anyone else for that matter) hardly ever works; and why there is always a better way…

What have successful marriages got to do with hostage negotiation? We look at why imposing your will upon your partner (or anyone else for that matter) never works and why there is always a better way. 
Learn how to get back on each other’s Team again…

Ok so you might be wondering what the hell Hostage Negotiation has got to do with Marriage and specifically your Relationship. So consider for a moment this well known scenario…

A woman wants her husband to stop watching footie/ playing Playstation/ fannying about on his phone and do some household chores. These two  have different agendas: she needs to get the necessary things done in the house before she can relax; he just wants time to relax before having to do anything/ doing more of nothing.

After asking nicely once or twice with no result, she then uses the tried and tested weapons in her arsenal. T
hese includeshouting, demanding and threatening in order to ‘get him’ to do what she wants him to do. Unsurprisingly enough, he is not inspired to help at this point; he just feels attacked and so automatically retreats into defence mode. Almost inevitably, a fight ensues, they fall out, no agreement is made. She thenspends the rest of the day ‘angry cleaning’ whilst they just ignore each other…

It’s an all too familiar lose/ lose situation. 

Now, think about a hostage negotiation scenario (I’d say ‘typical’ but I am not sure that word necessarily applies here). You also have 2 people with very different agendas: the hostage taker and the hostage negotiator. It is the job of the negotiator to give the taker their demands (or at last to make them feel like their demands have been met)) AND ensure no one gets killed in the process. In fact, they need to ensure that everyone gets out alive.

This is a VERY high stakes game; and, as a small percentage of negotiators would have learnt in the past, if you mess up a step, people die. 

Thankfully in most relationship conflicts this is not the case. Usually the result is just 2 very pissed off people not talking to one another for an extended period of time. 

But is that really the only result of conflicts in intimate relationships? 

Absolutely not.

There is a deeper problem with conflicts in relationships and that is how safe the couple feel with one another. Safety – and specifically Emotional Safety – needs to be the deep, concrete foundation of any solid relationship structure. In the absence of Safety couples slowly, but surely, unravel. 

So how can a standard, common or garden housework fight affect Emotional Safety? 

Well in the example cited above the man affects the feeling of safety by demonstrating that his needs are more important than his wife’s in that moment. In short, he doesn’t have her back.

She in return, by using demands and (even more damagingly) threats, displays to her husband that she is happy to intentionally put him into distress in order to get her own way.

Neither side is better than the other here. No one is ‘in the right’…

Interestingly, master Negotiator Chris Voss recalls his opening few sentences to Hostage Takers would usually go something like this:

HN: “I’m here to talk to you about coming out”

HT: “I’m not coming out!”

HN “I know you’re not coming out now. I just want you to know that when you do, I’m going to make sure that you feel treated with dignity and respect; and I’m going to make sure you don’t get hurt.”

Notice the focus on making the Hostage Taker feel safe

Cause seriously, if the Negotiator went in there calling that guy a piece of shit and telling him to hand over the hostages ‘right now or else!’ just how well do you think the Negotiation would go? 

And yet this is perhaps the most used tactic in intimate relationships: demand, shout and threaten in order to get your own way. Is it any wonder then, that most of these exchanges end in arguments and, ultimately, breakups…? 

Getting the Best Outcome

If a Hostage Negotiator wants to get the best outcome for all involved, he has to approach things in a different way. He has to be strategic about his behaviour in order to ensure the correct outcome. 

In the same way, if we are going to be successful at managing conflict in relationships, (because you cannot ever entirely eliminate them) then we need to be more strategic in our approach. 

Being ‘Right’ 

Many couples argue, with the aim at the forefront of their mind of proving they are ‘Right’. Their intention is to try to impose their views, beliefs or will upon their partner. To make their partner agree with them. (And please just ask yourself when was it decided that Happy Couples have to agree on everything anyway??)

This ‘strategy’ (if we can call it that) won’t work. For a number of reasons. 

Psychology Says…

First of all Psychology shows us that, in order for a person to change, they must come to the conclusion on their own that change is required. They must also work out in their mind what that change looks like; and take action that is acceptable to them (and not the person forcing it upon them). 

It’s proven that simply being told what to do is radically ineffective in eliciting change. Unless you are willing to literally hold a gun to someone’s head in order to get your demands met, you have to find another way. 

The only way that a person will alter their behaviours is if they come to the conclusion that it’s not serving them; that the current way results in more problems than it does pleasure. They also must work out what they can do, in a way that suits them, in order to make the change that’s needed. 

Refuse / Resist.

