Singles–What’s Your BATNA?

by Denise

good better best“BATNA” is a concept used by legal and business negotiators to figure out the point at which they will no longer compromise and will walk away from the table.  It stands for “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.”  Essentially, different parties face one another at the table with an idea of what they want the outcome of their negotiation to be.  They need something from the other and know that they might have to compromise to get it, but don’t want to compromise too much.  They want to get as much as they can without giving up more than they’d like.  To figure out the point at which they will no longer compromise, they think about what their best alternative would be if no agreement were reached and everyone went home with empty hands.  Then, they compare the other side’s offer to that alternative.

Essentially, negotiators have to ask themselves, “If I take this offer, will I be better or worse off than if I left it on the table?”  Contrary to some lines of thought, something is not always better than nothing.  For instance, if someone is selling a used car, the seller might negotiate with potential buyers who will offer him a certain amount for it.  Whether the seller considers their offers good enough for him will depend largely on the alternatives he has to selling it to them and whether he considers those alternatives to be better than their offers.  Examples of his alternatives:  He could give it to a family member instead.  He could scrap the car and get money for the parts.  He could donate it to charity and get a tax write-off for it.  By putting it on the market rather than doing one of those things first, he has inherently communicated that selling the car is, on its face, more preferable to him than those other options.  But, he will have an idea of how much value he wants to get from the sale.  And if the buyers aren’t offering the value he wants, he has to decide whether their offers are better for him than his alternatives to selling the car.

I think the concept of a BATNA is pretty relevant to singles trying to figure out who they ought to marry.  As with much of life, you have to know “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”  Crafting a BATNA for a single person means that the single is in a negotiation with potential spouses.  Both have an idea of what they want from a marriage agreement, but neither wants to compromise too much for the sake of getting the marriage agreement.  So each person has to consider their alternatives, the most salient alternative being singleness, possibly prolonged.  But an alternative could also be pursuing another person instead.  For some, it could be religious life or committed singleness for the sake of ministry.  How attractive the negotiated marriage agreement is depends in large part on how well it compares to the ideal value we wanted to get from it, as well as how well it compares to our alternatives.  The ideal value someone wants from marriage and the value of the alternatives to marriage with a particular person will differ from person to person.  (For instance, some people have lots of good potentials to choose from, others are relatively content with a life of singleness, etc.  For that reason, it can be difficult to judge from the outside what choice someone should have made, since it likely made sense for their life and what is important to them.)  Each person has to weigh the implications of the alternatives and the compromises on the table, and then make a choice.  We all have to ask ourselves, “Am I better off marrying this person than choosing one of my alternatives?”

I notice two things that tend to muddy up the decision-making process:  1) Idealism that insists that anything less than the ideal value is necessarily not good enough, and  2) Focusing on hypothetical rather than material alternatives.

Regarding #1, negotiators come to the table knowing that they will likely not walk away with their ideal scenario.  They might get lucky, but they don’t expect it; rather they expect to compromise.  Knowing that they will likely have to compromise, they prepare for the negotiation by working out their BATNA.  They ask themselves what they must get out of the agreement in order to make making a deal more attractive than their alternatives.  They don’t say, “If I don’t get everything I want, I’m going to walk.”  But they decide what the value of their alternatives is to them, and then compare the other party’s offer to the value of their best alternative.  If the offer is a better deal than their best alternative, they’ll strike a deal.  If it’s not, they’ll walk.  Notice that good negotiators do not decide whether to accept an offer based on how important their ideal scenario is to them in itself.  Rather, the decision is made by making a direct comparison to their best alternative.  The reason is that, if they don’t strike a deal, but their best alternative is no better or perhaps worse than what was offered, they’ve basically chosen a worse situation for themselves.

Regarding #2, the idea that something better might come along can give people a false sense of what their alternatives actually are.  One might meet someone better, but judging whether to hold out for that can be tricky.  Some women, like Lori Gottleib wrote in her Atlantic article “Marry Him!“, overestimate the number of potential suitors that will be available down the line.  Men also can find that they’ve let a good woman go in order to explore their options, only to find that they already had the cream of the crop and let her go.  This is why it’s important to make one’s decision based on the alternatives actually presently available, or which you can say with reasonable certainty will be available if they aren’t at the moment.  (You’d also want to put yourself in the best negotiating position as possible before starting talks.  Analogizing to the car, this would be fixing it up, having it detailed, etc.  When it comes to people, it means looking your best physically, working on character, and generally upping the value of what you have to offer.)

It might seem a bit calculating to apply the concept of a BATNA to dating and marriage.  But the art of negotiation is really at its core the art of good decision-making.  Negotiators invest time and energy learning how to make the best, most beneficial decisions possible given limited options, limited time, and limited knowledge.  Our personal lives are full of decisions that must be made within the same constraints.

The trick is, though, to be genuinely grateful for whatever it is we choose, whether it’s the agreement or the alternative.  I really think this is important because none of us on the earth are guaranteed that circumstances and options are what we would ideally like them to be.  We’re just given the opportunity to make the best of what is available to us.  And given that we’re all fallen, we aren’t really *owed* anything from God, though He does mercifully give us good gifts as our Father.  Thus, we can definitely expect good things from God’s hand; we just have to own our part in the process.

Reading people might find helpful:  Good News for Anxious Christians by Dr. Philip Cary