Becky Blanton posted this comment on Facebook in reply to my Love and Fear post, and I want everyone to see the answer, because it's such a great question.
I wanted Mexican, my friend wanted Chinese. Using your Third Alternatives I suggested getting take-out at both and having a picnic. My friend pouted and insisted on Chinese or nothing at all.
I've since dumped selfish, annoying, passive-aggressive, narcissist friend, but am curious. How committed does your partner need to be to a relationship to make this work? If you're involved with a jerk can this work? I'm in the process of kicking selfish friends to the curb, setting boundaries and clearing the decks so I can attract people and a relationship with a healthy person.
My question is can you use the third alternative process with friends, co-workers etc. as a way to practice the skill with a mate? Or is this a marriage skill only because of the commitment and love/vows to each other thing?
Third Alternatives are Great for All Disagreements
Third Alternatives work on almost all disagreements with family, friend, or foe. It failed for you, I suspect, because of what Pace and Kyeli Smith call The Usual Error, filling in the unspoken gaps because you expect others think the way you do. It is because of the Usual Error that looking for Third Alternatives works so often and so well.
Let me explain how to make the Usual Error work in your favor when you disagree.
The Usual Error: You Hear Garlic When She Says Quiet
You said, "I want Mexican." What went through your mind? Perhaps the taste of cilantro, cumin, chili powder, a hint of cocoa, shredded beef, shredded lettuce, something easy to pick up and eat with your hands.
Your former friend said, "I want Chinese instead." But quite likely not because of the shrimp, soy, garlic, broccoli, or asparagus over rice or noodles. It's really quite rare we're both focused on the same aspect. If you were in an area where your friend was familiar with the local restaurants, your friend may have thinking white tablecloths, upholstered seating, less formica, more space between tables, quieter background music.
Or your friend might have been thinking about being seen in the Mexican restaurant, which turns out to be owned by a good friend's ex. Maybe Mexican food was fine, but losing social points was not.
It might even turn out your friend owes a bar tab there or has an eye on a really good-looking waiter at the Chinese place or wants to do less driving tonight or hopes to talk you into something after dinner that's nearer to the Chinese restaurant.
I Want You to Have It
The first step in finding a Third Alternative is not generating alternatives. It is saying, "I want you have it. What do you have in mind? We'll come up with a way to make both of us happy. What makes Chinese appealing tonight?"
After you heard your friend's picture of the appeal of Chinese, maybe even asked a few encouraging questions, you might follow up with, "And what's the downside for Mexican? I want to make sure what we come up with next doesn't have the same problems."
You might then confirm the first half of the specs for your Third Alternative before adding your half: "OK. A place that is quiet, comfortable, and less expensive than the Mexican place. I am not up for Chinese food tonight, but all the rest sounds great. I want something low in calories and big on taste, a little spicy, but no soy and no rice or noodles."
A take-out picnic would not meet these specs, even though it includes both Chinese and Mexican food. However, an American restaurant with a southwest salad on the menu and no Chinese food at all might. So might a different Mexican restaurant on the other side of town.
Sometimes, what the other person wants really is to win, to feel in charge, rather than to get what they want. But you will make yourself unhappy if you jump to this conclusion from what others turn down before you offer to give them what they want.
You can also make yourself unhappy by hearing "my way or no thanks" as a threat to gain control. If "no thanks" is not an acceptable option for you, your Third Alternative specs should include what you seek, whether it's this person's company or someone, anyone, to dine with.
I don't want to rule out the existence of jerks, brutes, and narcissists in this world. There are a few, and you may quickly tire of looking for Third Alternatives with them. But there are also many look-alikes, thanks to the Usual Error, including the folks who seek something you do not associate with the label they use and those not as upset by a disagreement as you are.