This is why people inevitably Resist when they are told to do something. It is only skilled, trained negotiators who understand how to ask questions in order to elicit a response that will help someone to take action that actually benefits them.

Therapists will tell you that Resistance is both perfectly natural and is also something that needs to be rolled with, not fought against. 

They know that the more you try to push your thoughts, beliefs, ideas or plans upon another person, the more you inadvertently force them into the position of resistance and refusal. 

If you are trying to shout your partner into submission, your behaviour in this way is entirely self defeating. You will only ever get the absolute opposite of that which you hope to achieve. 

So in marriage, as in hostage negotiation, we have to find another way to influence or persuade our partners. Especially if we are to have any hope of reaching positive outcomes…

So, How can you begin the process?

When approaching a situation with your spouse that could end in fall out, consider first of all what your goal is. Also consider what your intention is.

For example:

Goal: I’d like some help with the housework

Intention: I’d like to keep this amicable and not have a fight

Remember that in order to have a positive outcome, 2 criteria must be met for your partner:

  1. They need to feel safe and secure (threats , demands and confrontational behaviour will eradicate this feeling)
  2. They need to feel in control. (Imposing your will makes it feel like the other person is having to do what you want, not what they want. If you do this, they don’t feel like they have a choice)

Seek First to Understand

Begin the interaction by trying to understand them including their goals and their intentions. At heart, people just want to be understood and accepted. This can most easily be achieved by Listening in order to understand and *not* to reply.

Demonstrating a desire to understand what your beloved is experiencing without offering opinions, advice, judgement or solutions, completely changes the tone of the interaction; and it helps them to feel seen & heard. It helps to begin to bring walls down rather than putting them straight up.

In short: You listen simply to understand. 

This is just the first step in a series of different skills you can employ in your own relationship to give you more pleasant outcomes in situations that currently dissolve into Armageddon. As with any new skill, it will take a bit of time and practice to perfect. You don’t want your love to feel managed, manipulated or interrogated, so bringing genuine curiosity & care to the table is essential.

No one wants to be a Dictator

Well except perhaps Dictators… 

For the vast majority of us, Forcing someone into an action doesn’t feel good. It feels icky to ‘make’ someone do something. Especially when we know that an agreement by friendly accord would feel so much better. Obviously this is not so much the view of a Hostage Taker – though generally their actions are a last resort; the result of feeling as though they have no other option available to them. However, in Marriage, we don’t need to mimic this level of desperation.

When we have to convince people using force, it indicates not only an inability to persuade using rational behaviour; it also indicates a lack of understanding; an ability to see the bigger picture: that many realities can co-exist simultaneously; That our way is just 1 way and not THE way. 

So how do we end up behaving this way?

Why does it feel right to tell people what to do and feel justified in an ‘it’s my way or the highway’ attitude? 

As ever many of the issues stem from childhood. Authoritarian parents, who would assert that they knew better because they were older & wiser; (and their children had to listen to them because of that) would often perpetuate this style of behaviour. 

Their threat-loaded parenting style meant that children were told to do something ‘or else’. This ruling by fear style of parenting clearly communicates “if you do not do what I tell you there will be negative consequences”; which the child quickly learns to be afraid of. Even in an age where parents cannot discipline their children physically; (as the line between discipline and abuse can be blurry), many still fall back on the old ‘do it because I tell you to do it’ principle. 

It’s a case of monkey see, monkey do.

As with much of our human behaviour, it’s a case of monkey see, monkey do. We grow up and simply copy the behaviours we saw displayed over and over again in childhood. Because of this we end up displaying many of the behaviours we saw from our parents and also end up behaving in a similarly ineffective way. Unless you are prepared to continually use threats (or worse yet, violence) to get your own way, then it’s clear that this is not the way forward. (Plus, if you are stuck in the I shout, (s)he doesn’t change cycle, then you’ll know first hand this doesn’t work).   

It’s helpful here to know that there’s a part of our brain that wants to know that it makes sense. This is where our drive to be ‘right’ comes from; and we can appeal to this part of the brain quite easily when we know how. 

However, it’s also helpful to understand that ‘right’ is only a point of view, a belief or a perspective AND that it’s perfectly OK for someone else to not agree with us. 

In fact, in a relationship the goal has never been to agree on everything.Wwhich seems to be a misapprehension many of us labour under! In fact the happiest relationships know that, as the famous quote goes:

The goal of Marriage is not to think alike, but to think together.

Let’s talk Hard Facts

The amount of hard Facts in the world is very small. Most of that which we take as being gospel in life is simply just a belief. Even in science most data falls within a bell curve; by which I mean that the data does not show that in 100% of cases that something happens. Even the grass is not green if you’re colour blind. So trying to quote ‘facts’ at someone in order to try to convince them is rarely an effective tactic.   

Facts are usually pretty easy to identify – they are things that we know or are proven to be true. 

For example: 

  • Your heart pumps blood through your body
  • Iceland is north of Africa
  • 1 litre of water weighs 1 kilogram
  • Humans use their legs to walk
  • The Sun provides light and heat

Information that cannot be proven to be 100% true all of the time is just a perspective or belief. This tends to be where the problems creep in in relationships; because we want our beloved to think just the same way as we do. In many cases, we in some way feel this confirms our compatibility as a couple…  

We also tend to get tripped up by assumptions and expectations. Bits of information that we might have imagined or assumed to be true but which, when we find out they are not, can cause us a lot of pain. 


When we experience this disconnect between what we believed to be true and what we find in reality, we then often go n a campaign in our relationships to try to change that person so they are in alignment with out beliefs. Rather than just accepting that we might have misunderstood a situation in the first place; and/or not done our due diligence. 

Whatever the motivation is for trying to change our partner’s perspective, there is often a heavy emphasis on the need to feel like we are ‘in the Right’.

But as the famous saying goes: 

You can be right, or you can be in Relationship.”    

Trying to be ‘right’; or to ‘win’; or to just get your own way will only inevitably result in disaster when it comes to your love life. In fact this holds true for the other areas of your life also.  

Navigating through what is often known as the ‘Power Struggle’ stage of relationships (aka the conflict/ differences/ disillusionment phase) actually requires learning some new skills. This phase is something which all couples will move into and most either stay stuck there; -when they just learn to put up with each other. OR they simply get out of it by leaving the Relationship. (Although it’s entirely possible to navigate and mature out of this phase and get into happier territory).

This stage is where the need for Hostage Negotiation skills comes in:

[Or, more correctly, skills that are designed to manage human relationships (and to help marriages) that are often also employed in Hostage Negotiation situations.] 

Whilst it might not spring to mind as a topic that would be of interest to someone who helps couples to repair their relationships, fascinatingly enough, Hostage Negotiation actually uses pretty much all the techniques that I teach as standard to help couples to resolve their conflicts and to feel heard & understood by each other. Hostage Negotiation uses elements of techniques found in Clinical Psychology (such as non violent communication techniques); and it also draws on the Mathematical concept of Game Theory (which was later developed in Modern Psychology into Transactional Analysis). 

Many of the modern techniques developed or widely used by people within the field of Relationship Science & Therapy have been adopted & adapted from these fields. Equally, these are the very same techniques (albeit with much higher stakes outcomes) used in Hostage Negotiation. 

‘The best chance of Success’

Chris Voss was taught that his actions were always to be made in the interest of ‘the best chance of success’. No one strategy is foolproof because humans are random and unpredictable creatures in many respects. Plus, learning how best to handle other people in life is not instinctive. The likelihood is that if you act out of what you think are instinctive behaviours, they simply won’t get you the results or the success that you want in any given situation. You need to learn how to navigate situations so you can seek to create the best outcome for all involved. 

Similarly, this is why I equip couples with a suite of different techniques that can be used to  navigate and resolve conflicts. Used effectively, these techniques can also help you avoid conflict in the first place; and also help to resolve issues before they become highly problematic. These are skills that have helped couples to clear up their differences, get back on the same page and pull their intimate relationships out of crisis. 

Learning new ways to negotiate…

with your spouse or partner can, at a basic level, result in you having a happier, more harmonious relationship. At a more dramatic level, it can help you to get your partner on board with the process of improving, healing or saving your troubled relationship. 

When we first get together, we imagine a happy, trouble free future; we believe in the idea of a happily ever after. However, old habits die hard and often the patterns we learnt early on in life sabotage our chances of  success in our romantic 

Learning these techniques will give you and your partner ‘the best chance of success’ and, ultimately, isn’t that what we all want deep down of when we first get together?

Holly Skey is a Relationship Repair Expert & founder of HEA-RT.com. She helps Couples to pull their Relationships out of crisis; and get back on the same team – even if only one person is trying.
So, is it crazy to imagine that Hostage Negotiation techniques could help your relationship? If you’d like to know how to negotiate more effectively with your spouse; or how to get your other half on board with the process of saving your Relationship, send an email with the subject title ‘Negotiate’ to: hello@hea-rt.com.

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